May 8, 2009

The Greatest Rock Songs about Other Bands or Artists

I have always enjoyed hearing songwriters make references to other music or artists in their work, like John Fogerty tipping his cap to master poet Chuck Berry with the "brown-eyed handsome man" in the song "Centerfield" or John Lennon quoting the duck-walking guitar god with "here come old flat-top, he come grooving up slowly" in "Come Together."

This post lists some of my favorite songs that reference other artists or groups. Generally these are at least partly tributes, though some take a wry look at the musical names dropped in the lyrics. The songs are in no particular order beyond the way that they popped into my head this afternoon.

Carry on.

"Alex Chilton," The Replacements. Paul Westerberg and company pay homage to one of their favorite influences, bringing Chilton to a wider audience. A testament to the lasting endurance of this superb song is the fact that the tune has been selected for Rock Band 2. My jaw nearly hit the floor when my son clued me into this fact - perhaps there is yet still hope for popular music.

"We're the Replacements," They Might Be Giants. Carrying on the tradition of praising under-appreciated artists, TMBG captured the essence of the Minneapolis band in this deadpan tribute to the best rock group that most people have never heard of.

"The Story Of A Rock And Roll Band," Randy Newman. Part parody, part tribute, Newman's melodic anthem to the Electric Light Orchestra is one of those rare musical moments when the composer and subject seem to merge.

"All The Young Dudes," Mott the Hoople. This generational call to the glam world included references to T. Rex, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. David Bowie co-wrote this song, and while glam never became the future of rock, it's still a cool tune.

"The Seeker," The Who. True, this song is really about a person on a spiritual journey, but the references to asking Bobby Dylan and The Beatles (along with Timothy Leary) for answers to life's questions are important enough for this song to be included. Hey: it's my frigging list.

"Glass Onion," The Beatles. This song is actually by The Beatles and about The Beatles, and it contains references to such Fab Four songs as "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Lady Madonna," "The Fool on the Hill," "Fixing a Hole," and "I Am the Walrus." The "clue" in the song that "the Walrus was Paul" references the urban legend that Paul McCartney died and was replaced by some look-alike, and I still chuckle at the idea of John Lennon jerking the chain of the conspiracy theorists with this song.

"Creeque Alley," Mamas and the Papas. The mid-1960s LA music scene is the subject of this autobiographical song, and artists mentioned in the song include Zal Yanovsky and John Sebastian (of the Lovin' Spoonful), Roger McGuinn (The Byrds), Barry McGuire, and The Mugwumps (a precursor to both the Mamas and the Papas and the Lovin' Spoonful).

"Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" and "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)," Neil Young. Ostensibly an ode to Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols written at a time when Neil began to think he was becoming irrelevant, the bookended songs gained a deeper significance when Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain included the lines "it's better to burn out than to fade away" in his 1994 suicide note.

"All Those Years Ago," George Harrison. A sad tribute to the murdered John Lennon, I still get goosebumps when I hear lines like "you point the way to the truth when you say: All you need is love." Heartfelt and poignant, and not to be missed.

"Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence," Pavement. A tribute from one indie-rock band to another, REM, this song is part homage and part Southern Gothic defiance, although how guys from Stockton, California can come across as Confederates makes as much sense as Bakersfield's John Fogerty mystically channeling Louisiana bayou rock with that howl and vibrato guitar. Only in rock, baby: only in rock.

Honorable mentions: "When We Was Fab," George Harrison (The Beatles); "Tweeter and the Monkey Man," Traveling Wilburys (Bruce Springsteen); "Thunder Road," Bruce Springsteen (Roy Orbison); "Smoke on the Water," Deep Purple (Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention); "American Pie," Don Mclean (practically every major act in the 1960s plus Buddy Holly get oblique references); "Don Henley Must Die," Mojo Nixon.

Songs that will never make this list because I detest them: "Rock and Roll Heaven," The Righteous Brothers (shameless name-checks to dead-rockers ); "R-O-C-K in the USA," John Mellencamp (ditto); "Night Shift," the Commodores (ditto); "I'll Be Missing You," Puff Daddy, Faith Evans, and 112 (write your own music - I can never hear "Every Breath You Take" without thinking of this idiotic tribute).

Feel free to leave suggestions of songs I carelessly overlooked in the comments section.


Jim Styro said...

This is a great topic and (since I could spend hours thinking about it) I'm going to quickly give the top three that came to mind:

Sweet Home Alabama - Lynyrd Skynyrd:
"I hope Neil Young will remember / A southern man don't need him around anyhow" (Not my particular brand of politics - but a good line nonetheless.)

Sir Duke - Stevie Wonder: A well-done tribute to big-band, jazz and assorted musical greats (topped off by Duke Ellington)

You Better You Bet - The Who:
"I got your body right now on my mind / and I drunk myself blind to the sound of old T-Rex / And "Who's Next" (Townshend's always good for a little self-promotion along with his self-deprecation.)

Mikey - you rock, Boy!

historymike said...

Then there is Steely Dan with "Hey Nineteen":

Hey nineteen
Thats 'retha franklin
She don't remember
The queen of soul...

Jim Styro said...

Or something a bit more obscure from Mssrs. Becker and Fagen:

I never knew you
You were a roller skater
You gonna show me later
Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening
from "Everything You Did"

microdot said...

Van Morrison: Jackie Wilson Said....
From St. Dominics Preview.

Randy said...

In a perverse way, I'm gratified to see someone else remembering and hating "Rock and Roll Heaven." I hated the song then, and I hate it now. Let that be a reminder that not all oldies are goodies.

In that vein: Garden Party, by Rick Nelson ("If memories were all I sang, I'd rather drive a truck.").

dr-exmedic said...

I bought an album out of the bargain bin (50 cents, worth every penny and then some) by a group named Paint out of southwestern PA. One of the tracks is entitled "Juliana Hatfield." I've had the song on my mind (btw, the refrain starts "Juliana Hatfield's on my mind") because I found out she's a descendant of the Hatfield-McCoy Feud Hatfields, which I only found out because I'm researching von Hippel-Lindau disease, which runs in the McCoys. Talk about a convoluted path to wind up on this subject....

I also love Sons & Daughters' "Johnny Cash." The song (free off their website) is clearly about him despite not mentioning him by name in the track.

Anonymous said...

Shine On You Crazy Diamond is an obvious omission.

Bobby Balrog said...

Dylan has named checked Neil Young (Time Out of Mind), Alicia Keys (Modern Times), and Billy Joe Shaver(Together Through Life)

Anonymous said...

Don't forget the wonderful "Velvet Underground" by Jonathan Richman.

Anonymous said...

"Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell"-- Bob Dylan

Anonymous said...

"I Saw Nick Drake" by Robyn Hitchcock

Anonymous said...

Rock and Roll Band by Boston about themselves

TCB Walsh said...

Great list. How bout "Stage Fright" by the Band and George Harrison's "Behind that Locked Door" both about Dylan's self-imposed exile from touring in the early 70s. Someone told me that S&G's "The Boxer" is about Dylan too but I'm not sure about that.

Devconn88 said...

I know this post article is two years old but I'm currently making a CD of songs like this. You helped me find a ton that I will be using. Here is a list of other songs I have chosen

Barnes & Barnes - The Ballad of Hall and Oates
Barenaked Ladies - Brian Wilson
David Bowie - Song For Bob Dylan
The Doors - Runnin' Blue
Don McLean - American Pie
Flight of the Conchords - Bowie
MGMT - Brian Eno
The Mountain Goats - Song for Dennis Brown
Pavement - Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence
Reel Big Fish - S.R.
Shel Silverstein - A Front Row Seat to Hear Ole Johnny Sing
Sparks - Lighten Up, Morrissey
Sublime - KRS-One
Ween - So Long Jerry
Weezer - Buddy Holly

guitar picks said...

This is such a great list. It is really amazing how others talk about others, usually their inspirations, in their own songs. Singing about another singer is, I guess, the greatest tribute. Thank you for sharing this list. I am excited to search these songs!