Tom Petty – I Won’t Back Down

I always liked this song. It is defiant and cocky and in times like these, we need it.

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 he could have been killed. According to a report, an arsonist had drenched the house’s back staircase in lighter fluid. Petty and his family was deeply disturbed by the fact that someone had wanted to kill them. The case remains unsolved.

The song was on Full Moon Fever which I bought as soon as it was released. The song peaked at #12 in 1989 in the Billboard 100. Full Moon Fever peaked at #3 in the Billboard Album Charts that same year. The song was written by Petty and producer Jeff Lynne.

Tom Petty: “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.”

I remember loving the video to this song. George Harrison and Ringo appear and guitar player Mike Campbell plays George’s guitar “Rocky” for the solo.


“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.”

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’.”

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.”

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 draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground

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

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

51 thoughts on “Tom Petty – I Won’t Back Down”

  1. Great pic Max. I need to get this on vinyl at some point. Awesome record and If my memory is correct I think Stan Lynch went bonkers when Petty decided to drop the Heartbreakers tag for this album. I could be wrong though. Never knew about the whole arsonist thing as well. That is nuts. Your like the Dan Rather of Rock reporting the facts!
    Great job as always!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love Tom Petty and dearly miss him! I feel he was the real deal – no BS, a great songwriter and a musician’s musician.

    And let’s not forget about The Heartbreakers – what a kick-ass backing band. These guys could play anything!

    Last but not least, boy, would I love to have a Rickenbacker like the one Petty is holding in the picture. I totally dig the sound of that guitar! Admittedly, I never got far on the electric guitar, even when I was at my best. Still, one of these days I hope to own a Rickenbacker…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A Rickenbacker is still my dream guitar to have…I own 12 guitars but not a Rick… One story and it’s true. I did have a chance back in the early 2000’s to buy a Rick that Tom Petty actually played. It was my guitar tech…a guy that repaired guitars and he serviced Waylon Jennings, Kiss, and others. I’m not that good…but he knew my family and I took my guitars to him. I just didn’t have the money at the time. I forgot how he came in possession of it but he did have paperwork…still saddens me to this day.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Wow, I can imagine!

        Most of my equipment, one electric and two bass guitars – all Ibanez – is gone. I still own an Ibanez acoustic guitar, along with a fairly inexpensive Spanish guitar, and a bass and electric by Fender Squire. So it’s all non-professional grade stuff, which is okay for the occasional home use.

        Given I’m no longer active, I guess it’s hard to justify spending big bucks on music equipment – especially when you are the main breadwinner in the family with a mortgage – the gift that keeps on giving!😆

        That being said, I don’t think I will ever give up the thought that maybe one of these days, I might get some of the equipment I always dreamed to own when I was in my late teens in early ‘20s but simply couldn’t afford!🎸

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I still play in the garage with friends. About 3 years ago we looked for affordable vintage amps…at that time 1970s Kustom amps were pretty afordable. We got a few and we still use them. It’s nice to play through those with some history to them…and they have power.

        I know what you mean about a mortgage… same here.

        I’m always on the lookout for one…

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Never say never… We even had a party planned for April just to play in front of people again…but…nah…not going to happen now…not for a while. It’s a good outlet.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I agree totally. My 19 year old son has learned some on guitar…I told him it will always be an outlet and no one can take that away from you.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Yes…it was…I still have the picture of the guy holding it when he texted me. He thought of me straight away. He has since passed…If I would have had it…I would have bought it.


      6. Oh…would you do me a favor? Go to Daves blog and see if you agree with me on the Genesis song. I haven’t thought about it in years.
        You may not agree…I’ve thought it for years…it may just be me.


      7. I had to listen to them, again. I hadn’t heard either in years. Each appears to have the same chords (in the melody) in a rise with the final note dropped. Zep’s has an extra note before the drop. It’s hard to catch with Zep’s different drum beat.

        I lost my note knowledge a long time ago. I don’t know an A from a C. I did when I was 10 & could read music. But, I do pick up on patterns & pitches.

        I wouldn’t have caught that, normally, because I am not fond of Misunderstanding but, I love Fool In The Rain. I wouldn’t call myself a Genesis fan. Very little of that band appeals to me. Collins was a little better solo. Ditto Mike.

        Liked by 1 person

      8. The subject matter also is the same! The guy/Shnuck waits on a girl who with Zeppelin on the wrong block…and misunderstanding…she is off with another shnuck…I’ve always wanted to use shnuck!
        ….and both have waited in the rain!

        The same chords but you are right…not the same measure….there are differences of course but they always reminded me of each other. Glad you saw it also…at least a little.

        They are different but it’s odd how they resemble each other.


      9. Thanks….they were friends….they were released I think…could be wrong around the same time


      10. I like both of them but prefer Fool In The Rain…because of Bonham…yea Collins is a good drummer but he is no Moon or Bonham…not fair to compare but…


  3. Wow! I knew everything about that EXCEPT about the fire! Never heard that, that’s terrible. Suprised he did so well, emotionally after it.
    A great album, I’ll even make the unpopular call and say it’s his best one in my opinion. Every track was good if not great.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. George coming through…I’m going to try that.
      I know…Free Fallin’ was so obvious. I really like this album…from Zombie Zoo to The Apartment Song.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think I always used to undervalue it because the singles (Running Down A Dream as well) overshadow the rest a bit. But it’s a good stab at a more relaxed sound, and it reignited his career.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. This is also the period where you can feel Jeff Lynne at work. With Harrison’s Cloud 9, Wilburys, and then Full Moon Fever…
        His production is really heavy on this album…but I did like it.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m covering ginger in my A2Z. It’s good for a lot of things, both fresh and as an essential oil. I bet a few drops of ginger essential oil in a diffuser would have the same effect.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I appreciate learning about the song origin. The suggestion is someone put a contract out on him from the tire company. Really disturbing the arsonist was never caught. So awesome not only did Geo lend his guitar, he and Jeff sang backup AND Ringo on drums?? And this was when The Traveling Wilburys were together. An all-around awesome time for these guys. I see your posts are becoming a superhighway of traffic! Glad your blog has become a gathering place for music-lovers.


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