8 Songs Inspired By Real Women

Songwriters have found inspiration in all sorts of places, from transvestites to team tennis titans. Maggie Koerth-Baker has read between the liner notes to find out for whom 8 famous songs were written.

1. "Philadelphia Freedom"

Written by: Elton John & Bernie Taupin

Written for: Billie Jean King, as a thank-you for a tracksuit she gave Elton. And what a tracksuit it must have been! The 1975 song remains one of the most popular disco hits ever, leaving thousands of Hustle enthusiasts wondering just what Billie Jean King had to do with Philadelphia, anyway.

Turns out, the song was a reference to King's pro tennis team, The Philadelphia Freedoms. Prior to 1968, tennis players were all considered "amateurs" and weren't eligible to receive prize money. So, if you didn't have the wealth to support yourself, you couldn't play. Billie Jean King fought against those constraints, ultimately founding Professional World Team Tennis in 1974 and turning tennis into a paid league sport. [Photo courtesy of EltonJohn.com.]

2. "Lola"

Written by: The Kinks' Ray Davies

Written for: A transvestite. But the question is, which one? According to Rolling Stone, "Lola" was inspired by Candy Darling, a member of Andy Warhol's entourage, whom Ray Davies briefly (and cluelessly) dated. If that's the case, then "Lola" is just another notch on Darling's song belt—she's also referred to in Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." ("Candy came from out on the Island/ In the backroom she was everybody's darlin'.")

But, in the Kinks' official biography, Davies tells a different story. He says "Lola" was written after the band's manager spent a very drunken night dancing with a woman whose five o'clock shadow was apparently obvious to everyone but him.

3. "867-5309/Jenny"

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Written by: Jim Keller (of Tommy Tutone) and Alex Call

Written for: Unknown, as the songwriters apparently make up a different story about its inspiration every time they're asked. While the woman continues to remain a mystery, however, the phone number is all too real. In fact, it's been wreaking havoc ever since 1982the passage of time hasn't quelled of the number of crank calls. In 1999, Brown University freshman roommates Nina Clemente and Jahanaz Mirza found that out the hard way, when the school adopted an 867 exchange number for its on-campus phone system. Immediately, the girls' innocuous Room No. 5309 became a magnet for every drunk college kid with a 1980s fetish.

Other unfortunate phone customers have fought back with creative and profitable solutions, like the holder of 212-867-5309, who put his phone number up for auction on eBay in 2004. Bids approached $100,000 before eBay pulled the item at the request of Verizon, the number's actual owner.

4. "Für Elise"

Written by: Ludwig van Beethoven

Written for: Some girl probably not named Elise. In fact, as far as most historians can tell, Beethoven didn't even know an Elise. Instead, the song was originally titled "Bagatelle in A minor" based on some handwritten notation a Beethoven researcher claimed to have seen on a now-lost copy of the sheet music.

Further complicating things, Beethoven had hideous handwriting—to the point that some scholars speculate the song was actually written "for Therese," as in Therese Malfatti, one of several women who turned down a marriage proposal from the notoriously lovesick maestro.

5. "Oh, Carol"

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Written by: Neil Sedaka

Written for: Carole King, naturally. Sedaka and King actually dated briefly in high school -- a romance Sedaka was able to successfully milk with "Oh, Carol," a then top-10 (if now somewhat forgettable) 1959 pop song.

However, the real success of "Oh, Carol" came a few months later, when it inspired King to write a rebuttal entitled "Oh, Neil." At the time, King and her husband, Gerry Goffin, were fledgling songwriters in need of a hit tune. "Oh, Neil" wasn't that, but it did pay off. After Sedaka gave a tape of the song to his boss, King and Goffin landed jobs at the legendary Brill Building pop music factory, where the duo went on to write chart-toppers like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" and "The Loco-Motion."

6. "It Ain't Me, Babe"

Written by: Bob Dylan

Written for: Joan Baez, though it clearly wasn't the nicest gift Dylan could have given her. The two met in 1961, when Baez was an up-and-coming folk singer and Dylan was a nobody from Minnesota. Desperate to make his break in the music biz, Dylan worked like crazy to get Baez's attention. He eventually ended up going on tour with her, which is how he first became famous, and also how the two began dating. For a while, they seemed like the golden couple, but things soon went downhill.

During a European concert tour together in early 1965, they had a huge fight and parted ways. That May, Dylan was holed up in a hotel after being hospitalized with a virus, and Baez, hoping to remain friends, decided to bring him flowers. Sadly, that's how she found out that her ex was already dating someone else. That someone else was Sara Lownds, whom Dylan married a mere six months later.

7. "Our House"

Written by: Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)

Written for: Joni Mitchell. In December 1968, Nash and Mitchell moved into a cozy little house in the Laurel Canyon section of Los Angeles. Though commonly left out of the hippy pantheon, Laurel Canyon was sort of a commune-home away from commune-home for San Francisco society -- not just CSN&Y, but also Jim Morrison, the Eagles, Frank Zappa, and more.

"Our House" was directly inspired by a lazy Sunday in the Nash/Mitchell household. The couple went out to brunch, hit an antiques store, and then returned to find the house just a bit chilly, at which point Nash literally "lit a fire," while Mitchell "placed the flowers in the vase that she bought that day." No, really. The whole tableau seemed so ridiculously domestic to Nash that he immediately sat down and spent the rest of the day writing about it.

8. "Dear Mama"

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Written by: Tupac Shakur

Written for: Afeni Shakur, who is, obviously, Tupac's mama. A fascinating character in her own right, Afeni Shakur was born Alice Fay Williams, but changed her name while working with the Black Panthers in the 1960s. In fact, Tupac (named after the Peruvian revolutionary leader Tupac Amaru II) was born in 1971—just a month after Afeni was acquitted of bombing conspiracy charges. (She had spent most of her pregnancy behind bars.) As the song implies, she and Tupac didn't always get along, particularly during his adolescence, when Afeni was addicted to crack. But, by the time of Tupac's death in 1996, she was clean and the two had patched things up long enough for Tupac to write that she "was appreciated." Today, Afeni runs a charity in her son's name and is (somewhat controversially) responsible for Tupac's multiple posthumous CD releases.

This article was written by Maggie Koerth-Baker and originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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10 Facts About Aspirin
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Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

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How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
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Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.

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