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Tom Petty said of this song: "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."
Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell wrote the music and Petty added the lyrics. Mike told us about 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 2 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."
In the US, Damn The Torpedoes was a big success and helped the band grow a huge audience. The album was #2 in the US for 7 weeks, held out of #1 by Pink Floyd's The Wall.
Mike Campbell: "When we were at the studio mixing it, I remember this one girl who was working in reception, she came in and heard the mix and she said, 'That's a hit, that's a hit,' and we looked at each other and said, 'Maybe it is.' You don't always know. Sometimes you think certain things are surefire and people just don't latch on to them and other things they do. 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."
Campbell and Petty teamed up to write many of the band's songs, including "Here Comes My Girl," "Jammin' Me," and "You Got Lucky." Mike also wrote the music for Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer
" and "The Heart Of The Matter
." When asked about his favorite song he's written, he said:
"Refugee always makes me happy. Maybe because it was so hard to get on the tape, there was a time when I thought it would never come out, that we just can't do it. It always sounds like it really captured a moment. If I had to pick one favorite, I'd probably pick that first." (Read more in our interview with Mike Campbell
The band performed this in 1979 on their first Saturday Night Live appearance.
During a Twitter Q&A in December 2011 Petty disclosed that Melissa Etheridge doing "Refugee" was the best cover of the song he ever heard. Etheridge's version was recorded for her 2005 compilation album, Greatest Hits: The Road Less Traveled.
The band shot a music video for this song because they didn't want to appear on The Merv Griffin Show
. It did the trick, and the video aired on the show, allowing Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers to promote the song without showing up. This was the only place they thought the video would air, but when MTV launched in 1981, it got lots of play on the network, which craved Rock videos from American artists. The band became one of the most popular acts on MTV, feeding the network with cinematic productions for songs like "Don't Come Around Here No More
" and "Free Fallin'
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