A Song Is Born
In the early '70s, Paul Simon found inspiration for a Top 10 hit in the most unlikely place. Click through for the backstories behind "Mother and Child Reunion" and 14 other timeless tunes.
“Mother and Child Reunion,” Paul Simon
The song came to him in the early '70s. Paul Simon explains: "I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown. There was a dish called Mother and Child Reunion. It's chicken and eggs. And I said, I gotta use that one."
“Free Man in Paris,” Joni Mitchell
Some say music mogul David Geffen was the mystery man behind Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," but there's no doubt he inspired this track from Joni Mitchell's 1974 album "Court and Spark." Mitchell wrote it after a trip to Paris with Geffen and Robbie Robertson. The Asylum Records founder reportedly objected to the lyrics, which suggest unhappiness with the pressures of "stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song."
“She Said She Said,” The Beatles
On a tour break in Beverly Hills, three of the Beatles dropped acid with the Byrds and Peter Fonda, who began repeating, "I know what it's like to be dead" (a reference to the time he accidentally shot himself at age 11). John Lennon finally told him to shut up and added,"You're making me feel like I've never been born." The conversation continues on this track from the Beatles' 1966 album "Revolver."
“Le Freak,” Chic
This disco hit began as a riff that Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers (now a celebrated producer of records by artists like David Bowie and Pharrell Williams) came up with after a doorman refused to let him into Studio 54. The original lyric—an epithet directed at the doorman in particular and Studio 54 in general—was softened to "Aaaahh, freak out!" Released as a single in 1978, it sold 7 million copies.
“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” R.E.M.
In 1986, a deranged man attacked CBS News anchor Dan Rather on the street, punching and kicking him while shouting, "Kenneth, what's the frequency?" R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, who wrote this 1994 song about the incident, called it "the premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century." In 1997, a journalist identified the assailant as William Tager, by then in prison for killing an NBC stagehand.
“To Know Him Is to Love Him,” Phil Spector
He based this song on words etched in the tombstone of his father, who committed suicide when Phil Spector was 9 years old. Recorded in 1958 by his group the Teddy Bears, it reached No. 1 before Spector turned 19. Although he would become better known as a producer of '60s pop classics (and, as of 2009, a convicted murderer), Spector's first hit lived on in covers by artists ranging from Nancy Sinatra to the Beatles.
“Wild Horses,” the Rolling Stones
Marianne Faithfull writes that Mick Jagger was there when she opened her eyes in an Australian hospital after ODing on sleeping pills in July 1969. Her response to his fear of losing her: "Wild horses couldn't drag me away." But Keith Richards remembers a sweeter inspiration for that key line from the Stones' most heartfelt ballad—the birth of his son Marlon, later that summer.
“Ticket to Ride,” the Beatles
According to John Lennon, the title of this track from "Help!" (1965) harks back to the Beatles' early days in Hamburg, Germany, where prostitution was legal but streetwalkers were required to carry a document certifying a clean bill of health. Lennon dubbed that certificate a "ticket to ride."
“I Shot the Sheriff,” Bob Marley and the Wailers
On one level, it's a desperado's confession, but that's not what inspired this 1973 reggae classic. Bob Marley actually wrote the song to protest his girlfriend's decision to take birth control pills, which he considered sacrilegious. The "sheriff" is the doctor who prescribed them—the man Marley refers to when he sings: "Every time I plant a seed, he said kill it before it grow."
“Mellow Yellow,” Donovan
"Electrical banana is gonna be a sudden craze," a line from this psychedelic single, sparked a rumor that smoking dried banana peels would get you high. In fact, it referred to a yellow vibrator that caught on around the time Donavan wrote the 1966 song. As for the phrase "mellow yellow," it first appeared a half-century earlier in James Joyce's "Ulysses"—in a description of Molly Bloom's buttocks.
“Tangled Up in Blue,” Bob Dylan
Although "Tangled Up in Blue" chronicles his marriage to Sara Lownds, the lyrics were actually inspired by Cubist painting. In 1974, the year before he released "Blood on the Tracks," Dylan took art classes from Norman Raeben, an American painter who encouraged him to create fragmented images and look at things from various points of view.
“Chelsea Hotel #2,” Leonard Cohen
It's not exactly romantic ("I don't mean to suggest that I loved you the best"), but this reminiscence of a sexual encounter in the storied Chelsea Hotel strikes an emotional chord, especially since the woman in question was Janis Joplin. Leonard Cohen's haunting 1974 song conveys her sweetness and blunt honesty: "You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception."
“Here, My Dear,” Marvin Gaye
This is the opening track on a double album about Marvin Gaye's hurricane of a marriage to Anna, a sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy. It was inspired by the terms of their divorce, which required Gaye to put out a new LP and give her the royalties. "I guess I'd have to say this album is dedicated to you, although perhaps you may not be happy," the song begins. She wasn't: Anna threatened a $5 million lawsuit.
“I’ll Stick Around,” the Foo Fighters
Foo Fighters founder and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl wrote this one in 1995, after Kurt Cobain's suicide, about his late bandmate's widow Courtney Love. After clashing with her over Nirvana's business interests, Grohl sang: "How could it be I'm the only one who sees your rehearsed insanity?" They made up at this year's Rock and Roll Fame ceremony, but back then he needed to vent.
“I Am the Walrus,” the Beatles
In 1967, John Lennon received a letter from a student at a high school near Liverpool whose professor had assigned his class to analyze Beatles lyrics. That prompted Lennon to write a song that defied analysis—filling it with lines like "crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess" and "elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna," all summed up by the famous refrain: "goo goo goo joob."
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