Tom Petty, “I Won’t Back Down”

Written by March 26th, 2012 at 6:00 am

An arsonist set fire to Tom Petty’s L.A. home in May 1987, burning most of the house to the ground. While his wife and daughter stayed at a friend’s place in Beverly Hills, Tom began rebuilding the house on the exact same plot of land, using his basement recording studio – one of the few rooms to survive the blaze – as the foundation. He wasn’t going to back down to any firestarter.

The house was still under construction by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. The Pettys, who’d already spent half a year in someone else’s home, were getting restless. Deciding that a game of softball was the best way to blow off steam, Tom got into his car and went out in search of baseball mitts.

“I was going to drive down to the Sav-On in Beverly Hills and buy a dozen ball mitts so everybody could play ball,” he tells author Paul Zollo in Conversations with Tom Petty. “[It] was the only place open on Thanksgiving Day. So I’m at the traffic light, and I look over to my left, and there’s Jeff Lynne, who I’d only just recently seen in England. So I honked my horn, and he turned around, and we pulled over.”

Petty and Lynne talked for a few minutes, reconnected during the Christmas holidays, and formed the Traveling Wilburys in early 1988. When Petty started writing songs for a solo album later that year, he naturally went to Lynne for help. Full Moon Fever was the result of that collaboration, and “I Won’t Back Down” was the album’s first single.

A defiant song about standing up to one’s enemies, “I Won’t Back Down” is directed at the person who set Petty’s house ablaze. “Gonna stand my ground / won’t be turned around,” goes a line in the first verse, which calls to mind the charred ground where his original home once stood. Despite his personal connection to the lyrics, though, Petty turned “I Won’t Back Down” into an anthem for anyone struggling against some sort of oppression. The song isn’t really about a house fire. It’s about resilience.

Petty certainly knew a lot about resilience at the time. Several weeks before the house fire, he successfully sued a tire company for mimicking one of his songs, “Mary’s New Car,” in a TV commercial. A few years before that, he waged a public battle with his own label, MCA Records, after the company tried to charge customers a higher sales price for his 1981 album Hard Promises. The Heartbreakers were waging a few battles of their own, too, and drummer Stan Lynch was already planning his exit by the time Full Moon Fever rolled around. “I Won’t Back Down” became Tom Petty’s musical motto, a song that summed up everything he stood for in less than three minutes.

Like many Tom Petty tunes, the lyrics are simple and direct. The arrangement is straightforward, too, a rarity on an album filled with Jeff Lynne’s multi-layered production. Sometimes, the easiest way to say something is to just say it, and “I Won’t Back Down” speaks volumes.

“I Won’t Back Down”

Well I won’t back down
No I won’t back down
You can stand me up at the gates of Hell
But I won’t back down

No I’ll stand my ground
Won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from dragging me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won’t back down

Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out
Hey I, I’ll stand my ground
And I won’t back down

Well I know what’s right
I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
but I’ll stand my ground
And I won’t back down

Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out
Hey I, I’ll stand my ground
And I won’t back down

Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out
Hey I, I’ll stand my ground
And I won’t back down
No I won’t back down

Written by Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne

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