Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers knew they had a hit on their hands with “Refugee.” But the process of getting it down on tape caused friction with the producer – and one group member was fired and the song’s cowriter left town for two days before it was all over.
The song had come together quickly and almost by accident. As guitarist Mike Campbell explained on Brian Koppelman’s podcast The Moment, his wife had recently bought him a TEAC four-track tape recorder that he began experimenting with. Campbell had an album called DrumDrops – he couldn’t recall the drummer’s name, but Joey D. Vieira put out several volumes under that title in the late ’70s – that contained song-length tracks of various rhythms (rock, disco, Latin, etc.).
Inspired by a new Gibson Les Paul gold top and Albert King’s 1966 Stax classic “Oh, Pretty Woman,” Campbell wanted to practice soloing in the key of F-sharp minor. So he put one of the DrumDrops beats on one track, created a progression around three chords – F-sharp minor, E major and A major – and used it as a bed over which he’d play lead. Then he added two more chords – D major followed by a B major – that led back into the main progression.
Realizing it was “more than just an exercise,” Campbell added a bridge and built a demo using a DrumDrops track, rhythm and lead guitar and bass. He put that and a few other new songs on a cassette and gave it to Petty, who recognized it as something special.
“I remember writing [‘Refugee’] really quickly to his tape,” Petty recalled in Paul Zollo’s Conversations With Tom Petty. “The words came really quick. And that bridge was on the tape. I just had to come up with a melody. I don’t think he saw it the same way as me, where the chorus would go. But it worked out great.”
The band’s manager, Elliot Roberts, heard the demo and thought it was on the right track. Then they hired Jimmy Iovine, who was on the rise after engineering Bruce Springsteen‘s Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, and producing Patti Smith‘s Easter. Iovine listened to “Refugee” and “Here Comes My Girl” on the tape and, Campbell recalled, “‘I don’t care what else you do. We got those two songs, we got an album.’ And he was right.”
Watch Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ ‘Refugee’ Video
After the garage-rock approach of the first two Heartbreakers albums, Iovine’s method through the band for a loop. Of particular concern were the drums on “Refugee.” Warren Zanes’ biography Petty notes that 70 takes were recorded, which led to Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch being fired during the sessions. But he was brought back when attempts to record the song with Procol Harum‘s B.J. Wilson and Phil Seymour of the Dwight Twilley Band proved fruitless. At some point, Campbell walked out on the sessions.
“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 two days,” he told Songfacts. “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.”
Although Iovine and Lynch didn’t get along personally, the producer swore their relationship had nothing to do with the stressful sessions. “I don’t give a fuck if you’re an asshole,” he told Zanes. “I got that [Lynch] was a bit hard to work with, but that’s it. The playing didn’t feel right to me. That’s not a personal thing.”
The process was so overwhelming that they really had no idea if “Refugee” was any good. But while they were mixing the song, the receptionist at the studio heard it during playback. Campbell told Koppelman she said, “Just watch that one run, boys. Just watch it run.”
Released on Jan. 11, 1980, as the second single from Damn the Torpedoes, “Refugee” peaked at No. 15, their second-best showing ever on the Billboard Hot 100. Although Campbell had three cowriting credits on the first two band albums – “Rockin’ Around (With You),” “Hurt” and “Baby’s a Rock ‘n’ Roller” – Petty told Zollo that Campbell “really blossomed” with “Refugee” and “Here Comes My Girl.”
It was the start of a collaborative process between the two. “God, he writes so many,” Petty noted with a laugh. “He’ll give me a tape with 20 things on it. Of which maybe I’ll find one or two that I can work with. But he writes in bulk. Track after track.”
In time, Petty would take the music he’d chosen and figure it on piano on guitar to avoid monotony and see what transpired. “If something’s there that I get a feel for, it starts to happen,” he said. “And if I don’t, I just don’t pursue it.”
“It was such a thrill to have someone take your germ and turn it into something great, and that became our relationship,” Campbell concluded. “It was so exciting every time he’d write to one of my [pieces of] music, I always felt so blessed.”