Tom Petty was a man who valued efficiency. Although he was known to labour over his music until it was just right, oftentimes Petty felt that the best way to conjure up magic was to simply plug in and see what happens. All of Petty’s most famous songs, from ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’ and ‘Wildflowers’ to ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ and ‘American Girl’, were played live, with Petty doing his best to project over The Heartbreakers and their driving rock and roll.
The only overdubs that Petty usually did were on vocals and guitar solos. He valued the drive and looseness of a backing track that was played live, and much of his work reflects this particular attitude. The only downside to this kind of approach is that it takes precision and group effort to make sure the results sound cohesive. When it wasn’t quite right, Petty would send everyone back to the top of the song.
That’s what happened with ‘Refugee’, the classic cut that kicks off 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes. Working with Jimmy Iovine, best known at that point for his work with Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith, Petty looked to elevate his middling commercial success without diminishing his unique southern sound. That meant perfection, or something close to it, and guitarist Mike Campbell explained in 2003 that the in-studio process was laborious.
“That was a hard record to make,” Campbell told Songfacts. “It was a 4-track that I made at my house. He (Tom Petty) 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.”
‘Refugee’ has a lot to juggle: Benmont Tench’s blaring organ, Campbell’s fiery lead guitar lines, a smattering of backing vocals, and a propulsive rhythm all have to be accounted for. The band were able to key into the song’s magic, but not before it almost drove them crazy in the process. Still, it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t worth it. A top 20 hit in America, ‘Refugee’ instantly became an iconic and classic track in Petty’s growing repertoire of all-time classic songs.
Check out the final cut of ‘Refugee’ down below.