Tom Petty was one of the most iconic musicians of all time. Whether it be with The Heartbreakers, Mudcrutch or even The Traveling Wilburys, he influenced everybody from Dave Grohl to The Strokes before his sad death in 2017. A true hero of rock music, Petty released classic songs such as ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’, and ‘Free Fallin” and etched his name into the annals of history in the process. Taken too soon, Petty lives on through his stellar musical efforts.
Another reason why he was so well respected was how he took his label, MCA, to task over them buying his previous label ABC Records in the late ’70s. This period caused a lot of stress for Petty, as MCA sued him over a breach of contract. Eventually, Petty would file for bankruptcy to circumvent the legal dispute, which established the songwriter as one of the most defiant rockstars in the industry. The legal entanglements would inspire much of Petty’s celebrated third album, 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, and its biggest track, ‘Refugee’.
One of Petty’s best songs, ‘Refugee’, is an anthem in every sense of the word. Petty’s pained vocals, sharp guitars and Benmont Tench’s classic organ line that all combine to make it a celebrated moment within Petty’s back catalogue. Written by Petty alongside Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, the line “don’t have to live like a refugee” was a clear reflection of the situation that Petty found himself in.
Of the song, Petty explained: “This was a reaction to the pressures of the music business. I wound up in a huge row with the record company when ABC Records tried to sell our contract to MCA Records without us knowing about it, despite a clause in our contract that said they didn’t have the right to do that. I was so angry with the whole system that I think that had a lot to do with the tone of the Damn the Torpedoes album. I was in this defiant mood. I wasn’t so conscious of it then, but I can look back and see what was happening. I find that’s true a lot. It takes some time usually before you fully understand what’s going on in a song – or maybe what led up to it.”
In a 2003 interview with Songfacts, Campbell discussed the recording process: “That was a hard record to make. It was a 4-track that I made at my house. Tom wrote over the music as it was, no changes, but it took us forever to actually cut the track. We just had a hard time getting the feel right. We must have recorded that 100 times. I remember being so frustrated with it one day that – I think this is the only time I ever did this – I just left the studio and went out of town for two days. I just couldn’t take the pressure anymore, but then I came back and when we regrouped we were actually able to get it down on tape.”
The pair didn’t always know they were onto a winner with ‘Refugee’. In the same interview, Campbell recalled the receptionist of the studio entering the room after overhearing the mix, who proclaimed, “That’s a hit, that’s a hit”. The pair knew it was a good song, but they were initially doubtful of its chart potential; however, the input from the receptionist sowed the seed that they had perhaps written a hit, and she was right.
Campbell explained: “You know when it’s good or not, but you don’t always know if it’s a hit. A hit record a lot of times is more than just the song, it’s the timing, the climate you put it out in, what people are listening to and what they’re expecting to hear and if it touches a nerve at a certain time.”
One of the most passionate anthems Tom Petty ever released, that notoriously tense time in his life permeates the song, giving it a density that extends a lot further than his more mainstream successes.
Listen to ‘Refugee’ below.