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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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11 Things You Didn't Know About Dolly Parton
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Over the past 50-some years, Dolly Parton has gone from a chipper country starlet to a worldwide icon of music and movies whose fans consistently pack a theme park designed (and named) in her honor. Dolly Parton is loved, lauded, and larger than life. But even her most devoted admirers might not know all there is to this Backwoods Barbie.

1. YOU WON'T FIND HER ON A DOLLYWOOD ROLLER COASTER.

Her theme park Dollywood offers a wide variety of attractions for all ages. Though she's owned it for more than 30 years, Parton has declined to partake in any of its rides. "My daddy used to say, 'I could never be a sailor. I could never be a miner. I could never be a pilot,' I am the same way," she once explained. "I have motion sickness. I could never ride some of these rides. I used to get sick on the school bus."

2. SHE ENTERED A DOLLY PARTON LOOK-ALIKE CONTEST—AND LOST.


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Apparently Parton doesn't do drag well. “At a Halloween contest years ago on Santa Monica Boulevard, where all the guys were dressed up like me, I just over-exaggerated my look and went in and just walked up on stage," she told ABC. "I didn’t win. I didn’t even come in close, I don’t think.”

3. SHE SPENT A FORTUNE TO RECREATE HER CHILDHOOD HOME.

Parton and her 11 siblings were raised in a small house in the mountains of Tennessee that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. When Parton bought the place, she hired her brother Bobby to restore it to the way it looked when they were kids. "But we wanted it to be functional," she recounted on The Nate Berkus Show, "So I spent a couple million dollars making it look like I spent $50 on it! Even like in the bathroom, I made the bathroom so it looked like an outdoor toilet.” You do you, Dolly.

4. SHE WON'T APOLOGIZE FOR RHINESTONE.


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Parton is well-known for her hit movies Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5, less so for the 1984 flop Rhinestone. The comedy musical about a country singer and a New York cabbie was critically reviled and fled from theaters in just four weeks. But while her co-star Sylvester Stallone has publicly regretted the vehicle, Parton declared in her autobiography My Life and Other Unfinished Business that she counts Rhinestone's soundtrack as some of her best work, especially "What a Heartache."

5. SHE IS MILEY CYRUS'S GODMOTHER, SORT OF.

"I'm her honorary godmother. I've known her since she was a baby," Parton told ABC of her close relationship with Miley Cyrus. "Her father (Billy Ray Cyrus) is a friend of mine. And when she was born, he said, 'You just have to be her godmother,' and I said, 'I accept.' We never did do a big ceremony, but I'm so proud of her, love her, and she's just like one of my own." Parton also played Aunt Dolly on Cyrus's series Hannah Montana.

6. SHE RECEIVED DEATH THREATS FROM THE KU KLUX KLAN.

A photo of Dolly Parton on stage
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In the mid-2000s, Dollywood joined the ranks of family amusement parks participating in "Gay Days," a time when families with LGBT members are encouraged to celebrate together in a welcoming community environment. This riled the KKK, but their threats didn't scare Dolly. "I still get threats," she has admitted, "But like I said, I'm in business. I just don't feel like I have to explain myself. I love everybody."

7. TO PROMOTE LITERACY, SHE STARTED HER OWN "LIBRARY."

In 1995, the pop culture icon founded Dolly Parton's Imagination Library with the goal of encouraging literacy in her home state of Tennessee. Over the years, the program—built to mail children age-appropriate books—spread nationwide, as well as to Canada, the UK, and Australia. When word of the Imagination Library hit Reddit, the swarms of parents eager to sign their kids up crashed the Imagination Library site. It is now back on track, accepting new registrations and donations.

8. PARTON'S HOMETOWN HAS A STATUE IN HER HONOR.

A stone's throw from Dollywood, Sevierville, Tennessee is where Parton grew up. Between stimulating tourism and her philanthropy, this proud native has given a lot back to her hometown. And Sevierville residents returned that appreciation with a life-sized bronze Dolly that sits barefoot, beaming, and cradling a guitar, just outside the county courthouse. The sculpture, made by local artist Jim Gray, was dedicated on May 3, 1987. Today it is the most popular stop on Sevierville's walking tour.

9. THE CLONED SHEEP DOLLY WAS NAMED AFTER PARTON.

In 1995 scientists successfully created a clone from an adult mammal's somatic cell. This game-changing breakthrough in biology was named Dolly. But what about Parton inspired this honor? Her own groundbreaking career? Some signature witticism or beloved lyric? Nope. It was her legendary bustline. English embryologist Ian Wilmut revealed, "Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn't think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton's."

10. SHE TURNED DOWN ELVIS.

After Parton made her own hit out of "I Will Always Love You," Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reached out in hopes of having Presley cover it. But part of the deal demanded Parton surrender half of the publishing rights to the song. "Other people were saying, 'You're nuts. It's Elvis Presley. I'd give him all of it!'" Parton admitted, "But I said, 'I can't do that. Something in my heart says don't do that.' And I didn't do it and they didn't do it." It may have been for the best. Whitney Houston's cover for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992 was a massive hit that has paid off again and again for Parton.

11. SHE JUST EARNED TWO GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS.

Parton is no stranger to breaking records. And on January 17, 2018 it was announced that she holds not one but two spot in the Guinness World Records 2018 edition: One for Most Decades With a Top 20 Hit on the US Hot Country Songs Chart (she beat out George Jones, Reba McEntire, and Elvis Presley for the honor) and the other for Most Hits on US Hot Country Songs Chart By a Female Artist (with a total of 107). Parton said she was "humbled and blessed."

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15 Fascinating Facts About David Bowie
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The music industry lost one of its most iconic artists when David Bowie passed away from liver cancer on January 10, 2016. Bowie’s death came as a surprise to music fans around the world, as he kept his diagnosis quiet. Which isn’t all that surprising when you consider the often-elusive nature of Bowie over the years. Here are 15 things you might not have known about David Bowie, on what would have been his 71st birthday.

1. HE CHANGED HIS NAME SO HE WOULDN'T BE CONFUSED WITH THE MONKEES’S DAVY JONES.

David Bowie was born in London on January 8, 1947 as David Robert Jones. But as he readied to embark on his musical career as a teen, there was a problem: Davy Jones, the lead singer of The Monkees, was already a known quantity in the music industry, and the aspiring artist was afraid they might be confused. So David Jones changed his name to David Bowie.

In 1967, 14-year-old Sandra Dodd sent Bowie what would be his first fan letter from America, in which she asked him about his name. Bowie quipped: “In answer to your questions, my real name is David Jones and I don’t have to tell you why I changed it. ‘Nobody’s going to make a monkey out of you’ said my manager.”

2. NO, HIS EYES ARE NOT TWO DIFFERENT COLORS.

While people often claim that Bowie had heterochromia, a genetic condition that results in having two different colored eyes, that is incorrect. Both of his eyes are blue; the ocular oddity that you do notice is what is known as aniscoria, or a permanently dilated pupil—which happened when Bowie was 15 years old and got into a fight with his friend, George Underwood, over a girl. "I was so aggrieved I walked over to him, basically, turned him around and went 'whack' without even thinking," Underwood explained. (His fingernail sliced into Bowie’s eye.)

Fortunately, there were no hard feelings; the two later collaborated on an album as The King Bees and Underwood went on to design the album covers for some of Bowie’s most famous records, including The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

3. THAT WASN’T THE ONLY TIME BOWIE'S EYE TOOK A BEATING.

In 2004, while performing in Oslo, Norway, a “fan” threw a lollipop onto the stage, which somehow managed to strike Bowie in the eye—and get stuck. A member of his crew was able to remove it, and Bowie went on with the concert. Rebel rebel indeed.

4. HE WAS BOYHOOD FRIENDS WITH PETER FRAMPTON.

Despite Bowie being more than three years older than Peter Frampton, the two struck up a friendship as youngsters. Both attended Bromley Technical High School, where Frampton’s dad was Bowie’s art teacher. The two shared a unique bond over music, and remained close friends until Bowie’s death. "He really introduced me, along with George Underwood, to Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, people I wasn't aware of at that age," Frampton once said of his childhood friend. The two would collaborate a number of times over the years.

5. BOWIE AND ELTON JOHN WERE PALS AS TEENS, TOO.

Back in their teens—when Bowie was still known as David Jones and Elton John went by Reginald Kenneth Dwight—the two future rock icons became quick friends and would frequently get together to talk about music. But shortly after Bowie’s death, John admitted that they had a falling out and hadn’t talked much in about 40 years.

“David and I were not the best of friends towards the end,” John said. “We started out being really good friends. We used to hang out together with Marc Bolan, going to gay clubs, but I think we just drifted apart. He once called me ‘rock ’n’ roll’s token queen’ in an interview with Rolling Stone, which I thought was a bit snooty. He wasn’t my cup of tea. No; I wasn’t his cup of tea.”

6. AS A TEEN, HE FOUNDED THE SOCIETY FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO LONG-HAIRED MEN.

In 1964, when he was just 17 years old, Bowie formed The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men, an organization aimed at protesting the treatment that he and other men with long hair received on the streets of London. He took the matter seriously, as you can see from the BBC interview above.

That BBC spot led to an interview with the London Evening News, where Bowie explained that the organization was “really for the protection of pop musicians and those who wear their hair long. Anyone who has the courage to wear their hair down to his shoulders has to go through hell. It’s time we were united and stood up for our curls.”

7. HIS FIRST HIT, “SPACE ODDITY,” WAS PERFECTLY TIMED.

On July 11, 1969, Bowie released the single “Space Oddity.” The timing could not have been more perfect. Nine days after its release, the BBC ran the song over its coverage of Apollo 11’s lunar landing. It would end up being his first big hit in the UK.

8. HIS BROTHER WAS A MAJOR INSPIRATION FOR HIS MUSIC.

In 1985, Bowie’s half-brother Terry Burns, who battled mental health issues throughout his life, escaped from the hospital where he had been admitted and killed himself. In Nicholas Pegg's The Complete David Bowie, the writer reveals that Burns had quite an impact on Bowie’s writing. He was reportedly the inspiration for a number of his songs, including “Aladdin Sane,” “All the Madmen,” and “Jump They Say.”

9. BEING ZIGGY STARDUST LED HIM TO QUESTION HIS SANITY.

3rd July 1973: David Bowie performs his final concert as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon, London. The concert later became known as the Retirement Gig
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Though Bowie had many alter egos over the years, Ziggy Stardust was the most famous of them. From 1972 to 1973 he toured in character as the glam rock persona until he abruptly announced that he would be retiring Ziggy during a concert in 1973. “Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it's the last show that we'll ever do,” Bowie said of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

He later admitted that Ziggy “wouldn't leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to go sour ... My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity."

10. FOR A TIME, HE FEARED A WIZARD MIGHT STEAL HIS URINE.

Four years after his Ziggy Stardust period, Bowie became the Thin White Duke. It was during this period that he struggled with both drug and emotional problems. In David Buckley’s book, Strange Fascination: David Bowie—The Definitive Story, the author wrote that by 1975, Bowie was "living a cocooned existence [in Los Angeles], disconnected from the real world.” He was apparently subsisting on a diet of peppers and milk, and exhibited some truly strange behaviors—like keeping his urine in his refrigerator so that "no other wizard could use it to enchant him.”

11. HE WAS A BIT OF A FUTURIST.

Not only was Bowie ahead of his time when it came to his art, but he also seemed to foretell the rise of the internet. In 1999, while discussing a newfangled invention known as the world wide web with Jeremy Paxman of the BBC, the host suggests that the internet’s potential has been “hugely exaggerated.” Bowie was quick to make it clear that he didn’t agree. “I really embrace the idea that there’s a new demystification process between the artist and the audience,” Bowie said “The interplay between the user and the provider will be so in sympatico it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.”

12. HE WAS A PIONEER OF MUSIC STREAMING.

In September 1996, Bowie became the first major artist to release a single via internet download only with “Telling Lies.” It took about 11 minutes to download. (Times have changed.) That was just the beginning: In 1998, Bowie announced that he’d be launching his own internet service provider, known as BowieNet.

13. HE WAS A VORACIOUS READER.

May 1973: In a black and white horizontally striped jacket with wide lapels glam rock star David Bowie
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While he was mostly known for his musical output, Bowie was a major bookworm who often read a book a day. In 2013, the curators at the Art Gallery of Ontario compiled a list of the artist’s 100 favorite books as part of an exhibition, “David Bowie Is.” It was an eclectic list, encompassing everything from Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz to Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary to Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.

14. HIS SON RECENTLY CREATED A BOOK CLUB IN BOWIE’S HONOR.

In late December, Bowie’s son—filmmaker Duncan Jones—announced via Twitter that he would be paying tribute to his father’s love of reading with an online-based book club.

The club will kick off with Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, and the conversation will begin on February 1.

15. A LOCK OF HIS HAIR SOLD FOR $18,750.

In June 2016, just a few months after the singer’s passing, a lock of Bowie’s hair—which had been snipped in 1983 by a wig mistress at Madame Tussauds in London—went up for auction as part of Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Signature Auction held by Heritage Auctions and sold for a hair-raising $18,750.

“David Bowie changed music forever and fans are hungry for related precious objects that bring them closer to their favorite musician," Margaret Barrett, Heritage’s director of entertainment and music auctions, said at the time. "What brings you closer than a lock of hair?" (The bidding started at $2000 and early estimates thought it might only go as high as $4000.)

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