Some song meanings are fairly obvious; for example, everyone pretty much figured that Gordon Lightfoot was singing about a vessel that sank in Lake Superior in “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” But some references aren’t as obvious unless you know the backstory.
1. "MacArthur Park"
When actor Richard Harris recorded a 7-plus minute version of this Jimmy Webb song in 1968, it went to number two on the Billboard pop chart in the U.S. Ten years later, Donna Summer’s disco version of the tune went all the way to number one. Despite all this success, the record was voted into the top spot in humorist Dave Barry’s 1992 Bad Song Survey. Part of the reason for this “honor” was the song's rather flowery lyrics, particularly this infamous passage: “MacArthur Park is melting in the dark, all the sweet green icing flowing down; Someone left a cake out in the rain, I don’t think that I can take it, ‘cause it took so long to bake it, and I’ll never have that recipe again…” Composer Jimmy Webb used to spend a lot of time at San Francisco’s MacArthur Park…in fact, his girlfriend at the time, Susan Ronstadt, worked right across the street from it, so the couple used to meet there frequently for lunch. After Ronstadt went off and married another man, Webb would go to the park to watch all the happy folks picnicking while he wallowed in his misery. One afternoon Webb casually sat by and observed a birthday party in the park, and a sudden cloudburst soaked an elaborately decorated cake that had been set out. Inspiration struck and a tortured metaphor was born.
2. "The Weight"
This single by The Band only went as high as #63 when it was released in 1968, but since then, it has become a classic rock staple. Although the mention of Nazareth in the opening line has led many listeners to believe the song has Biblical allusions, the town being referred to is actually Nazareth, Pennsylvania, home of the Martin Guitar Factory. Crazy Chester was the town eccentric, who would come into Fayetteville, Arkansas, on Saturday nights when Band member Levon Helm was a teen wearing twin cap guns on a holster and assured everyone that things were safe because he was “on the job.” Young Anna Lee was Anna Lee Williams, a childhood friend of Helm's from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, who later still home cooked Southern staples such as cornbread and fried green tomatoes whenever Helm came to visit.
3. "Smoke on the Water"
On December 4, 1971, British heavy metal band Deep Purple rented the Rolling Stones' mobile recording studio at the Montreux Casino, a large entertainment complex on the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were playing a concert that night in the building’s theatre, and during the keyboard solo on “King Kong,” someone in the audience fired either a flare gun or a bottle rocket into the air, causing the rattan-covered ceiling to catch fire. One of Zappa’s roadies used an equipment case to smash a plate glass window in order to provide another escape route other than the narrow front door. Fortunately, there were no fatalities and only minor injuries. Purple had to find another location to record Machine Head, but they did end up with a hit song from the debacle.
4. "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)"
The story behind this Aerosmith song has changed over the years, and most of the revisions seem to come from Steven Tyler and Vince Neil, since the original tale doesn’t paint either in the most flattering light. But back when “Dude” was first released, Neil’s Mötley Crüe bandmates gleefully recounted in several interviews that their blond lead singer was the inspiration for the song. It seems that Tyler had spotted Neil across the room in a bar one late night and was about to comment on the attractive female when, on closer inspection, he discovered that said woman was actually a man with bleached, teased hair and carefully applied make-up. Steven joked to his pals “that dude looks like a lady” and that quickly became the catch-phrase around their table for the rest of that evening.
5. "Sylvia’s Mother"
This Shel Silverstein composition was a hit in 1972 for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, who went on to have a string of hits in the 1970s and who did, by the way, eventually land on the cover of Rolling Stone. While many of Silverstein’s compositions were of the upbeat-bordering-on-novelty persuasion (“A Boy Named Sue,” “The Unicorn”), this entry was a heartfelt ballad based on a true story. Silverstein had been madly in love with Sylvia Pandolfi, and she broke his heart when she ended their relationship and got involved with another man. Silverstein had heard that Sylvia was engaged to be married and he called her from a pay phone (hence the operator asking for him to insert more coins; that’s how long-distance calls worked back in the day) to pledge his undying love one last time before she took her vows. Sylvia’s mother answered the phone and had a rather brusque conversation with Shel because she was not at all pleased that her daughter was busy packing in order to run off to Mexico to get married.
6. "Cracklin’ Rosie"
The lyrics of Neil Diamond’s first U.S. number one hit seem to indicate that Rosie is a lady of the evening: “Cracklin' Rose, you're a store-bought woman, you make me sing like a guitar hummin'…” But it turns out that the Rosie in question is not a hoochie, but rather hootch. When he was touring through Canada in the late 1960s, Diamond happened to hear about some First Nations tribes where the men outnumbered the women by a large percentage. The men who were left un-coupled on Saturday nights soothed their lonely selves with this special fortified homemade wine, which apparently is closer in flavor to aftershave than a sparkling Paul Masson rosé.
7. "My Sharona"
Sharona Alperin was just 16 years old when Doug Fieger walked into the clothing store where she worked part-time. He was with a girlfriend, but introduced himself to the high school girl anyway and invited her to come see his band, The Knack, at a local showcase they were playing. Fieger dumped his squeeze shortly afterward and began pursuing Sharona, even though he was nine years older than her and she had a steady boyfriend. She began to waver slightly, however, when she dropped in during her lunch hour to hear the band rehearsing and they started playing an unfinished tune that featured her name in the chorus: “my-my-my Sharona.” A year later, Sharona invited Doug home to meet her parents, and once they determined that he was a “nice boy,” they gave their permission to let their 17-year-old tour the world with The Knack. Fieger and Alperin dated for four years, and even though they eventually married other people, they remained friends. She was at his bedside when he succumbed to lung cancer in 2010.
8. "Sweet Caroline"
The inspiration for this Neil Diamond platinum single was a magazine photo of a young girl on her pony. Not just any girl, though, but Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John F. and Jacqueline, who at the time was 4 years old. “It was a picture of a little girl dressed to the nines in her riding gear, next to her pony,” Diamond recalled in 2007. “It was such an innocent, wonderful picture, I immediately felt there was a song in there.”
9. "Me and Bobby McGee"
Bobby’s original last name was “McKee,” and she was a woman. She was the secretary of famed songwriter Boudleaux Bryant, to be precise. Monument Records founder Fred Foster thought the name “Bobby McKee” would sound good in a song title, and he like the added twist that Bobby was actual female. He assigned Kris Kristofferson to the project, who wasn’t accustomed to composing songs in that fashion. He took his inspiration from the 1954 Federico Fellini film La Strada, in which rogue street performer Anthony Quinn purchases a young girl from her mother for 10,000 lire and takes her on the road to play the trumpet for his act. When he tires of her, he abandons her on the side of the road. At least he had the decency to break down years later when he found out that she’d died.
Other than the reference to the shady tree in the back yard, it’s not immediately apparent that Henry Gross’ 1976 number one hit “Shannon” is about a dog. Gross had an Irish Setter named Shannon at the time, but she’s not the subject of the tune—that honor belongs to the recently (at the time) departed Irish Setter that belonged to Beach Boy Carl Wilson. His pooch was also named Shannon, and while Gross was at Wilson’s house jamming one afternoon, Carol got melancholy and confessed that he was still very sad over losing Shannon, who had been struck by a car and killed. When Gross returned home and began working on his next album, his own Setter curled up beside him and the song “wrote itself” in less than half an hour.
11. "Mony Mony"
Tommy James and Ritchie Cordell had the melody, the drum line and most of the lyrics for what they hoped would be a great “party” record, but they were lacking one major component—a title. They wanted a two-syllable girl’s name, since most of the lyrics were about “her” making him “feel alright now,” but none of the names they came up with in the studio seemed to work. They retreated to James’ apartment on New York’s Eighth Avenue and he looked out the window and glimpsed the Mutual of New York sign—MONY, with a dollar sign over the O—blinking, alternately giving the time and the temperature. James had seen the sign hundreds of times, but he actually “noticed” it for the first time that night. It seemed like a funny choice for a name at first, but it hit number one for Tommy James and the Shondells in 1968 and again for Billy Idol in 1987, so it became one of those “laughing all the way to the bank” type of moments.