From Bohemian Rhapsody to Born in the USA: The story behind your favorite songs
Nothing beats hearing your favorite song on the radio. The first keynotes are recognizable enough for you to crank up the volume and transport you to the front row with VIP passes at the Rose Bowl. You know the lyrics by heart and if you don’t, that’s OK. You spit out your own verses. Regardless, listening to your favorite song picks up your mood, whether you’re feeling sour or just feeling bland. So, what made these favorites so great? There’s a story to every great song and you would be pleasantly surprised to discover that the musicians behind them had completely different interpretations during their conception.
1. Hey Jude- The Beatles
Did we need to say it? If you didn’t already know, the Beatles were a band that has unknowingly ruled the world, and all us peasants were glad they did so. Among their No.1 hits such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Love Me Do,” and “From Me to You,” none was more endearing than their single, “Hey Jude.” This emotional ballad is a soothing melody with an emotional backstory.
When John Lennon announced his divorce with Cynthia Powell, the news hit hard for their young son Julian Lennon. “Hey Jude” was written by Paul McCartney who was fairly close to the Julian and thought the song could ease his sorrow, “I was on the way to see him after John and Cynthia got divorced, and because I was good friends with [Julian], it came into my mind: ‘Hey, Jules, don’t make it bad,’” said McCartney during an interview. The song became a hit.
2. It had a different title
Originally called “Hey Jules” McCartney changed the name to “Jude.” He heard the name in a musical called Carousel and he thought, “I think: ‘Jude is dead’ or something like that.” Though he changed the name, he did not realize at the time that Jude means ‘Jew’ in German. That caused a bit of confusion and stirred some pots; some took it as an anti-Semitic message.
As a promotion stunt, “Hey Jude” was painted on the glass window of a boutique and then had a brick thrown through it. Regardless of the confusion, the single spent 19 weeks on the ‘Hot 100,’ which was longer than any other Beatles song at the time. Billboard reported that even Lennon, who was always critical of McCartney’s songs, thought his ballad was a complete masterpiece. He should: after all, it was written for his son. It put McCartney on track to become one of the richest singers of all time.
3. Don’t Stop Believing – Journey
You hear it at every wedding, at every bar (both karaoke and pub), and occasionally at your favorite sport’s event. “Don’t Stop Believin’” has been an American classic since it’s debut in Journey’s seventh album, Escape, and it never really went away. It’s a song of encouragement, that pushes you to overcome all obstacles regardless of the challenge. Like all good record-shattering songs, the track has a heartwarming story.
According to the Huffington Post, keyboardist Jonathan Cain tells the story of how the song came to be in his memoir, Don’t Stop Believin’: The Man, the Band and the Song That Inspired Generations, Cain dishes how he was just an aspiring musician in the 1970s and left his hometown in Chicago to chase after a dream, hoping to get his “big break.” Unfortunately, things didn’t go exactly to plan.
4. His father solidified his fate
After feeling like the world was against him, Cain called home after his dog was hit by a car. He phoned home and asked his father for a loan, “I was in Hollywood…I had called him for some money, for another loan. And I hated calling my dad for a loan. I said, ‘Dad, should I just give up on this thing and come home?” His father’s unexpected response would change the fate of karaoke nights everywhere forever.
After holding his breath, his father responded, “No, no, don’t come home,” his father said. “Stick to your guns. Don’t stop believin’” Cain wrote the words down in his notebook, the same one where keeps all his song. After that serendipitous moment, he took his words to heart, every word. When joining Journey, Cain proposed the song and magic was conjured. “Don’t Stop Believin’”reached No. 9 on the Billboard singles charts, but it’s the song’s longevity and timelessness that earned it a place on this list.
5. Stairway to Heaven- Led Zepplin
What does rock and roll and Lord of the Rings have in common? That would be Led Zeppelin. What makes the band so unique is its use of Celtic imagery in its lyrics, medieval sound, and iconography. It’s totally Tolkienesque, especially if you listen to their song, “Ramble On,” which, according to the Washington Post, says the first lines are rough translations of the poem written in the Elvish language Quenya.
Mythological and heavy with lore lyrics, its no surprise that their famous song, “Stairway to Heaven” would continue the middle age-sound. The song was written by Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, who he wrote the piece at Headley Grange in Europe. The inspiration behind the awesome track can be found in Italian composer Giovanni Battista Granata’s 16th-century sonata completes with guitar, violin, and strings.
6. A long legal battle
The song, however, did not become popular until long after its conception. When the song was first played in Belfast in 1971 and the audience was not impressed. They were bored of the eight-minute ballad and wanted to hear something they all knew, like “Whole Lotta Love.” Just when the band thought that maybe the jam was a dud, they played “Stairway to Heaven” at the L.A. Forum to a more receptive crowd.
They received a standing ovation and the band was shocked to see that the song was well-received over-seas considering it was the first time they played it and the first time the crowd has ever heard it. In the end, however, not all was fine and dandy. The band was sued by the band Spirit for copyright infringement, claiming that their song sounded way too like their song “Taurus.” They are still in a legal battle to this day.
7. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction- The Rolling Stones
Tossing and turning on a bad, sleepless night, you just can’t get no satisfaction. At least, that’s what happened to Keith Richards. The No.2 song on the Rolling Stone The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list was conceived when Richards heard the beginning riff to (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction in a dream.
In an interview with the Rolling Stone, Richards had this to say about the song’s inception: “I woke up in the middle of the night. There was a cassette recorder next to the bed and an acoustic guitar. The next morning when I woke up, the tape had gone all the way to the end. So I ran it back, and there’s like thirty seconds of this riff —‘Da-da da-da-da, I can’t get no satisfaction’ — and the rest of the tape is me snoring!”
8. Chuck Berry might have inspired the guitarist
As Richards and Jagger recorded the song, Jagger felt that the song’s riff might have been inspired by a line from one of Chuck Berry’s songs. “I think he had this lyric,” Jagger said in an interview with Rolling Stone.“I can’t get no satisfaction, which actually, is a line in a Chuck Berry song called ’30 Days’…I can’t get no satisfaction from the judge…that was just one line, and then I wrote the rest of it. There was no melody really.”
When the song completed its recording, the band never thought the song would be an instant hit, but it was. Richards never anticipated that the song would have blown up so much, but the famous track set a new high watermark in the band’s career. They went from being mediocre to a band that shaped rock history. Now that’s satisfying.
9. That Smell- Lynyrd Skynyrd
The band’s last recorded album was the most chilling and serendipitous compilation of songs in the band’s musical career. If you don’t already know the story, there is quite a few urban myths surrounding the death of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lead vocalist, guitarist, and bass player. Despite premonitions, second sight, and warnings from the universe, the band met its demise when their plane crashed while flying over a wooded area near Gillsburg, Mississippi.
Tragedy happens, sure, but when it’s foretold in their own song? That’s just creepy. That Smell was written originally because of a bandmate’s substance abuse. A lot of the band members drank excessively, however, That Smell was written about the guitarist (aka Prince Charming) and was based on true events. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
10. The song foretold their deaths
Apparently, Prince Charming got into multiple car accidents, one of which, was said to have paralyzed him. He had a habit of mixing drugs and alcohol while playing with the band. Aside from the song’s purpose, the most infamous interpretation leads fans to believe that the band foresaw their own demise.
The last song they recorded was “That Smell” in their final album “Street Survivors,” (whose original album cover was complete with flames wrapped around the players in a hellion landscape eerily foreshadowing the plane crash that would claim some of their lives), had changed the interpretation entirely. It was even said that lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant had the second sight. Some of the band members even claim they had nightmares of the plane crashing the night before the incident. Spooky.
11. Dream On- Aerosmith
Before Aerosmith was an iconic band, the musicians weren’t doing so hot. Critically called rip-offs of the Rolling Stones, and poorly promoted, their first album had some pretty measly sales. But there was one song that made all the difference. In fact, it saved the band from being dropped from their record label entirely. Aerosmith’s “Dream On” was written and performed by vocalist Steve Tyler, who said got the inspiration for the song when he was teenager.
In his book, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? Tyler explains that his father was a trained musician. As a boy, Tyler would lie under their piano as their father played, “That’s where I got that ‘Dream On’ cordage,” he wrote. Then, after completing the song, Tyler took the song to the piano. He didn’t exactly get the response he was looking for.
12. It wasn’t a big hit
The song was originally meant to be played on the piano, however, it wasn’t exactly a fan favorite. It wasn’t until two years after its release that it became a sensation and reached #6 in the country’s top hits. For Tyler, the song held a large amount of significance, “It’s about the hunger to be somebody: Dream until your dream come true…this song sums up the s—t you put up with when you’re in a new band.”
Though the vocalist was thrilled to hear “Dream On” on the radio, other band members weren’t as excited about its success. Guitarist Joe Perry, at first, wasn’t too crazy about the power ballad,.“Back in those days, you made your mark playing live. And to me, rock n’ roll was all about energy and putting on a show.”
13. In the Air Tonight- Phil Collins
Everybody who’s everybody knows who Phil Collins is. If you haven’t, trust…you have. No song was more iconic than his first single “In the Air Tonight.” The song basically made Phil Collins and shot a spotlight in his direction that brazenly announced his arrival. Granted, he was playing with Genesis at the time, but, it doesn’t lessen the brilliance.
There’s a tame backstory to how the song came about. Collins had confided that he wrote the song during his separation with his first wife, Andrea Bertorelli, in 1980. Their separation led the band to endure a year-long hiatus in 1979. Collins wrote, “I wrote the lyrics spontaneously. I’m not quite sure what the song is about, but there’s a lot of anger, a lot of despair and a lot of frustration.”
14. There may be a darker meaning
Though Collins had described the inspiration for the song as a message of grief and despair to reconcile with his wife, there are other rumors as to what the song is about. According to Smooth Radio, the song was supposedly about a drowning incident, one where Collins watched a man who had assaulted his wife drown before his eyes.
Where did he drown? It’s unclear. Another source suggests that Collins wrote the song about a man who watched another man drowned, or when he was a young boy, he saw someone drown. In either case, there seems to be a lot of drowning involved. Maybe it’s just a clever metaphor that represents Collin’s grief when he and his wife’were going through a divorce. Yes…no?
15. American Girl- Tom Petty and the Heart Breakers
Everyone was at a loss when legendary frontman, Tom Petty died at the age of 66 last year. He was loved for his songs such as “Free Fallin’,” “Won’t Back Down,” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” But none was more received than “American Girl.” Upbeat and catchy, the song has touched the hearts of Americans since its release and has remained as a fan-favorite ever since.
So, what is the song about, or, more appropriately, who is the song about? Well, the mystery is a part of the equation. You see, when Petty wrote the song, he didn’t have a specific person in mind. Instead, he had everyone in mind. It could be anyone: you, a friend, a colleague, wife, or daughter. It just depends on how you see the story.
16. People were begging to know who the American Girl was
The song is meant to relate to those who are listening and apply it to their own lives so that they could see their own reflection while listening. Talk about vague. In fact, it was too vague. According to the Washington Post, people were desperate for clues about the song’s meaning. They wanted something.
So, what did the fans do? They made someone up. In the second verse of the song where the protagonist goes out to a balcony where she “could hear cars go by/ Out on 441” fans latched on to the lyrics like a bald eagle’s talons curled around a salmon. Fans figured it was Petty writing about a college suicide in his hometown, but the information, much less the facts, never really substantiated the claim.
17. When Doves Cry- Prince
Cue the screaming girls and the put on that royal purple trench coat, because we’re talking about Prince. Famous for his musical drama “Purple Rain,” the musician has captivated his fans with his quiet persona and one-of-a-kind music around the world. He stole the hearts of thousands when the film opened the doors and sneak a peek into his personal life along with his romantic relationships.
The album that followed was just as successful as the film, and “When Doves Cry,” was no exception. Though there is speculation to the song’s meaning, sources believe the song taps into his strained relationship with his parents and how it resulted in a strenuous relationship with his romantic interests. The song is an expression of fear of becoming like his parents, who were oppressive and suggests domestic abuse.
18. The dove is a symbol of hope
However, according to Bustle, the song may not all be doom and gloom, but about hope. In the song, crying doves seem to refer to what happens when two people who were once in love start to fight.” However, Bustle speculates that the sound of the mourning doves didn’t represent sadness, but hope. Beyond the crying doves, there is a message of “hope, renewal, and peace.”
It’s meant to convey to listeners that, even in tragedy, there is still a glimmer of hope. That there are better days waiting in their future. It’s also reported that the doves weren’t just symbolic. According to Entertainment Weekly, Prince is said to kept live doves in his home in Minnesota. To keep the peace, it’s nice to see a real vision of it.
19. Hotel California- Eagles
Unless you’re The Dude from The Big Lebowski, then you’re most likely a fan of the Eagles; more specifically, their smash hit “Hotel California.” At least for some of us, “Hotel California” is a song you crank the volume up on high and scream out the lyrics as you drive down the street. It’s just how it goes. The song is a treasure, which is ironic considering the song is about the “excess in America.”
According to ABC News, the lyrics behind the iconic song stood to signify the “hedonism and self-indulgence of America.” Guitarist Don Henley commented the song was about “the dark underbelly of the American dream and about the excess in America, which is something we knew about.” On top of it’s meaning, the song reportedly had a different name.
20. They viewed California culture differently
Born out of the Midwest, the band had no idea what to expect when coming out to star-studded L.A., “We were all middle-class kids from the Midwest,” Henley said. “Hotel California was our interpretation of the high life in L.A.” Who doesn’t think the same when visiting Tinsel Town? They were so consumed by culture shock that the band decided to change the name of the song.
In 2003 it was noted that “Hotel California” was originally named “Mexican Reggae.” Thank goodness it was changed; however, we can see the Spanish influence in the song that may attribute to its original name. In the end, we’re all sure the imagery of “mirrors on the ceiling/the pink champagne on ice screamed California west coast than livid Mexican Reggae.”
21. Bohemian Rhapsody Queen
Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening! Who hasn’t heard Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody?” It is hard to miss. Over 40 years later, Queen’s six-minute song has been cherished and treasured since its release in 1975. So, what was it that made the bold and disjointed rock ballad that made Queen’s famous hit so popular? Freddie Mercury was the sole writer of the song and has reportedly been writing it since 1968 while studying at London’s Ealing Art College.
Mental Floss reports his creation of the opening line “Mama, just killed a man” was born during his college days, though there weren’t any lyrics. He referred to his work in progress as “The Cowboy Song” because of a supposed “Old West” feel. Once Queen was established, Mercury went all-out. When the song was completed, his music producer was floored.
22. It was a red-letter day
Mercury had Bohemian Rhapsody written and ready to go, all he needed to do was record. In total, the band spent three weeks perfecting the song, all under a single microphone. One week was specifically dedicated to the operatic section. Only Mercury knew how the song would pan out, everyone else? Left in the dark until the band’s producer Roy Thomas Baker listened to the entire song.
He quotes on BBC America, “Nobody really knew how it was going to sound as a whole six-minute song until it was put together…Something told me that this was a red-letter day, and it really was.” The song was a hit and actually enjoyed a second surge in popularity after its appearance in the Mike Meyers movie, Wayne’s World.
23. Pet Semetary- The Ramones
The Ramones have made their mark in Rock n’ Roll history, there is no doubt about that. With hits such as “I Want to be Sedated,” and “Blitzkrieg Pop,” the story behind “Pet Sematary” will surely send shivers down your spine. A homage to Stephen King’s best-seller, the song was created after long time fan, Stephen King invited the leather-clad rock stars to his Maine.
Afterwards, the band met up with the king of literary horror and bada-bing, bada-boom, “Pet Sematary” was born. There’s just one blip: The story about its creation differs on both King and Marky Ramone’s side of the story. You’ll never believe the tall tales the two confessed. They opened for Cheap Trick and played in one of the arenas in Bangor.
24. “Pet Sematary” wasn’t created from Steven King’s basement
There are two sides to the conception of “Pet Semetary.” In Marky Ramone’s memoir, Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone, Ramones writes about the day he and the band visited Stephen’s home in Maine. “He served us a big dinner in the basement,” Marky wrote. “But the real treat was the memorabilia, mostly from sci-fi and horror movies.”
It was noted by Ramones that King gifted band member Dee Dee a copy of “Pet Semetary” and inspired the band to create the song. However, King has a different story. He claims that they never went to his house. Instead, they all convened at a fancy restaurant where the black leather-clad stars showed up a little worse for wear. King might have mentioned his novel and perhaps a song but doesn’t recall anything else. At the end of the day, when the memoir was pushed for publication, King stayed silent. He preferred the legend over the truth and thought it should stay that way.
25. Billie Jean- Michael Jackson
The King of Pop lives on in his music. A success since his days with the Jackson Five, Michael Jackson is a worldwide celebrity, celebrated for his music and message for peace. He’s a name you cannot ignore or forget, and no song was as unforgettable as “Billie Jean.” That song is a for sure head bobber, and our mother’s absolute favorite right next to “Bad” and “Thriller.”
The moon walking sensation was inspired to write the song out of a scandal, one that pushed him further into solidarity. Sources claim that Jackson wrote the song to directly respond to a woman, a fan, who claims that she and Jackson had a child together. Though he rarely spoke about the woman, he felt the song was the best way to reach her. The consequences hit hard for Michael.
26. He wanted to set the record straight
The woman in question accused Jackson that he was the father to one of her twins, which raises brow over her accusations. To think twins could have two different fathers? Who knew! So, to combat against the allegations, Michael wrote the song to set the record straight and became one of the biggest musicals disses in musical history.
At first, Jackson wanted to call the song “Not My Lover,” but felt the title would confuse his audience with tennis start Billie Jean King. What’s even better? He felt that the song would be an instant hit, “I knew it was going to be big while I was writing it,” Michael said in his memoir. “I was really absorbed into the song.” History in the making.
27. Ball and Chain- Janis Joplin
How can we not put Janis Joplin on this list? The woman was a formidable musician who’s throaty and gravely voice will forever shake the banisters of our hearts. A powerful blue singer, she made you feel hurt, love, and redemption in her music. None was more moving and jaw-dropping than her performance while singing “Ball and Chain.”
Originally sung by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, the song was written about shackled inmates whose heavy weight is to keep them from escaping, but Joplin’s interpretation of the song and performance solidified her reputation as an iconic singer. She sang the bluesy cover at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and twisted the meaning into one of love, pain, and heartbreak.
28. She wanted to transcend the song
According to Songfacts.com, the performer went into a musical rapture, adding lines into the song such as “Love is such a pain, love is such a pain,” and sold the idea that love was nothing more than a vice grip and a heavy burden. Joplin later explained that she wanted to communicate a higher level of emotion, that she wanted to “transcend” the song. Hell, it worked.
If you happen to watch her performance, you’ll notice how the crowd quiets and is in complete awe abiding silence as she punches the stadium with her voice. Unfortunately, the young singer wouldn’t make it to thirty and continue to make more stunning performances. She died at the age of twenty-seven leaving behind her music and her legacy.
29. Born in the USA-Bruce Springsteen
A lot of people confuse Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as the most patriotic song made in America; truth is…. it’s the very opposite. If anyone bothered to listen closely to the lyrics, they would find a social commentary on soldiers who were forced to fight in the Vietnam war and returned to a post-war era of struggle and shame.
It’s a commentary on the broken American system, how the government sees its citizens as, quoted by the Daily Beast, “disposable cogs in a war machine.” However, it’s clear that politicians didn’t exactly get the message. Republican columnist Bernie Goldberg praised Springsteen on his American revival and was a perfect example of how, if Americans worked hard enough, “like Springsteen himself,” they could push for the American dream again.
30. He wanted to write American music
In a 2005 NPR interview, Springsteen commented on his choice in creating “Born in the USA.” Springsteen quotes, “I make American Music, and I write about the place I live and who I am in my lifetime. Those are the things I’m going to struggle for and fight for.” The song sat at number two on the Billboard charts upon its release, and since has caused confusion to political leaders, including Ronald Reagan.
He stated that it was songs like Bruce Springsteen’s hit that helps Americans realize the American dream and that it “…make those dreams come true.” Regardless, whether you interpret the song as patriotic or unpatriotic, the song is an honest commentary during a political clench that encompasses, not just America’s glory, but it’s darker side as well.