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Behind the Lyrics: The Inspirations for 6 Famous Songs

You know the songs, but do you know what they're really about? Here are the stories behind some popular tunes.

1. "Hey Man, Nice Shot"

In the late 1980s, Pennsylvania was embroiled in a bit of an accounting crisis. Employees of the Commonwealth had overpaid millions in FICA taxes and the state legislature began to search for an outside accounting agency to calculate the appropriate refunds. Harrisburg native John Torquato, Jr. eventually won the $4.6 million contract for his Californian-based firm, Computer Technology Associates, through a series of well-placed bribes.

A few months and an investigation by the US Attorney later, the trail led back to Budd Dwyer, State Treasurer, who was indicted for receiving $300,000 in kickbacks to help Torquato secure the business. Dwyer vehemently denied the charges, refused to step down from his post, and even passed on a plea bargain that would have carried a relatively light sentence. In December of 1986, he was found guilty of racketeering, bribery, fraud and conspiracy. After the verdict, he continued to proclaim his innocence and even wrote President Reagan asking for a pardon.

The day before his sentence was handed down, Dwyer called a press conference. After reading a prepared statement, he handed a series of sealed envelopes to staffers, pulled out a .357 Magnum, placed it in his mouth and shot himself on live television. While most of the local and national TV stations debated how much of the suicide to air (some played it in its entirety, others with only the audio), Filter used it as the inspiration for "Hey Man, Nice Shot," which garnered a fair amount of radio play in 1995.

2. "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"

Turns out 1986 was an interesting time for musical inspiration. Early that year, newsman Dan Rather was assaulted on the streets of New York by a man who kept yelling "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" as he pummeled the shocked anchorman. At the time, no one could quite explain the attack.

In 1994, R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe wrote "What's The Frequency Kenneth?," a song exploring the effects of the media, deliberately written in slightly unintelligible lyrics. The track became a huge hit off R.E.M.'s album Monster. But what happened to the strange man who inspired it?

The assailant was later identified as William Tager. He was arrested nine years after battering Rather when he murdered a stagehand outside The Today Show studios. Tager was a mentally disturbed individual who believed television networks were beaming secret messages into his brain using a specific frequency. Convinced if he found the correct frequency he could stop the incoming transmissions, he jumped Rather.

Dan Rather later appeared with R.E.M. on Letterman to help belt out the song.

Meanwhile, Tager is currently serving a 25-year sentence for manslaughter in Sing Sing.  He is eligible for parole later this year.

3. "Creep"

Thom Yorke was born with a paralyzed left eye and underwent a series of surgeries before the age of six, the last of which left him with a drooping eyelid. Due to his condition, during the majority of his childhood Yorke wore an eyepatch. This series of events left him awkward and shy around members of the opposite sex.

While at school, Yorke and his classmates eventually formed a band called On A Friday, as Friday was the only day of the week they could rehearse. The band continued to rehearse together as they earned university degrees, with Yorke enrolling at Exeter College.

While at Exeter, Yorke began to follow around an attractive female. Not exactly in a binoculars-from-a-tree way, just sort of admiring from a distance. However, the tables were turned one night when this girl he had been psedo-stalking showed up at one of the bands' shows. Yorke was truly unsettled.

You've probably heard his tale, because the song about it became the band's first major hit. In 1991, On A Friday changed their name to Radiohead and released it under the title "Creep."

4. "How Could She Do This To Me?"

Often considered to be one of the first concept albums, The Beatles spun out Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.  Appearing as the sixth song on side one is "She's Leaving Home," a track about a young girl who slips away from her comfortable life in the dead of night, leaving her parents stunned and grief-stricken.

Turns out the song had a very real inspiration; 17-year-old Melanie Coe.  Paul McCartney saw the news of her disappearance on the cover of The Daily Mirror, a British tabloid, and wrote the verses (with bandmate John Lennon crafting the chorus).  In the article, Coe's parents confess they simply couldn't understand why Melanie would leave.  "She has everything here," her father said.

Although McCartney took some liberties with the story, Coe later confirmed the majority of the details.  Coe, who was pregnant at the time, was found ten days after her disappearance with her boyfriend (who was not the father of her child) in a nearby town.

Oddly enough, Coe and McCartney had crossed paths before.  Melanie appeared on a show called Ready, Steady Go! in which Paul was a judge.

Coe was crowned the winner of a mime contest.  This was three years before she would inspire McCartney to pen "She's Leaving Home."

5. "Fire and Rain"

James Taylor's beautiful, haunting and personal song "Fire and Rain" is composed in three parts, each with a separate story. Furthermore, the track as a whole is a tumultuous autobiography chronicling Taylor's struggle with depression, substance abuse and fame.

During his later years in high school, Taylor began to experience clinical depression. He didn't go to college (though he did later earn a degree), instead checking himself into McLean Hospital, a renowned psychiatric facility in Belmont, Massachusetts.

The first section of "Fire and Rain" describes Taylor coming to grips with the sudden death of a close friend, Suzanne Schnerr ("Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you"). At the time of her death, Taylor had just signed to The Beatles' new label, Apple Records, and was working on his first album. However, Taylor didn't find out about her death until months after she had passed away. His family and friends kept the information from him, worried he would slip back into depression.

Part two describes Taylor's struggle with alcoholism, drug abuse and depression. After checking himself out of Belmont, Taylor moved to New York to pursue a music career and became addicted to heroin. During this time, he formed a band named The Flying Machine, a short-lived project that was derailed because of his addictions. Broke and depressed, his father eventually flew in to NYC and drove him back to North Carolina, where Taylor entered a drug rehab center.

The final stanza is a retrospective on how far Taylor had traveled. Many people falsely believe the line "Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground" somehow refers to a plane wreck. However, it actually references Taylor's previous band The Flying Machine and his regret at their demise.

6. "I Don't Like Mondays"

The Boomtown Rats song "I Don't Like Mondays" is more than an anthem about struggling through the start of the week. It is a song laced in tragedy.

On January 29th, 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer was staring out of a window inside her San Diego home while holding a semiautomatic .22 caliber rifle her father had given her as a Christmas present. Immediately across the street was Cleveland Elementary School, where children were arriving for the day, waiting for the principal to open the front gates. Inexplicably, Spencer opened fire.

In the aftermath of the attack, eight children and a police officer were injured. Additionally, two people died: Principal Burton Wragg, who had been trying to protect the children, and a custodian, Mike Suchar, who attempted to pull the principal to safety.

Spencer then barricaded herself inside the house for seven hours. During the standoff, she was asked by police why she chose to open fire. She replied: "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day. I have to go now. I shot a pig, I think, and I want to shoot more. I'm having too much fun [to surrender]." Eventually, Spencer gave herself up to police and was convicted and sentenced to a California correctional facility, where she currently resides.

Bob Geldof, lead singer of The Boomtown Rats, was working at Georgia State University's on-campus radio station when the news came in. He used the event as the inspiration for "I Don't Like Mondays," which hit #1 in the UK during the summer of 1979.
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Tell us your favorite behind-the-lyrics story in the comments, or let us know if there's a particular song you've always wondered about.

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The Unsolved Mysteries Soundtrack Is Coming to Vinyl
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Terror Vision

If you never missed an episodes of Unsolved Mysteries, just listening to the opening theme of the series may be enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Now, you don't need to wait to catch reruns of the show to experience the haunting music: The original soundtrack is now available to preorder on vinyl—the first time it's been available in any format.

Terror Vision, a company that releases obscure horror scores on vinyl, has produced two versions of the soundtrack: A single LP for $27 and a triple LP for $48. Both records were compiled from the original digital audio tapes used to score the show. Terror Vision owner and soundtrack curator Ryan Graveface writes in the product description: "The single LP version features my personal favorite songs from the ghost related segments of Unsolved Mysteries whereas the triple LP set contains EVERYTHING written for the ghost segments. This version is very very limited as it’s really just meant for diehard fans.”

Both LPs include various iterations of the Unsolved Mysteries opening theme—three versions on the single and five on the triple. Customers who spring for the triple LP will also receive liner notes from the show's creator John Cosgrove, composer Gary Malkin, and Graveface.

Over 30 years since the show first premiered, the theme music remains one of the most memorable parts of the spooky, documentary-style series. As Producer Raymond Bridgers once said, "The music was so distinctive that you didn’t even have to be in the room to know that Unsolved Mysteries was on.”

You can preorder the records today with shipping estimated for late June.

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11 Surprising Facts About Irving Berlin
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Wikimedia Commons

Irving Berlin is famous for writing classic American songs such as “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” "Puttin' on the Ritz," and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Known as the King of Tin Pan Alley, he wrote more than 1000 songs that appeared in movies, TV shows, and Broadway musicals. In honor of what would be Berlin’s 130th birthday, here are 11 facts about the legendary songwriter.

1. HE WAS RUSSIAN BY BIRTH, NOT GERMAN.

Israel Isidore Baline was born May 11, 1888 in Mohilev, Russia. In the early 1890s, Berlin’s parents moved their family of eight (Israel, who was 5 at the time, was the youngest of six) from Russia to New York City’s Lower East Side to escape anti-Jewish pogroms. He went by Izzy in America in an attempt to assimilate, and when his first composition was printed, it bore the name "I. Berlin." Berlin allowed a rumor to circulate that it was a printing error that created his pen name, but biographers tend to note that he chose it because it closely resembled his birth name, but sounded less ethnic. In 1911, he legally made the change from Izzy Baline to Irving Berlin.

2. AFTER HIS FATHER DIED, HE QUIT SCHOOL AND BEGAN SINGING ON THE STREET.

Berlin's father, Moses Baline, had been a cantor (one who leads prayer songs) in Russia, but had trouble finding steady work in America. He died of chronic bronchitis when Berlin was just 13. Though the young boy had already been selling newspapers to try to help his family make money, Berlin quit school and, in an attempt to lessen the financial burden for his mother, he also moved out and lived in a ghetto on the Bowery, beginning when he was just 14 years old. To support himself, he busked on the streets and in back rooms of saloons for money, hoping that passersby and bar regulars would give him their spare change. He later worked as a singing waiter in Chinatown.

3. HE EARNED A HANDFUL OF COINS FOR HIS FIRST SONG.

In 1907, Berlin sold the publishing rights to his first song to a music publisher for 75 cents. Because he co-wrote the song, called “Marie from Sunny Italy,” with a pianist, Berlin only received half (approximately 37 cents) of the payment for the piece.

4. HIS RAGTIME SONG INSPIRED A TRENDY DANCE.

Long before the Macarena or the Harlem Shake, Berlin’s song “Alexander's Ragtime Band” (1911) topped the charts and sold more than 1 million copies of sheet music. Although it wasn’t an authentic ragtime song, it inspired people across the world to hit the dance floor. Over the decades, different singers including Ray Charles recorded versions of the song.

5. “WHEN I LOST YOU” WAS ABOUT THE DEATH OF HIS NEW WIFE.

In 1912, Berlin married Dorothy Goetz, but his new wife caught typhoid fever on their honeymoon in Cuba and died five months later. He wrote his first ballad, “When I Lost You,” about the experience: “I lost the sunshine and roses / I lost the heavens of blue / I lost the beautiful rainbow… When I lost you.” The song sold more than 1 million copies.

6. HE WROTE PATRIOTIC SONGS IN WWI AND WWII.

In 1917, during World War I, the U.S. Army drafted Berlin to write patriotic songs. In order to raise funds for a community building on his Long Island army base, he wrote Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, a popular musical revue performed by actual soldiers that later went to various theaters around New York. It included the popular song "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," which Berlin sang at each performance.

During World War II, Berlin wrote This Is The Army, which became a Broadway musical and 1943 film starring Ronald Reagan. Berlin chose not to personally profit from the show—he gave all the earnings, over $9.5 million, to the U.S. Army Emergency Relief Fund.

7. HE BOUGHT TRANSPOSING PIANOS DUE TO HIS LACK OF MUSICAL TRAINING.

Despite Berlin’s incredible songwriting success, he was neither classically trained nor educated in music theory. He only knew how to play the piano in F sharp, so in order to write songs that didn’t all sound the same, he bought transposing keyboards. These special keyboards changed the key, allowing him to play the same notes but produce different sounds. Berlin also paid music secretaries who notated and transcribed his music.

8. HIS INTERFAITH MARRIAGE GENERATED CONTROVERSY.


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In 1925, Berlin met and fell in love with a Roman Catholic debutante named Ellin Mackay. Her father, a financier named Clarence Mackay, disapproved of Berlin because he was Jewish. The couple’s interfaith relationship attracted major press attention, and Mackay’s father reportedly disowned her when she married him in a secret ceremony in 1926. One biographer noted that though Irving was Jewish and Ellin was Catholic, their three daughters were raised Protestant, "largely because Ellin was in favor of religious tolerance." Mackay’s father came around several years later, and the Berlins were together for 62 years until Ellin's death in 1988. He died the following year at age 101.

9. HE GAVE ALL ROYALTIES FOR “GOD BLESS AMERICA” TO THE BOY AND GIRL SCOUTS.

Although Berlin originally wrote “God Bless America” during WWI for Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, he didn’t use the song until 1938. Through its lyrics, Berlin expressed his gratitude to America for giving him everything, and “God Bless America” became an instantly recognizable, patriotic song.

He decided that 100 percent of the song’s royalties would go to the Boy and Girl Scouts and the Campfire Girls. Thanks to Berlin’s God Bless America Fund, which assigned royalties from “God Bless America” (plus his other patriotic songs) to the Scouts, the organizations have received millions of dollars over the years.

10. HE COMPOSED ANNIE GET YOUR GUN AFTER HIS FRIEND’S SUDDEN DEATH.

In 1945, composer Jerome Kern (best known for Show Boat) started working on the score for a new Rodgers and Hammerstein-produced musical, Annie Get Your Gun. But when Kern died unexpectedly within a week of starting to write, Berlin took over scoring duties. Berlin’s music and lyrics for the musical, which included songs such as “There's No Business Like Show Business” and “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” helped make Annie Get Your Gun a massive success.

11. ALTHOUGH “WHITE CHRISTMAS” IS HIS BIGGEST HIT, CHRISTMAS WAS A TRAGIC TIME FOR BERLIN.

“White Christmas” has become a Christmas classic, selling more than 100 million copies. But Christmas was a time of sadness for Berlin and his wife: their only son, also named Irving, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome on Christmas Day in 1928. The baby was three weeks old when he died, and the Berlins, along with their three other children, mourned his death each holiday season.

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