On June 6th, 1980, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers arrived in Hollywood to perform on the short-lived variety show Fridays. Before they launched into the classic “American Girl” from their 1976 self-titled debut, the band played “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid),” a track from their then-new record Damn the Torpedoes.
In the video above, Petty, dressed in a New Wave–style polka-dot shirt, tears through the song, singing about an unpredictable woman who hates her boss. The rest of the band — guitarist Mike Campbell, drummer Stan Lynch, bassist Ron Blair, and keyboardist Benmont Tench — digs in behind him, with Lynch singing background vocals.
Released 40 years ago this week, Damn the Torpedoes was the group’s most successful album to date, spending nine weeks at Number Two on the charts behind Pink Floyd’s The Wall. With the scorching opener “Refugee,” the desperate ditty “Don’t Do Me Like That,” and the yearning “Here Comes My Girl,” the record was a breakthrough for the Florida band, instantly making them stars.
However, the record wasn’t without conflict. Petty had become entangled in a nasty lawsuit when MCA acquired his label Shelter Records. “I felt they just sold us like we were groceries or frozen pork,” he said in the 2007 documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream. Petty filed for bankruptcy in order to void the contract, which led to a settlement: He was signed to MCA’s subsidiary label Backstreet Records, where he had total artistic control.
The band wasn’t allowed to record an album during the lawsuit, so they kept the Torpedoes tapes hidden in the back of co-manager Elliot Roberts’ car. Produced by Jimmy Iovine, who had recently become known in the industry for his success with Patti Smith’s “Because the Night,” the album is named after the legal struggles Petty and the band endured.
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“We didn’t sit around and talk about making an album about that experience,” Petty told Rolling Stone in 1980. “But we knew we were. They get you pinned in a corner, and the last thing you can do to keep your sanity is write songs. I wanted to present it as a collection of love songs — not lawsuit songs — and if there’s one thing I know about music theory, it’s that if you don’t believe the singer, you won’t believe the song.”
Unfortunately, Petty’s relationship with MCA would again become strained in 1981, when the label would try to apply “superstar” pricing to the Heartbreakers’ new record Hard Promises. For now, though, he was relieved it was over. “I’m still bitter about some of that stuff,” he told writer Mikal Gilmore. “All those sleepless nights, sitting up in my house wondering what is life? Going a little nuts. I never got into one of those places before, and I refuse to ever go back there.”