Strange Beginnings – The Stories Behind the Songs
I was taking a look at the original stories behind some of our most popular songs recently and realised that the subject was far too big for a three-part feature. There are far too many great examples. I’ve decided to turn this ‘strange beginnings’ idea into a main feature and select a couple of extracts for the Facebook page and group.
For example, how many people know that Aerosmith’s the ‘Dude Looks Like a Lady’ was inspired after mistaking Mötley Crew’s Vince Neil in a bar for a girl with teased up hair, or that The Beatles ‘Ticket to Ride’ was possibly about the hookers of Hamburg?
Many know of Richard Nixon’s huge blunder in using Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA’. Although Springsteen had refused a Reagan adviser the use of his song, Regan’s referenced the song as a message of hope for young Americans during his campaign, not realising it was a bitter attack on America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Reagan wasn’t the first, and following the 1984 blunder, both Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan repeated the same mistake by using the song in their own campaigns in 1996 and 2000. Bruce Springsteen finally put a stop to it once and for all with legal action.
Springsteen’s actions have spurred a number of musicians from preventing their songs from being used for political purposes. From Bobby McFerrin refusing George Bush’s request to use ‘Don’t Worry be Happy’ to Niel Young forbidding ‘Rockin’ in the Real World’ being used by Donald Trump. It makes an interesting list and will possibly have its own feature at some stage.
The last political fact before getting on with business; Because he couldn’t use the Bobby McFerrin feel-food hit, Bush opted to use suspected communist, Woody Guthrie’s‘This Land is Your Land – This Land is My Land’, which was a call for equality to all and written as his satirical answer to the patriotic hit, ‘God Bless America’, written by Irvine Berlin as a national song during WWI and revised by him in WWII. Strangely, Guthrie's This Land is Your Land’ was also sung at Joe Biden’s inauguration. I hope the message of the song is remembered.
As the opening clip is of the Boss singing Woodie Guthrie’s classic.
I wasn’t sure if I should work through these fascinating stories chronologically or not, but eventually decided just to take them as they come.
When Blondie recorded ‘One Way or Another’ it may have come across as a song promoting empowerment, but the actual story is quite dark. In an Entertainment Weekly interview, she explained that for a while she was stalked by a nut-job (her words, not me being un-pc). When you listen to the words of her hit in that context you begin to realise that the song is actually a revenge poem that was written by Debbie Harry in a bid to inject some balance and a bit of levity into a disturbing situation.
“I think in a way that’s a normal kind of survival mechanism. You know, just shake it off, say one way or another, and get on with your life. Everyone can relate to that and I think that’s the beauty of it.” I’m not sure if I would have been quite so flippant in her position, but then again I’ve never been a blonde bombshell rock goddess either.
The video clip I found is billed as the official video but looks like it was a live performance at a club that features some pretty interesting dancers.
Another case of misinterpretation (maybe deliberate, maybe not) is The Beastie Boy’s whose 1986 teen anthem ‘(You’ve Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)’ was written as a mockery of the endless stream of party anthems that were making the charts. The thousands of rebellious teens and wannabe’s who jumped up and down gleefully while singing along to the chorus were oblivious to the fact that it was a statement about mindlessness in pop. As band member, Mike D (Michael Diamond) noted sagely, “Irony is oft missed”. However, I’m sure the royalty cheques make being misunderstood bearable!
A tale that Dolly Parton fans may know is that of the origins of ‘I Will Always Love You’, which had absolutely nothing to do with romance, but was a musical resignation letter from Dolly to Porter Wagner. She had been a part of his TV show and tours for five years and didn’t know how to tell him that she wanted to move on to the next stage of her career.
Knowing that she owed him a huge debt of gratitude and wanting to make him understand how much she appreciated everything he had done to help establish her as a name, she put it all into a song. It was supposed to be a private gift, but when she played it to him he claimed it was the prettiest song he’d ever heard and gave her his blessing to follow her dream as long as she would sing it on the show.
It was when Whitney Houston immortalised the song in the hit movie, The Bodyguard, that the song became the most popular ‘us’ song ever, and the most played farewell at crematorium services. None of my resignation letters have ever had that effect!
Two love songs that can’t be misinterpreted as anything but that, are Toto’s ‘Rosanna’, and Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes’, but did you know that they were written about the same lady; actress Rosanna Arquette. Arquette was dating Toto’s keyboard player, Steve Porcaro, at the time of the hit. For some reason, over the years both actress and band have played down the connection, which is a bit hard when it was so blatant (and widely covered) at the time.
Peter Gabriel and Rosanna Arquette were also romantically involved for several years and, although never confirmed, their friends claim that he wrote the song for her.
I mentioned The Fab Four’s song ‘Ticket to Ride’ earlier. There are two versions of the tale, Paul’s, and John’s, and after reading early accounts of the band’s antics in Germany I know which I tend to believe. Paul claims that it referred to a train ticket to the town of Rhyde in the Isle of Wight where his cousin owned a pub. He and John were known to have hitch-hiked there once. Boring!
John’s story is a tad more interesting and comes via Don Short, the journalist who covered a lot of the Beatles early days. “The girls who worked the streets in Hamburg had to have a clean bill of health and so the medical authorities would give them a card saying that they didn’t have a dose of anything. I was with The Beatles when they went back to Hamburg in June 1966 and it was then that John told me that he had coined the phrase ‘a ticket to ride’ to describe these cards. He could have been joking—you always had to be careful with John like that—but I certainly remember him telling me that.”.
Taking a re-listen to the song should make up your mind.
Another Beatles classic with strange origins is 1967’s ‘A Day in the Life’, which isn’t actually one song, but two. Although both Lennon and McCartney were known as accomplished songwriters, in this case they both had half-written songs and no idea how to finish them, let alone combine them. After all, John’s song was ripped from newspaper headlines, while Paul’s song was a nostalgic look at his commute to school.
Eventually, they used an orchestra to weave the parts of the story into one. In the studio they had the assistants count out the bars and set alarm clocks to signal when it was time to transition from John to Paul, which tied in perfectly with Paul’s opening phrase… “Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…” In the versions I listened to while compiling this feature I couldn’t find a single one with the alarm clock still included, although I’m sure it was on the version I had. The joys of remastering?
Readers whose memories stretch back to 1968 might remember Iron Butterfly’s one and only big hit, ‘In a Gadda Da Vida’. It is a fine example of one of those early underground / prog-pop epics that ground on (an on, and on) for 17 minutes. The song was recorded when lead vocalist, Douglas Ingle, was worse for wear according to the sound engineer.
“(The words] ‘in a gadda da vida’ occur at the beginning and the end—in the middle it’s mostly instrumental, which was a good thing because apparently the singer was drunk or high or both, and slurred the words ‘in the garden of Eden.’ What you’re hearing, in fact, wasn’t supposed to be recorded—this was a soundcheck. The producer hadn’t arrived and the band was just kind of vamping in the studio, but the engineer was rolling tape. At the end of it he decided it was actually pretty good, whatever ‘in a gadda da vida’ is.”
I always thought the song was a bit of a shambling mess. Now I know why.
The Hammond B3 organ (often used with revolving Lesley speakers) was adopted by many bands of the ’60s, but Booker T and the MG’s were among the first to truly popularise this new sound with their huge hit, ‘Green Onions’.
The band had been booked to back a rockabilly singer who was coming in to record a jingle. The singer was running late and the band were just riffing on some stuff while waiting. Booker T tried a piano piece he had been playing on the Hammond organ. Something just sparked and the song just came together and is now considered a classic. In 1962, the chances of this happening were pretty slim as tape was very expensive. Fortunately, the sound engineer was also the owner of the studio and could afford to do so. Originally released as a B side, it went on to be one of the band’s biggest international hits.
Social commentary songs are pretty commonplace these days, but during the early 60s it was pretty much the domain of folk singers. When Paul Simon released a song named ‘A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d into Submission)’ one can be forgiven for thinking it is some college graduate’s attempt at being profound, but the song is actually very clever satire, brimming with scathing looks at cultural icons and touchstones like Ayn Rand and Lenny Bruce. It was also a poke at Dylan’s lengthy lyrics, seen by many as literary pretensions, and a tip of the hat to his ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, which Paul Simon admired.
I’ve chosen the recording from an LP that my Grandfather bought from the UK for my elder brother when he visited us in SA in 1968. I got to know the whole album very well, and although the lyrics of this song were a bit lost on my 13-year-old self, I would sing along anyway and often quote lines from it (normally out of context), precocious brat that I was!
Rap often gets a bad…. (I won’t say it). I remember the first RAP song that made the mainstream very well. ‘Rapper’s Delight’ from The Sugarhill Gang. I first heard it in a late-night restaurant where I worked as a waiter while a student in Cape Town. A fellow waitress knew every word of the song off-by-heart, and when it played all service would stop while she sang along to entertain the customers. It might sound strange now, but this was 1980, and such things were quite normal. Her tips were well earned! I particularly liked the song’s bass line but thought it was a bit of a novelty and wasn’t sure how long the RAP thing would last. Little did I realise!
The story behind the song is pretty interesting in that there was never such an entity as The Sugarhill Gang prior to the song. It was the brainchild of a music producer Sylvia Robinson whose only claim to fame was the song ‘Pillow Talk’, a mild schlock-pop song from the mid-70s She had heard about hip-hop and RAP and wanted to add something like it to an arrangement she had in mind. Because RAP and Hip-Hop were considered an art form at the time and only performed live and in clubs, nobody would take up the offer of recording it in a studio and sully the sacred cow.
Her son met someone in a local pizza restaurant who claimed he was a rapper and was convinced to come into the studio to lay down the vocals. The guy was the late Big Bank Hank, who had to borrow lyrics from another early hip-hop artist, Grandmaster Caz, for ‘Rapper’s Delight’, The song was done in one take of 14 minutes and underwent heavy editing to bring the time down for the radio version.
In comparison to the Gangsta Rap that followed, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ could be considered the bubblegum music of hip-hop. However, it did serve to introduce what has become a huge influence on modern music.
I’m closing this article with a story I have shared before, but is so unbelievably good, that it needs retelling. I’m referring to the James Bond theme, which originally had nothing to do with a super spy, but rather an Indian gentleman who was born under a bad sign and had an unfortunate sneeze. I kid you not!
The song was originally titled ‘Bad Sign, Good Sign’ and written by Monty Norman for a musical adaptation of author VS Naipul’s famous novel ‘A House for Mr Biswas’. It was supposed to be the follow-up to the ‘50s hit musical ‘Irma La Douce’, but he project was dropped and Monty Norman kept one of the songs that he particularly liked on the back burner.
When Monty Norman was commissioned to write the theme song for Dr No in the early ‘60s he reworked the song. Norman kept the melody but split the musical notes for a more staccato feel. “The moment I did Dum diddy dum dum dum, I thought my God that’s it,” Norman said. “The producers liked this new take on the tune. And so did Sean Connery. He seemed to like it very much, I mean, when you see the film and the camera pans up to Sean’s face and he says “Bond, James Bond” from that moment onwards, Sean Connery became a star,” Norman said. “The James Bond theme was imprinted on people’s minds and the whole James Bond franchise was suddenly up and running.”
This is truly a must-have bit of music trivia to keep in your arsenal of conversation-stopping tidbits! I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip through confusion and misunderstanding. I’m sure it is a topic that I’ll further expound upon at some stage.
Catch you soon music-lovers.
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Words © Andrew Knapp 2021