I Won't Back Down

Album: Full Moon Fever (1989)
Charted: 28 12
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  • 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, but Petty was badly shaken and spent much of the next few months driving between hotel rooms and a rented house.

    It was on these drives that he came up with many of the songs for the album; the fire was a huge influence, especially on this song. Petty felt grateful to be alive, but also traumatized - understandable considering 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 co-produced and co-written by Jeff Lynne. Petty and Lynne worked on the album at Mike Campbell's house. As guitarist for the Heartbreakers, Campbell has written and produced many songs with Petty.

    In a Songfacts interview with Campbell, he explained 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."
  • This was Petty's first single without the Heartbreakers credited as his backing band. Members of the band did play on Full Moon Fever, but it was listed a Tom Petty solo album. Petty released another solo album - again with extensive contributions from the Heartbreakers - in 1994 with Wildflowers.
  • 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."
  • Predictably, politicians often play this song at campaign stops to indicate their resilience. When George W. Bush used it during his 2000 presidential campaign, Petty threatened to sue, as he found Bush odious. Bush stopped using the song (guess he does back down) but won the election, which was decided when Petty's home state of Florida went to Bush by a very slim margin. The night Bush's opponent, Al Gore, conceded the election (December 13, 2000), Petty played the song for him at Gore's home.

    After President Donald Trump used "I Won't Back Down" at a highly publicized campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20, 2020, Petty's widow Dana, ex-wife Jane, and daughters Adria and Annakim issued a statement making it clear they did not approve. "Both the late Tom Petty and his family firmly stand against racism and discrimination of any kind," they wrote. "Tom Petty would never want a song of his used for a campaign of hate. He liked to bring people together. Tom wrote this song for the underdog, for the common man and for EVERYONE."

    Heartbreakers keyboard player Benmont Tench agreed, posting, "I in no way approve of Trump even whistling any piece of music associated with our band."

    Petty's family joined R.E.M., Elton John and several others in opposing Trump's use of their songs, but legally, there is nothing they can do to stop him as long as the venues have the proper licensing. These statements are more about going on record to oppose a politician.
  • 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."
  • This was one of four songs Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played at the halftime show of the Super Bowl in 2008. The others were "American Girl," "Runnin' Down A Dream" and "Free Fallin'."
  • 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."

Comments: 19

  • Deanoz from HereAlways lived this song but, I’m Not exactly
    Sure what we weren’t “backing down” from in Iraq” I’ve never seen this as a bully chant, it’s the everyday guys fight song not some lost bully nations anthem...
  • Neel from MumbaiNothing mentioned about Sam Smith?
  • Joel from Junction City, Kswhen my company was sent to Iraq during the first Gulf war this was our theme song. We played this anthem nearly everywhere we went and practically wore out the cassette tape this was on.
  • Ny from Canberra, Australiadoesnt matter to me why the song was written, i am just so grateful it was - good on you Tom Petty and the heartbreakers! I am 22 and this song has gotten me through some truly hard times and will continue to do so - ill keep this world form dragging me down and i wont back down!! this song is truly inspiring to stand up for what is right and dear to you even though sometimes there is no easy way out and stop letting people push you around and defeat you! Tom Petty was also one of my dads (who is deceased) favourites artists so listenign to Tom Petty keeps him alive. thanks Tom Petty you champ!you are a truth singer and dam* good guitarist and you never got the credit you truly deserved!!
  • John from Grand Island, NyThank you Tom and Jeff for giving us this gift.
  • Henry O. Godwinn from Wheeling, WvThis song is about a man who stands up for what he believes in despite the odds.
  • Jan from Antwerp, --I got to learn this song via the Pearl Jam version of it on their 'Live at the George' album (remember the 'Hello Tom, come down Tom' running gag throughout the first show, hilarious). But I bought the Tom Petty version (on Anthology) soon after. This song was sort of my 'anthem' song when I tried to quit smoking. I won't back down as in, I won't start smoking again (which I haven't done since by the way) but I think that it can be a stimulans in any difficult situation that one has to conquer, knowing that there's 'no easy way out'.
  • Jo from Strong City, Algeriasorry your all wrong and miss the point the song was written anbout tom petty when was touring with dylan and others and people burn down his house. so he wrote the song cfor him to let you all know he was not backing down
  • Paul from Marysville, WaPhil Jones played the drums on Full Moon Fever. He had peformed with the band on several tours as a percussionist.

    Songs from Full Moon Fever started as informal sessions at Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell's home studio-- so Tom didn't bring in the band. They (Tom, Mike, and Jeff Lynn) were several songs into the project before there was talk of releasing the songs as an album.
  • Andy from Arlington, VaThis song was also covered by Johnny Cash, with Petty singing backup.
  • Johnny from Los Angeles, CaI own Full Moon Fever and my fav is Runnin Down A Dream but this is 2nd. Awesome faq bout George & Ringo!
  • Steve from La, Cajeff lynn produced. he was in ELO. he was also in the Traveling Wilburys with Petty, and in a very good Brit band with Roy Wood (not Ron) called The Move,
  • Nick from Hartline, WaI agree with Carson, no one is getting the actuall meaning of this song, lol, i didn't know about the kid, but cmon, obviously about not letting the world get you down, and standing up for yourself, (tom petty kicks ass!)
  • Jude from Thomasville, GaThe guitar that Mike Campbell plays in the video belongs to George Harrison. Maybe that's why the solo sounds like one of George's. There's not a bad song on "Full Moon Fever", but this is my favorite because George did play and sing backups on the album.
  • Shayne from Edmonton, KyRingo Starr played on the "I Won't Back Down" video, but a different drummer is listed on the album.
  • Carson from Puyallup, WaYou guys have totally missed the point. This song was written for a kid who was a fan of Tom Petty's. He was in a coma, and the group wrote this song for him. They played it for him while in the coma, and soon after the kid pulled through. He didn't back down.
  • Dave from Cardiff, WalesYvette, ELO's lead singer's name is Jeff Lynne - he also co-wrote and produced this song
  • Yvette from Phoneix, AzThe lead singer from ELO(Electric Light Orchrastra)Don't remember his name is also featured in this video. I won't back down. Playing I think bass as my son does.Will there ever be a release of the 911 of Tom Pettys "I won't back Down"? My son is now a former Marine. It would mean alot to me to share that with him.
    Regards, Yvette Parker
  • Matthew from New York, NyThis song features George Harrison on guitar and Ringo Starr on drums.
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