Derek and the Dominoes and ‘Layla’. ‘Layla’ was a pseudonym to disguise Eric Clapton’s infatuation with his best friend’s wife, Pattie Boyd.
Don Mclean – ‘American Pie’
Don Mclean loved to write a tune about the famous and deceased whenever he got the opportunity; the lyric “the day the music died” from ‘American Pie’ has become synonymous with the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly. And if you liked that one then lend your ear to his Van Gogh tribute, ‘Vincent’.
Roberta Flack – ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song’
Give and you shall receive, because folk pop’s great biographer Don Mclean is the subject of a classic himself – Roberta Flack’s ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song’. The original, written and performed by Lori Lieberman, was written with Mclean in mind. ‘I’m absolutely amazed,’ said Mclean, when the story behind the song was revealed to him.
OMD – ‘Joan of Arc’
Joan d’arc has been the subject of many a song over the centuries, and continues to inspire artists in the modern era from The Smiths to (you suspect) Savages. Not bad for a 15th century peasant girl and teenage terroriser de l’anglais whose life was cut short at the tender age of 19. OMD’s 1981 hit ‘Joan of Arc’ might just be the best song yet written in her honour.
Serge Gainsbourg – ‘Initials B.B.’
Brigitte Bardot once asked Serge Gainsbourg to write her the most beautiful song he could think of, so he wrote two – ‘Je t’aime (moi non plus’) and ‘Bonnie & Clyde’. Serge couldn’t get over Bardot after she dumped him, and wrote ‘Initials B.B.’, yet another stone cold classic. Thankfully the singer stopped moping when he met muse Jane Birkin soon after.
REM – ‘Man on the Moon’
Andy Kaufman played expat eastern European mechanic Latka Gravas in American comedy Taxi, while his comedic persona outside of the show was purportedly outrageous. He was the subject of a biopic ‘Man On The Moon’ starring Courtney Love and Jim Carrey, and REM provided the theme tune of the same name (one of the finest moments of their later career).
Oasis – ‘Little James’
Liam Gallagher’s first stab at songwriting came in the ode to his then wife Patsy Kensit’s little boy James, called appropriately enough, ‘Little James’. It may not rank among Oasis’ greatest ever anthems, but it exhibited a rare tender side to Liam that few of us would have imaged during the Britpop wars.
Oasis – ‘Cast No Shadow’
Liam isn’t the only one in Oasis who has written songs in tribute to others, with Noel’s ‘Cast No Shadow’ dedicated to – and thought to be about – Richard Ashcroft, or “Mad” Richard as he was known back then by his friends.
The Smiths – ‘Frankly Mr. Shankly’
If you thought Morrissey’s apparent barbed and hilarious sleight on Rough Trade label boss Geoff Travis’ poetry was the final word on their difficult relationship, then you can think again. Stephen Patrick’s autobiography (‘Autobiography’) mentions him a number of times.
David Bowie – ‘Jean Genie’
Iggy Pop became a big part of the Bowie story, and the mythology of the man is no better described than in the lyrics to ‘Jean Genie’ (does someone who “ate all your razors while pulling the waiters” sound like someone you’d be friends with? Of course!). Ingeniously the title comes from a pun on Jean Genet, the controversial French novelist.
David Bowie – ‘Song For Bob Dylan’
David Bowie is no stranger to writing about people he admires, and on ‘Hunky Dory’ there’s the incredible ‘Andy Warhol’ and the really-not-too-bad-either ‘Song For Bob Dylan’, where he memorably describes Robert Zimmerman as having a “voice like sand and glue”.
Simon and Garfunkel – ‘The Boxer’
Few artists of the 20th century have had more written about them than Bob Dylan – whether that be books, articles or songs. But is there a tune out there about Dylan more gorgeous or classic than Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer’? Bob certainly enjoyed it, returning the compliment by quickly covering it himself on his 1970 ‘Self Portrait’ album.
Bob Dylan – ‘The Hurricane’
Bob Dylan turned the focus of one of his songs onto the wrongfully jailed middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and the memorable protest song has endured as one of Dylan’s classics. The Hurricane’s conviction was quashed nearly 20 years into his sentence in 1985, and Carter himself died earlier this year.
The Rolling Stones – ‘Brown Sugar’
The Rolling Stones’ classic ‘Brown Sugar’ elicits a number of eyebrow-raising interpretations – two of which being references to the slave trade and the slang for heroin. But the inspiration for the song initially came from Mick Jagger’s then lover Marsha Hunt: American singer, actress and novelist.
Elton John – ‘Candle in the Wind’
Before Princess Di died and a mawkish rendering of ‘Candle in the Wind’ was rush-released to become the best-selling single of all time, Elton John had another version of the song in his locker, about Marilyn Monroe. ‘Goodbye Norma Jean’ (Monroe’s real name) became ‘Goodbye England’s rose’, and all perspective was lost in a mad few weeks in 1997.
Paul McCartney – ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’
Few songs are as powerfully soulful or touching as ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, a song Paul McCartney wrote to his then new wife Linda, who helped him through his messy divorce from The Beatles. It’s been covered a number of times since, famously by Carlene Anderson, and less so by Dave Grohl in duet with Norah Jones…
The Beatles – ‘A Day in the Life’
The centre-piece of ‘Sgt Pepper…’, few songs capture the imagination like John Lennon’s ‘A Day In The Life’ (we’re not forgetting Macca’s magnificent bridge, but it’s Lennon’s song really). He found unlikely inspiration from The Daily Mail, reporting a car crash involving 21-year-old Guinness heir Tara Browne in Earl’s Court.
John Lennon – How Do You Sleep?
More on that bitter Beatles split, and Lennon took some lines from McCartney’s ‘Too Many People’ to heart and launched a scathing attack back with ‘How Do You Sleep?’. “The only thing you done was yesterday,” spat Lennon in a barely cryptic rebuttal to his former songwriting partner. Thankfully the pair patched it up before Lennon was assassinated in 1980.
Paul McCartney – ‘Hey Jude’
Towards the end of The Beatles, Paul McCartney wrote a song for John Lennon’s little boy, Julian. ‘Hey Jules’ became ‘Hey Jude’ – the 1968 No.1 single that, at the time, was the longest ever chart topper, clocking in at over seven minutes. It’s difficult to quantify given the competition, but ‘Hey Jude’ is arguably one of the Beatles best-loved songs.
Foo Fighters – ‘I’ll Stick Around’
“I’m the only one who sees your rehearsed insanity,” sang Dave Grohl on ‘I’ll Stick Around’, and it wouldn’t take a genius to suggest it might be about Courtney Love. ‘Let It Die’ is supposedly about the feud with the singer as well; let’s hope their emotional embrace at Nirvana’s induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame will be a lasting detente.
Pink Floyd – ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’
Syd Barrett was the musical visionary and founding member of Pink Floyd who had to leave when his schizophrenia took hold. His presence, however, never left and he spookily turned up (shaved headed and overweight) at Abbey Road studios unannounced in ‘75 as the band recorded the Roger Water’s classic ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ about him.
Dexy’s Midnight Runners – ‘Jackie Wilson Said’
Kevin Rowland wasn’t afraid to pay tribute to soul legends; Dexy’s beloved ‘Gino’ was about Gino Washington, while their cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Jackie Wilson Says’ is most famous for the Top of the Pops appearance that featured dart player Jocky Wilson on the screen behind the band as a joke.
Suede – ‘Daddy’s Speeding’
Brett Anderson paid tribute to a number of people he looked up to on ‘Dog Man Star’; Marilyn Monroe appears in ‘Heroine’, John Lennon in ‘The Two Of Us’ and perhaps most memorably James Dean in the trippy and haunting ‘Daddy’s Speeding’.
Amy Winehouse – ‘Me and Mr Jones’
While much of ‘Back To Black’ is about Amy longing for star-crossed lover Blake Fielder-Civil, it turned out that when she asks “what kind of fuckery are you?”, the Mr Jones in question was none other than hip hop ledge Nas (Nasir Jones). In 2011 he confirmed that it was about him and that his daughter is referenced too, when speaking to XXL.
Babyshambles – ‘Gang of Gin’
Pete does little to disguise the fact he’s singing about his former bandmate and manager by referring to them as “Carl and McGee” during ‘Gang of Gin’. “[They] both promised me it would not happen this way…” he sings, with “McGee doing all he can to ruin my band and keep me out the way”. Best not remind either party come Hyde Park next month…
Leonard Cohen – ‘Suzanne’
One of Leonard Cohen’s best loved and most covered songs is about the platonic friendship he shared with Suzanne Verdal, the girlfriend of Armand Vaillancourt – sculptor and friend of Cohen’s during the 60’s.
Manic Street Preachers – ‘Kevin Carter’
One of the last songs written in its entirety by missing guitarist Richey Edwards, ‘Kevin Carter’ was about the Pulitzer Prize winning photographer of the same name who committed suicide at the age of just 33. His suicide note said he was “haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain…”
Kiss – ‘Plaster Caster’
Having sex with a fan is said to be the ultimate autograph, but in the 60’s Cynthia Plaster Caster took groupiedom to a whole new level by attempting to preserve the genitalia of rock gods like Jimi Hendrix in plaster casts forever. She became immortalised herself when Kiss wrote ‘Plaster Caster’ about her (and Le Tigre mentioned her in one of their tunes as well).
The Sex Pistols – ‘God Save The Queen’
25 years into her reign and those charming young chaps The Sex Pistols decided to celebrate the Queen’s jubilee by putting out a song in her honour. The 1977 punk anthem caused a right stink and rumours that it was kept off the No. 1 spot despite being the best selling single in the UK on Jubilee week have never been properly confirmed or denied.
Carly Simon – ‘You’re So Vain’
‘You’re So Vain’ has kept us guessing who it’s about for decades, and never forget that it’s a pretty wonderful tune to boot. ‘You probably think this song is about you,’ is the ultimate diss, but who probably thinks it’s about them? Mick Jagger? Warren Beatty? James Taylor? Carly Simon knows only too well that keeping schtum will only add to the fun…