14 Songs With Backstories You Won’t Believe Are True
Music has always been a medium of storytelling, and some of the most iconic songs of all time have a backstory that’s just as fascinating as the lyrics themselves. From heart-wrenching tales of love and loss to unexpected moments of inspiration, the stories behind these songs are as diverse as they are surprising. But what happens when the truth behind the lyrics is even more unbelievable than the fiction?
In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into some of the most intriguing and unexpected backstories behind beloved songs. You won’t believe the twists and turns that led to these musical masterpieces, and you’ll never hear them the same way again. So buckle up and get ready for a wild ride through the often-unexpected world of songwriting with these incredible songs with backstories you won’t believe are true.
14 Songs With Backstories You Won’t Believe Are True
1. Deep Purple – “Smoke on the Water”
Featuring one of the most famous riffs in rock history, the story behind “Smoke on the Water” is just as incredible as the song itself. The tune tells the true story of a fire that burnt down the Montreux Casino in Switzerland in 1971. Deep Purple was there to record their album Machine Head while the casino was closed for the winter.
The night before they were due to begin recording, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention played a show at the casino. During the performance, a fan let off a flare that started a fire. While nobody was injured, the fire burned down the casino, inspiring Deep Purple to write a song about it.
The line “smoke on the water” has been attributed to bassist Roger Glover and is a description of the smoke that gathered over the nearby Lake Geneva. “Smoke on the Water” has gone down in history as one of the greatest rock songs of all time with a riff almost anyone with a passing interest in music knows. An absolute classic.
2. Dolly Parton – “Jolene”
“Jolene” is inspired by two real-life women Dolly Parton interacted with in the 70s. The first woman was a red-headed bank clerk who worked at the local bank and often flirted with Parton’s husband. Parton would tease her other half about the woman, leading her to write what would become one of her best songs. The second woman to influence the title of the song was a young fan Parton met who had flaming red hair and was named Jolene.
Fun fact: Parton claims she wrote “Jolene” the same day as her other most well-known track, “I Will Always Love You,” which became a massive hit when covered by Whitney Houston. Not a bad day’s work.
3. The Rolling Stones – “Can’t Get No Satisfaction”
The initial demo of “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” was written by the Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards in his sleep. In his memoir, Life, Richards explains how he was staying in his flat in Carlton Hill, St. John’s Wood when he woke in the middle of the night with an idea for a song. Grabbing his guitar and a tape recorder, Richards laid down his idea on tape before dropping his pick and falling back to sleep.
The next morning he listened back to the random notes he had recorded and composed the song, with Mick Jagger writing the lyrics four days before they went into the studio and laid down the track. Released in 1965, the song became one of the Stones’ biggest hits and went to #1 in 11 countries.
4. Eric Clapton – “Tears in Heaven”
The backstory to this Eric Clapton hit is about as tragic as it gets. The sublime guitarist’s 4-year-old son was killed on March 20, 1991, when he fell from an open apartment building in New York. The death of his son hit Clapton hard and he took a short hiatus from music before scoring the movie, Rush.
It was during these recording sessions that Clapton came up with “Tears in Heaven.” Written with help from Will Jennings, the song became a worldwide hit, peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hott 100 charts. Clapton initially didn’t want to release the song but was persuaded to do so because of the impact it might have on people struggling with the death of a family member.
“It was in the back of my head but it didn’t really have a reason for being until I was scoring this movie… then it sort of had a reason to be,” Clapton said about the song in a 1992 interview. “And it is a little ambiguous because it could be taken to be about Conor but it also is meant to be part of the film.”
5. Ray Charles – “What’d I Say”
The origins of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” lie in an improvised jam the jazz artist took part in during a concert in December 1958. According to Charles’ biography, he and his band had exhausted their set list but still had around 12 minutes to kill. So Charles took to the piano and told his backup vocalists, the Raelettes, “Listen, I’m going to fool around and y’all just follow me.”
The song received rapturous applause from the audience who wanted to know where they could buy the single. Realizing he had a hit on his hands, Charles quickly entered the studio to record the song. “What’d I Say” came out six months later and was a hit, but not without controversy. The sexual nature of the song and Charles’ use of gospel tropes got the song banned from several radio stations, but that didn’t stop “What’d I Say” from becoming Charles’ first top ten hit.
6. Bob Marley & The Wailers – “I Shot the Sherrif”
There are several different accounts of the true meaning behind “I Shot the Sheriff.” In an old interview, Bob Marley claimed the song was about justice, remarking; “I want to say ‘I shot the police’ but the government would have made a fuss so I said ‘I shot the sheriff’ instead… but it’s the same idea: justice.”
Many believe the song is about fighting against injustice and standing up for your rights, but Esther Anderson, a former girlfriend of Marley, has said the song has a much darker meaning. Anderson, who co-directed the 2011 documentary Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend, says the song is about birth control, something Marley did not believe in.
This gives the lyrics “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” an entirely new meaning.
7. The Beach Boys – “Never Learn Not To Love”
The story behind this song is a little creepy. “Never Learn Not To Love” is a reworked version of “Cease To Exist,” a song written by Charles Manson. Yes, that Charles Manson. In the late 60s, Manson struck up a friendship with the Beach Boys Dennis Wilson and was looking for a way into the music business. He wrote “Cease To Exist” for the band to record, with the original lyrics describing the tension between Dennis and his brothers Brian and Carl Wilson.
The Beach Boys changed Manson’s version quite a lot, adding more instrumentation and changing the lyrics. This was a sticking point for Manson, who was enraged that the band did away with his lyrics. This created a rift between Dennis and Manson, with Manson failing to receive credit for the song and Dennis eventually ending their friendship when he realized Manson wasn’t on the level.
8. Katy Perry – “Firework”
Katy Perry’s massive hit “Firework” is partially inspired by Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road. While dating U.K. comedian and lothario turned revolutionist Russell Brand, he recommended she read On the Road. It turned out to be a good decision as it resulted in “Firework.”
In an interview about the song, Perry said “the line ‘Cause baby, you’re a firework/Come on, show ’em what you’re worth/Make ’em go, awe, awe, awe’ is based on Kerouac’s line ‘burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”
9. Neil Diamond – “Sweet Caroline”
This song will forever be linked with American crooner Neil Diamond. Released in 1969, “Sweet Caroline” never reached the top of the charts, finishing as high as #4 on the Billboard Chart 100. Diamond has given several explanations for the meaning of the song over the years.
He has said that the name Caroline is inspired by Caroline Kennedy after he saw a picture of the then 7-year-old Kennedy, while also claiming the song is about his then-wife Marcia, with the name Caroline used because it fits the melody. Either way, the song is a much-loved classic now synonymous with sporting teams across America.
10. The Beatles – “I Am the Walrus”
It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the lyrics to “I Am the Walrus” are inspired by LSD. The song combines three different compositions John Lennon was working on, with several lyrics written while he taking acid. Along with LSD, Lewis Carroll’s 1871 poem The Walrus and the Carpenter and Procol Harum’s hit 1967 track “A Whiter Shade of Pale” influenced the writing of the song.
Lennon wanted to confuse listeners with “I Am the Walrus.” At the time of its release in 1967, Beatlemania was fever pitch and people were doing deep dives into their lyrics and what they meant, so Lennon gave them this nonsense to try and figure out. Despite confirming the song is made up, people are still trying to figure out the song’s true meaning some five decades later.
11. Bob Dylan – “Key West”
“Key West” is inspired by both Key West, Florida, and one of the city’s most famous residents, Jimmy Buffett. The song references several landmarks and has been called a metaphor for the afterlife.
It’s also not the first song Dylan has written about the state of Florida, with the singer-songwriter penning the lyrics to “Florida Key” in 1967. It wasn’t until 2004 when the lyrics were put to music for the release of The New Basement Tapes project that the public actually got to hear the song.
12. Carl Perkings – “Blue Suede Shoes”
Made famous by Elvis Presley, there are two backstories to this hit song written by country legend Carl Perkins. In Johnny Cash’s, Cash: The Autobiography, the “Ring of Fire” singer explained how he came up with the idea for “Blue Suede Shoes.”
While on tour with Perkins and Presley in 1955, Cash told them about an airman he met while serving in the military who referred to his shoes as “blue suede shoes” and demanded that nobody step on them. Cash told Perkins to write a song about the shoes, to which he replied, “I don’t know anything about shoes. How can I write a song about shoes?”
The other version of events was discussed in Go Cat Go! The Life and Times of Carl Perkins. In the autobiography, Perkins claimed he got the motivation to write the song while observing a crowd during one of his shows. He recalled hearing a boy telling off his partner for stepping on his suedes, which Perkins discovered were blue. This amused Perkins who began work on the song that night.
13. Aerosmith – “(Dude) Looks Like a Lady”
“(Dude) Looks Like a Lady” came under fire when it was first released for being transphobic, but the song has nothing to do with transexuals or non-binary people. It is actually written about Mötley Crüe frontman, Vince Neil. Steven Tyler and the rest of Aerosmith went to a bar and mistook Neil for a woman due to his long blond hair and feminine appearance (makeup on guys was big in the 80s).
Aerosmith joked about Neil looking like a lady and the seeds for the song were sown. The song appears on the band’s 1987 album Permanent Vacation and became one of their biggest hits and a live favorite.
14. The Beastie Boys – “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)”
“(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” is the song that got the Beastie Boys noticed when it dropped in 1986. Written as a parody of frat boy culture and meant as a joke, this was lost on audiences who adopted the song as a party anthem. “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” now holds an interesting place in the group’s history, as it’s one of their biggest releases but also a tune they really don’t like.
“The only thing that upsets me is that we might have reinforced certain values of some people in our audience when our own values were actually totally different,” commented Mike D. “There were tons of guys singing along to ‘Fight for Your Right’ who were oblivious to the fact it was a total goof on them.”
While the backstory behind “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” might not be that exciting – it was written in just five minutes with the group’s best friend Tom “Tommy Triphammer” Cushman while they were waiting to meet producer Rick Rubin – this is a great example of how a song can mean one thing to the artist but be interpreted differently by the audience.
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