Some of the biggest songs in history were written about unexpectedly deep subject matter. While many of history’s best songs are straightforward, others aren’t so cut and dry.
Whether it’s the disturbing incident that inspired Van Halen’s “Jump,” the court case that inspired Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” or the love triangle behind the Eric Clapton-penned “Layla,” there are some truly crazy backstories behind some of your favorite songs. Here are a few of the most surprising.
“Billie Jean” might be one of Michael Jackson’s most beloved songs, but the story behind it is terrifying. According to legend, Jackson had been receiving letters from a woman who claimed that he was the father of her child. The letter writer was relentless, constantly proclaiming her love for Jackson while trying to convince him to start a life with her. Jackson was so disturbed by the letters that he often had nightmares about them.
One day, Jackson received a package from the same woman that included a letter, a photo, and a gun. She wanted him to kill himself and said that she’d kill herself and her baby so that they could be together in another life. The incident inspired Jackson to work through the horror he felt and write a song that addressed the woman indirectly.
The tragic story of The Temptations‘ hit “I Wish It Would Rain” began and ended with lyricist Rodger Penzabene. Prior to the song’s recording, Penzabene caught his wife having an affair, and became so distraught and depressed that he wrote a song about it.
The song was recorded and released in 1967, but Penzabene never got to witness its success. Two weeks after its release, Penzabene was so overcome with emotions over his wife’s affair that he took his own life.
Led Zeppelin‘s “All My Love” sounds like a simple love song but masks a devastating back story. The ballad was written about singer Robert Plant’s son, Karac, who died suddenly at the age of five from a stomach virus.
“I think it was just paying tribute to the joy that (Karac) gave us as a family and, in a crazy way, still does occasionally,” Plant later said of the song in an interview. “His mother (Maureen) and I, often, the memory… changes, the contrast, and the focus changes as time goes on. It’s a long time ago that we lost him. 40 years ago.”
Just two years later, Plant and then-wife Maureen gave birth to another son, Logan, who the singer says is so similar to his late child that the “two images are blurred.”
Bonnie Raitt’s heartbreaking “I Can’t Make You Love Me” was written by songwriters Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin. In an oral history of the song, Shamblin recalled that the inspiration came from the story of a homeless man who’d just gone through a difficult divorce.
“There was a guy living under a bridge, somewhere close to downtown Nashville, and in the story, he said his wife came to pick him up, under the bridge and took him down to the courthouse to get a divorce,” Shamblin said. “And he said, ‘We hugged, and we cried, and then we went through the divorce.” And he said, “You know, you just can’t make a woman love you.'”
Paul McCartney‘s classic Beatles song “Let It Be” was inspired by a dream he had about his mother. McCartney claimed he was struggling personally at the time, delving deeper into drugs and alcohol. One night, he came home from a long night and fell asleep. When he woke up, he realized he’d dreamed of his mother who died when he was just 14.
“My mother appeared, and there was her face, completely clear, particularly her eyes, and she said to me very gently, very reassuringly: ‘Let it be,'” McCartney said. “It was lovely. I woke up with a great feeling. It was really like she had visited me at this very difficult point in my life and gave me this message: Be gentle, don’t fight things, just try and go with the flow and it will all work out.”
McCartney woke up with inspiration and proceeded to write about his “mother Mary” in one of the most legendary songs in music history.
Aerosmith were working on music when songwriter Desmond Child was brought in to help them write. The band wasn’t particularly welcoming towards outside writers, except for singer Steven Tyler. Tyler showed Child a song he was writing called “Cruisin’ For The Ladies,” and Child told him he wasn’t a fan of the title.
It was then that Tyler explained that the original title was “Dude Looks Like A Lady,” and that it came from an experience he had while sitting at a bar. The singer looked over at what he thought was a girl with large blonde hair only to discover that it was actually Vince Neil from Motley Crue. The band started chanting, “that dude looks like a lady” to mock Neil, and a song was born.
Child said that Neil later found out about the song, and appreciated the humor in it.
“He had a good laugh. He knows that,” Child said in an interview.
The Fray‘s “How To Save A Life” was written after singer and songwriter Isaac Slade worked at a camp for troubled kids.
“One of the kids I was paired up with was a musician. Here I was, a protected suburbanite, and he was just 17 and had all these problems. And no one could write a manual on how to save him,” Slade explained.
The singer received a lot of heartbreaking responses after the song became a hit, one of which was the story of a young man who died in a car accident.
“I guess it had been the last song he downloaded from his computer. They played it at his funeral, and some of his friends got ‘Save a life’ tattooed on their arms,” he said. Slade added that the response to his hit song was “overwhelming.”
The 90s hit “The Way” might sound like an upbeat pop song, but it was actually written about a mysterious disappearance. The song was about an elderly Texas couple who disappeared from their home and the investigation that followed. The couple reportedly had medical issues that often made them confused, and they ended up 500 miles from home without their family knowing.
The couple’s remains were ultimately found at the bottom of a cliff in Arkansas, just a few weeks after they went missing.
“I enjoy singing it and I never forget the fact that without that one song, Fastball would have just been one of those bands I was in for a few years. Because of fame and success, I get to be an influence to a few folks out there. I am grateful,” songwriter Tony Scalzo later said of the song.
One of Van Halen’s biggest singles, “Jump” came from an unexpected source. The lyrics were written by singer David Lee Roth, who wrote the song’s hook after hearing guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s iconic synth line. Roth immediately thought of a story he’d seen on the news about a man who was threatening to jump off of a tower and commit suicide.
Roth recalled thinking that there would’ve been at least one person in the crowd around the jumper telling him to “go ahead and jump.” He wrote that single line first while being driven around Los Angeles.
The Kinks‘ hit “Lola” was written about the band’s manager, who went to a club one night and began dancing with someone he thought was a woman.
“Lola’ was a love song, and the person they fall in love with is a transvestite. It’s not their fault – they didn’t know – but you know it’s not going to last. It was based on a story about my manager,” singer Ray Davies said of the song.
Paul McCartney wrote “Hey Jude” after learning of his bandmate, John Lennon, getting a divorce from his wife Cynthia. He’d visited Cynthia and was thinking about the couple’s son, Julian, when he wrote the first line.
“I was going out in my car, just vaguely singing this song,” he told Rolling Stone. “And it was like, ‘Hey, Jules. . . .’ And then I just thought a better name was Jude. A bit more country & western for me.” The opening lines were “a hopeful message for Julian: ‘Come on, man, your parents got divorced. I know you’re not happy, but you’ll be OK.'”
Julian’s father ended up loving the song, though he famously interpreted it as being about his relationship with his then-new girlfriend Yoko Ono.
“He’s saying, ‘Hey, Jude — hey, John.’ Subconsciously he was saying, ‘Go ahead, leave me,'” Lennon later said.
When Eric Clapton wrote the lyrics for his Derek And The Dominos hit “Layla,” he was directing his words towards George Harrison’s wife. At the time, Clapton was trying to win Patti Harrison over and get her to leave her Beatle husband. In particular, the lyric “What’ll you do when things get lonely?” was meant as a question for Mrs. Harrison.
Generally, Clapton wrote the song after reading a 12th-century story called The Story Of Layla And Majnun, which was about a father who marries his daughter off to a man who wasn’t her true love – driving her actual true love insane.
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