By Golda Fulmer
There are many renowned songs that seem hunky-dory when played and are great for singing along to. Most of the time, true meanings are only discovered through the thorough listening of the song, focused reading of the lyrics, and even intense investigation of the band and references. One of the most notorious genres of music for hidden meanings would be classic rock and roll. The 1960’s through 1980’s were some of the most influential times in both music history and global history overall. During this time period, the music scene was shifting from the hoppy, dance tunes of the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s and stepping into the time of the typical lengthy, heavy production-base of Rock N’ Roll we know today. As styles of playing and instruments were booming, so did the quality of songs lyrics. Words were no longer just words, but stories, morals, fables, prophecies, and messages. We will be looking at a top 10 list of popular classic rock songs with deeper, hidden meanings.
“Blackbird” by The Beatles:
The widely known Beatles’ song, “Blackbird” is featured on the Beatles’ double album, also known as the White Album. There are many ways this folk tune has been interpreted, but Paul McCartney, Beatles member and author of the song, admitted that it was about the racial tensions that were present in the South during the 1960’s. Paul was chatting with DJ Chris Douridas in May of 2002 previous to a show in Texas and gave some insight on the meaning behind the song: ”…I actually just remembered why I’d written “Blackbird”, you know, that I’d been, I was in Scotland playing on my guitar, and I remembered this whole idea of ‘you were only waiting for this moment to arise’ was about, you know, the black people’s struggle in the southern states, and I was using the symbolism of a blackbird. It’s not really about a blackbird whose wings are broken, you know, it’s a bit more symbolic.”
“Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen:
This song was the title song of Springsteen’s seventh studio-recorded album. Its release in June of 1984 was followed shortly with major commercial success and has been pronounced as one of the greatest albums of all time. Not only was it hugely successful, but it was also seen as a patriotic melody for the States at the time. However, the rallying song is quite the opposite: “‘Born in the U.S.A’ is about a working-class man [in the midst of a] spiritual crisis, in which a man is left lost …it’s like he has nothing left to tie him to society anymore. He’s isolated from the government, isolated from his family to the point where nothing makes sense.” The main goal of the diddy was to highlight the poor treatment of Vietnam veterans from the war. While not particularly directed to specific groups in the U.S.A., it was more directed to the country and government overall. A critic said of Bruce Springsteen that “[c]learly the key to Bruce’s popularity is a misunderstanding. He is a tribute to the fact that people hear what they want to hear.”
“Every Breath You Take” by The Police:
We’ve all heard the lyrics of this song: “Every bond you break/ Every step you take/ I’ll be watching you”. Although this song is generally seen in a more romantic light, controversy in regards to the lyrics is not totally overlooked. Many people perceive this song negatively due to its suggestive nature which tells the tale of a stalker pursuing a victim. In a 1983 interview, Sting, the lead singer of The Police, admitted that ”I think it’s a nasty little song, really rather evil. It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership… I think the ambiguity is intrinsic in the song however you treat it because the words are so sadistic. On one level, it’s a nice long song with the classic relative minor chords, and underneath there’s this distasteful character talking about watching every move. I enjoy that ambiguity. I watched Andy Gibb singing it with some girl on TV a couple of weeks ago, very loving, and totally misinterpreting it. I could still hear the words, which aren’t about love at all. I [peed] myself laughing.” Although “Every Breath You Take” was openly explained about its true devious connotation, there was no stopping this Police song from being the biggest hit of ‘83 and making US #1 for eight consecutive weeks.
“We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions” by Queen:
“We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions” are two separate songs by Queen but are often played as a continuous medley by this rock band wonder. “We Will Rock You” was written by Queen’s lead-guitarist Brian May after an energized show in the Liverpool Football Club. May distinctly remembers that later that night “I went to bed thinking, ‘What could you ask them to do?’ They’re all squeezed in there, but they can clap their hands, they can stamp their feet, and they can sing. In the morning I woke up and had the idea in my head for ‘We Will Rock You.”
On their album News Of The World, the song following “We Will Rock You” is “We Are The Champions”, which was written by lead singer Freddie Mercury. Like Brian May, Mercury wanted a crowd-led anthem. “I was thinking about football when I wrote it. I wanted a participation song, something that the fans could latch onto. Of course, I’ve given it more theatrical subtlety than an ordinary football chant. I suppose it could also be construed as my version of “I Did It My Way” by Frank Sinatra. We have made it, and it certainly wasn’t easy. No bed of roses as the song says. And it’s still not easy”. Unintentionally, “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions” are linked together and are played back-to-back on vinyl, CD’s, radio stations, and at concerts.
“Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith:
This is an immediate go-to song with a funky hard rock break-down and smooth words that send listeners into a peaceful bliss. The psychedelic drone of the bass and the opening words (which is also the title of the song) catch listeners’ attention instantly. However, the meaning of this song is often lost in the change of dynamics throughout the song from a psychedelic dream-state to a wave of mellow electric guitar to barking verses. With a provocative music video, people may easily be fooled into thinking this song is about what all rock songs seem to be about: sex. This song has a significantly more methodical meaning than that. At the time, lead singer Steven Tyler wrote this song while tensions were high between him and guitarist Joe Perry. These two along with Perry’s girlfriend at the time Elissa, butted heads a lot, especially when it came to drugs. During the rock era, the use of narcotics was rampant. One of the last straws for Tyler was when he came into Perry and Elissa’s hotel room, desperately searching for heroin. The greedy couple refused to share their precious narcotics, leading Tyler to use his anger as fuel for his next song, which later ended up being one of many of the band’s singles. The Aerosmith autobiography Walk This Way revealed that Tyler wrote: “Can’t say baby where I’ll be in a year” (one of the first lines of “Sweet Emotion”) by which he meant that he would like to be as far from his disputes with Joe Perry as he can. Ultimately, this classic song is really about a sense of betrayal and high stakes among even the closest friends.
“Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple:
Ah, “Smoke on the Water”, the first song any amateur guitarist seems to learn. With a catchy, yet simple, heavy electric guitar riff opening, followed by a soft drum set and thick bass, this tune is sure to have you attached in moments. Although this classic is renown for being a popular pick for easy but equally impressive guitar solos, Deep Purple wrote this song for more sentimental reasons. On December 4 of 1971, the band made their way to a casino in Montreux, Switzerland for a Frank Zappa concert. During the concert, as lead singer Ian Gillan recalls, the whole building was set on fire by two flares that was shot from someone who was behind him in the crowd. As Zappa shelved his onstage persona to help organize an organized evacuation out of the building, Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover became entranced by the image outside: Lake Geneva was hidden by a thick layer of smoke. This image of the smoke overtaking the lake and the flashing brightness of the flares was the inspiration that brought forth the song title and the lyrics (courtesy of Glover and Gillan respectively)for a new song. Coincidentally, Deep Purple was getting ready to record their album, Machine Head. “Smoke on the Water” was added to the list of songs on the album and went on to be ultimately ranked at number 434 on Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list, number 4 on “Greatest Guitar Riffs Ever” composed by Total Guitar magazine, and placed at a shiny number 12 on Q magazine’s list for “The 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks”.
“Hotel California” by The Eagles:
Kings of classic rock anthems The Eagles have recorded a multitude of popular songs: “Life In The Fast Lane”, “Lyin’ Eyes”, “Take it Easy”, “Desperado”, and the band’s crown jewel “Hotel California”. Notorious for arguably one of the best guitar solos of all time (thank you Joe Walsh and Don Felder), this song is a timeless classic. The astounding double effort guitar solo, the ringing vocals of Don Henley and the Spanish/reggae/soft rock rhythm amounted to music industry gold. “Hotel California” is often the pinnacle of the California facade: bikinis, daisy dukes, surfing, and a Hollywood wonderland. The accuracy of this song, right down to capturing the multi-cultural environment, would suggest that this band was born-and-raised here in the Golden State. Well, think again: all of The Eagles, except for Timothy Schmit who joined the band in 1977, are from the Midwest, with lead singer Glenn Frey from Detroit, drummer/vocalist-guitarist/vocalist Don Henley from Texas, lead guitarist Joe Walsh from New Jersey, bass-player/vocalist Randy Meisner from Nebraska, and Don Felder from Florida. So what would motivate them to write a song about the Pacific Coast, surfing, bikini-wearing, Hollywood wonderland, California lifestyle? Well, like many other bands, The Eagles were born into Los Angeles culture in 1971 by Frey, Henley, Meisner, and a man named Bernie Leadon. Right off the bat, the bustling concrete city of L.A. was drastically different from their hometowns in the Midwest. Don Henley, who sang “Hotel California”, comments,”We were all middle-class kids from the Midwest. ‘Hotel California’ was our interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles”. True as this statement is Henley adds, “It’s [also] a song about the dark underbelly of the American Dream and about excess in America which was something we knew about,…It’s a song about a journey from innocence to experience”.
“American Pie” by Don McLean:
This hit from singer/songwriter Don McLean has gone down in history for being one of the most captivatingly deep and insightful ballads. With many references to his band of characters such as a jester, a King, and teenage life, along with countless other allusions, “American Pie” is practically a seemingly uncodable diddy. However, the main inspiration came from a very unfortunate event that befell the 3rd of February, 1959. On this day, a plane of musical gods (Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper real name being Jiles Perry Richardson Jr.) crashed and burned near Clear Lake in Iowa. At the time, these were some of the most famous artists around, and the incident was beyond appalling to many across the nation, and even worldwide. Though the death of these performers was the reason for the song, there are many other allusions to not only musical groups but social issues as well. With allusions much like “Helter Skelter”(which referred to the Beatles’ hit and the Charles Manson case), Don McLean made it a point to not only highlight one culture-changing event but the whole of the 50s through 70s pop culture. The song has also been confirmed to reference Communist Russia’s Vladimir Lenin and creator of socialism Karl Marx and his book “Communist Manifesto”(“While Lenin read the book of Marx”), the Beatles(“The quartet practiced in the park”), the Byrds(“The Byrd flew off with to a fallout shelter”), singer Bob Dylan’s rise to fame(“When the jester sang for the king and queen”; ”The jester stole his thorny crown”), Elvis Presley(“.. While the King was looking down”), and even the JFK assassination(“The courtroom was adjourned, no verdict was returned”); and, most famously, McLean’s line “The day the Music died” at the end of every stanza brings us back to his original purpose of such a melody: death of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper. McLean has been noted as saying that the ‘50s were an overall dark and mysterious time, in both the music scene and the political stage.’ Nonetheless, Don McLean shot to fame with this song, even when his lyrics to his American-culture based anthem told the tale of the corruption in our own society.
“I Am The Walrus” by The Beatles:
This song was composed at the peak of the Beatles’ hippie high. Not only was the band known for crazy getups and mind-bending live-action and animated films, but they were notorious for their excessive drug use. For example, it’s believed that songs like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is an acronym for LSD and “With A Little Help From My Friends” is about the band’s journey through drug experimentation, and in all this, scholars around the world were trying to dissect the meaning of such songs. Beatles member John Lennon wrote, “I Am The Walrus” to throw off such brainiacs. In 1980, Lennon told Playboy magazine in an interview that “The first line was written on one acid trip one weekend. The second line was written on the next acid trip the next weekend, and it was filled in after I met Yoko.” In the interview, Lennon mocks popular philosophies and trends of the time, including Bob Dylan’s songwriting technique, which was often related to “getting-away-with-murder” on how he slipped concepts and messages into his lyrics. During a second interview with Playboy years later, Lennon was noted as saying that “I can write that crap too”, tieing back to earlier comments on Dylan’s writing techniques. In summary, though “I Am The Walrus” wasn’t actually based on any significance, it was a big gag from Lennon to scholars around the world.
“Carry On Wayward Son” by Kansas:
“Carry on my Wayward Son, there’ll be peace when you are done; Lay your weary head to rest, don’t you cry no more,” are the first rallies heard in this rock opera. With major dynamics and intense rock breakdowns, this song has made its way into our hearts as a classic and rising to Number 11 on Billboard’s Hot 100 songs in 1977. This hopeful ballad was written by Kansas’ guitarist Kerry Livgren. Livgren admitted that this song was not directed to any one spiritual belief or religion, but to the general sense of searching for purpose in this life. Though this still leaves the rock opera very open-ended, Livgren elaborated saying, “I felt a profound urge to ‘Carry On’ and continue the search. I saw myself as the ‘Wayward Son,’ alienated from the ultimate reality, and yet striving to know it or him. The positive note at the end (‘Surely heaven waits for you’) seemed strange and premature, but I felt impelled to include it in the lyrics.” To tie to this “search” of his, Livgren did later become an evangelical, born-again Christian in 1980, and said that the song has “proved to be prophetic” in his life spiritually. As a side note, his “search” that compelled him to compose this song took only two days. It was just two days before Kansas was going to record their album Leftoverture and the last thing the band wanted to do was add a whole other song to the album. But Livgren still decided to showcase it to them and the band knew right away that the song was a hit. “Carry On Wayward Son” was ultimately added to Leftoverture and has been their most recognized song(beside maybe “Dust In The Wind”). It is still widely used through television series, movie soundtracks and a reigning hit that stands the test of time generation upon generation.
Whether it’s a short tune or a drawn-out production of a song, music always has a meaning or story that can be interpreted in the end. There are many life experiences to write about and put into song, and that’s what makes any tune unique. Next time you listen to your favorite song, think of its meaning, explore this, and find the lessons we can all learn from music.