10 Fascinating Stories Behind Classic Rock Songs You Probably Never Knew
The world's favourite rock stars got inspiration from the strangest of places.
Songs have different meanings to different people, but do you ever wonder what they're really about? Here are some fascinating stories behind famous songs you probably didn't know.
1. The Beatles' "Blackbird" is about a black woman during the civil rights movement
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
Paul McCartney wrote "Blackbird" in 1986, right in the height of the racial tensions in the US (Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated that spring).
"I wrote it in the '60s, when the civil rights movement was at its height," he said in a recent interview. "I liked to think of a blackbird as being a kind of symbol for a black woman."
2. Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" is a tirade against birth control pills
Sheriff John Brown always hated me,
For what, I don't know:
Every time I plant a seed,
He said kill it before it grow
When Bob Marley wrote this song, his girlfriend Esther Anderson was on birth control pills, which Marley thought were sacrilege. Anderson revealed in a 2012 documentary that Marley transformed her doctor into the sheriff in the song, which explains the verse above.
3. Semisonic's "Closing Time" is (partly) about the magic of childbirth
Time for you to go back to the places you will be from.
Now popularly used by bartenders wanting to shoo out their patrons, there's more to this song than meets the eye.
"Partway into the writing of the song, I realised it was also about being born," frontman Dan Wilson tells American Songwriter. "My wife and I were expecting our first kid very soon after I wrote that song. I had birth on the brain, I was struck by what a funny pun it was to be bounced from the womb."
4. Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life" is about a couple on a crystal meth bender
Doing crystal meth
Will lift you up until you break
It won't stop
I won't come down, I keep stock
You'd be forgiven for thinking that this song is nothing more than just another inane pop song from the 90s. But if you stop to listen to the lyrics, it's pretty apparent that the song is all about oral sex and crystal meth.
"We can’t even believe it got onto the radio," Stephan Jenkins tells Rolling Stone. "'Coming over you' is just really what it reports to be: 'She comes around, and she goes down on me.' It’s not cryptic."
5. Paul Simon's “Mother and Child Reunion” was inspired by a Chinese dish
No I would not give no false hope
On this strange and mournful day
But the mother and child reunion
Is only a motion away
Paul Simon recorded the track to "Mother and Child Reunion" before he had the words. And the words came to him in the most unexpected of places.
"I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown," he tells Rolling Stone. "There was a dish called 'Mother and Child Reunion.' It's chicken and eggs. And I said, 'Oh, I love that title. I gotta use that one.'"
6. Donovan's "Mellow Yellow" isn't about smoking bananas — it's about vibrators
Is gonna be a sudden craze
Is bound to be the very next phase
If you thought that this song was about smoking dried banana skins (which people legitimately thought was a hallucinogenic back in the '60s), you're not alone. You'd be wrong, but not alone.
The folk singer told NME magazine: "It's about being cool, laid-back, and also the electrical bananas that were appearing on the scene — which were ladies' vibrators."
7. The Police's "Every Breath You Take" isn't a cute love song
Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I'll be watching you
"Every Breath You Take" is widely regarded as a love song, chosen by couples as Their Song and even played at weddings. But a closer listen to the lyrics is all it takes to see that the song is actually quite sinister — they're not the words of a lover, but a stalker.
Sting wrote the song in 1982, after he separated from actress Frances Tomelty to be with her best friend Trudie Styler. It was a very frowned-upon affair that made him go on a self-imposed exile to the Caribbean, where he wrote the song.
In one interview with the BBC, Sting says, "I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it's quite the opposite."
8. Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" is about Courtney Love's vagina (or so she claims)
Broken hymen of your Highness, I'm left back
Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back
Though Cobain said that the song was about children with cancer, Courtney Love has other ideas. After Lana Del Rey performed the song in 2012, Love insisted that the song was about her vagina.
She has since deleted those tweets, but the internet never forgets.
9. Van Halen's "Jump" is a lot darker than it sounds
Ah, might as well jump (jump)
Might as well jump
Go ahead an' jump (jump)
This song sounds pretty light-hearted, but its origins aren't pretty. David Lee Roth came up with the idea for the lyrics from a news report, as he details in this interview:
“I was watching television one night and it was the five o’clock news and there was a fellow standing on top of the Arco Towers in Los Angeles and he was about to check out early, he was going to do the 33 stories drop — and there was a whole crowd of people in the parking lot downstairs yelling, ‘Don’t jump, don’t jump’ and I thought to myself, ‘Jump.'”
Thankfully, the end product doesn't make one think of a suicide attempt, but about taking a leap of faith.
10. Fastball's "The Way" is based on a tragic true story
The children woke up and they couldn't find 'em
They left before the sun came up that day
They just drove off and left it all behind 'em
Where were they going without ever knowing the way?
The band's frontman Tony Scalzo came up with the song after reading about the disappearance of an elderly couple — Lela and Raymond Howard — who left their home to attend a festival, even though Lela had Alzheimer's and Raymond was recovering from a brain surgery. Their bodies were found two weeks later at the bottom of a ravine, hundreds of miles from their destination.
"It's a romanticized take on what happened," says Scalzo, who says that he "pictured them taking off to have fun, like they did when they first met."