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The Back Story

“Stairway to Heaven” by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant

The song originated in 1970 when Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were spending time at Bron-Yr-Aur, a remote cottage in Wales, following Led Zeppelin’s fifth American concert tour. According to Page, he wrote the music “over a long period, the first part coming at Bron-Yr-Aur one night”. Page always kept a cassette recorder around, and the idea for “Stairway” came together from bits of taped music:

“I had these pieces, these guitar pieces, that I wanted to put together. I had a whole idea of a piece of music that I really wanted to try and present to everybody and try and come to terms with. Bit difficult really, because it started on acoustic, and as you know it goes through to the electric parts. But we had various run-throughs [at Headley Grange] where I was playing the acoustic guitar and jumping up and picking up the electric guitar. Robert was sitting in the corner, or rather leaning against the wall, and as I was routining the rest of the band with this idea and this piece, he was just writing. And all of a sudden he got up and started singing, along with another run-through, and he must have had 80% of the words there … I had these sections, and I knew what order they were going to go in, but it was just a matter of getting everybody to feel comfortable with each gear shift that was going to be coming.”

As for the meaning of the mystical lyrics behind “Stairway to Heaven”, it has been brought up that Robert Plant was always a great admirer of all things mystic, the old English legends and lore and the writings of the Celts. He was immersed at the time in the books Magic Arts in Celtic Britain by Lewis Spence and The Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. The Tolkien inspiration can be heard in the phrase, “In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees,” which could be a reference to the smoke rings blown by the wizard Gandalf. There is also a correlation between the lady in the song and the character from the book, Lady Galadriel, the Queen of Elves who lives in the golden forest of Lothlorien. In the book, all that glittered around her was in fact gold, as the leaves of the trees in the forest of Lothlorien were golden.

“Dirty Water” by Ed Cobb

Ed Cobb, who composed “Dirty Water”, was also the producer for The Standells, the band that recorded the song. Cobb reportedly based the song on an experience that  he and his girlfriend had with a mugger in Boston in the mid-1960s

“Dirty Water” was also the title of The Standells’ most successful LP, their only nationally charting album. This LP charted on both Billboard and Cash Box magazines’ charts, peaking at #52 and #39, respectively, during the summer of 1966.

Many famous musical artists and bands have covered “Dirty Water” either on album or live on stage. They include: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Steely Dan, U2, Aerosmith and Dave Matthews.

“One Toke Over the Line” by Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley

Mike Brewer says of the song’s origin: “We wrote that one night in the dressing room of a coffee house. We were literally just entertaining ourselves. The next day we got together to do some picking and said, ‘What was that we were messing with last night?’ We remembered it, and in about an hour, we’d written ‘One Toke Over the Line.’ Just making ourselves laugh, really. We had no idea that it would ever even be considered as a single, because it was just another song to us.”

The song “One Toke Over the Line” is notably mentioned in the opening of Hunter S. Thompson‘s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and was “sung” by Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) in the film of the same name.

“Spirit in the Sky”  by Norman Greenbaum

Said Norman Greenbaum: “If you ask me what I based “Spirit In The Sky” on … what did we grow up watching? Westerns! These mean and nasty varmints get shot and they wanted to die with their boots on. So to me that was spiritual, they wanted to die with their boots on.

“The song itself was simple, when you’re writing a song you keep it simple of course. It wasn’t like a Christian song of praise it was just a simple song. I had to use Christianity because I had to use something. But more important it wasn’t the Jesus part, it was the spirit in the sky. Funny enough… I wanted to die with my boots on.”

“Gimme Shelter” by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

Keith Richards began working at the song’s signature opening riff in London during the period when Jagger was away acting in the film Performance.  On Let It Bleed’s bleak world view, Jagger said in a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone:

“Well, it’s a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War. Violence on the screens, pillage and burning. And Vietnam was not war as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn’t like World War II, and it wasn’t like Korea, and it wasn’t like the Gulf War. It was a real nasty war, and people didn’t like it. People objected, and people didn’t want to fight it…” As for the song itself, he concluded, “That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse; the whole record’s like that.”

Of Merry’s involvement, Jagger said in the 2003 book According to the Rolling Stones: “The use of the female voice was the producer’s idea. It would be one of those moments along the lines of ‘I hear a girl on this track – get one on the phone.'”

“Rocket Man” by Elton John & Bernie Taupin

According to an account in Elizabeth Rosenthal’s book His Song: The Musical Journey of Elton John, “Rocket Man” was inspired by Bernie Taupin’s sighting of either a shooting star or a distant airplane. The lyrics in the song, inspired by a short story written by Ray Bradbury and written by John’s longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, describe a Mars-bound astronaut‘s mixed feelings at leaving his family in order to do his job.

“Space Oddity” by David Bowie

The title and subject matter for “Space Oddity” were inspired by Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey and introduced the character of Major Tom. Some commentators have also seen the song as a metaphor for heroin use, citing the opening countdown as analogous to the drug’s passage down the needle prior to the euphoric ‘hit’, and noting Bowie’s admission of a “silly flirtation with smack” in 1968.His 1980 hit “Ashes to Ashes” declared “We know Major Tom’s a junkie”.

“Lola” by Ray Davies

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. Davies said, “In his apartment, Robert had been dancing with this black woman, and he said, ‘I’m really onto a thing here.’ And it was okay until we left at six in the morning and then I said, ‘Have you seen the stubble?’ He said ‘Yeah,’ but he was too pissed [intoxicated] to care, I think.”

In his autobiography, Dave Davies said that he came up with the music for what would become Lola. After Dave had shown his brother the music, Ray came up with the lyrics. Dave went on to say his brother took all the credit for the song.

The original song recorded in stereo had the word “Coca-Cola” in the lyrics, but because of BBC Radio’s policy against product placement, Ray was forced to make a six thousand mile round-trip flight from New York to London—interrupting the band’s American tour—to change those words to the generic “cherry cola” for the single release.

“Promised Land” by Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry wrote this when he was serving time in jail, his second  for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines “for immoral purposes.” He had to borrow an atlas of the U.S. from the prison library to plot his hero’s journey from Virginia to California.

Although Berry has never fully explained the meaning behind the song, there are a number of theories to why he was inspired to write it. An article in The Herald In Rockville, South Carolina speculated that Berry was protesting against the racial prejudices blacks like him had to encounter on the road at the time. “On the surface, “Promised Land” is a travelogue tracing a path Berry likely would have taken on tour. But the speaker endures his own trials while moving through the South. Places referred to in the song are where the Freedom Riders stopped and experienced violence.”

Read more here:

“American Pie” by Don McLean

Don McLean wrote “American Pie” in Cold Spring, New York and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When asked what “American Pie” meant, McLean once joked during an interview, “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.”

 He added later in the interview: “You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me…. Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.”

McLean has since acknowledge that he did first learn about Buddy Holly’s death while folding newspapers for his paper route on the morning of February 3, 1959, (the line “February made me shiver/with every paper I’d deliver”).

On Don McLean’s official website (click here), it says about the song “American Pie”:

“American Pie” is partly biographical and partly the story of America during the idealized 1950s and the bleaker 1960s. It was initially inspired by Don’s memories of being a paperboy in 1959 and learning of the death of Buddy Holly. “American Pie” presents an abstract story of McLean’s life from the mid-1950s until the end of the 1960s, and at the same time it represents the evolution of popular music and politics over these years, from the lightness of the 1950s to the darkness of the late 1960s, but metaphorically the song continues to evolve to the present time. It is not a nostalgia song. “American Pie” changes as America, itself, is changing.”

“Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan

Its confrontational lyrics originated in an extended piece of verse Dylan wrote in June 1965, when he returned exhausted from a grueling tour of England. The basis of the song apparently came from an extended piece of verse.

In a 1966 interview, Dylan described the genesis of “Like a Rolling Stone”: “It was ten pages long. It wasn’t called anything, just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest. In the end it wasn’t hatred, it was telling someone something they didn’t know, telling them they were lucky. Revenge, that’s a better word. I had never thought of it as a song, until one day I was at the piano, and on the paper it was singing, “How does it feel?” in a slow motion pace, in the utmost of slow motion.”

In another interview during that time, Dylan said that he found himself writing “this long piece of vomit, 20 pages long, and out of it I took ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and made it as a single. And I’d never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that was what I should do … After writing that I wasn’t interested in writing a novel, or a play. I just had too much, I want to write songs.”

“Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” by Bruce Springsteen

Inspired by his relationship with his then girlfriend Diane Lozito, Bruce Springsteen  has said in interviews that he wrote the song “Rosalita” to be live show-stopper. He was inspired by the Soul revues in the ’60s where the artists would pour all their energy into their final song, and just when it seemed to be over, they keep playing.  Springsteen said he knew his audience would remember this when he played it. He also considers it the best love song he ever wrote.

After touring relentlessly around the Jersey Shore, he finally signed a record deal and got some money. Springsteen called the song, “A kiss-off to everybody who counted you out, put you down, or decided you weren’t good enough.”

“Rosalita” quickly became Springsteen’s most popular live song and was the last song before the encore at most of his shows from 1973-1984.

After appearing on the covers of Time and Newsweek in October,1975, Springsteen sometimes changed the words of the song to “Tell your papa I ain’t no freak, ’cause I got my picture on the cover of Time and Newsweek.”

“Let it Bleed” by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

Keith Richards’ claims his fingers began to bleed as he played acoustic guitar for hours while Mick Jagger worked with an engineer on the drum track while this song was being put together. At least that’s the story the band tells. As stated in my blog, the more likely meaning is the phrase “Let It Bleed” is intravenous drug user slang for successfully finding a vein. The syringe plunger is pulled back and if blood appears, is called letting it bleed.

“Who’ll Stop the Rain” by John Fogarty

Interpreting the song in its time period (1970), many saw “Who’ll Stop the Rain” as a thinly veiled protest against the Vietnam War, with the final verse lyrics and its references to music, large crowds, rain, and crowds trying to keep warm. There is also a line during the song’s second verse about “five-year plans and new deals wrapped in golden chains” that may indicate a general cynicism altogether about politicians.

But in 2007 during a concert in Shelburn, Vermont, song-writer John Fogarty confirmed that the song was not about the war. He said the following about “Who’ll Stop the Rain”:

“Well this next song has a bit of a fable surrounding it. A lot of folks seem to think I sang this song at Woodstock way back then. No, I was at Woodstock… I think. It was a nice event. I’m a California kid. I went up there and saw a whole bunch of really nice young people. Hairy. Colorful. It started to rain, and got really muddy, and then (yelling) half a million people took their clothes off! Boomer generation making its presence know I guess. Anyway, then I went home and wrote this song.”

“Layla” by Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon

The title, “Layla”, was inspired by the story of Layla and Majnun, by the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. When he wrote “Layla”, Clapton had been told the story by his friend Ian Dallas, who was in the process of converting to Islam. Nizami’s tale, about a moon princess who was married off by her father to someone other than the one who was desperately in love with her, resulting in Majnun’s madness, struck a deep chord with Clapton.

Pattie Boyd, the inspiration behind the lyrics, divorced George Harrison in 1974 and married Clapton in 1979 during a concert stop in Tucson, Arizona. Harrison, best friends with Clapton, was not bitter about the divorce and attended Clapton’s wedding party with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by Robbie Robertson

The song’s lyric refers to conditions in the Southern states in the winter of early 1865, the last days of the Civil War. (“We were hungry / Just barely alive”). The Confederacy is starving and on the verge of defeat. Reference is made to the date May 10, 1865, by which time the Confederate capital of Richmond had long since fallen (in April); May 10 marked the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the definitive end of the Confederacy.

Songwriter Robbie Robertson claimed that he had the music to the song in his head but had no idea what it was to be about: “At some point [the concept] blurted out to me. Then I went and I did some research and I wrote the lyrics to the song.”

Robertson continued: “When I first went down South, I remember that a quite common expression would be, “Well don’t worry, the South’s gonna rise again.” At one point when I heard it I thought it was kind of a funny statement and then I heard it another time and I was really touched by it. I thought, ‘God, because I keep hearing this, there’s pain here, there is a sadness here.’ In Americana land, it’s a kind of a beautiful sadness.”

It’s interesting that Robertson was inspired to write a song about America’s most costly war. After all, the song is not related to his heritage, as Robertson is half-Mohawk Indian, half-Jewish Canadian.

“My Old School” by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

The song is at least partially inspired by an event that occurred at Bard, where both Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, along with their girlfriends, were arrested in a pot raid on a party that was orchestrated by an ambitious young District Attorney named G. Gordon Liddy (hence the line “Tried to warn ya about Geno and Daddy G”). Despite the fact that California has not (yet) tumbled into the sea, both Fagen and Becker have returned to Bard.

In its March 24, 2006 edition, Entertainment Weekly details a return trip to Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York by Fagen, in which he describes a raid by sheriff’s deputies in May 1969. Fagen, his girlfriend Dorothy White, Steely Dan bandmate Becker, and some 50 other students were arrested. Charges were dropped, but the harassment was the origin of the grudge alluded to in “My Old School”. Fagen was reportedly so upset with the school b eing complicit with the arrests that he refused to attend graduation.

“Ohio” by Neil Young

Neil Young said he wrote the lyrics to “Ohio” after seeing the photos of the incident in Life Magazine. On the evening that CSN&Y entered Record Plant Studios in Los Angeles, the song had already been rehearsed, and the quartet with their regular rhythm section recorded it live in just a few takes. During the same session they recorded the single’s equally direct B-side, Stephen Stills’s ode to the war’s dead, “Find the Cost of Freedom”.

In his liner notes for the song on the Decade retrospective, Young termed the Kent State incident as “probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning” and reported that “David Crosby cried when we finished this take.”[ Indeed, Crosby can be heard keening “Four, why? Why did they die?” and “How many more?” in the fade.

“Gimme Three Steps” by Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins

The song is reportedly based on a real-life experience Ronnie Van Zant had at a biker bar in Jacksonville known as The Pastime, including having a gun pulled on him, and thus inspiring him to write the lyrics on his way home. In some later live versions after the plane crash and the band reformed with Ronnie’s brother, Johnny, Johnny would often change the line “Wait a minute, mister, I didn’t even kiss her!” to “Wait a minute, mister, I didn’t STICK her!”, emphasizing on the word “stick” and proclaiming the narrator’s innocence.

As Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington tells it, lead singer Van Zant, who was about 18 at the time, used a fake ID to get in a bar while his younger band mates Rossington and Allen Collins waited for him in a truck. Van Zant danced with a girl named Linda, whose boyfriend, who was not too happy about it, came up to Ronnie and reached for something in his boot. Figuring he was going for a gun, Van Zant told him: “If you’re going to shoot me it’s going to be in the ass or the elbows… just gimme a few steps and I’ll be gone.” He ran to the truck, and he, Rossington, and Collins wrote this song that night.

“I Want to Hold Your Hand” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote this in Jane Asher’s basement. Asher was an actress who became Paul’s first high-profile girlfriend. After appearing in several movies, TV shows and stage productions, Asher became an authority on baking, and has her own business selling party cakes and supplying baking and decorating equipment. She and Paul broke up in 1968.Jane had a brother named Pete Asher who teamed up with Gordon Waller to form the duo Peter & Gordon and McCartney wrote for them their hit single “A World Without Love.”
Pete recalled in a 2010 interview with the two Beatles penning this song at his home: “My mother had a practice room that she used to give private oboe lessons when she wasn’t teaching at The Royal Academy, where she was a professor. There was just a piano, and an upright chair and a sofa. Paul used that room to write in, from time to time. One afternoon John came over, while I was upstairs in my room. The two of them were in the basement for an hour or so, and Paul called me down to listen to a song they had just finished. I went downstairs and sat on the sofa, and they sat side by side, on the piano bench. That’s where they played ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ for the first anywhere. They asked me what I thought. I said, ‘I think it’s very good.'”
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