The Fascinating Untold Stories Behind Some of Our Favorite Songs

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Sure, everyone knows that Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” is about about his son falling from a window, Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” may or may not be about Warren Beatty, and “In the Air Tonight” is not about watching someone drown. But there are plenty of other less well-documented backstories behind popular songs — like the one that surfaced over the weekend about The Beatles’ “Get Back” starting its life as a dubious satire called “No Pakistanis.” Wisely, the band rewrote the lyrics before releasing the song, but it remains a pretty fascinating piece of history, and our cue to discuss the less-documented stories lurking behind some of the songs in our iTunes collection.

The Flaming Lips — “The Spiderbite Song”

If you watched the excellent Soft Bulletin documentary that premiered on Pitchfork last month, you’ll know that the “spiderbite” in question is one that drummer Stephen Drozd allegedly suffered during the recording of the album. It slowly became clear that he hadn’t been bitten by a spider at all — the marks in question were from shooting heroin, which Drozd was doing an awful lot at the time.

Bob Marley — “I Shot the Sheriff”

Clearly, the man himself isn’t around to tell the story behind this song anymore, but his ex-girlfriend surfaced last year, claiming that it is in fact about his displeasure at her being on the contraceptive pill. Apparently the sheriff John Brown of the lyric is an allusion to the doctor prescribing her the pill, which does rather make sense when you look at the lyric: “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.”

Grimes — “Oblivion”

The euphoric gender-inverting video and generally upbeat tone of “Oblivion” meant that plenty of people didn’t listen as carefully as they should have done to the lyrics. Once you do, the darkness that underpins the song becomes clear — it deals with sexual assault and its after effects: “I never walk about after dark/ It’s my point of view/ That someone could break your neck/ Coming up behind you, always coming and you’d never have a clue.” As Claire Boucher told Spin late last year, “I took one of the most shattering experiences of my life and turned it into something I can build a career on and that allows me to travel the world. I play it live every night. The whole process has been positive — engaging with that subject matter and making it into something good.”

R.E.M. — “Seven Chinese Brothers”

We came across the story behind this song on Matthew Perpetua’s Pop Songs 07-08 blog the other day when we were writing our feature on R.E.M. obscurities. Apparently Michael Stipe told Spin in 2008 that the song was “about me breaking up a couple — and then dating both of them, a man and a woman, which is a terrible thing to do, but I was young and stupid.” Stipe, you sly dog!

Leonard Cohen — “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy”

Cohen is often accused of being depressing, and while those accusations are sometimes unfounded, well, yeah, sometimes he is. This particularly forlorn Songs From a Room highlight is particularly fascinating because of the story of the real Nancy, which is related here by her nephew. The song’s inspiration was a deeply troubled soul who spent her youth in and out of psychiatric institutions and eventually took her own life. Sigh.

The Beatles — “Ticket to Ride”

Is the titular “ticket to ride” an allusion to cards carried by Hamburg prostitutes in the mid-’60s, indicating that they were disease-free and ready to, um, ride? According to Beatles biographer Don Short, the answer is yes: he claims John Lennon explained the song’s meaning to him way back in 1966. “He could have been joking,” he wrote, “[because] you always had to be careful with John like that — but I certainly remember him telling me that.”

Townes Van Zandt — “Pancho and Lefty”

It’s inspired by a sort of Fear and Loathing-style expedition to find a hotel near Dallas while Billy Graham and the Maharishi were both in town, apparently. Listen to the great man himself relate the story himself above.

Radiohead — “Pyramid Song”

Inspired by Buddhism, quantum gravity, and a trip to an exhibition of ancient Egyptian paraphernalia. Honestly. Thom Yorke explains: “That song literally took five minutes to write, but yet it came from all these mad places. [It’s] something I never thought I could actually get across in a song and lyrically. [But I] managed it and that was really, really tough. [Physicist] Stephen Hawking talks about the theory that time is another force. It’s [a] fourth dimension and [he talks about] the idea that time is completely cyclical, it’s always doing this [spins finger]. It’s a factor, like gravity. It’s something that I found in Buddhism as well. That’s what Pyramid Song’ is about, the fact that everything is going in circles.”

Van Halen — “Jump”

The story about this being inspired by David Lee Roth hearing a bunch of people trying to convince a man not to jump off a building, and thinking that he wished the guy would jump, is one of the more persistent in the world of music. Apparently it’s also true, at least according to an interview the singer did with Lisa Robinson in 1984: “I was watching television one night and it was the five o’clock news and there was a fellow standing on top of the Arco Towers in Los Angeles and he was about to check out early, he was going to do the 33 stories drop — and there was a whole crowd of people in the parking lot downstairs yelling, ‘Don’t jump, don’t jump’ and I thought to myself, ‘Jump.'”

Prince — “Sister”

And finally, you can always rely on the Prince forums for a thorough (over)analysis of a song — and so it goes with “Sister,” the Purple One’s account of being “only 16 but I guess that’s no excuse/ My sister was 32, lovely, and loose.” It turns out that Prince did indeed stay with his half-sister for a while at the age of 16, when she would have been… um, 32. No one’s saying any more. Clearly.