Tom Petty Wrote “Free Fallin'” to Make Jeff Lynne Laugh

by Alisha Jackson

Just like Guns N’ Roses’ first and only number one single, “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” Tom Petty‘s “Free Fallin'” apparently started off as a joke.

It’s well known that Slash wasn’t serious when he first played the intro riff of “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” as he was literally just practicing a string skipping exercise at the time. While hanging out at the band’s house on Sunset Strip, Izzy started playing the song’s chords and Axl, who Slash didn’t even know could hear them, started writing lyrics to the music from upstairs. “Within an hour my guitar exercise had become something else,” Slash explains in his autobiography.

“Free Fallin'” shares the same type of background story, as Tom Petty admits that he thought he was just amusing his writing partner, Jeff Lynne, when he started playing the chords to the song. “Jeff Lynne and I were sitting around with the idea of writing a song and I was playing the keyboard and I just happened to hit on that main riff, the intro of the song, and I think Jeff said something like, ‘That’s a really good riff but there’s one chord too many,’ so I think I cut it back a chord and then, really just to amuse Jeff, honestly, I just sang that first verse,” Petty tells Billboard.

“Then he starts laughing. Honestly, I thought I was just amusing Jeff but then I got to the chorus of the song and he leaned over to me and said the word, ‘freefalling.’ And I went to sing that and he said, ‘No, take your voice up and see how that feels.’ So I took my voice up an octave or two, but I couldn’t get the whole word in. So I sang ‘freeee,’ then ‘free falling.’ And we both knew at that moment that I’d hit on something pretty good. It was that fast. He had to go somewhere, and I wrote the last verse and kind of just polished the rest of the song and when I saw him the next day I played him the song and he was like, ‘Wow, you did that last night?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And he said. ‘We’ve got to go cut this,’ and we just took off to Mike Campbell’s studio where we knew we could get in and get it done that day. So we went in and made the record that day.”

While “Free Fallin'” didn’t top the charts like “Sweet Child o’ Mine” did, it reached number eight, and became Petty’s longest-charting track. It’s hard to imagine such iconic songs starting out as jokes. Take a listen to both below!

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