Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published May 11th 2020
A musical love-in
I'm about to get meta here.
Sometimes an artist so likes another artist that they feel they have to write a song about them. Or sometimes they want to use that other artist as a metaphor for something else. Or sometimes there is nothing else that rhymes with "pelvis." So, there are a lot of songs about musicians by other musicians. In fact, I was surprised by just how many musicians wrote songs about other musicians. Going through my record collection, it was stunning how many I own without looking elsewhere. Musicians singing about one another. Sounds like a weird love-in, right?
Well, to be honest, yes, it is. But that's okay. The reasons for these songs being written are many and varied, but they are all about one specific person.
Before I start, I really needed to put some rules in here.
Second, the song has to be only about one artist. So 'American Pie', for all its Don McLean brilliance, being about a large number of musicians doesn't count.
Third, no autobiographical songs. This does mean the frankly awesome 'Ballad Of John & Yoko' by the Beatles and even more brilliant 'When We Was Fab' by George Harrison don't quite make it. Sorry. I felt bad leaving them out.
Finally, I have to like the song. And like it now. For example, when it first came out, I liked 'Marvin Gaye' by Charlie Pluth and Meaghan Trainor, but listening to it again for this column, it is a little too twee. Good at the time, hasn't survived the intervening years.
Before I start, an honourable mention: 'Roll Over Beethoven' by Chuck Berry (1956)
Why only an honourable mention? Well, it's because despite the title, the song is as much about Tchaikovsky as the titular Beethoven. However, it is still frankly brilliant, so I give it an honourable mention.
Now, I normally don't include comedy songs in these lists, but I need to include this: 'Smells Like Nirvana' by 'Weird Al' Yankovic (1992)
Who is it about? Kurt Cobain Specifically, this is making fun of the fact people have trouble understanding Cobain's singing, while at the same time parodying Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. Maybe it hasn't aged brilliantly for those who were not around at the time of grunge music, but I still think it is great. Cobain apparently liked the song, saying a 'Weird Al' parody was an indication that a band had "made it", while after his death his band-mates revealed that he had come to dislike '…Teen Spirit' and felt the parody was what the song deserved. In fact, it was claimed he liked the parody better than his original. Odd. But that's musicians for you.
Onto the list proper!
'Master Blaster (Jammin')' by Stevie Wonder (1980)
Who is it about? Bob Marley. One of Stevie Wonder's very best tracks, this was written as a tribute to Bob Marley following his death from cancer. With its reggae sound and staccato delivery, it was actually really well done. When this song first came out, I had never heard reggae before and I found it intriguing, so that when I had the freedom to find my own music, Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley struck me and I even didn't mind UB40. I was late to the party, but if not for Stevie Wonder, I would not even have been invited.
'Empty Garden' by Elton John (1982)
Who is it about? John Lennon When John Lennon was killed in 1980 there followed a heap of tributes. Some people covered his songs (Roxy Music did it best of all with their version of 'Jealous Guy'), and some wrote songs about him. The best came from George Harrison, and Paul McCartney didn't do a bad job, but I left them out because of the autobiographical content. However, too many were mawkish. Elton John was apparently wary of writing about his dead friend, but when he read the lyrics long-time collaborator Bernie Taupin gave him, he was relieved that it was something good. Something very good. John's catalogue is filled with excellent songs, and this one is definitely right up there. The piano playing and delivery are superb and it still sends shivers up my spine. A fitting tribute.
'Rock Me Amadeus' by Falco (1985)
Who is it about? Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Hot on the heels of the movie Amadeus, Euro-pop personage Falco recorded this track about the classical maestro. Filled with 1980s synth and strange lyrics and an odd delivery by Falco, it was a successful song and at Blue Light Discos it was guaranteed to see people dancing in a strange, jerky kind of manner. I'm not sure what else to say about it. It's weird yet wonderful. I like to think Mozart would have approved, considering how boundary-pushing he was.
'Under A Raging Moon' by Roger Daltrey (1986)
Who is it about? Keith Moon
Yeah, I sort of broke my own rules with this one – Keith Moon was in The Who with Roger Daltrey. But where Harrison's song was about being in the Beatles with Lennon, this track is about Moon being an insane madman. It's just about Moon being Moon. And the addition of a bunch of different drummers all having their own little drum solos at the end makes it so wonderful. The title track of my favourite Roger Daltrey solo album (which I will do a classic album review of one day), this is an awesome song. Interesting trivia: it was co-written by John Parr, of St Elmo's Fire title track fame. The drummers, though, make this more than just another tribute by a singer – this is a tribute by other drummers. Close to a perfect tribute to a dead friend by all involved.
'Elvis Is Everywhere' by Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper (1987)
Who is it about? Elvis Presley. Honestly.
Just a fun little song, really. It doesn't take itself too seriously, but it is still a tribute to Elvis Presley, recorded 10 years after his death. The concept is possibly sacrilegious – that Elvis is in everyone. Well, nearly everyone. "Michael J. Fox has no Elvis in him." It really does not take itself seriously, but it is still a tribute to an artist they actually enjoy. We don't have enough fun songs in the world.
'When Smokey Sings' by ABC (1987)
Who is it about? Smokey Robinson
ABC were known for the 1982 album The Lexicon Of Love and its string of charting hits. And then, according to the charts, they only made one comeback track – this one. That's unfair, but it's the way of popular music. However, this track is wonderful. Martin Fry still has that magical voice and the music is still that Northern soul sound ABC did so well. The song is about how hearing Smokey Robinson sing makes the world seem a better place. It is a song that is all but forgotten nowadays, but even Smokey himself said he liked the song and appreciated the compliment. That's high praise indeed.
'Sleeps With Angels' by Neil Young & Crazy Horse (1994)
Who is it about? Kurt Cobain
After hearing that Cobain quoted Young in his suicide note and was a huge fan of the old Canadian's work, Young felt he had to write this song in tribute to the dead youngster. Despite the bass-heavy sound, this song still mirrors the grunge for which Cobain was the leader… and which Young was recognised as the god-father. It is a little depressing, with its tone and lyrics of a guy struggling with his woman (was that Courtney Love, drugs or the music itself?), it is still a fitting tribute without being mawkish or worshipful.
'The Ballad Of Tom Jones by Space and Cerys Matthews (1998)
Who is it about? Tom Jones (as if you couldn't guess)
This is a strange song lyrically, where the music of Tom Jones saved a relationship (actually, "You stopped us from killing each other…"). In that regard, it is such an odd song, but it is a really good song musically. I love this song. Cerys Matthews' (from Catatonia) voice fits so incredibly well. And what did Tom himself think of it? Well, he performed it live on TV with Space, so he clearly had no issues with the track. Good on him, I say. Awesome song.
'Do It With Madonna' by The Androids (2002)
Who is it about? Madonna
This song, it could be argued, breaks my rules. But where other female singers are mentioned, the main person this focuses on, and the chorus' main character, is Madonna, and the singer's lust for her. This is another fun song, sure, but it has really fallen by the wayside. When it was first released, it took me ages to find it. In Adelaide, I could not get it. Sanity records said they had it, but… nope. I had to ring a friend in Melbourne and she went and found it for me. At an independent record store. It was my friend who asked what was going on, and she discovered the retailers were afraid of stocking it because apparently (and allegedly) Madonna's record company was not happy. And yet – yet! – I have read an interview where Madonna said she was, "Flattered," by it. Record companies being morons, I guess. Still, I do like this song… in fact, I like this song better than 99% of Madonna's own songs.
'Moves Like Jagger' by Maroon 5 with Christina Aguilera (2011)
Who is it about? Mick Jagger
I feel guilty for liking this. I am so not a fan of Maroon 5. And this style of music is not the sort of music I normally listen to (yes, I have admitted to liking some Taylor Swift). But this song… I was teaching at the time and had fallen into running the school discos and this song had to be played because all the kids loved it. So maybe it was that exposure that did it to me. It is a bit of fun pop about a guy whose seduction technique involves mimicking Mick Jagger. Has he seen Mick Jagger and his chicken dance on stage, or the dad dancing in the 'Dancing In The Street' video with David Bowie? Oh well, whatever works. It is a totally infectious song. And what did Mick himself think of it? Like Madonna: "Flattering." Good on him.
Ten songs about musicians by other musicians. (Or twelve, if we count the comedy song and the honourable mention.) And, I reckon, all of them are positive in tone. When musicians like each other, it does make the world seem like a better place, especially when they put it out there for all to hear. I hope you also enjoyed these tracks.