Music is a form of art. Every musician and band has their own unique style and vision that they translate into their music. They also take inspiration from every place they can find it. Whether that be in nature, events that take place in the world or people that come into their lives. It’s going to be different every time. We gathered some of the biggest hits and classics from the past decades and uncovered the real story behind each and every one of them. Read on to find out the exciting real-life inspirations behind some of your favorite songs of all time.
It might come as a surprise, but Dolly Parton’s song “I Will Always Love You” is not actually about a romantic relationship, as would be expected by the title. The song is actually about a professional breakup with her mentor, producer and duet partner, Porter Wagoner.
Wagoner discovered Parton in 1967 and offered her a permanent role on his television show “The Porter Wagoner Show.” Together, the pair topped music charts but Parton had always dreamed of having a successful solo career. Wagoner didn’t want her to leave so she told him the best way she knew how, with her music.
Joni Mitchell was scheduled to perform at Woodstock but ended up canceling due to a prior engagement. Instead, she appeared on The Dick Cavett Show. But according to her, she was able to understand the importance of the festival much more due to not being present.
“The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock,” she later explained in an interview. She first performed her song “Woodstock” live just one month after the historical festival, and captured the spirit of Woodstock so well the song has taken on a life of its own as a counterculture anthem.
There was much speculation around the inspiration for Cat Stevens’ song “Wild World.” Many people assumed that he had written the song about his then-girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville. But, according to the musician himself, it actually wasn’t about her at all.
Cat Stevens revealed in a 2009 interview that, in fact, he wrote the song about himself. “I was trying to relate to my life… I’d done my career before, and I was sort of warning myself to be careful this time around, because it was happening. It was not me writing about somebody specific,” Stevens said.
The Knack’s iconic song “My Sharona” was inspired by a real life love for a girl named Sharona Alperin. Lead vocalist Doug Fieger fell in love with Alperin when she he was 25-years-old. She was the muse for a number of the band’s songs.
“It was like getting hit in the head with a baseball bat; I fell in love with her instantly,” Fieger reminisced. He stated that the only way he knew to express his love for her was in the form of music. According to the musician, “My Sharona” was written in about 15 minutes.
The inspiration behind the Nirvana song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is actually deodorant… but according to the author of the song, Kurt Cobain, he had no idea until after the song was already released. A friend of his wrote the phrase “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on his wall, referring to him smelling like the woman’s deodorant.
Cobain’s then-girlfriend Tobi Vail wore teen spirit deodorant and the smell would stick to him. Cobain has stated that he thought the phrase teen spirit sounded like it had a much deeper and revolutionary meaning. Guess it just depends on how you look at things.
Eric Clapton wrote the song “Layla” during his time with the band Derek and the Dominos. A 7th-century story of unrequited love was used as the song’s inspiration, but it also had another hidden meaning, also consisting of unrequited love.
Eric Clapton wrote the song with Pattie Boyd in mind. Clapton had fallen madly in love with Boyd, however, she was already married to The Beatles musician George Harrison. The couple ended up splitting and in the end, Clapton married Boyd. The song has frequently been called one of the greatest rock songs of all time.
Bob Marley’s song “I Shot the Sheriff” topped the charts worldwide and quickly became an anthem against corruption and injustice. Most people assumed, and Marley himself confirmed, that the “sheriff” mentioned in the song was a metaphor for “elements of wickedness.”
It was only later revealed, in 2011, that there was a deeper, more personal layer to the song’s lyrics. According to Esther Anderson, the music sensation’s former girlfriend, the lyrics were inspired by a disagreement over the use of birth control, which Marley was against. This is especially apparent in the line: “Every time I plant a seed/He said kill it before it grow.”
“You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon is one of the best breakup songs of all time. If it isn’t on your go-to breakup playlist then you aren’t doing it right. It wasn’t until decades later that the singer actually confirmed who the song was written about.
And even then, she only confirmed part of it. Apparently, the song was written about multiple people, but the one who stands out is actor and former heartthrob Warren Beatty. Speculations have been made that another one of the “vain men” is David Geffen but Simon dismissed the rumors as false.
It may surprise you to learn that “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” one of the world’s greatest songs of all time, actually started as a joke. The band’s drummer and guitarist were warming up for a jam session and began playing a circus melody.
Axl Rose, the band’s lead singer, like the sound so much that he decided to turn it into a full song with chords and lyrics. The band’s guitarist, Slash, has gone on record as saying that the song makes him sick and that he hates what it stands for. Millions of fans worldwide would disagree!
“Oh Sherrie” was Steve Perry’s biggest hit during his solo career after leaving the rock band Journey. The song, as apparent by the name, was written about his relationship with his then-girlfriend Sherrie Swafford. In fact, she was even in the room when he started writing the song.
Their relationship, however, didn’t last and the two eventually split. But they will forever have the hit song to remember their love by. The 1984 hit single peaked at number one on the US Billboard Top Tracks chart and number three on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart.
The hit song “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel was originally titled “Uptown Girls” plural. Joel explained that the song was inspired by his life. At the time he felt that he was just a downtown guy surrounded by numerous uptown girls.
The song was originally written about his then-girlfriend, famous supermodel Elle Macpherson. Then after the two broke up he began a relationship with his future wife Christie Brinkley. So, the song is, in part, about both women who both happen to be famous supermodels. The hit song peaked at number three on the music chart Billboard Hot 100.
British synth-pop band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) released their single “Enola Gay” in 1980, the band’s only single on the album Organisation. If you’ve ever hear the song, you’ve probably asked yourself who or what exactly is Enola Gay.
The Enola Gay was the name of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima at the end of World War II. The plane was named after the pilot’s mother. The group have stated that they are big geeks about WWII airplanes, and the song even references 8:15, the exact time the bomb exploded causing clocks to freeze due to the electromagnetic pulse.
Leonard Cohen wrote the song “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” based on a real-life encounter that he had with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. The two had a short-lived romance at the hotel and Cohen ended up writing a song about it.
At some of his live performances, Cohen said in pretty plain language that the encounter was with Janis Joplin, even if he didn’t use her name. He later came to regret revealing that the song was about her and apologized publicly.
Elton John and his songwriter Bernie Taupin together wrote the song “Philadelphia Freedom” for Elton John’s good friend Bill Jean King. King was the number one women’s tennis player at the time, but you would never know it by listening to the song.
His lyricist, Taupin, firmly stated that he couldn’t “write a song about tennis,” so the song is more of a homage to King by reference to her tennis team, named the Philadelphia Freedoms. Elton John has stated that he was greatly moved by King’s passion for philanthropy and equal rights work.
John Lennon wrote the song “The Ballad of John and Yoko” while the couple was on their honeymoon in Paris. The song, as the name suggests, is about Lennon and Ono’s marriage. The two married in a secret ceremony in Gibraltar.
The two then went on a public honeymoon in Amsterdam where they posed for their iconic “bed-in” photograph in protest of war. The song was condemned by the Spanish government due to the controversy surrounding the status of Gibraltar, as well as by certain Christian groups due to references to Christ. Lennon stated repeatedly that the verses were concerning how he personally felt persecuted and that he was “walking a tightrope” due to lawsuits against him. Still, many stations either bleeped out the word Christ or simply banned the song altogether.
Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is the best-selling digital track of the entire 20th century. The song is well-known for the line mentioning being “born and raised in south Detroit,” which sounds like a real place. But the line left most Detroit residents scratching their heads.
The lead singer and author of the song, Steve Perry, only found out later that there was no such place. In fact, the area south of Detroit is Canada. “I tried north Detroit, I tried east and west and it didn’t sing, but south Detroit sounded so beautiful. I loved the way it sounded, only to find out later it’s actually Canada,” Steve later said.
Despite it’s light and cheery title, the hit song 99 Luftballons by the German artist Nena actually has a very deep and profound meaning. The song is an anti-war protest song, not what you were expecting? It will definitely have you looking at red balloons differently.
Based on what could happen if balloons floated over the Berlin Wall into the Soviet sector, the lyrics talk about one side deciding to simply shoot the balloons down and the second side interpreting that as an act of aggression. An all-out 99 year war breaks out and destroys everything, all over innocent balloons.
Deep Purple’s classic song “Smoke on the Water” was inspired by actual smoke on the water. But the song isn’t about what you might think. The inspiration came from a fire at a casino in Montreux, Switzerland. The band was due to record an album at the casino when a fire erupted.
An audience member fired a flare gun during Frank Zappa’s performance and the building caught fire. A thick layer of smoke covered Lake Geneva and their hit song was born. The band was also a bit reluctant about the name of the song because the reference to smoke made the song sound like “a drug song,” but they eventually decided on keeping the title.
Madonna, indisputably the Queen of Pop and the best-selling female recording artist of all time, wrote the song “True Blue” for her first husband, Sean Penn. Madonna described Penn as the “coolest guy in the universe” in the notes of the album.
Madonna says that the song, as well as the album, is about true love. The music for the song was inspired by numerous Motown girl groups from the 60. Rolling Stone magazine lauded the album, stating that it was written directly from the heart.
Anything can inspire a song. Patti Smith proved that when she wrote “Constantine’s Dream,” a ten-minute nineteen-second song about Christopher Columbus. Smith explained that the song was made as an improvised mediation about Columbus “having a dream of the environmental apocalypse of the 21st century.”
“It questions the role of artists in our society. The questions are there, and they’re not answerable questions. They’re more things that we contemplate and ruminate constantly,” Smith was quoted as saying, adding that there are a million questions one asks oneself.
The song “Peggy Sue” was originally called “Cindy Lou,” after Holly’s niece but he ended up changing the title to “Peggy Sue” for his drummer Jerry Allison. Allison had been dating a woman named “Peggy Sue” and was trying to win her back.
Luckily the song ended up doing the trick and the two got back together. After the couple wed, Holly recorded a demo of a song called “Peggy Sue Got Married.” The recording was only later found after Buddy Holly’s death in 1959.
The launch of the Apollo 11 inspired many great songs, including the song “Higher and Higher” by The Moody Blues. The song begins with the sound of a rocket launching. They had planned on using a recording they received from NASA for the song but it didn’t work out.
The band described the recording of the launch as a “damp squib” and ultimately ended up creating their own launch via sound effects. The song became so popular that the crew of the Apollo 15 listened to it during their journey into space.
The John Lennon song “Remember,” released in 1970, was heavily influenced by his primal therapy sessions with psychotherapist Dr. Janov, as well as Guy Fawkes’ 1605 gunpowder plot in which he attempted to blow up the House of Lords by igniting explosives beneath the building.
The song appeared on Lennon’s very first official solo album entitled John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. The album was highly personal and revealed many aspects of Lennon’s childhood and relationship with his parents. The album was released on the same day as Yoko Ono’s matching album, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band.
The Simon & Garfunkel hit “Scarborough Fair” is based on just that, a fair in the Yorkshire town of Scarborough. The song is a traditional English ballad that tells the tale of a young lover telling his former partner to complete a series of impossible tasks.
The woman, in reply, tells her former lover that she will give the impossible to make item to him, but only if he completes a series of equally impossible tasks. The former requests of his former lover to sew a shirt without a seam and wash it in a dry well. He promises to take her back if she completes all the tasks and gives him the shirt.
Steely Dan’s song “Black Friday” was written long before the shopping holiday came along. In fact, it’s about the investment ploy. A number of wealthy investors banded together to corner the market on gold. They drove up the prices by buying as much gold as possible.
The ploy, which occurred in 1869, ultimately failed. The government caught on to what the investors were attempting to do and released $4 million worth of gold. The release drove the price of gold down to the floor and bankrupted the investors. Not so rock n’ roll, huh?
Gwen Stefani wrote “Don’t Speak” along with her older brother Eric. The song was originally written as a love song about Gwen Stefani’s relationship with fellow No Doubt member, bass guitarist Tony Kanal. But when the two broke up, Stefani completely rewrote the lyrics.
“It used to be more upbeat, more of a Seventies rock-type thing. [When] Tony and I broke up… it turned into a sad song,” Stefani commented. While it is regrettable that Stefani and Kanal broke up, the song ended up being a big hit for the band.
The epic song “American Pie” by Don McLean is a cryptic masterpiece of American music. The song very clearly references ‘The Day the Music Died” which is the day that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson perished in a plane crash.
Apart from the obvious references, the song “American Pie” is a critique of American society as a whole and that the song is about things going in the wrong direction. “There is no poetry and very little romance in anything anymore, so it is really like the last phase of American Pie,” McLean commented.
The Kinks’ song “Lola” was inspired by a real-life event experienced by their manager at a club. During a night of drinking he began dancing with what appeared to be a woman but, in fact, was a transvestite, speculated to be the famous Candy Darling, who was also mentioned in Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.”
According to the manager, he knew that she was a transvestite from the beginning and that the two danced, then had dinner together. The encounter inspired the lyrics from the song, including a line that states she (Lola) “walked like a woman but talked like a man.”
Paul Simon wrote his hit song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” after doing just that, leaving his lover. The song was written shortly after he and his then-wife Peggy Harper separated. After they split, Simon began his relationship with actress Carrie Fisher. And if you’re thinking that the song must be epically long to list 50 ways, you’d be wrong.
In fact, Simon only actually lists five ways to leave your lover. Those include slipping out the back, making a new plan, setting yourself free, hopping on a bus and finally dropping of the key and getting yourself free. Wise words indeed.
Joan Baez’ song entitled “China” is about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. According to the singer, she wrote the song to “condemn the Chinese government for its violent and bloody crackdown on thousands of student protesters who called for the establishment of democratic republicanism.”
Baez, over the years, has been a very vocal activist for freedom and human rights on issues all around the world. The singer, songwriter, musician, and activist has been performing for over 59 years and has released over 30 total albums.
The song “Casey Jones” by American rock band Grateful Dead didn’t actually start out as a song. Robert Hunter, the lyricist of the song, stated that one day he just started absentmindedly writing some lines out on a piece of paper.
And just like that, the words “driving that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones, you better watch your speed,” flowed out of him. It was only later on that Hunter realized that the words would be good fodder for a song. And he certainly was right! The song is now one of the band’s best-known songs, even among non-Deadheads.
Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot wrote the song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” in commemoration of the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. The ship got lost in a storm in November of 1975 and went down with all 29 crewmembers.
The ship was fully loaded and on route to Detroit, then to Cleveland to dock for the winter. Lightfoot has stated that he considers “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” to be his finest work. The song, to date, is his second most successful single.
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” was written as a tribute to former Pink Floyd band member Syd Barrett who was replaced and hospitalized due to personal issues. Barrett was a big influence within the band during their early years, thus they decided to write a song about him.
One day Barrett returned to the recording studio, supposedly on the same day that they were working on the lyrics for “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” and the band members barely recognized him as he had gained weight and shaved his head and eyebrows.
The most well-known version of “Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus” was recorded by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. The song was written by Gainsbourg for his girlfriend Brigitte Bardot. Bardot reportedly asked her musician boyfriend to write her the most beautiful love song ever.
The final product was not what Bardot was expecting. The song was so overtly sexual that it was banned in a number of countries. So overtly sexual, in fact, that there was an erotic film released by the exact same name, with Gainsbourg as the director.
The Rolling Stones hit song “Brown Sugar” was written by Mick Jagger and inspired by Marsh Hunt, who was Jagger’s secret girlfriend at the time. Although the two never married, they did go on to have a beautiful baby girl named Karis.
Many also say that soul singer Claudia Lennear was part of the inspiration behind “Brown Sugar”. She stated such in an interview on BBC’s Radio 4 in 2014. Lennear said that during the time the song was recorded, she and Mick Jagger were close friends.