Getty Images
Getty Images

10 Obscure References in Classic Rock Songs—Explained!

Getty Images
Getty Images

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios