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10 Cool Things About ‘Refugee’ by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Refugee (Tom Petty/Mike Campbell)

In no particular order:

1) Extremely economical songwriting –

The Verse is 2 (long) lines; 8 bars long.
Pre-Chorus – 2 lines; 4 bars long.
Chorus – 1 line (repeated except for first time).
Bridge – 4 lines; 8 bars long.
An 8 bar solo follows all this and barely 2 minutes has gone by!
Add a 3rd Verse, Per-Chorus, Chorus; begin the outvamp and still you’re just hitting 3 minutes!

2) Performed at a faster-than-you-think, -remember, or -expect tempo

3) 5 chords altogether

4) Verse and Chorus have the same chords (F#minor/A E); Pre-Chorus breaks it up (D/B)

5) In the Pre-Chorus, the ‘B’ chord feels like a V chord, like it’s setting up a ‘E’ chord, but it goes back to the F#minor instead.  But then you do get the “E’ chord – that I think your ear has been set up to expect – when the song hits the Bridge.

6) The lyric is very idiosyncratic in the way it tells the story of the ‘refugee’ and the singer.  This is a place where Petty really shows his mastery and confidence.  The singer expresses both indifference and caring, bouncing between the contradictions.

(Listen) It don’t really matter to me
Everybody’s had to fight to be free
You see you don’t have to live like a Refugee

7) The rhymes are sometimes precise (see Pre-Chorus above) and other times often very loose:

We got somethin’ we both know it
We don’t talk too much about it
Ain’t no real big secret all the same
Somehow we get around it

But all the lyrics sing in a way that feels natural and right for the style and tone of this song, singer, and story.

8) Repetition of the first 2 lines in the 2nd & 3rd Verses –

Somewhere somehow somebody must have
Kicked you around some

Followed by either –

Tell me why you wanna lay there; revel in your abandon

or –

Who knows maybe you were kidnapped tied up taken away and held for ransom

Great, evocative lines with rhymes that would traditionally be considered weak (or identical), but in this context work like gangbusters.

9) Tremendous one line single-image Chorus

10) Melody jumps up a full octave from the end of the first Verse to the beginning of the Pre-Chorus, upping the ante.  The melody stays high throughout the Chorus.

Bonus) Definitively great rock and roll Hammond Organ playing!

Let me know your thoughts, additions, disagreements in the Comments section below:

tom petty


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4 responses to “10 Cool Things About ‘Refugee’ by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers”

  • Richard Forman

    Great essay about a truly classic song. I was really glad you mentioned the organ performance which too my ears is maybe greatest thing of all! As evocative and intimat as the lyric is, as much as it feels like two peoole having a real conversation about a situation we feel like we’ve been in or can understand, the end result is still entirely ambiguous and yields little of its mystery to us, like a half-overheard conversation, we pick up the words and sentences and the mood but we still don’t really know what is going on, what they’re talking, even what the fantastic statement “you don’t have to live like a refugee” means precisely, it’s just how the narrator describes his perception of his friend’s life. Petty is one of rocks best lyricists.

  • In point number 8), I like your highlighting his use of repetition. In poetry circles they like to use the word alliteration. I like also the way you break out the structure of the song in terms of numbers of lines and bars for the verses and choruses. The way Petty delivers this song, he’s delivering it almost as a narrative, difficult to pull off, but he does it in a way that sounds natural as you mentioned. Thanks for bringing up these points.

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