The Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” is a song like that. To listen to it, you’d never know the pain and misery that took place during the recording session. An infamous 40 minute bootleg tape of the session has revealed that Brian Wilson and his brothers were relentlessly badgered by their domineering manager/father during the recording of the vocal track. Murray Wilson purported to know what was best for the song and proceeded to “coach” the boys on how to sing it. His consistently inane interruptions forced Brian Wilson to finally ask his father to leave the session. But cue up the song, and all you hear are perfect harmonies and the sheer joy of the performance. The rest is invisible…
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Damn The Torpedoes had its share of trauma behind the scenes. However, the trauma had more to do with record company politics than personal matters. The Heartbreakers were originally signed to Shelter Records by label owners Leon Russell and Denny Cordell. The groups’ first two albums were released on Shelter which was distributed by ABC Records.
Shortly before sessions commenced for Torpedoes, ABC Records was sold to MCA, and the Shelter label went along with the sale. Suddenly, Petty found himself on a new label with no control over negotiating his and the band’s future. Petty was furious about the reassignment of his contract and tried to get off of the label. (This would be the first of several times that Petty would clash with his label. Most famously was when MCA wanted to jack the list price up on the Hard Promises album, which Petty triumphantly rebuked.) Petty ended up negotiating a newly formed MCA distributed Backstreet Record label for him and the band to release their records. However, as a result of the incident he was forced to file for bankruptcy. Such was the back story leading into the recording of Petty’s best and most popular album.
Damn The Torpedoes was the first Petty album co-produced by Jimmy Iovine who gave the record its big radio-ready sound. The album includes the chart hits “Refugee” (#15) and “Don’t Do Me Like That” (#10), plus several Petty classics including “Even The Losers” and today’s Song Of The Day which climbed to #59 on the charts and has remained a staple of his live repertoire. It was also Petty’s first top-ten album climbing all the way to #2 on the charts (kept out of the #1 spot by Pink Floyd’s The Wall).
Today’s Song Of The Day stands tall in an era prevalent with relationship anthems like “Born To Run” by Bruce Springsteen, “Layla” by Derek & The Dominos, “Maggie Mae” by Rod Stewart and “More Than A Feeling” by Boston, with majestic, Byrds-inspired music and lyrics that perfectly encapsulate what it’s like to be young and with the only one who can ever save your life with love…and these lyrics are spoken and not sung to boot making them sound all the more relevant:
“You know sometimes, I don’t know why, / but this old town seems so hopeless. / I ain’t really sure, but it seems I remember the good times / were just a little bit more in focus. / But when she puts her arms around me / I can somehow rise above it. / Yeah, man when I got that little girl standin’ right by my side, / you know, I can tell the whole wide world to shove it, hey!”
And then the Byrdsy music swells into the anthemic chorus, “Here comes my girl. Here comes my girl. / Yeah, and she looks so right, she is all I need tonight,” sung in Petty’s most inspired Dylan nasal.
Writing “Here Comes My Girl” was no picnic for Petty and Mike Campbell. Basically, they had a great piece of music, but Petty struggled coming up with a great set of lyrics to match. Petty was inspired to ultimately use narration on the track by records like The Shangri-Las “Walking In The Rain,” and the jangly backing track and chorus were surely inspired by The Byrds.
As time goes on, Petty and the Heartbreakers’ brand of rock and roll keeps on getting better. Judging by the reviews I’ve read of their recent multi-gig residencies at The Beacon Theater in New York City and at The Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood, the shows were not to be missed. I was fortunate enough to attend one of the shows of the residency they did at Chicago’s Vic Theater in 2003, and I’m here to tell you that TP and The Heartbreakers are a band with heart and a whole lot of soul.