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10 Obscure References in Classic Rock Songs—Explained!

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We hear some songs so often on the radio that we automatically sing along with them, but how much of what we’re singing do we really understand? (See part one here.)

1. “WE’RE AN AMERICAN BAND,” GRAND FUNK RAILROAD

“Sweet, sweet Connie, doin' her act, She had the whole show and that's a natural fact.”
“Up all night with Freddie King; I got to tell you, poker's his thing.”

Drummer Don Brewer wrote this tune during Grand Funk’s 1972 tour. “Sweet” Connie Hamzy is one of rock ‘n roll’s most notorious groupies, and by her account she’s enjoyed the company of The Who, Neil Diamond, the Allman Brothers, the Eagles, and Led Zeppelin (to name just a few) when they passed through her hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas. Hamzy stated in a 1992 Penthouse article that she’d also gotten up close and personal with Bill Clinton when he was the Governor of The Natural State.

Blues singer Freddie King was Grand Funk’s opening act on that tour, and his regular post-show ritual included a few high-stakes hands of poker.

2. “SWEET HOME ALABAMA,” LYNYRD SKYNYRD

“I hope Neil Young will remember a Southern man don't need him around anyhow”… “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers”

Canadian singer/songwriter Neil Young’s song “Southern Man” (from his 1970 album After the Gold Rush) was highly critical of the American South, making reference to things like cross burnings and cracking bullwhips. Skynyrd didn’t cotton to some bacon-loving francophone disrespecting Dixie and took him to task in their 1974 hit. The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama, was founded in 1969 by a group of backing musicians who called themselves the Swampers. The quartet had defected from the nearby FAME Studios to set up their own studio and they eventually became the first rhythm section to own their own studio, production and publication companies. [Note: Skynyrd was not an "Alabama-based band," as we originally noted.]

3. “BRASS IN POCKET,” THE PRETENDERS

“Got brass in pocket, got bottle, I’m gonna use it”
“Been driving, Detroit leaning”… “Got a new skank, so reet”

Even though lead singer Chrissie Hynde grew up in Akron, Ohio, she picked up some local slang when she moved to London in 1973 to form a new band. “Brass in pocket” is British slang for money (it originally referred to the color of the gold coins), and “bottle” means courage. The “Detroit lean” refers to the Motown habit of driving with one hand on the steering wheel while slouching slightly to the right. “Skanking” is a dance step in which the body moves from side to side, and “reet” means cool, or righteous.

4. “IT’S STILL ROCK AND ROLL TO ME,” BILLY JOEL

“Maybe I should buy some old tab collars?” … “How about a pair of pink sidewinders and a bright orange pair of pants? You could really be a Beau Brummel, baby”

Joel’s tribute to substance over style hit number one in the summer of 1980. The lyrics mention all sorts of trends, both in fashion and music, beginning with a classic tab-collared shirt. This style of men’s dress shirt has two small fabric tabs in the middle of the collar points that are meant to connect to push the tie knot up and out. Sidewinders are a style of slip-on shoe: Some were sneakers, and others were more dressy leather loafers, but the pink variety more likely referred to the canvas-topped version. George “Beau” Brummell was the arbiter of men’s fashion in Regency England. He is credited with making trousers (as opposed to knee breeches and stockings) standard wear, along with a crisp, ironed shirt, tailored suitcoat and knotted necktie.

5. “KILLER QUEEN,” QUEEN

“She keeps a Moët et Chandon in her pretty cabinet”

Freddie Mercury has said that this 1974 hit was about a “high-class call girl,” so it makes sense that she would keep a bottle of very expensive champagne in her liquor cabinet. The Moët et Chandon winery was established in 1743 and currently holds a Royal Warrant to supply their bubbly to Queen Elizabeth II.

6. “DOWN ON THE CORNER,” CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL

“Blinky thumps the gut bass and solos for a while. Poorboy twangs the rhythm out on his kalamazoo.”

The gut bass as a musical instrument was simply an overturned metal washtub used as a resonator for a broomstick with one or more strings attached to it to make the sound of a bass violin. The Gibson Guitar Corporation was founded in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1902, and for many years the city’s imprint was stamped on all of their guitars and mandolins.

7. “SWEET EMOTION,” AEROSMITH

“Tellin' other things, but your girlfriend lied; Can't catch me cause the rabbit done died.”

Until home pregnancy tests became commonplace, a woman had to make an appointment with a doctor to determine whether or not she was with child. The standard method was the so-called “rabbit test,” which involved the doctor injecting the patient’s urine into the ovaries of a female rabbit and then waiting 48 hours or more for the telltale changes which signaled the presence of the hCG hormone. Of course, the phrase “the rabbit died” itself was a misnomer because, regardless of the outcome, the bunny was already deceased prior to its ovaries being removed for testing purposes. But the phrase was commonly used, and it worked lyrically in this case to indicate that just because Girlfriend was in a family way, Boyfriend could not automatically assume that Steven Tyler was the father.

8. “WRAPPED AROUND YOUR FINGER,” THE POLICE

“You consider me the young apprentice caught between the Scylla and Charybdis.”

“Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis” is a fancy-schmancy way of saying “between a rock and a hard place” if you’re a student of Greek mythology. According to Homer’s Odyssey, Scylla and Charybdis were two sea monsters who lived within an arrow shot’s distance on opposite sides of a strait that was an important means of passage for sailors of that era.

9. “JACK AND DIANE,” JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP

“Let's run off behind a shady tree, dribble off those Bobbie Brooks let me do what I please.”

The “let me do what I please,” added to the stealth of doing so behind a tree, makes it fairly obvious that the singer has less than noble intentions. If any further evidence was needed for his motives, let the record show that Bobbie Brooks was and is the name of a clothing line that was founded in 1939. Their most popular and enduring item, though, is a selection of blue jeans that are now sold exclusively at Dollar General stores.

10. “WEREWOLVES OF LONDON,” WARREN ZEVON

“I saw Lon Chaney, Jr. walking with the Queen doing the werewolves of London. I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic's…”

Lon Chaney, born Leonidas Frank Chaney, was a silent film actor who was known for playing “grotesque” characters such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. Thanks to his ability to transform his visage so drastically with makeup, he was known as “The Man of 1000 Faces.” His son carried on the family tradition, playing monsters in many Mummy, Frankenstein, Werewolf and Dracula movies in the 1930s and '40s. Trader Vic’s is a restaurant chain that at one time (during the Tiki craze of the 1950s) had 25 Polynesian-themed upscale eateries worldwide. Founder Victor Bergeron was one of two people who claimed to be the creator of the Mai Tai cocktail.

See part one here.

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‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ Could Have Been a Meat Loaf Song
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Imagine a world in which Bonnie Tyler was not the star performer on the Royal Caribbean Total Eclipse Cruise. Imagine if, instead, as the moon crossed in front of the sun in the path of totality on August 21, 2017, the performer belting out the 1983 hit for cruise ship stargazers was Meat Loaf?

It could have been. Because yes, as Atlas Obscura informs us, the song was originally written for the bestselling rocker (and actor) of Bat Out of Hell fame, not the husky-voiced Welsh singer. Meat Loaf had worked on his 1977 record Bat Out of Hell with Jim Steinman, the composer and producer who would go on to work with the likes of Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand (oddly enough, he also composed Hulk Hogan’s theme song on an album released by the WWE). “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was meant for Meat Loaf’s follow-up album to Bat Out of Hell.

But Meat Loaf’s fruitful collaboration with Steinman was about to end. In the wake of his bestselling record, the artist was going through a rough patch, mentally, financially, and in terms of his singing ability. And the composer wasn’t about to stick around. As Steinman would tell CD Review magazine in 1989 (an article he has since posted on his personal website), "Basically I only stopped working with him because he lost his voice as far as I was concerned. It was his voice I was friends with really.” Harsh, Jim, harsh.

Steinman began working with Bonnie Tyler in 1982, and in 1983, she released her fifth album, Faster Than the Speed of Night, including “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It sold 6 million copies.

Tyler and Steinman both dispute that the song was written specifically for Meat Loaf. “Meat Loaf was apparently very annoyed that Jim gave that to me,” she told The Irish Times in 2014. “But Jim said he didn’t write it for Meat Loaf, that he only finished it after meeting me.”

There isn’t a whole lot of bad blood between the two singers, though. In 1989, they released a joint compilation album: Heaven and Hell.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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17 Electric Facts About MTV Unplugged
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Michael Stipe of R.E.M. goes Unplugged.
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Making its debut in 1989, MTV Unplugged—in which famous musicians perform stripped-down arrangements of their biggest hits—was a hit for both the cable network and the music industry, particularly in the early- to mid-'90s. Though it lost its regular time slot in 1999, in the near-20 years since, a handful of artists have popped in for brief revivals. But now it looks as if Unplugged is ready for a reboot; MTV has announced that the series will be back beginning on September 8, 2017, with Shawn Mendes as its first guest. In the meantime, here's a look behind the scenes of the music series that became a phenomenon.

1. OPINIONS VARY ON WHO CAME UP WITH THE IDEA.

Singer/songwriter Jules Shear has said that he came up with the concept for MTV Unplugged to promote his acoustic album, The Third Party. In 1992, The New York Times wrote that Shear was inspired by Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora's two-song acoustic set at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards.

That's all well and good, but producers Jim Burns and Bob Small claim they got the idea for MTV Unplugged after Bruce Springsteen treated the two—and the thousands of other fans at one of his concerts—to a final encore featuring just himself and his acoustic guitar. (Springsteen would find his way onto Unplugged in 1992.)

Executive producer Joel Gallen has referred to Unplugged as his "baby" as well and, like Shear, was inspired by Bon Jovi and Sambora's VMA set, which he called a "jumping off point." In I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Small said: “Please do not credit Bon Jovi for creating Unplugged. Jon Bon Jovi thinks he was the inspiration for it. He wouldn’t even do the f***ing show until almost 20 years later.”

2. BOTH HBO AND PBS SAID NO.

HBO passed on Unplugged when Shear proposed the concept to the pay channel. Burns and Small pitched the series to PBS after MTV initially said no. PBS simply echoed MTV and HBO. It was only when Burns and Small ally Judy McGrath got a promotion at MTV that a pilot got a greenlight.

3. IT WAS A CHEAP PILOT TO SHOOT.

Bob Small said he had just four hours to set up for the Unplugged pilot, with another four hours to film it—and all on a budget of $18,000. "I couldn't get money to hire a director," Small said. "They said, 'You direct it.'"

4. THERE WAS A HOST FOR THE FIRST 13 EPISODES.

None other than Jules Shear was the undisputed master of ceremonies for the first season. He also joined in on some songs.

5. THE FIRST GUESTS DIDN'T QUITE GRASP THE CONCEPT OF UNPLUGGED.

Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford from Squeeze were the stars of the first episode, which aired on November 26, 1989. But they were unprepared. "Chris and Glenn showed up for rehearsal with electric guitars," Alex Coletti, who would end up producing the show through 2001, recalled. "I said: 'Very funny, guys. Where are the acoustics? It’s Unplugged.' They looked at each other and went, 'Riiight… Make a phone call, quick!'"

6. PRODUCERS SCRAMBLED TO GIVE JOE WALSH ACTUAL FRIENDS.

"The fifth episode was billed as Joe Walsh and Friends, and Joe showed up with only one friend—Ricky, his bass player," Coletti remembered. "We thought it meant his famous friends, but apparently that got lost in translation." Walsh had been a member of The Eagles, who had an infamous falling-out, but Walsh's claim of buddies gave MTV employees false hope. Producer Bruce Leddy found Dr. John recording at a neighboring studio and convinced him to come on and be Walsh's "friend."

7. DON HENLEY WAS NOT HAPPY THAT WALSH PLAYED "DESPERADO."

Walsh's former Eagles bandmate wrote "Desperado," as well as a three-page fax explaining to MTV that he didn't want Walsh to play it and he was refusing permission to air the performance. It was after the fax that the network invited Henley to come on the show himself to perform it. Henley was the first artist to get an entire half-hour on his own as the only artist, which quickly became the status quo for Unplugged. In 1994, when The Eagles reunited, they appeared on an MTV Unplugged special.

8. LL COOL J HAD NEVER WORKED WITH A LIVE BAND BEFORE.

The first Unplugged featuring rap artists took place in 1991. Pop's Cool Love backed LL Cool J, MC Lyte, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest. “[It’s like] you drink milk for 10 years and then [you have to] drink fruit punch,” Quest's Q-Tip said about performing with the band. “It’s not that the fruit is bad, but you have to get used to it.”

But LL seemed able to adapt. "We rehearsed the night before and LL Cool J had never worked with a live band," Coletti said. "Before long, he was calling the shots like he'd been doing it his whole life."

9. LL COOL J KNOWS YOU SAW HIS DEODORANT.

"People have teased me about the deodorant for years, but I love it," he said. "It was raw! It was nasty! At least you know I wasn’t stinking.”

10. PAUL MCCARTNEY WAS THE FIRST ARTIST TO OFFICIALLY RELEASE HIS UNPLUGGED SET.

Before Paul McCartney, no other Unplugged artist body had thought to release their acoustic set as an album. But after he performed in 1991, the former Beatle was worried about it getting out to the masses illegally. “I figured that as Unplugged would be screened around the world there was every chance that some bright spark would tape the show and turn it into a bootleg, so we decided to bootleg the show ourselves," he admitted. "We heard the tapes in the car driving back. By the time we got home, we’d decided we’d got an album—albeit one of the fastest I’ve ever made.” He even titled the live performance collection Unplugged (The Official Bootleg).

11. ERIC CLAPTON WAS HESITANT TO RELEASE HIS SHOW AS AN ALBUM.

"Slowhand" performed to acclaim in 1992, but he initially didn't think it was good enough to be released officially as a CD. So naturally, his live album Unplugged won the Grammy for Album of the Year. His "Tears in Heaven" performance in particular won Song and Record of the Year. Two years later, Tony Bennett followed suit, winning the 1994 Album of the Year prize for his time on the show.

12. NEIL YOUNG WALKED OUT ON HIMSELF.

Neil Young's Unplugged was supposed to have been taped at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York on December 12, 1992. Instead, on that night—at that venue—the audience saw something they would probably never forget: Neil Young walking out the door after numerous mistakes. The "stunned" crew members managed to get him to come back to try again that night. Young opted to junk the performance entirely, and tried again two months later—this time with a band, and with much more success.

13. TORI AMOS WALKED OUT, TOO.

Amos was thrown off and "couldn't harness the energy." But unlike Young, she was able to walk back onstage, perform, and not have to try again with another set on a different night. As the singer/songwriter remembered it, she and her manager paced "beneath the MTV thing" backstage thinking about the problem. "Then my [lighting director] came down and said, 'Something just doesn't feel right. I can’t put my finger on it,'" Amos told Worstgig.com. "For 700 shows over the five years (prior to that), I'd played with the lights down. So all the lights were up to catch the audience and I felt like somebody was watching me take a shower. So they dimmed the lights, I felt better. By that point because I'd made the choice to stop it and make some changes, I felt like I began again. And I turned the whole show around."

14. ALEX COLETTI FOUGHT TO CUT "THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD" FROM NIRVANA'S EPISODE.

"Maybe I shouldn't give this secret away, but I built a fake box out in front of the amp to make it look like a monitor wedge," Coletti admitted to Guitar World in 1995. "It's an acoustic guitar, but he's obviously going through an amp," he added, talking about the now iconic David Bowie cover. "I actually fought pretty hard to leave that song out [of the final edit of the show], because I felt it wasn't as genuine as the rest of the songs. But I'm a huge Bowie fan, so I couldn't fight too hard against the song."

15. DAVE GROHL WAS ALMOST UNINVITED TO NIRVANA'S SHOW.

The Nirvana drummer remembered that it was a minor miracle that the band's Unplugged performance went so well. “That show was supposed to be a disaster,” Grohl said. “We hadn’t rehearsed. We weren’t used to playing acoustic. We did a few rehearsals and they were terrible. Everyone thought it was horrible. Even the people from MTV thought it was horrible. Then we sat down and the cameras started rolling and something clicked. It became one of the band’s most memorable performances.”

As Coletti told it, Kurt Cobain was thinking of just replacing Grohl behind the kit, or maybe not using a drummer at all. “What I didn’t know was up until the day [of the Unplugged performance], there was talk of Dave [Grohl] not playing at all in the show,” the producer revealed in 2014. “Kurt wasn’t happy with the way rehearsals were going; he didn’t like the way Dave sounded playing drums with sticks."

But Grohl turned up the day of filming, and Coletti gifted him some brushes and sizzle sticks to give his drumming a softer sound. "I was afraid Dave would just roll his eyes, like, 'Oh great, the a**hole from MTV is trying to be my friend,'" the producer remembered thinking. "But instead he opened the package and said, 'Cool, I've never had brushes before. I've never even tried using them.'" The album Unplugged in New York won the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album in 1996. It was the band's lone Grammy win.

16. YES, THEY TRIED TO GET ROBERT PLANT AND JIMMY PAGE TO PLAY "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN."

The Led Zeppelin bandmates reunited in 1994 for the Unplugged special: No Quarter: Robert Plant and Jimmy Page Unledded, which at the time was the highest-rated episode of the series ever. MTV suggested they film it in Queens, New York. Plant suggested Morocco and Wales because it was where he wrote "Kashmir" and "Down by the Seaside," respectively. Network executives explicitly requested "Stairway" but were shot down. "I think we're in a disposable world and 'Stairway to Heaven' is one of the things that hasn't quite been thrown away yet," Plant said in 1994. "I think radio stations should be asked not to play it for 10 years, just to leave it alone for a bit so we can tell whether it's any good or not."

17. LIAM GALLAGHER HECKLED HIS BROTHER.

Oasis lead vocalist Liam Gallagher backed out of the Royal Festival Hall gig in London at the last minute due to a "sore throat," so songwriter/guitarist/brother Noel took over the vocal duties. Noel would later disclose that Liam in fact appeared an hour before showtime "sh*tfaced," and when he tried to sing it sounded "f**king dreadful." Liam watched the performance from the balcony and at times jeered the band. Noel told him to shut up. Coletti thought it was all for the best. "There's something when the songwriter himself sings it. Maybe he's a little more connected to the song."

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