How George Harrison fixed Tom Petty song ‘I Won’t Back Down’

For the first time in a while, Tom Petty seemed to be in a happy place in the late 1980s. After having to go through his house being burned down and the disastrous sessions for Southern Accents, his friendship with rock legends like George Harrison led to him becoming an honorary legend in The Traveling Wilburys, playing bass alongside the croon of Roy Orbison. In the background, Petty was also working hard with ELO leading man Jeff Lynne producing his classic album, Full Moon Fever.

Being his first major outing without the rest of the Heartbreakers, Petty’s first proper solo album brought him some of his biggest songs to date, from the bad boy attitude of ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream’ to ‘Free Fallin’. While it was clear that ‘I Won’t Back Down’ was already a good song when starting the sessions, it needed a little help from The Beatles to get it right.

When Petty first cut the song, he was originally hesitant to even include it because of how personal it was to him. Thinking that it was too honest, Petty wanted to disguise it a little bit before finally ending up with the version that most people are familiar with. Once he played it for George Harrison, though, ‘The Quiet Beatle’ spoke up about a problem with the lyrics.

In the iconic chorus of the song, Petty originally had the line “standing on the edge of the world”, connecting both pieces together. Apparently, the line was so hackney that Harrison winced at it, as Petty later recalled in Conversations with Tom Petty, “When we were recording it, George said, ‘What the hell is that – ‘I’m standing on the edge of the world’. Surely there’s gotta be something better than that’. Then I came up with ‘there ain’t no easy way out’, which seemed so obvious”.

That wasn’t the only favour that Petty got from a Beatle around that time, either. When it came time to shoot the video for the song, Harrison can be seen singing along beside Lynne, with Ringo Starr also playing drums on the final product.

Despite a lukewarm reception of the album by his record company, ‘I Won’t Back Down’ would become a fixture of every Petty show, with him belting to the rafters about never walking away in the face of defeat. Looking back, Petty was proud that the words didn’t have any sort of fluff, noting, “I’m really glad that I got all the dumb lines out because it’s a song that a lot of people have been inspired by”.

Even later in life, Petty would play the song again, with Johnny Cash performing the vocals instead of him. Petty became so enthralled by Cash’s version that it “made him wish I had never done it. There was so much conviction in his version that it made it seem like he wrote it”.

While Petty was always about keeping things fairly simple in his arrangements, the real power behind his tunes comes from how open he makes his verses. Although no one will know the exact details of what Petty was talking about in this song, everyone has had something that has come their way in life, and this song is a reminder to never let the bastards grind you down.

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