Somebody tell me what it’s all about

I’ve received quite a lot of response to the posts I’ve made here where I reveal the back story and true meaning behind some well-known classic rock songs.

In two installments in 2021, I explained (or let the composers explain) what the less-than-clear lyrics were really driving at, and many readers said they were surprised to learn things about songs they thought they knew. I featured songs like Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” Yes’s “Roundabout” and Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris,” which each have fascinating origin stories. You can read about them at these links: https://hackbackpages.com/2021/05/07/lord-do-you-know-what-i-mean/

https://hackbackpages.com/2021/07/30/were-gonna-find-out-what-its-all-about/

In the week’s post, I offer background information on eight more songs you thought you knew. This is the kind of stuff I love to research and write about, and I hope you continue to enjoy reading about them. As is customary, there is a Spotify playlist at the end so you can conveniently hear these tunes anew.

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“Baba O’Riley,” The Who, 1971

Many people think this epic track by The Who is titled “Teenage Wasteland,” from the oft-repeated line in the lyrics. But in fact, Pete Townshend came up with the title by merging the names of two people that inspired him the most at that time in his life: Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual master with hundreds of thousands of followers, and Terry Riley, an influential but obscure American composer who experimented with minimalist concepts. Both pursued the idea of oneness — the notion of one absolute deity, and music with modal repetition of one note. Townshend wrote the piece as his vision of what would happen if the spirit of Meher Baba was fed into a computer and transformed into music. The result would be Baba in the style of Riley, or “Baba O’Riley.” It was to be the leadoff track of “Lifehouse” (another rock opera to follow “Tommy”), about a Scottish family that would set out across the hinterland for London, where a divine concert was to be held. The project was aborted, but this and several other songs from it were collected for the “Who’s Next” LP in 1971. Following The Who’s performances at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight festivals in 1969, Townshend said he was disturbed to see the acres of trash and all the drug-addled teenagers which, together, comprised what he disparagingly called “teenage wasteland.”

“Fire and Rain,” James Taylor, 1970

As the song that introduced Taylor to the mainstream, “Fire and Rain” is a remarkably personal work, much more so than any of his other hits. The chorus is straightforward enough, referring to life’s balance between the good times (“I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end”) and bad times (“I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend”) he has experienced. The verses, though, are separate vignettes about different challenges he has had to face. First he agonizes over the news that his troubled friend Suzanne had committed suicide six months earlier (“Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone”). Then he shares how difficult it has been to recover from depression and addiction, calling out for help one day at a time: “Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus? You gotta help me make a stand, you’ve just got to see me through another day…” In verse three, he comes to grips with fame and fortune, and mentions the struggles he had in his first band, The Flying Machine, before his big break (“Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground”). He concludes with a final reference to his friend (“Thought I’d see you one more time again”) and a nod to his imminent success (“There’s just a few things coming my way this time around now…”).

“In the Air Tonight,” Phil Collins, 1981

This powerful song, full of restless anticipation, was the leadoff track and first single from Collins’s first solo LP, “Face Value,” released in 1981. It reached #1 across Europe and #2 in the UK but managed only #19 in the US. I think it’s one of his very best songs ever — sonically, melodically and lyrically. Many listeners interpreted the song’s primary couplet (“I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord, /I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life, oh Lord”) as full of hope and excitement, but in fact, Collins wrote the song amid the grief he felt after divorcing his first wife in 1980. “I had a wife, two children, two dogs, and the next day I didn’t have anything,” he said in 1981. “So songs like ‘In the Air Tonight’ reflect the fact that I was going through these difficult emotional changes.” The mood is one of restrained anger, told in words that are seriously bitter and resentful: “Well, if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand… You can wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been, /It’s all been a pack of lies…” The music builds fairly ominously until the final chorus brings an explosive burst of drums to finally release the musical tension. Originally, Collins had offered it to his bandmates in Genesis as a track for their 1980 LP “Duke,” but they chose to turn him down, a decision they later regretted, said keyboardist Tony Banks. “It’s a hell of a song,” he conceded.

“Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” Elton John, 1975

In 1968, before Elton John became popular, and before he had acknowledged (even to himself) that he was gay, he became engaged to a female friend named Linda Woodrow. She had been a fan of the music he and collaborator Bernie Taupin were writing, and the three of them were sharing a place in London’s East End. Elton and Linda weren’t intimate, and he didn’t really love her, but she was putting on the hard-court press and, having just turned 21, he figured this was the next step people took at this time in their lives. Still, he felt uneasy about it, so much so that he even made a halfhearted attempt to kill himself with a gas oven in his home. Finally, it was John’s gay friend Long John Baldry who stepped in, publicly scolding him. “What are you doing living with a fucking woman? Wake up and smell the roses. You’re gay. Hell, you love Bernie more than you love her!” He broke it off with Linda the next morning and never saw her again. Six years later, for the 1975 LP “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” Taupin wrote the story of that evening as “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” with these harsh words about Linda: “You almost had your hooks in me, didn’t you dear? You nearly had me roped and tied, alter-bound, hypnotized…” Despite its 6:45 length, it reached #4 on US charts as perhaps Elton John’s most personal single of all.

“Smoke on the Water,” Deep Purple, 1972

Ian Paice, drummer for Deep Purple throughout its lengthy career arc, had this to say about the band’s most well-known song: “The amazing thing with that song, and Ritchie (Blackmore)’s riff in particular, is that somebody hadn’t done it before, because it’s so gloriously simple and wonderfully satisfying.” Indeed. Total Guitar ranked “Smoke on the Water” #4 among the Top 20 Guitar Riffs of All Time, and it’s one of the first riffs every aspiring electric guitarist learns. The track was released on their “Machine Head” album in 1972, but the song didn’t become a Top Five hit single until more than a year later. As for the words, they’re not much of a mystery, but many folks may not realize that the lyrics tell a true story. In December 1971, Deep Purple had gone to Montreux, Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva, where they had planned to record their next album at the Montreux Casino complex, using the then-new Rolling Stones Mobile Studio. Unfortunately, at the venue’s final concert before closing for the season, a reckless fan of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention — “some stupid with a flare gun” — fired into the rattan-covered ceiling, which started a fire that burned the entire facility to ashes. From their hotel room across the lake, the band members could see only “smoke on the water, fire in the sky” as they watched “the biggest fire we’d ever seen.” The incident required the band to relocate to the abandoned Grand Hôtel de Territet nearby to quickly record their album in a makeshift manner. “No matter what we get out of this, I know we’ll never forget,” wrote singer/lyricist Ian Gillan.

“Shock the Monkey,” Peter Gabriel, 1980

A cursory look through the early albums in the Genesis catalog, when Gabriel was the colorful frontman, show he has a flair for fantasy and mystery, with dense lyrics that often had fans scratching their heads. This continued to a lesser extent once he went solo in 1977 with curious songs like “Solsbury Hill” and “Games Without Frontiers.” Gabriel raised the eyebrows of animal rights groups when his 1980 LP “Security” featured the song “Shock the Monkey” as its single. They overreacted to the suspicion that he was advocating using primates in objectionable laboratory tests. Gabriel dismissed these fears by explaining that it was actually a love song that examines how feelings of jealousy and rage can release our basic primal instincts. Indeed, he added that the original inspiration for the song’s lyrical motif came from, of all things, the cheesy 1962 monster film “King Kong Vs. Godzilla,” in which the enormous ape experienced a revived jolt of energy after being struck by lightning. Gabriel’s narrator warns his lover not to toy with his jealous feelings: “There is one thing you must be sure of, I can’t take any more, /Darling, don’t you monkey with the monkey, /Don’t you know you’re going to shock the monkey…”

“China Grove,” The Doobie Brothers, 1973

Early on in The Doobie Brothers’ career, they were on an extended road trip through Texas when they passed through the “blink and you’ll miss it” small town of China Grove just east of San Antonio. Songwriter Tom Johnston tucked that town’s name into his subconscious and, six months later, he retrieved it in order to write some lyrics to go with a killer riff/chords combination he’d been working on. “Most of my songs begin with the musical structure, the rhythm, the melody line,” said Johnston, “and the lyrics come later. All that middle bit about the sheriff and the samurai swords was inspired by Billy Payne’s rollicking piano parts.” Johnston came up with a tale about a few fictitious characters who lived there (“the preacher and the teacher, Lord, they’re a caution, they are the talk of the town…”), and how the town is full of “people (who) don’t seem to care, they just keep looking to the East…” Despite the town’s name and Johnston’s lyrics, fewer than 1% of the tiny population is Asian. It turns out the town was named China Grove because of a small grove of chinaberry trees that once stood near the train depot.

“Locomotive Breath,” Jethro Tull, 1971

I’ve been a fanatical follower of the music of Jethro Tull and its leader, Ian Anderson, since I first heard the debut LP “This Was” in a Cleveland record store in 1969. Once “Aqualung” was released in 1971, I was really obsessed, listening to that album every day for probably six months. “Locomotive Breath” has been a huge favorite of mine, and it became one of the two most often performed songs in the Tull catalog over the decades since. As for the lyrics, I was always taken by the sense of desperation in the lines, “And the train, it won’t stop going, no way to slow down.” But I was surprised to learn only recently that Anderson was actually talking obliquely about the problem of overpopulation. As he put it in 2016: “‘Locomotive Breath’ was about the runaway train of population growth and capitalism, and on those sorts of unstoppable ideas. We’re on this crazy train, and we can’t get off of it. Where is it going? Will it ever slow down? When I was born in 1947, the population of the planet was slightly less than a third of what it is today, so it should be a sobering thought that in one man’s lifetime, our population has more than tripled. You’d think population growth would have brought prosperity, happiness, food and a reasonable spread of wealth, but quite the opposite has happened, and is happening even more to this day.”

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It’s only words, and words are all I have

Some of my readers tell me they don’t much like my lyrics quizzes because they don’t do well. “I can’t recognize them, and if I do, I can’t tell you the song or even which band it is,” moaned one friend who I had presumed would be pretty good at it.

Well, hey, you know what? That’s okay. Everyone has things they’re good at doing, and things they’re not so good at doing. Me, I have a t-shirt that says, “80% of my brain is song lyrics.” I doubt that’s literally true, but it sure seems like it some days!

For this post, I think most people will score better than usual. I have selected lyrics from well-known songs of the Sixties. For those of us who are now in our 60s, these songs were at the top of the charts when we were pre-teens and teenagers. For you younger readers, these songs are still played all the time, so the odds are good you’ll recognize many of them.

Grab a pencil and paper, jot down the answers if and when they come to you, and then scroll down to see how you did, and learn a little bit of back story about each one.

I’ve put a Spotify list at the end so you can hear these songs yet again!

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1 “Who’s tripping down the streets of the city, smiling at everybody she sees? /Who’s reaching out to capture a moment?…”

2 “We stood on a beach at sunset, do you remember when? /I know a beach where, baby, it never ends, /When you’ve made your mind up forever to be mine…”

3 “Well, since she put me down, I’ve been out doin’ in my head, /I come in late at night, and in the morning I just lay in bed…”

4 “It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few, /I’ll be writing more in a week or two, /I can make it longer if you like the style…”

5 “Your mother who neglected you owes a million dollars tax, /And your father’s still perfecting ways of making sealing wax…”

6 “What a field day for the heat, a thousand people in the street, /Singing songs and carrying signs, mostly say, “Hooray for our side”…

7 “Oh, I could hide ‘neath the wings of the bluebird as she sings, /The six o’clock alarm would never ring…”

8 “If that’s the way it must be, OK, /I guess I’ll go on home, it’s late, /There’ll be tomorrow night, but wait, /What do I see? /Is she walking back to me?…”

9 “Can’t you see that I am not afraid? /What was that promise that you made? /Why won’t you tell me what she said?…”

10 “Fee, fee, fi, fi, fo-fo, fum, /look at Molly now, here she comes, /Wearin’ her wig hat and shades to match, she’s got high-heel shoes and an alligator hat…”

11 “I hear hurricanes a-blowing, I know the end is coming soon, /I fear rivers overflowing, I hear the voice of rage and ruin…”

12 “But at night it’s a different world, go out and find a girl, /Come on, come on and dance all night, despite the heat, it’ll be all right…”

13 “Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding, /No more falsehoods or derisions, golden living dreams of visions…”

14 “Up every morning just to keep a job, I gotta fight my way through the hustling mob, /Sounds of the city poundin’ in my brain while another day goes down the drain…”

15 “Did you find a directing sign on the straight and narrow highway? /Would you mind a reflecting sign? /Just let it shine within your mind…”

16 “Listen to me, baby, you gotta understand, you’re old enough to know the makings of a man, /Listen to me, baby, it’s hard to settle down, am I asking too much for you to stick around?…”

17 “I know I need a small vacation, but it don’t look like rain, /And if it snows, that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain…”

18 “The guilty undertaker sighs, the lonesome organ grinder cries, the silver saxophones say I should refuse you…”

19 “How can you tell me how much you miss me when the last time I saw you, you wouldn’t even kiss me? That rich guy you’ve been seein’ must have put you down…”

20 “But all my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity, /Like emptiness in harmony, I need someone to comfort me…”

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ANSWERS:

1 “Windy,” The Association, 1967

Ruthann Friedman was a struggling singer-songwriter from New York who relocated to the West Coast and met songwriter Van Dyke Parks. He introduced her to The Association, an L.A.-based vocal group that had already enjoyed three Top Ten hits in “Along Comes Mary,” and “Cherish” and “Never My Love.” They chose to record her song “Windy” in early 1967, which made it to #1 in June 1967, helping to give the group the opening slot at the Monterey Pop Festival that month.

2 “Sunshine Superman,” Donovan, 1965

Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan Leitch wrote and recorded “Sunshine Superman” in late 1965 as an early example of psychedelic folk pop, and when it was released in the US in June 1966, it made its way to #1 within six weeks. It wasn’t released in his native UK until early 1967. Donovan would find continued success through the remainder of the ’60s with hits like “Season of the Witch,” “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Atlantis.”

3 “Help Me, Rhonda,” The Beach Boys, 1965

Brian Wilson, the gifted composer/arranger of nearly all the songs in The Beach Boys’ early ’60s catalog, wrote dozens of tunes about teenage angst and situations every high school kid could understand, like loneliness (“In My Room”), driving around (“Fun, Fun Fun”) and young love (“Don’t Worry Baby”). In the #1 hit “Help Me, Rhonda,” he tries something unusual: He has his narrator turn to a female friend to console him as he copes with a romantic break-up with another girl.

4 “Paperback Writer,” The Beatles, 1966

After years of writing traditional romantic song lyrics, Paul McCartney took to creating fictional characters (“Eleanor Rigby,” “Lovely Rita”) to star in the pop songs he was writing for The Beatles to record. For the 1966 #1 single “Paperback Writer,” he conjured up a struggling novelist who writes to a publisher because “I need a break” in order to become a successful writer. This was the first Beatles tune to feature the bass guitar in a much more prominent way in the arrangements.

5 “19th Nervous Breakdown,” The Rolling Stones, 1965

The success of the band’s iconic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” had led to grueling tours and record-company demands for follow-up singles for the rest of 1965, which frazzled and annoyed Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who had only just begun their songwriting partnership. First came the defiant “Get Off Of My Cloud,” and then Jagger wrote the title and words for the next hit after concluding, “I swear I’m gonna have my 19th nervous breakdown of the week!” Released in February 1966, “19th Nervous Breakdown” reached #2 in April of that year.

6 “For What It’s Worth,” Buffalo Springfield, 1966

Stephen Stills was on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood the night a protest over curfew enforcement escalated into a riot with multiple arrests and injuries. He was shaken by the experience and wrote this song about it. When his group, Buffalo Springfield, recorded it in late 1966, he offered it to the record label as an extra track for their debut LP, which leaned more toward country rock. “Here’s one more song, for what it’s worth,” he said, and they mistakenly thought that was his intended title for it. The song became a counterculture anthem, reaching #9 on the charts in the spring of 1967.

7 “Daydream Believer,” The Monkees, 1967

Singer-songwriter John Stewart had been a member of the Kingston Trio and would later have a brief period of solo-artist fame with “Gold” in 1979. One night in 1967, he was angry at himself for spending the whole day doing nothing but daydreaming, so he took that thought and wrote “Daydream Believer,” which was first rejected by pop groups We Five and Spanky & Our Gang, but perked up the ears of The Monkees. They eagerly recorded it that summer, and by December, it had become the group’s third #1, and fifth of six Top Five songs in their 1966-1968 heyday.

8 “Oh, Pretty Woman,” Roy Orbison, 1964

In July 1964, Orbison and his songwriting partner Bill Dees were working on songs when Orbison’s wife, Claudette, interrupted to say she was going out. When Orbison asked her if she had enough cash, Dees said, “A pretty woman doesn’t need cash.” Afterwards, the duo took that idea and ran with it, coming up with “Oh, Pretty Woman,” which would become Orbison’s biggest hit, arriving at #1 in August, right in the middle of the summer of Beatlemania in the US.

9 “Touch Me,” The Doors, 1968

Horns? Strings? In a song by The Doors?! Many of the group’s fans balked at the notion, but thanks to a killer performance in December 1968 on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” complete with horns and strings, Jim Morrison and the band took this catchy tune to #3 on the charts in early 1969. The song was originally titled “Hit Me,” as in what a blackjack player says to the dealer, but Morrison was concerned this might lead to physical assaults from fans. I was always entranced by the amazing sax solo by Curtis Amy in the song’s closing 40 seconds.

10 “Devil With a Blue Dress On/Good Golly, Miss Molly,” Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, 1966

A soul artist named Fred “Shorty” Long wrote and recorded “Devil in a Blue Dress” in 1964 but it failed to chart. Singer Mitch Ryder got his hands on it in 1966 and threw it together with his own arrangement of Little Richard’s 1956 classic “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and the resulting medley was a #4 hit single in October 1966. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band made this medley an integral part of their performances throughout the late ’70s.

11 “Bad Moon Rising,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969

Early on in songwriter John Fogerty’s amazing hot streak of hit singles for his band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, he happened to be watching the film “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” where a hurricane of apocalyptic force was due to arrive. He turned that viewing experience into a song about literal or metaphorical dread and doom and how going outside “is bound to take your life.” The tune peaked at #2 in June 1969.

12 “Summer in the City,” The Lovin’ Spoonful, 1966

John Sebastian grew up in a New York City apartment, where he was all too familiar with the irritating noises of honking horns and jackhammers, and the oppressive summer heat. He and his brother Mark collaborated on putting all of that to music, and Sebastian’s band, The Lovin’ Spoonful, had a chart-topping hit with it in the summer of ’66, their fifth of seven Top Ten singles and sole #1 hit. Its use of sound effects to create sounds of the city was considered groundbreaking at the time.

13 “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” The 5th Dimension, 1969

When the members of The 5th Dimension went to see a performance of the Broadway musical “Hair” one night in 1968, they immediately contacted their producer, gushing about wanting to record the song “Aquarius.” The producer felt it was more of a song fragment, not long enough to be a single, so he decided to add the repeated phrase “Let the Sunshine In” from another “Hair” number called “The Flesh Failures.” The resulting medley reached #1 in May 1969, a big success for songwriters James Rado (music) and Gerome Ragni (lyrics).

14 “Five O’Clock World,” The Vogues, 1965

Country songwriter Allen Reynolds came up with this relatable tune about the drudgery of the work week, and a few country artists took a crack at it, but without much success. Then in October 1965, The Vogues, a Pennsylvania-based vocal group, recorded it in a rock arrangement that included sharp cries of “Hey!” throughout, and by January 1966, it reached #4 on the US charts. In 1996, this track was used as the theme song for TV’s “The Drew Carey Show.”

15 “Spinning Wheel,” Blood, Sweat and Tears, 1969

Ambitious musician Al Kooper assembled rock and jazz musicians to form Blood, Sweat and Tears, the first “rock band with horns.” The band chafed at Kooper’s dictatorial ways and ousted him, bringing in Canadian singer David Clayton-Thomas for their Grammy-winning second album, which yielded three huge hits: “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” “And When I Die” and Clayton-Thomas’s song “Spinning Wheel,” which all reached #2 in 1969.

16 “Lightning Strikes,” Lou Christie, 1966

When he was just 15, Pittsburgh native Lou Christie (born Lugee Sacco) befriended Twyla Herbert, a classically trained songwriter 20 years his senior, and she ended up becoming his songwriting partner for 30 years. Their biggest moment came in late 1965 when they collaborated on “Lightnin’ Strikes,” with lyrics about a guy who tells a girl he wants to settle down (someday) but is still unable to resist other girls when the lightning strikes. Christie’s recording reached #1 in February 1966.

17 “Wichita Lineman,” Glen Campbell, 1968

While driving across the prairies one afternoon, award-winning songwriter Jimmy Webb spied a telephone lineman working alone atop a pole in the distance. “I thought, I wonder if I can write something about that? An ordinary guy, working on a railroad or on the telephone wires or digging holes in the street,” said Webb. “I thought, there’s this great soul, this great aching, this great loneliness.” The song, as recorded by Glen Campbell in late 1968, struck a nerve, reaching #3 on the US pop charts and #1 on country charts in February 1969.

18 “I Want You,” Bob Dylan, 1966

Dylan has been a prolific songwriter for most of his six decades in the recording business, but never as bursting with creativity as he was in 1965-1967. He had enough quality material in March 1966 to decide to issue a double album, entitled “Blonde on Blonde.” The final song recorded for that LP was this marvelous track, which alternated between the busy, wordy verses and the simple “I want you, I want you so bad” of the chorus. The tune reached #20 on US pop charts in July 1966.

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19 “Poor Side of Town,” Johnny Rivers, 1966

Rivers, a resident of Beverly Hills at the time, readily admitted he wasn’t writing from personal experience when he came up with this tune about a guy from the other side of the tracks who is thrilled to get his girlfriend back after she’d been dumped by a much wealthier man. “Poor Side of Town,” along with Billy Joe Royal’s “Down in the Boondocks” and Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child,” broke new ground in pop songs about white collar/blue collar relationships. This Rivers tune reached #1 in November 1966.

20 “Homeward Bound,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1966

Following the 1964 flop of “Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.,” his first album with school chum Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon headed for London to try his hand at “busking” for spare change in the city’s subways. He had fallen in love with a girl before leaving New York and was missing her terribly, and one night while waiting for the next train, he wrote about his loneliness in the poignant song “Homeward Bound.” Once “The Sound of Silence” became a surprise hit in late 1965, Columbia Records rush-released a new recording of “Homeward Bound” as the follow-up single, which reached #5 in March 1966.

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