We’ve all been there. You’re listening to your favorite classic rock songs, and between guitar solos, you think, “Man, I wish someone would write an article full of useless information about these, my favorite classic rock songs.” Rest easy, readers, for I’ve taken it upon myself to write that article.
All kidding aside, who doesn’t love a great story about a classic song? Part of the appeal of classic rock — to my nostalgia-addled brain, anyway — is imagining what really went on in the smoky studios where the legends laid down their most famous tracks. Even more fascinating is what went on in the minds of those legends while they conceived their iconic hits. Here’s a look at a few interesting stories involving the songs we all know and love.
“Gimme Shelter” – The Rolling Stones
These days, we’re just as likely to hear the Stones’ Vietnam-era apocalyptic anthem in a movie trailer as on the classic rock station, perhaps because the song has been scientifically proven to increase any movie’s bad-ass quotient by 1000% when featured in its trailer. (Did you hear that, Sex And The City 3?) Much of the song’s raw grit comes from the intense female vocal part, sung magnificently by Merry Clayton, then a 21-year-old backup singer. It’s a powerful performance; her voice even cracks with her effort, to the audible surprise of others in the studio during the recording.
Here’s what you didn’t know: Merry Clayton was pregnant during the recording of “Gimme Shelter” and miscarried shortly thereafter. In a 1986 interview with the LA Times, she attributed her miscarriage to the physical strain of her performance. Kind of makes an already-haunting song that much more so, huh?
“Don’t Come Around Here No More” – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
I can’t hear this song without thinking of its very weird, very creepy Alice in Wonderland-themed video. As if AiW isn’t creepy enough on its own, Tom Petty ratchets it up to 11 as the Mad Hatter and takes it to serial-killer-level proportions by eating the cake-turned Alice.
The song was co-written with Petty by Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart in 1984. According to Stewart’s book, The Dave Stewart Songbook, Stewart, who’d recently achieved fame upon the U.S. release of Eurythmics’ single “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” had just finished playing LA’s Wiltern Theater when he met Stevie Nicks backstage. According to Stewart, Nicks had just broken up with Joe Walsh the night before, and Stewart accompanied her home, where the two had a romantic encounter. (Please take a moment to imagine what Stevie Nicks must be like in bed. Were there scarves involved? A fan? The world may never know.) His encounter with a fragile, rebounding Stevie Nicks inspired Stewart to begin writing “Don’t Come Around Here No More” for her.
“But wait,” you’re thinking. “Stevie Nicks doesn’t sing that song! You’re a big, fat liar!” Well, this is where it gets interesting, and I’ll kindly ask you to refrain from commenting on my weight. Stewart was staying with producer Jimmy Iovine, who was working on Nicks’ Bella Donna album. They wrote the song, and Ms. Nicks came over to begin recording. Unfortunately, Dave Stewart didn’t know that Stevie Nicks and Jimmy Iovine had once been romantically involved as well.
Things got ugly, and the whole thing ended with Stevie Nicks storming out. The result was that Iovine decided to give the song to Tom Petty, with whom he’d worked on the Bella Donna duet “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” All’s well that ends well, though; Dave Stewart and Stevie Nicks patched things up and continue to work together to this day.
“Eclipse” – Pink Floyd
Most of us know this song as the closing number on the immaculate Dark Side of the Moon, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made. It’s often played on the radio with “Brain Damage,” the song that immediately precedes it on the album, as it’s kind of a reprise of the album’s opening track, “Breathe.”
But you already know all that. This factoid concerns the spoken lines that follow the music’s end: “There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact, it’s all dark.” Just typing them gives me chills. They’re the perfect ending to a nearly-perfect musical undertaking. But who’s speaking? As a matter of fact, where did all of the spoken lines on the album come from?
According to his 1993 interview with the Washington Post, Floyd frontman Roger Waters gathered studio staff and artists who were recording at the famed Abbey Road Studios, where DSotM was being recorded. He placed them individually in a darkened studio in front of a microphone and showed them questions printed on flashcards through the glass. The questions began innocently enough (“What’s your favourite colour?” “What’s your favourite food?”) before taking a darker turn (“When was the last time you were violent?” “Are you frightened of dying?” “What does the phrase ‘the dark side of the moon’ mean to you?”).
Those interviewed included Paul and Linda McCartney, Pink Floyd’s road manager Peter Watts and his wife Patricia, and Roger “The Hat” Manifold, a roadie. (Interestingly, none of Paul and Linda’s answers were used, as Waters thought they were trying too hard to be funny. Way to go, losers.) So who delivers the haunting final words of “Eclipse”? One Jerry Driscoll, the studio’s Irish doorman. He’s featured in other places on the album, most notably on “The Great Gig in the Sky,” in which he says, “And I am not frightened of dying. Any time will do; I don’t mind. Why should I be frightened of dying? There’s no reason for it; you’ve got to go sometime.” That Jerry Driscoll sounds like one cool customer.
So the next time you’re listening to your favorite classic rock songs, consider the fascinating stories that might lie behind them. It’s not all cocaine and break-ups, folks!