15 Songs That Came From Dreams


It doesn’t seem fair that some musicians can become so well versed in their craft that they can actually tap into their own subconscious to dream up parts—or the entirety—of a new song to add to their already impressive catalogs. But here are 15 examples of famous musicians who did just that.


Paul McCartney awoke one night, went from his bed to a nearby piano, and played one of the most covered songs in music history for the very first time anywhere. He spent months asking people if they had heard the tune before, believing that he must have unconsciously plagiarized the tune from someone. Once he determined that he had indeed come up with it on his own, he started to work on the lyrics.


Keith Richards came up with the legendary riff and the words “I can’t get no satisfaction” after waking up in the middle of the night and recording it onto a cassette tape (before falling back to sleep). The band was worried that the hook sounded too similar to “Dancing in the Street,” but went ahead and recorded it in a studio anyway.


Hendrix once told an interviewer that "Purple Haze" was based on a dream of his in which he walked under the sea before a purple haze surrounded him. In another interview, he said the song came to him in a dream after reading a sci-fi novel, believed to be Philip José Farmer’s book Night of Light.

4. THE BEATLES // "LET IT BE" (1970)

Paul McCartney’s mother, Mary, died when he was just 14 years old. As The Beatles were on the verge of breaking up, Paul had a dream “between deep sleep and insomnia” about Mary, who reassuringly told him to “let it be.” The next day he started writing the song on his piano.

5. JOHN LENNON // "#9 DREAM" (1974)

McCartney wasn’t the only Beatle to turn dreams into music (though he was the only one to do it while the band was still together). After hearing "Ah! böwakawa poussé, poussé” in a dream, John Lennon turned the gibberish into the chorus for this solo tune, which peaked at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.


The lyrics to this eight-plus-minute number came from guitarist Brian May’s fever dreams while dealing with hepatitis (from a tainted needle). It’s the longest song with lyrics that Queen ever recorded.


The 12-part instrumental came from guitarist Alex Lifeson’s nightmares. Lifeson was known for his vivid bad dreams while the band was on tour, and would wake up his bandmates describing them.


Sting woke up in the middle of the night with the line "Every breath you take, I’ll be watching you" in his head. He went to his piano and wrote the song in 30 minutes.


Rundgren claimed that most of this song, including the entire chorus, came to him in a dream. He hurried to his recording studio to record everything he remembered hearing.


After dreaming up the song, Costello recorded it on a cassette player in his kitchen. Since there was no guitar around for the demo, he slapped the counter to accompany his voice.


The lyrics came from a dream Michael Stipe had where he was at a party similar to one he had attended when he was 19 years old in New York City. In the dream party, all of the attendees had the initials L.B. (Lester Bangs, Lenny Bruce, Leonard Bernstein), and like in real life, the only food was cheesecake and jelly beans.


Joel woke up one day singing what would become the title track to his 1993 album, and it “wouldn’t go away.” He took it as a sign that he should work on it.


Cash had a dream that he met with Queen Elizabeth, who told him he was like a thorn bush caught in a whirlwind. When he read something similar in the Book of Revelation years later, he was inspired to write a song about it. The idea to use mariachi horns in “Ring of Fire” also came to the musician while he was sleeping.


Brandon Flowers dreamed of Kurt Cobain singing on a floating ship. He sounded like Bob Dylan, and the melody he was singing became the melody to “Enterlude.”


While sleeping in a camper van in Germany, Florence Welch was visited by her deceased grandmother in a dream. The singer remembered holding onto her grandmother’s legs and crying as she gave her life advice, then translated the experience into song.

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.

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.


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