By 1979, Tom Petty and his eager young group of Heartbreakers were rock royalty. They had finally begun conquering the US market, and already won over the UK. A single from their eponymous debut, ‘Breakdown’ hit the Top 40 and their second record, You’re Gonna Get It! went gold. Put simply, they were rockstars.
That was, until ABC Records – the distributor for Shelter Records which Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were signed to – was sold to another company, MCA Records. In Petty’s own words, ‘I felt like they just sold us like we were groceries or… frozen pork.’
And it wasn’t like him and his band didn’t have a legal leg to stand on, either. As per the ‘Artist’s Guarantee’ in their contract, if the band were sold to another company, like MCA, their written consent was necessary. But the band were victims of their time; of a music industry that was even more unfair back then than it is now. And the Heartbreakers certainly weren’t the first gun-ho troupe of punks to sign a bad deal.
Petty was told they were in no financial situation to fight MCA on this; to just forget about it and shut up. They were thrown to the dirt. But Petty wasn’t going to just lie down over this. He was refused to back down. A phrase that would ring through Petty’s legacy like the shot off a starting pistol.
Petty felt that their publishing deal was signed under duress; that they were told initially to sign the deal, or the record company wouldn’t sign a recording contract. This was illegal, but once more Petty had no way of using this to retaliate, not against the likes of MCA. He was back at square one, but to a natural born fighter like him, it was no more than a setback. Another hurdle to jump over.
So, he fought. Day and night. In the record business at the time, though bands were fronted money to record their album, the actual cost of its creation was deducted from their royalties. And to Tom and his Heartbreakers, who were earning ‘pennies a record’, this left them with a whole lot of nothing. But because Petty wasn’t going to let MCA have his next album, he paid for it himself, out of his own pocket.
A $500,000 debt would scare most people into submission. It would send them crawling back to MCA’s feet with an apology and master tape full of promising tracks. But Tom Petty used this as a secret weapon. He had no way of paying the album’s cost back, so he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
He knew that filing for a Chapter 11 rendered all contracts and deals legally void, so his band would be released from their publishing deal without question. Through this deal, his music, his very livelihood, wasn’t his. What he presumed to mean publishing like simple songbooks, was in actual fact making his music MCA’s property, and bankruptcy was a way to reverse that. He was the first musician to use bankruptcy as a tactical move, and quickly it became the centre of national attention; as one would expect. You’ve got to remember that at this time, Petty was no seasoned musician, nor a law student. He had a strong back-up band and two decent records under his belt, but his name was far from etched in the annals of rock ‘n roll history. He was still that boy from Gainesville; wide-eyed, but determined to make it.
‘Suddenly I’m not in a battle with one record company, I’m in a battle with all of them’, later remarked Petty. His move made shockwaves throughout the record company, as managers and higher powers realised any artist could technically do the same to get out of a bad deal. The battle was fierce, and not without its wounds, but Petty and his band worked relentlessly to stand their ground. He even wrote a song about it, ‘Century City’, which dealt with traveling to the very same place in LA, every day (‘Sometimes I wanna leave you, sometimes I wanna go, back where I came from’). ‘That’s where the lawyers lived,’ he explained. ‘Century City’ is already an underrated gem of Damn the Torpedoes, but to hear the real-life vitriol behind it adds a whole ‘nother layer.
But although Petty was cracking on the inside – a tumultuous mess of uncertainty and anxiety – outwardly he played the young, fearless punk with apparent ease. He was the epitome of what record companies despised, and he knew how to use it as leverage. His manager later recalled a time in which Petty, eager to do something to distract himself during one of many arduous meetings, flicked open a penknife and started cleaning his nails. To him, he was a harmless boy from Gainesville, Florida, practicing good hygiene. To MCA, he was a young rebel with a switchblade and nothing to lose.
But still he was told to forget about all this, to throw in the towel. And that’s when Petty said the words that would paint his entire legacy, ‘You can break me, but you can’t make records.’. After all, he was the singer, the real composer of his talented band. Without him there was nothing.
A lengthy legal battle needs two fundamental resources to keep itself alive. One of these is determination, which Petty had in buckets full. The other is money, and that Petty didn’t have. The court had placed an injunction on himself and the Heartbreakers, disallowing them from performing. Still, Petty showed up at court, pleading to let them go out on the road, for possibly the last time.
The court granted the Heartbreakers one short tour. So that’s what they did. And they billed it the ‘Lawsuit Tour’, the proceeds of which funded their war against the record empire. The Heartbreakers even had T-shirts that said, ‘WHY-MCA’ on the front of them, the kind of, ahem, petty pun-craft a writer could only dream of. It seems Petty never lost that fighting spirit, and maintained the first to laugh in the face of trouble.
During all of this, Petty was still working on the band’s third record. They worked day and night, eighteen-hour sessions which resulted in hundreds of tapes, scattered across the studio. Then the courts started to imply they could seize those, too. After all, Petty’s music was technically theirs under the dreaded contract.
This was when Petty knew he needed outside help. He needed someone reliable, brave, and most of all sneaky. Enter his trusty roadie, Alan ‘Bugs’ Wiedel. At the end of every session in the studio, Petty instructed Bugs to take his name off of every tape and replace it with ‘Morgan Lane’ – an entity that never existed – before taking them somewhere secret and secure, somewhere Petty himself didn’t know. That way, if the court asked him for the tapes, he couldn’t. He didn’t know where they were.
They never found the tapes.
Eventually Petty made it to the Supreme Court. After months and months of rigorous clashing, it was time for the final hearing. Witnesses were called, testaments were given, and all Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers could do was watch as the scene unfolded before them. Not even God knows what the boys were feeling in the courtroom that day.
And then, at the last minute, the court buckled. MCA buckled. They knew Petty really wasn’t going to back down, that he was going to fight to the last breath for what he believed in. After all, he had nothing left; his music was taken from him, he was legally bankrupt. And what will a man who has nothing left not do?
Petty and his loyal band of Heartbreakers had won. Sort of. At the settlement table, an agreement was met. MCA wouldn’t let the boys go; they still wanted to distribute their music. But the publishing, the deal, that was all Petty’s to decide. And even better, they were given their own label, under MCA. Backstreet Records. It wasn’t everything, but it was a hell of a lot more than Petty could have wished for at the time. The future of the Heartbreakers was uncertain for months, with defeat the likeliest outcome. But now they had proved they could take on an entire industry and win. They could unravel the very ways in which things were done. Petty was hailed as a hero.
And so, in 1979, Backstreet Records released their first album. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes, whose name was directly inspired by the whole experience (American slang for ‘full speed ahead’) ‘Who knows, maybe you were kidnapped, tied up, taken away and held for ransom’, lyrics from the opening track, ‘Refugee’, are hard not to see as some thinly-veiled message about the band’s ordeal, rather than to a damaged lover.
Damn the Torpedoes took the Heartbreakers all over the world. They toured extensively, from the end of that year to the fall of the next, conquering the States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. It seemed everyone wanted a taste of Petty.
The album sold a million copies in a matter of months, going platinum, and earning the band a Top 10 hit, ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’, as well as the timeless ‘Refugee’, which peaked at #15; proving their U.S. breakthroughs. Where You’re Gonna Get It! signalled their undoubtable rise, Damn the Torpedoes proved their global triumph, flinging them into stardom against all odds. As Stan Lynch, drummer of the Heartbreakers at the time, later mused, ‘It was like we’d found the treasure without the map.’. And what a treasure it was, too. The production of the record, spearheaded by colossus Jimmy Iovine (who had worked with the likes of Springsteen) was flawless, with the right amount of high-octane guitar and thunderous drums. The lyrics were encompassing of a generation; full of depth and punch. And Petty’s vocals, well, they burst through the radiowaves like nothing before.
So ends the story of when Tom Petty and his merry band of Heartbreakers took on an entire industry and came out as victors; though not without their scars. Curiously enough, this wouldn’t be the first time Petty took on the record companies and the managers – far from it – but that’s a story for another day. The point is that he fought for what he believed in, even when the odds didn’t look good. That’s a lesson everyone can learn from in life. Just remember one of his old-time favourites,
‘You can stand me up at the gates of Hell, but I won’t back down.’