Remembering Tom Petty’s crazy, controversial ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ music video: ‘This one took the cake’

Tom Petty made some amazing music videos during his career, but as “Don’t Come Around Here No More” director Jeff Stein tells Yahoo Entertainment, “This one took the cake.”

The lysergic, Alice in Wonderland-themed spectacle, for the Southern Accents single released on Feb. 28, 1985, starred Petty as a smirking Mad Hatter, young actress Wish Foley as an edible Alice, and the song’s co-writer, Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, as a ‘shrooming, sitar-strumming caterpillar. It has gone down in pop history as one of the greatest videos of all time, but not without controversy. While it may seem tame now, that infamous cake-cutting scene, which featured Petty and his tea-partying Heartbreakers slicing and gobbling up Alice’s layer-caked torso, caused such a fuss 35 years ago that it was partially responsible for Tipper Gore launching the Parents Music Resource Center. 

“Apparently, Tipper’s daughter saw that scene and freaked out — and then Mom started taking notice of what was going on, on MTV. And I’m not kidding: I was cited for promoting cannibalism by a parents/teachers group. I thought, ‘Well, this has to be a career high, if you can bring back cannibalism as a fad!’” Stein chuckles.

But Stein reveals that the cake scene could have been even more shocking. “We had put strawberry jam as a filling [in the cake], so when Tom was chopping it up, that kind of red strawberry sauce was going all over the place. It looked more like a slasher thing. But we weren’t going to include that in the final piece.” Still, he recalls that once the “bigwigs” at MTV saw the (preservatives-free) video, he received a concerned phone call. “I still remember his quote, which was: ‘Stein, you have our asses hanging out the window on this one.’” 

MTV still agreed to play the clip, and it was a huge hit; it was even nominated at that year’s MTV Music Video Awards for Video of the Year, Viewer’s Choice, and Best Direction, and it won for Best Special Effects. But one day, Stein saw the video on MTV and noticed that the network, unbeknownst to him, had made a surprising edit. 

Tom Petty’s ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ video. (Photo: MCA Records)

“I did not take anything out of the cut. After it started airing, and it was very popular and in major rotation… I noticed that they had taken [Petty’s] burp off at the end, after he has a piece of cake and Alice is on that piece, and she’s kind of screaming. He belches, and they had taken that off! I thought, ‘Oh my God, how can they censor our creativity like this?’ So I called them, and I said I was going to call The Washington Post and say everybody at MTV was censoring us. And they put it right back in. Those were the days when you could call everyone and they’d respond. But that was the only [edit] that they tried to do — take the burp off at the end. Maybe [they thought] it was impolite?” 

Incredibly, Stein and the band only had one chance to get that iconic scene right, as they’d ordered just one custom cake from the Los Angeles bakery Hansen’s, and they had no backup. “Normally, you would double something like that, but I think it was quite expensive, or [Hansen’s] couldn’t do more than one in the timeframe. … But we were highly trained professionals, especially in cake decimation,” Stein laughs. And yes, everyone got a piece of Alice (“the cast and crew all ate it up after we were done, so it added to craft services and our celebration”), a vanilla confection with the aforementioned secret “strawberry or raspberry filling, just to give it that little gore effect.” 

Dave Stewart in Tom Petty’s ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ video. (Photo: MCA Records)

Stein is still baffled by any outrage to the cake scene. “It was all in good fun. I’ve always been very respectful to women. It was a fantasy. Alice in Wonderland is pretty crazy and kind of a little violent as well, but it was just a music video. Just keep saying to yourself: ‘It’s only a music video, it’s only a music video!’” And he points out that the opening hallucinogenic mushroom scene with Stewart was actually the video’s more scandalous moment. “If you look closely, Dave takes a big bite of [mushroom], the chunk of it in his hand, and that’s where our trip starts. I was always kind of pleased that we got that through MTV. They were always looking at things to censor, but they didn’t catch that. That was the most subversive part, I thought, of the video — not the cake ending.”  (Fun fact: Stewart’s Eurythmics bandmate, Annie Lennox, visited the set, and she painted Stewart’s long prosthetic fingernails for the occasion.)

Stein also points out that during the grueling two-day shoot at Hollywood’s S.I.R. Studios, Foley had to endure much worse that just lying on dining table with her head and limbs jutting out of some anthropomorphic pastry. “Wish Foley was incredible,” he says, noting that he knew right away that she was perfect for the role, even though she was the second actress who auditioned out of a possible 50. “She was the only person who showed up [to the casting call] wearing a hairband like Alice does, and she just had that kind of innocent look that I thought Alice should have. Also, I was looking for the perfect scream for that last shot, and she gave us a great scream and seemed uninhibited in terms of what we were going to do. And when you have a very short shooting schedule, you need people who are really going to come to the party, so to speak — the Mad Hatter’s tea party — and she certainly did. If our Alice hadn’t been as fantastic as she was, and if she hadn’t been as much of a sport as she was, I don’t think it would’ve been the same video. She was happy to be in it, and we took very good care of her, but it was quite a difficult shoot, and we certainly put her through it.”

Wish Foley in Tom Petty’s ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ video. (Photo: MCA Records)

Foley’s most challenging scene on the M.C. Escher-esque set was when she has to slosh around in a teacup, which Stein had built out of an above-ground children’s pool and filled with oversized sugar cubes made out “the green stuff they use at florists to stick flowers in,” painted white. (The giant donut was fashioned from an inner-tube.) “She was soaking wet. I actually tried to take care of her, and I asked for the water to be heated. I tried to heat the water, but by the time when we actually had to shoot that scene, it wasn’t as warm as I would’ve liked it to have been. It was quite cold, but she stayed in there. She was a trooper.”

Stein tried to make things comfortable for Foley in other ways, like making sure that for the sequence in which she morphs from Alice into a piglet, she got to wear the baby bonnet first (“because after the piglet, it was quite smelly”). But the pig caused troubles on his own. “We had this piglet, and it was very cute, and we had his wrangler there. … But I’m not kidding, maybe they had spareribs or something for lunch, and maybe the little piglet got a whiff of the spareribs and thought he was lunch or dinner, because he took off. And nobody could catch that piglet! It took like 45 minutes running around. And of course, we didn’t want him to have an accident on our pristine, black-and-white checkerboard set.”

Wish Foley in Tom Petty’s ‘Don’t Come Around Here no More’ video. (Photo: MCA Records)

As great as Foley was, obviously it was Petty’s “stellar” performance that made “Don’t Come Around Here No More” such an instant and enduring classic. Stein, who admits he was “daunted” by the assignment, was inspired to pitch the concept because of the Mad Hatter-style top hat Petty often wore. (Stein also stresses that — contrary to Stewart’s account in the autobiography Sweet Dreams Are Made of This: A Life in Music — the Alice theme was his idea.) “I was little leery of pitching it to Tom, because at the time, in my mind, he was this straight-ahead rocker and maybe wouldn’t be that adventurous,” says Stein. “For him to be in basically a costume melodrama, after whatever his image was before, was very daring, I thought. And he got totally into it. It was very Quentin Crisp. I loved it. He really went for it.” (Another fun fact: The checkerboard shoes that Petty in the video wore actually belonged to Stein.)

Thirty-five years later, Stein, whose long list of credits includes the Cars’ “You Might Think” (the Video of the Year winner at the first-ever VMAs ceremony in 1984), Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell,” and Warrant’s perhaps even more notorious (and also pastry-themed!) “Cherry Pie,” still says “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is his video of which he is the most proud. And he knows it made history, even it was controversial in ‘85. “The first time I went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, there’s a long escalator to the second floor, through this enormous atrium. And when I got to the very top, in a plexiglass case, there was, the oversized top hat from the video, kind of as their showpiece at that time. And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s incredible.’ But I probably should have saved it for myself.”

Tom Petty in “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” (Photo: MCA Records)

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