Songwriting Stories: Amazing Stories Behind Famous Songs
Published on 17 July 2023
Ever wonder about the stories behind some of your favourite songs? As in, what inspired the artist to put pen to paper, or what stories they came across and wanted to adapt into a song?
Today, we’ve grabbed some well known tunes and thrust them under our microscope to analyse for cool origin tales. The results are fun, they are odd and they are sometimes sad. What this proves is that you can find inspiration anywhere, in the most obvious and indeed unlikely places.
So! If you are struggling to get some lyrics down, why not stop for a second and check out some of these ‘behind the scenes’ stories!
Derek & the Dominos - Layla
Unrequited Love + Duane Allman = Megahit
Eric Clapton is relatively well known as a guitarist, but even he needed a little help from a friend to help push this tune about unrequited love into the stratosphere. Yes, the ex-Cream rocker had a bit of a thing for Beatle George’s missus, and wrote Layla (he nicked the name from a book of Persian Love Songs, the soft lad) as a pent-up lament for his lacklustre love life. (They were later married, so yay Eric!)
Requiring extra spice in the six string department, ol’ Slowhand enlisted the help of his pal Duane Allman, who added that immortal lead melody. Yes, the one we all think is Clapton’s best guitar part!
Fleetwood Mac - Go Your Own Way
Breakups with Band Members + Awkwardness = Megahit
Fleetwood Mac are the dictionary definition of ‘dysfunctional band’: from drink and booze nonsense to band members dating, marrying, bickering, taking more drugs and breaking up (then touring again), ‘the Mac’ are like a soap opera with better hair and tunes.
A good indicator of this is their famous pop epic Go Your Own Way which features lead vocals by Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. That would be ex-couple Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham.
It’s definitely a strange form of therapy to split up with your partner, feel horrible about it for ages and then write a tune about it (a belter of a tune, it must be said)...and then get your ex to sing on it! What were they thinking?
To be fair, they scored big with this tune, and the Mac machine trundled on to comparably massive success for many years after this, so maybe they were onto something!
Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit
Jealousy + Awkwardness x Antisocial Behaviour = Huge Tune
Nirvana’s biggest hit shows you that inspiration can be mined from the daftest of situations. Back in his pre-Courtney Love days, Kurt Cobain’s friend Kathleen Hanna (from the band Bikini Kill) would get annoyed at the smell of his girlfriend’s deodorant. She’d smell it on his clothes after his lady friend stayed over, and on one occasion, was so incensed by the presumably pungent aroma of ‘Teen Spirit’ deodorant invading her olfactory system that she graffiti’d ‘Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit’ all over his room, as some sort of puny protest.
Upon returning, the Nirvana leader liked what he read and turned it into the title of a ginormous hit song.
Big lessons to be learned here! Not least one of persistence by Kurt. After writing the song’s guitar hook, verse and chorus, he presented it to the band who thought it sounded ridiculous and cliched. Not to be defeated by mere opinions, Cobain had them all play the parts for an hour and a half before bassist Krist Novoselic hit on the idea of slowing it down. Dave Grohl’s famous drum pattern closely followed, and all band members finally saw the light. Lesson learned.
Beach Boys - Never Learn Not to Love
Making Friends with Notorious Psychopaths + Being Too Polite to Kick Them Out of your House = Medium-sized Hit Song
It seems that being in the centre of the Beach Boys’ 1960s orbit would’ve been manifestly crazy at the best of times, but that’s no reason to start making friends with mass murdering psychopaths, is it? To be fair, when Beach Boy Dennis Wilson fell under the dubiously charismatic spell of Charles Manson, he’d yet to be caught for any of the infamous crimes the world now knows plenty about.
Back in 1967, Charlie was a ‘travelling minister’ with a retinue of young women in tow who looked up to him with awe and called him ‘Jesus Christ’.
No alarm bells rang for Dennis, for some reason, and he not only endeavoured to get Mason signed to a record deal, he allowed the entire Manson ‘Family’ to drive up to his Los Angeles mansion and move in. They duly did and proceeded to take over the place, rampaging at all hours and making the terrified popster feel like a prisoner in his own home.
In yet another move that smacks of slack-jawed cowardice, Wilson couldn’t find the grit within himself to give the Family the heave-ho, and eventually just slipped out for good himself, leaving it to his poor landlord to eject the unruly guests.
That, however, wasn’t before grabbing the Manson-penned song Cease to Exist and reworking elements of it, becoming Never Learn Not to Love. The song, from the Beach Boys’ 1969 album 20/20, was originally written by Manson after witnessing the interactions of the various Wilson brothers. Creepy? Of course!
REM - What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
Mistaken Identity + Random Assault = Hit Song
Did you ever think the title for this 1994 hit by alternative rockers REM was a bit odd? So did we, until we learned where it all came from. It’s a bizarre story indeed…
Journalist and news anchor Dan Rather was walking along Park Avenue, NYC, towards his home back in 1986 when he was jumped by two ‘unknown assailants’, who chased and beat him whilst one of them repeatedly yelled ‘Kenneth, what’s the frequency?’
Dan Rather, assuming a mistaken identity was the cause, put it down to a random crazy New York mugging and moved on with his life. It wasn’t until three years later that somebody connected the story to a man named William Tager. Tager believed that the TV networks were beaming signals into his brain, and went as far as murdering an NBC stagehand whilst trying to break in to the studio to block the signal.
The song itself is actually, according to vocalist Michael Stipe, about ‘a guy who’s desperately trying to understand what motivates the younger generation’.
So Crazy It’s Not True
For our last entry today, we’re actually going to go the opposite way and debunk a massive lie in the world of songwriting. It’s a myth so ingrained in our culture that even other artists reference it as if it’s true, and it’s a flat out porkie.
Who really knows how this one got started, but legend has it that Phil Collins’ megahit In the Air Tonight was borne from a dodgy moment when he looked out of a hotel window (maybe) and witnessed a man drowning in the ocean, and another man close by choosing to walk on and not intervene. Nasty story, and it makes us wonder why ol’ Phil didn’t do something about it himself…until we remember that the entire story is complete BS.
The song’s lyrics are actually a spontaneous vocal recorded for a guide track and then kept. The drowning line was just a metaphor for Phil's recent divorce. Not quite as dramatic perhaps but maybe easier to identify with for the person on the street?
We’re not sure whether Eminem is entirely to blame, either. He mentions it in his hit Stan, but we have a feeling we’d heard the tale prior to that. Urban myths, eh? Lovely stuff.
Imagine that drowning story was true though? Would that not then be the most inappropriate drum fill in musical history?
Inspiration is Everywhere
What this little group of stories highlights for us is that inspiration can be found in the unlikeliest of places. Taking a situation and then writing a song from that starting point doesn’t, as we’ve seen today, mean that the song has to be a literal description of that event. We doubt anyone thinks ‘deodorant’, when they hear Smells Like Teen Spirit, for example!
Taking a story as a beginning and then going off into an artistic tangent can lead to wonderful things!
These songs also show that the ‘true meaning’ of a song is pretty much whatever you ascribe to it as the listener. In the Air Tonight is an undoubtedly eerie listen, and if the song is somehow improved for you by imaging some poor person drowning that that’s totally valid! Just because Phil was signing about his ex-wife doesn’t mean that the song has to infer that to you: take the music and run with it!