Tom Petty and his record label have never had the greatest of relationships. His signing of a terrible agreement with MCA Records as soon as he entered the business resulted in a lawsuit, which required him to appear in court in between takes for Damn the Torpedoes. Even though Petty would later mend fences with some of his superiors, they weren’t very thrilled with one of his largest undertakings.
Petty wanted a vacation from his time with The Heartbreakers as the 1980s came to an end. After enduring a global tour and a near-fatal arson attempt, Petty chose to collaborate with ELO producer Jeff Lynne on some peaceful songs. Although Lynne and Petty had previously collaborated in the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, they decided to create a full album since they were having so much fun writing songs together.
This would be Petty’s debut endeavor outside of The Heartbreakers, and the majority of the songs were written by him, Lynne, and guitarist Mike Campbell. Petty went to his label executives, but was met with silence. The trio was in the studio working on songs like “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “Free Fallin.”
The label first rejected a solo Tom Petty record because they believed it was far too mellow to be popular with the general audience. Petty told Esquire that his initial rejection had left him feeling scared. He said, “I was pretty far along in my career at that point. I’d never had anything rejected; I’d never really even had a comment. So when that happened, it was really just a board to the forehead.”
Not only the label was uncertain about the new course. Many of the Heartbreakers had the chance to contribute to the new album, but many choose not to since they didn’t connect with the overall atmosphere. Drummer Stan Lynch was delighted not to receive a call, as he stated in Runnin Down a Dream, “Bassist Howie Epstein gladly declined the opportunity to play on ‘Free Fallin‘.
Petty said, “I said, ‘I’m not buying this, there’s nothing wrong, I really like this record.’ And then I waited awhile until the top regime at the record company changed. And I came back, and I played them the same record, and they were overjoyed. It turned out to be a huge hit.”
Though it didn’t take long for people to warm up to the album, songs like “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin” went on to become huge radio singles and gave Petty’s career a boost. Even though Petty’s self-assurance may have been dented, it didn’t take long for him to begin signing with other record labels. Petty immediately switched over to Warner Bros for the album Wildflowers, which ended up being one of the pinnacles of his career as a solo artist, despite recording one more album with Lynne on Into the Great Wide Open.