From Eleanor Rigby to Major Tom – NME readers pick the best fictional characters at the heart of some of music’s most notable tracks.
50 The unnamed woman from Richard Thompson’s ‘Beeswing’
Nominated by @ShaneRichmond. “It’s a song that makes me think about ageing, gender, independence and poverty, all through one striking character,” he writes.
49 Billy in PJ Harvey’s ‘C’mon Billy’
‘C’mon Billy’ was the second single released on PJ Harvey’s 1995 album ‘To Bring You My Love.’ Suggested by Bella Ferri, Billy is a hapless lover and the desperate figure of the protagonist’s affections. Comme toujours, Harvey’s poetry sketches a person who seems so real with so few words.
48 Darling Nikki from Prince’s ‘Darling Nikki’
Another popular suggestion was the “sex fiend” from Prince’s notorious track from 1984’s ‘Purple Rain.’ Prince’s meets her in a “hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine.” Nikki jumped from fiction to real life in a significant way: the lyrics eventually led to the use of “Parental Advisory” stickers and imprints on album covers.
47 Alanis Morrissette’s Mary Jane
“Mary Jane from @morissette ‘s Jagged Little Pill is amazingly well-drawn,” tweets Emma Ballantine. Mary Jane is an insomniac under-eater with a fascination with passing cars and Morrissette describes her turbulent life with poetic gentleness.
46 Pulp’s ‘Seductive Barry’
The Mighty Mojo on Twitter suggested Seductive Barry, the character with a way with words from the late 90s Pulp song. The lyrics reveal a romantic man knows how to score: “There’s nothing left for us to do but get it on,” he says. Is it just me who imagines Barry from EastEnders in the title role?
45 “The man who talks in maths” in Radiohead’s ‘Karma Police’
Radiohead are not known for their straightforward character profiles, but they often skewer socio-political stereotypes. Andreas Wolff goes for the man in the opening verse of ‘Karma Police’. He “talks in maths” and “buzzes like a fridge.” He’s “like a detuned radio” and Thom implores for his arrest. He sounds pretty boring to be fair.
44 Regina Spektor’s ‘Daniel Cowman’
@Cosmictits digs up this classic track from Spektor’s 2002 album ‘Songs’. “The premature ejaculation of his death sentence hit Daniel in the face like a big round spitball hwk-pfffff,” she tells, spinning a typically surreal tale that sounds a little like a bad dream.
43 The Killers’ ‘Uncle Johnny’
@TheeAmberHuston goes for this sorry picture of a cocaine-addicted uncle. “I feel a burning in your body’s core / It’s a yearning that you can’t ignore,” sings Brandon, one of many great character studies by the band.
42 Bob Dylan’s ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’
From Dylan’s 1975 album ‘Blood On The Tracks’, there’s so much going on in this track plot-wise that not one but two screenplays have been written about it. Anne Bramley suggests the title characters on Twitter, Jack being a bank robber, Lily the “princess”, and Rosemary “like a queen without a crown.”
41 The red right hand from Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’
Jamie Skey goes for the “red right hand” from Nick Cave’s 1994 track ‘Red Right Hand’. The liner notes from ‘Let Love In’ explained that the reference is from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. It’s hidden in his coat, it’s clutching wads of money, it’s savage and it directs you, “one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan.” Chilling stuff.
40 Pixies’ ‘Alec Eiffel’
Tim Difford on Twitter goes for Alec Eiffel, the “real smart alec” who “thought big” – they called it phallic. It’s a fictional portrait of a real-life man. That’s right: The guys who designed the Eiffel Tower and the Statue Of Liberty.
39 Waldo Jeffers from The Velvet Underground’s ‘The Gift’
‘The Gift’ is basically a musical soap opera. Waldo is going mad at the idea of his lover Marsha’s adultery – “her sworn vows overcome by liquor and the smooth soothing of some neanderthal” – and the track tells the story of how he deals with it. Thanks to Tim Marklew for the suggestion.
38 Arrested Development’s ‘Mr Wendal’
Mr Wendal might be a bum but he’s also a prophet and – crucially – he has his freedom. The track was recorded by Arrested Development in 1992 and suggested by Ceiling Demons on Twitter.
37 Pink Floyd’s ‘Arnold Layne’
Arnold Layne’s a tragic figure from Pink Floyd’s track of the same name. “Undoubtedly he’s my favourite,” writes Matthew Edney. He has a “strange hobby… collecting clothes” but ends up in the slammer – “he hates it.”
36 Green Day’s ‘St Jimmy’
“King of the forty thieves I’m here to represent / That needle in the vein of the establishment,” rasps Billie Joe Armstrong in this track from ‘American Idiot’. Thanks to Andy Jardy for the suggestion.
35 Vampire Weekend’s ‘Hannah Hunt’
Rumour has it Vampire Weekend wrote ‘Hannah Hunt’ inspired by Lena Dunham’s character in Girls. Us? We’re not so sure. Either way, it’s a great song and a classic example of Ezra character conception, as Emily Day observes
34 The Killers’ ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’
From the band’s fourth studio album, ‘Battle Born’, ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ – suggested by Paul Brandon – tells the story of a cruel, dangerous mistress who “kissed him and she painted it black.”
33 The Smiths’ boy with a thorn in his side
Rob Smith suggests this complicated character on Twitter. “Behind the hatred there lies / A murderous desire for love,” sings Morrissey, who later explained: “The thorn is the music industry and all those people who never believed anything I said, tried to get rid of me and wouldn’t play the records.”
32 Benny Hill’s ‘Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West)
Surely one of the greatest early characters in popular song, Ernie is the fastest milkman in the west. He’s involved in a war of the heart with “Two-Ton Ted from Teddington” over Sue, a widow who lives on Linley Lane. Thanks to Duke Silver for the suggestion.
31 Manic Street Preachers’ ‘Kevin Carter’
‘Kevin Carter’ was about the 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, Kevin Carter. It’s a collaged together, sometimes violent picture of Carter who “wasted your life in black and white.” It was written by missing member Richey Edwards.
30 Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rhiannon’
And wouldn’t you love to love her? Dr Monkey Pants goes for the mysterious character in Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rhiannon. “She is like a cat in the dark and then she is the darkness,” being one of the choice lines.
29 Major Tom from David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’
Ground control to anyone who thinks a gallery of the best fictional characters in songs is complete without Bowie’s Major Tom – you’re wrong. Dozens of you suggested Dame Dave’s intrepid astronaut, whose loneliness among the stars is detailed in ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’, and ‘Hallo Spaceboy’.
28 Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’
“I was walking along one day and I just thought… what if there was a bloody great bloke made out of metal just walking about?” Geezer Butler’s story of how he devised Black Sabbath’s Iron Man character, inspiring one of their most iconic hits, is almost as good as the chugging metal anthem itself. Props to Jeremy Heal for the suggestion.
27 Blur’s ‘Tracy Jacks’
Has anyone said Tracey Jacks yet? It’s got to be Tracy Jacks,” insisted NME reader and Blur enthusiast Jason Ricketts. As the ‘Parklife’ tracks tells it, Jacks “works in civil service (it’s steady employment)” and “is a golfing fanatic but his put is erratic.”
26 Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’
One of the many devious chanteuses to feature in Michael Jackson’s music (we’ll come to Dirty Diana later), Billie Jean is one of modern music’s most famous characters, whose claims that MJ is the father of her child form the crux of a pop classic.
25 Eminem’s ‘Stan’
Say what you want about Eminem’s controversial, shock-courting other output, ‘Stan’ is the work of one of rap’s greatest ever storytellers. The tale of a deranged fan through imagined fan mail to the rapper, Stan’s murderous, tragic spiral into madness is hip-hop at its most haunting. Shout out to George Bridge for suggesting him.
24 Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘Two Headed Boy’
The “Two Headed Boy” threaded through Neutral Milk Hotel’s seminal album ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’ established Jeff Magnum as the Lewis Carroll of weirdo indie – capable of imagining the most vivid and surreal creatures and giving them personalities you’d grow to care for passionately. This one’s David Bryte’s pick.
23 Sting And The Police’s ‘Roxanne’
“Roxanne! You don’t have to turn on the red light.” Sting’s tale of a sex worker on the brink is one of the Police’s best known songs, inspired by Parisian prostitutes the songwriter once encountered in a hotel lobby. “Cracking character, massive tune,” says Gary Ryan.
22 Stephanie from The Velvet Underground’s ‘Stephanie Says’
“The Velvet Underground’s Stephanie from ‘Stephanie Says’ has gotta be in there. Lou Reed paints her in your head really intriguingly,” says Facebook user Julie Rodriguez. No arguments here, Julie.
21 The Beatles’ ‘Rocky Raccoon’
A down on his luck frontiersman, Rocky Raccoon is why Paul McCartney is regarded a master of tragicomic suspense. “His story is great, a Beatles classic and my favourite track on the ‘White Album’, definitely,” wrote Amy Swinton.
20 Nick Cave’s ‘Stagger Lee’
Not a fictional character but definitely a memorable one: St Louis murderer Stagger Lee inspired one of Nick Cave’s most unforgettable moments on 1996 album ‘Murder Ballads’. Wouldn’t like to meet him in a dark alley. Or Nick Cave, for that matter. Thanks to Lisle on Twitter for the suggestion.
19 Belle & Sebastian’s ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’
“The Boy With The Arab Strap! Come ON!” says Cole Falvner. “The lad inspired a great song, and a great album…”
18 Yoshimi from The Flaming Lips’ ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’
Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi is Ben Bryant’s pick. “He’s a massive robot. There aren’t enough fuck-off robots in rock and roll. Clearly. Enough said.”
17 Michael Jackson’s ‘Dirty Diana’
Michael Jackson’s evil seductress Dirty Diana is such a character, the Weeknd was drawn to tell her story on his 2011 mixtape ‘Echoes of Silence’. Thanks to Daniel Soley for the suggestion.
16 The Rolling Stones’ ‘Ruby Tuesday’
Can’t go wrong with The Rolling Stones, can you? Their Ruby Tuesday is “an awesome part of the Stones mythology” according to NME reader Rick Child. Ruby Tuesday was apparently a groupie Keith Richards became enamored with after spending a spontaneous night together in a LA hotel.
15 Jimmy Webb/Glen Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman ‘
Songwriter Jimmy Webb was driving through rural Oklahoma in the 60s past rows and rows of telephone lines when he saw the silhouette of a lineman against the setting sun. And so the most poignant image of loneliness in popular song was born. That suggestion’s from Lucy Jones’s original piece.
14 Terry the Law Abider and Tim the Criminal from The Streets’ ‘The Irony Of It All’
Terry the Law Abider and Tim the Criminal’s exchange on The Streets’ ‘The Irony Of It All’ is one of Mike Skinner’s crowning moments, as far as Twitter’s Jeremy S is concerned. “Two great characters,” he says. “Mike Skinner’s a genius.”
13 Sheena from The Horrors’ ‘Sheena Is A Parasite’
Sheena from The Horrors’ ‘Sheena is a Parasite’ gets Mark Bright’s vote. “Forget Sheena from the Ramones’ ‘Sheena Is A Punk Rocker’, this is the Sheena that matters!”
12 Pink from Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’
There’s definitely no forgetting Pink, the lead character from Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, as Rob Gregory points out. Portrayed by Bob Geldof in its 1982 multimedia adaptation, Pink’s adventure inspired some of the Floyd’s most mind-bending sonics.
11 The Stone Roses’ ‘Sally Cinnamon’
The Stone Roses’ Sally Cinnamon was another popular choice, with NME readers tweeting in their droves to tell us to include Ian Brown’s savior: “Until Sally I was never happy, I needed so much more,” he sings on the track of the same name. “Rain clouds oh they used to chase me.”
10 Johnny from Patti Smith’s ‘Land/Horses’
Patti Smith’s Johnny from ‘Land/Horses’ is another classic, as picked by Tom Leicester. Life is filled with holes, Johnny’s laying there, his sperm coffin. Angel looks down at him and says, “Oh, pretty boy,”” sings Patti on the track. Weird and wonderful.
9 Justin Bieber’s Shawty
“Shawty – the girl who seems to feature in 90% of Justin Bieber’s songs,” suggested Loz, wittily.
8 Mr. Shankly from The Smiths’ ‘Frankly Mr. Shankly’
The Smiths’ ‘Frankly Mr. Shankly’ is supposedly about Geoff Travis, the band’s boss at Rough Trade. “It was The Smiths’ prerogative to leave Rough Trade and Morrissey can only write about his own experiences,” he said afterwards. Either way, a compelling character in the song.
7 Sam and Wolf from Tyler, The Creator’s ‘Wolf’
Sam and Wolf from Tyler, The Creator’s ‘WOLF’ are “an insight into Tyler’s troubled mind,” says Natalie Sharp, as they constantly battle for the rapper’s psyche.
6 Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’
Many of you simply tweeted the lyrics to Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ at us. “Husband-stealing witch. LEAVE DOLLY ALONE!” wrote Angela Chick on Twitter. Fair enough.
5 The drunk dominoes-eating dad from Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid m.A.A.d city’
Sherane is a character from Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid m.A.A.d city’ that was oft suggested but rumour has it she exists. It’s his dad, though, who’s recieved a lot of affectionate suggestions. Note: apparently the lyrics are about the game of dominoes, not the pizza.
4 The Kinks’ ‘Lola’
@Marblewing was one of many that suggested Lola, the title character of one of the most famous romantic encounters in popular music. In the book The Kinks: The Official Biography, Davies said that he was inspired to write this song after the band manager Robert Wace had spent the night dancing with a transvestite.
3 Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’
Mrs Robinson exist way outside the song; the original cougar has become a figure, a stereotype in society. An early version of the song appeared in the motion picture The Graduate and the song was written in conjunction with director Mike Nichols.
2 The Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’
Of all the fictional guys and girls in the musical world, The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, picking up the rice in the church, received perhaps the most amount of votes out of them all.
1 David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust
“David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust obviously! Greatest character/alter-ego music has ever seen,” writes AoifeL. She’s not wrong.