The story behind Refugee by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Tom Petty onstage in 1979
(Image credit: Richard E. Aaron/Getty Images )

Sandwiched between punk, the first moans of goth and the flagging first wave of New Wave, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ track Refugee took a defiant step in reasserting the dominance of guitar rock at the butt end of the 70s.

Not only did this prickly anthem propel the band into the US Billboard chart and help make them a household name, with the anxious minor key menace of Mike Campbell’s opening guitar shot it also helped banish the lingering malaise of a world afflicted with disco fever.

It was a dark, dangerous sound that came to the guitarist late one afternoon while he sat listening to John Mayall’s version of Oh Pretty Woman which featured a very young pre-Rolling Stones Mick Taylor on guitar. It was Taylor’s playing that was the real inspiration for Refugee.

“I love that album [Crusade, 1967],” Campbell says. “I’d just put it on and practise guitar along with it. I love the way Mick Taylor plays, and maybe some of it’s rubbed off.

“I had a Gibson guitar that I wanted to try, and I wanted to come up with some chords that I liked that I could play some lead over,” Campbell explains. He recorded a few other guitar ideas on a four-track tape recorder, and eventually, without having given it a title, gave a cassette of it to Petty to listen to.

By 1979 the two friends hadn’t written much together, but then-producer Denny Cordell suggested it might be a good idea. Campbell and Petty wrote a single song together on TP&TH’s debut album, and two on the second. But something shifted when Campbell bought the four-track.

“That’s where Mike’s talents really took off,” Petty remembered. “He was always fiddling around with these tapes he was making at home. On Damn The Torpedoes was when he came in with those incredible songs: Refugee and Here Comes My Girl. That was when it really blossomed.”

So had Petty. It took him just 10 minutes to come up with the words to add to the untitled music on the cassette that Campbell had given him. But that’s the last thing that would be easy about Refugee.

“All I remember is giving him a cassette, telling him: ‘Here’s some demos,’” Campbell smiles. “I didn’t think much about it. Then the next rehearsal we had he said: ‘I worked on your tape and I got some words to this song.’ I said: ‘Oh, really?’ He played it to me, and I was just blown away. The band tried to learn it, and that was a whole other movie. Trying to capture that demo with the band live took a while.”

The Heartbreakers had managed to persuade wunderkind producer Jimmy Iovine – the engineer on Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, producer of Patti Smith’s Easter – to work with them.

“We were still pretty green in the studio, and we were getting used to Jimmy Iovine and [engineer] Shelly Yakus who were both very meticulous with the drum sounds,” Campbell remembers. “The first day it’d be like: ‘Move the snare drum over there.’ ‘Try a different snare drum.’ ‘Let’s try a different microphone.’ 

This went on for days, just trying to get the snare to sound right. They had almost recorded the entire album, yet they still couldn’t get Refugee right. The studio was a tense place, and the scapegoat was drummer Stan Lynch. At one point he was temporarily dismissed because of his constant bickering with Iovine over the drum sounds. 

“We were so hard on Stanley. He worked really hard to get this drum sound. [The demo] had a swing to it that Stan didn’t quite understand. None of us did really, but it just seemed to work,” recalls Campbell.

It took them over 100 takes to get it right.

“We all blamed each other. But we never doubted the song. So we just kept at it until, finally, one day we played it and said: ‘Oh, that’s it.’”

But still they couldn’t let it go. “Jimmy was pushing real hard,” says Campbell. “Bless his heart. Jimmy was on a mission. We were on a mission too, but Jimmy was just driven. He wanted to make the best record ever made, and he wanted to be the guy to do it. He wanted to prove to himself and the world that Jimmy Iovine made this happen. And he did. 

"I mean, there’s nothing that we would have accepted that wasn’t great either, but he was pushing, and sometimes his pushing kind of worked against us because it would implode some of the players. But I wouldn’t give him more weight than Tom in terms of pushing for the final version. Even when we had the take, we didn’t think we had it. We were still thinking: ‘Oh, this is still not good enough. We want to cut it again.’”

Part of the breakthrough in finally nailing the drum track of Refugee came from star session drummer Jim Keltner. Having stopped by one day, he suggested they add a samba shaker to the track.

“I wasn’t there that day,” says Campbell. “But Jim used to come around the studio a lot, just listen or suggest things, and support us. And one day he said: ‘You know what this song really needs? It needs a shaker.’ And he was right. It helped the drums swing, closer to what the song was trying to do. It sounded a little stiff without it. He played it on the recording, because I don’t think Stan was there. I’m not sure whether he got credit or not.”

The band might have continued trying to improve on it, had they not had to finally turn the finished album in to the label.

“Jimmy and Tom took it to New York. They said: ‘Maybe if we mix it in New York it’ll sound better than it does here.’ Even when it was out we were thinking: ‘Oh, we should have cut it again.’ It never ended.”

More than three decades later they remained haunted by the song, with which they always ended their set.

“There were a couple of times where Tom was having issues with his voice. It’s a hard song to sing because it’s at the top of his range, and there were times when he would go: ‘I can’t hit those notes tonight, guys. We’re going to have to leave it off the list.’ A couple of tours ago we tried to lower the key to make it easier for him, but it changed the whole timbre of the music. We struggled along with that for a while. Then the last tour we said: ‘We either do it in the right key or we don’t do it at all. But people want to hear it, so we do what we can."

The original version of this feature appeared in Classic Rock 154, April 2014.

Jaan Uhelszki

One of the first women to work in rock journalism, Jaan Uhelszki got her start alongside Lester Bangs, Ben Edmonds and Dave Marsh — considered the “dream team” of rock writing at Creem Magazine in the mid-1970s. Currently an Editor at Large at Relix, Uhelszki has published articles in NME, Mojo, Rolling Stone, USA Today, Classic Rock, Uncut and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her awards include Online Journalist of the Year and the National Feature Writer Award from the Music Journalist’s Association, and three Deems Taylor Awards. She is listed in Flavorwire’s 33 Women Music Critics You Need to Read and holds the dubious honour of being the only rock journalist who has ever performed in full costume and makeup with Kiss.