A Radio History of “I Won’t Back Down”

posted in: by Sean Ross | 5

Tom_Petty_Full_Moon_FeverBy Sean Ross (@rossonradio)

Tom Petty wrote songs about driving with the car radio. And for most of his career, Tom Petty wrote songs for the car radio. So I hope he would be pleased that I have car-radio memories for the three hits from “Full Moon Fever,” and the one that preceded it.

It’s spring 1987, and I am driving the 405 Freeway south of Los Angeles in my first car, a 1982 Dodge Colt. Because there is only an AM radio in the “Little Red Coltvette,” I am listening to “Jammin’ Me” on American Top 40 simulcast on KIIS-AM. That’s not inappropriate, since “Jammin’ Me” sounded like it was meant to be enjoyed on an AM top 40 station, even if that AM station was the KHJ Los Angeles of 20 years earlier.

In Southern California, American Top 40 is pretty much the only way to hear “Jammin’ Me” on a Top 40 station. Ever since the debut of KPWR (Power 106), top 40 radio in the Southwest is mostly rhythmic. Bon Jovi and Europe have begun rock’s transition to hair bands. The handful of other rock songs that are creeping through are ballads — “With or Without You,” “(I Just) Died in Your Arms,” “In Too Deep,” etc.

Tom Petty has never quite become a Top 40 core artist. Only the breakthrough hits, “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee,” were pop smashes. After that, the format would give his first singles a shot — “The Waiting,” “You Got Lucky,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More” — but there hasn’t been a consensus hit. And CHR is a little less accommodating each time. It’s hard now to imagine a time when Tom Petty’s place in the pantheon was ever in danger. It wasn’t at AOR. But at CHR, “The Final Countdown” was going on without him.

Tom Petty Jammin' MeI still love “Jammin’ Me,” but I can’t make a lot of claims for it as anything other than a great-sounding record. Petty and no less than Bob Dylan had sat down to write something and emerged with … a goof. It wasn’t going to be the record that changed his fortunes at radio. Instead, it was No. 23 in CHR airplay, and the song you heard only on the countdown in larger markets.

Now, it’s spring 1989, and I’m driving through suburban Tampa, Fla., on the way to a radio convention. I’m hearing “I Won’t Back Down” for the first time on WRBQ (Q105). It is immediately recognizable to me as a return to form. But it’s still a song that much of major-market Top 40 resists. A check of the ARSA survey archives shows “I Won’t Back Down” getting most of its larger-market airplay at stations such as KDWB Minneapolis and WKTI Milwaukee.

It is three months later. I’ve been back in New York for 18 months, but I’m not so excited about it yet. I’m spending as many of my weekends as possible on driving trips. And as I head west on I-80 across Northern New Jersey (towards Williamsport, Pa., I think), there’s “Running Down a Dream” — a song you pretty much have to hear in medium and small markets — for the first of many times that weekend. And I am proud to say I was using it pretty much as the artist intended. The other song I remember from that trip was New Kids on the Block’s “Hangin’ Tough,” and that was what you heard back in New York.

Finally, it’s December 1989. This one doesn’t involve the car radio. I am visiting the late Steve Rivers in the studios at WZOU Boston. The battle with WXKS (Kiss 108) has just heated up, and WZOU is a very exciting radio station. WZOU isn’t rhythmic-leaning per se. But it is heavy on reaction records. Hearing “Free Fallin’” wafting through the halls there is confirmation that Petty is finally too big for even big-city CHR to deny.

“Free Fallin’” was the consensus smash that never really left the radio. Like a lot of songs that later became radio staples again, I remember “I Won’t Back Down” as scarce on the radio for a while. While we now think of it as a staple of Classic Rock for years, I’m looking at a handful of Classic Rock music library tests from the early 2000s, and it’s not even mid-pack. Not every Classic Rock station of that era even bothered to test it.

I can more easily put a date on when “I Won’t Back Down” started to resurface at the format formerly known as Oldies. In 2010, I remember being pleasantly surprised that it came back playable for CFXL (XL103) Calgary, Alberta. (XL103 was often the first station where songs migrated from Classic Rock; it also played Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” before other similar stations did.) As the rebranded “Classic Hits” moved closer to Classic Rock, “I Won’t Back Down” became more common there as well.

Talking about how “I Won’t Back Down” did in music research is something that would clearly not please Tom Petty. But “I Won’t Back Down” didn’t mean three weeks ago what it means now. It has emerged as the song with which Petty’s fans celebrate him. Then it became Jason Aldean’s anthem of post-Las Vegas determination and unity on Saturday Night Live. Last week, both Aldean’s live version of the song and a John Fogerty tribute version were released within hours of each other.

At this moment, I’m fully expecting “I Won’t Back Down” to become what “Don’t Stop Believin’” was a few years ago — the universal anthem that transcends age, genre, and whether you were around for it in 1989. Even more than the Journey song, it has the advantage of not having been overplayed as a current, or in the years that followed. Songs are born great — I’ve loved “I Need To Know” since the first listen 39 years ago, and its scarcity on the radio doesn’t change its place in Petty’s canon for me. But what radio and listeners bring to them does change.

5 Responses

  1. Chris Granozio

    Right after Petty died, I played a couple of songs in tribute at Yankee Stadium during. Playoff game (Running Down a Dream and Yer So Bad), the former as we showed a shot of a fan rocking out in a PERRY shirt. I also had another one cued (Breakdown) in case a Houston player made an error but alas, it was not to be.

  2. Cary D. Pall

    Petty, being a native of Gainesville, just up the road, was a staple, and “I Won’t Back Down” specifically was a power (or as close as one got to a power rotation) on WMMO throughout the first four years of the format.

  3. Brad Lovett

    I’ve always thought of “Runnin’ Down A Dream” as the last great driving song. My memories of this song include a road trip from Indiana to Minnesota, and playing it at the classic-rock-with-a-few-currents station I was working at in 1989.

  4. “the universal anthem that transcends age, genre, and” race. Sad but perfect timing for all that’s going around as we lost him–and a shitload of other stuff, not the least of which is lives and mutual respect. Nice piece Ross.

  5. Damon Shaw

    Great read Sean. It reminds me of the time I heard “I Won’t Back Down” on a night circa 2006 when listening to satellite fed classic hits KRDZ-AM out of Wray, Colorado. It might have been the first time I heard the song on the radio since the 90s.

    Granted he was from Gainesville, but another great example of how mass appeal this song was during a timeout of a recent Florida Gators football game just after we lost Petty:

    https://www.today.com/popculture/florida-gators-crowd-pays-tribute-tom-petty-i-won-t-t117217

    Your expectation of it becoming the next “Don’t Stop Believin” may be spot on.

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