Before recording Full Moon Fever, an arsonist burned down Tom Petty's house while he was in it with his family and their housekeeper. They escaped and spent much of the next few months driving between hotel rooms and a rented house, but Petty was badly shaken.
It was on these drives that he came up with many of the songs for the album, and the fire was a huge influence, especially on this song. Petty felt grateful to be alive, but also traumatized - understandable since someone had tried to kill him.
"I Won't Back Down" was his way of reclaiming his life and getting past the torment - he said that writing and recording the song had a calming effect on him.
The arsonist was never caught, which made Petty's plight even more challenging. As for motive, there was no direct connection made, but 11 days earlier, Petty won a lawsuit against the B.F. Goodrich tire company for $1 million. Goodrich wanted to use Petty's song "Mary's New Car" in a TV commercial, and when he wouldn't let them, their advertising agency commissioned a copycat song that the judge felt was too similar.
This was the first single from Full Moon Fever
, which was produced and co-written by Jeff Lynne. Petty and Lynne worked on the album at Mike Campbell's house. As guitarist for the Heartbreakers, Mike has written and produced many songs with Petty.
He told us what happened when they brought the album to MCA Records: "We thought it was really good, we were real excited about it. We played it for the record company and they said, 'Well, we don't hear any hits on here.' We were very despondent about the whole thing and we went back and recorded another track, a Byrds song called 'I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better,' thinking at the time that maybe they'll like this one. In the interim, they changed A&R departments and a whole new group of people were in there. We brought the same record back like six months later and they loved it - they said 'Oh, there's three hits on here.' We were vindicated on that one. It was the same record. We played the same thing for them and they went for it. I guess it's a situation of timing and the right people that wanted to get inspired about it. At the end of the line, if the songs are good and if the public connects with certain songs, that really is the true test, but you've got to get it out there." (Read more in our interview with Mike Campbell
This was Petty's first single without the Heartbreakers credited as his backing band. Members of the band did play on the album.
The video, directed by David Leland, features Ringo Starr on drums, with George Harrison and Jeff Lynne on guitar. Harrison did play on the track and contributed backing vocals, but Ringo had nothing to do with the song itself - a session musician named Phil Jones played drums on the Full Moon Fever album.
In some shots, Mike Campbell is playing George Harrison's Stratocaster guitar, which he called "Rocky." It was Harrison's suggestion for Campbell to play it.
Around this time, Petty was active in the group The Traveling Wilburys with Lynne, Harrison, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison.
This is perhaps Tom Petty's most personal song. In a 2006 interview with Harp, he said, "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 3-minute song has."
Many fans have felt a connection with this song. "The one that most strangers come up and tell me about is 'I Won't Back Down,'" Petty told Mojo. "So many people tell me it meant something in their lives."
George W. Bush used this in his 2000 Presidential campaign. When Petty found out, he threatened to sue, as he did not support Bush. Bush stopped using the song but won the election anyway. Petty's home state of Florida decided the election when Bush won the state by a very slim margin.
Petty performed this for Al Gore at his house an hour after he conceded the election (the second time) to George W. Bush.
Petty played this on September 21, 2001 as part of a telethon to benefit the victims of the terrorist attacks on America. Celebrities at the event included Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Cruise. Almost 60 million people watched the special in the US.
In response to this being used as a patriotic anthem after September 11th, Petty said: "The song has also been adopted by nice people for good things, too. I just write them, I can't control where it ends up."
Petty recalled the recording of this song to Mojo magazine January 2010: "At the session George Harrison sang and played the guitar. I had a terrible cold that day, and George sent to the store and bought a ginger root, boiled it and had me stick my head in the pot to get the ginger steam to open up my sinuses, and then I ran in and did the take."
Tom Petty died on October 2, 2017, the day after a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas that killed 58. On October 7, Jason Aldean, who was on stage during the shooting, opened Saturday Night Live with a performance of this song, which served as both a tribute to Petty and a call for togetherness. "When America is at its best, our bond and our spirit is unbreakable," he said before playing it.
When the shooting took place, Aldean was performing "When She Says Baby
," which was inspired by Petty's "Here Comes My Girl