The late, legendary Tom Petty put the beating heart into Americana and made the world a brighter place with his presence. After making his emphatic arrival in 1976 with his mindblowing debut LP Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, over the next 40 years, he would carve out a niche for himself that is incomparable to another artist to have ever graced the planet. This isolated vocal of ‘I Won’t Back You Down’, is further proof of his greatness and a celebration of his unique voice, which doesn’t always get the deserved amount of plaudits it rightly deserves.
Despite being recognised as one of the greatest American songwriters of all time, he always operated from the outside looking in, expertly crafting mainstream hits from the periphery. Like many of his counterparts, Petty had a distinct sound, one he had honed to a tee and religiously stuck with over his career. He preferred to stick to his traditional sonic structure rather than experiment with each album, like contemporaries such as Dylan or Springsteen had opted to do.
Many have tried to follow Petty’s footsteps, but nobody has quite nailed Americana in the same way that he mastered it and nobody probably ever will. It’s the kind of style that permeates everything he did, his lyrics, his guitar sound and, perhaps most notably of all, in his vocal too.
The Heartbreakers were born to rally against “disco trance music,” according to Petty, and produced “the kind of rock that used to come blasting out of the AM radio when every song was a new Creedence or a new [Rolling] Stones, and all you wanted to do was crank it up.”
‘I Won’t Back Down’ is Petty’s most personal hour, and he manages to convey this depth of emotion through his immaculate piercing vocals that are even more striking when heard isolated. Before Petty went into the studio to record, 1989’s Full Moon Fever, his house was viciously burnt to ashes by an unknown arsonist.
At the time, Petty was home with his family, and they, fortunately, he managed to escape, but the magnitude of that night’s event scarred him for a long time. The fire left a lasting impact on the musician and made him reevaluate his life. However, he also had this renewed sense of gratuity for living that came from surviving this attack.
In a 2006 interview with Harp, Petty commented: “That song frightened me when I wrote it. I didn’t embrace it at all. It’s so obvious. I thought it wasn’t that good because it was so naked. So I had a lot of second thoughts about recording that song. But everyone around me liked the song and said it was really good and it turns out everyone was right – more people connect to that song than anything I ever wrote. I’ve had so many people tell me that it helped them through this or it helped them through that. I’m still continually amazed about the power a little three-minute song has.”
On the isolated vocal, you can hear how vividly shaken Petty was by this frightening event and someone trying to take away his life for some unbeknown reason. However, rather than let that anxiety rip him up, on ‘I Won’t Back Down’, Petty is defiant, and this new love of life is on full-show for everybody to hear. Take a few minutes out and treat yourself.