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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Refugee" - Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers Song Analysis

Reader Henry Y asked for a song analysis of the song that broke Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - "Refugee." The song was from their 1979 multi-platinum classic Damn The Torpedos LP that was TP's first Top 10, rising to #2 on the Billboard album chart, and was the album where the band became a superstar act.

As in all the song analysis, we'll look at the song itself, the arrangement, the sound and the performance.

The Song
"Refugee" is as perfect example of a hit rock song as you can get. It's form is classic and looks like this.

Intro (with guitar solo), Verse, Half-Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Solo, Verse, Chorus, Outchorus

It just doesn't get any more formulaic than that. The formula doesn't make it a bad song though. If fact, it's pretty well written, with a strong melody and hook. The only thing that strikes me a bit funny is that the last verse is a repeat of the the first one.

The Arrangement
As with most hits, the dynamics in the song are great, but unlike other songs, they're not created by additional overdub layers but by real dynamic playing of the band. TP and the Heartbreakers have always been a great live band, and this song shows why, as the playing breathes with the song, pushing it to a peak in the bridge, and bringing it back down to a quiet third verse.

Let's look at the arrangement elements (check out this link for a full description of what they are):

  * The Foundation - As with most songs, the foundation element for "Refugee" is held down by the drums and bass.

  * The Pad - You can't get a better pad element than a Hammond B-3, and that's what you hear here.

  * The Rhythm - There's a shaker (played by session drummer Jim Keltner) that's back in the mix a bit so it's not obvious, but it really pushes the song along with a double-time feel.

  * The Lead - TP's lead vocal, and Mike Campbell's tasty guitar in the intro and solo.

  * The Fills - Once again it's Campbell in the verses and the background vocal answers in the chorus.

The song builds and develops in a classic way that every band should learn. In the intro, the full band is playing with the lead guitar, then in the verse, it's just the organ and rhythm section with rhythm guitar strums every four bars. In the last half of the verse, the band gets louder as the guitar kicks in, and in the chorus, the guitars go back to what they played in the intro (but they're lower in the mix) and the background vocals answer the lead vocal.

The only thing fancy in this song is the doubled lead vocal in the bridge, and the fact that the first half of the solo is by the organ, followed by the guitar.

The Sound
The sound was state-of-the-art when it was recorded in 1979 and it's still that today. Everything except the snare sounds big and natural, and you never hear a compressor working anywhere. The snare is very EQed, with a lot of bottom and crispness added, so it's larger than life sounding. It's not to my taste but it works well for the song.

It sounds like only a single reverb is used on the mix and it's slightly delayed (doesn't sound like it's timed to the track though) with the high and low end filtered a lot. This allows engineer Shelly Yakus to use a large amount without it sticking out or being noticeable.

The Performance
As said before, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are an outstanding band. They play together as a single unit with plenty of dynamics that's a shining example for bands everywhere. All of the performances here are great, but I especially like organist Benmont Tench because what he plays really makes the song.

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Gregg Fine said...

Hi Bobby,

I'm really enjoying these song analyses. Was wondering if you had any tips or suggestions as to how you analyze the reverb(its type, timing, eq, etc.) when listening to a full mix. This is easier to do when listening to individual tracks but more difficult, I think, in a full, dense mix.


Bobby Owsinski said...

Usually when a reverb or delay sticks out of the mix, it's not timed to the track. If it is timed to the track it blends in better.

The same goes with the sound. If the delay or reverb blends seamlessly into the track the chances are that some of the high end and/or low end has been filtered out.

Gregg Fine said...



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