July 15, 2024

Strange Backstories of 1970s Hit Songs

Disco, punk, hard rock and funk; the 1970's were a great decade for music. These are the strange backstories of 1970's hit songs.

Unusual backstories of 1970s hits: Layla

LAYLA - Derek and the Dominos (1970)

Patti Boyd definitely had something. The young actress married Beatle George Harrison in 1966, and would subsequently inspire some of his most famous music; Harrison's 'Something', one of the greatest of all love songs, was written about his wife. But, behind the scenes, all was not well.

Harrison, moody and demanding, was prone to fits of temper, and also insisted his wife surrender her acting career. Patti found comfort with Harrison's best friend; musician Eric Clapton, then with Derek and the Dominos. But the two resisted, at least for a time, a full blown affair, while the Harrison's and Clapton regularly spent time together. It was a volatile combination. Emotionally drained, and pining for Patti, Clapton lost himself in heroin addiction, and also composed 'Layla', a heartfelt ode to unrequited love. The Harrison's would eventually separate in 1974, and Clapton, cleaned up, and Patti would marry Patti in 1979.

Unusual backstories of 1970s hits: Country Road

TAKE ME HOME, COUNTRY ROADS - John Denver (1971)

John Denver, real name Henry John Deutschendorf Jr, found fame in the late 60s and early 70s as a folk singer; his sweet voice and homely, nostalgic songs leading to a string of hits. One of these, 'Take Me Home, Country Roads', forever associated Denver in people's minds with the state of West Virginia. The song name checks a number of West Virginian locations, and carries the refrain, 'Country roads, take me home; To the place I belong; West Virginia, mountain mama'.

While the song sounds like a loving tribute to the state, not only did Denver not write the song, but he had never even been to West Virginia when he recorded it. 'Country Roads' was written by professional song writers Bill and Taffy Danoff, friends of Denver's, who thought it would suit his voice. Remarkably, The Danoff's had never visited West Virginia either; the inspiration for the song came from a friend of theirs, a West Virginian native, who sent them picturesque postcards from the state on a regular basis.

Unusual backstories of 1970s hits: Rocket man

ROCKET MAN - Elton John (1972)

Bernie Taupin was born into poverty in rural England in 1950. His father was a farmer, and Taupin grew up in a cottage in Lincolnshire without electricity or running water. He dropped out of school at an early age, hitchhiked around the country, and worked a series of dead end jobs. Then, at age 17, he answered an ad in the 'New Musical Express' placed by Liberty records, who were looking for new song writers. Elton John, then completely unknown, answered the same ad, and the two were subsequently paired up. It lead to one of the most fruitful collaborations in pop history.

Taupin would write, or co-write, nearly all of John's biggest hits, including 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road', 'Tiny Dancer', 'Crocodile Rock', and 'Candle in the Wind'. 'Rocket Man', one of their first hits, was based on a short story of the same name by Ray Bradbury, where a melancholy astronaut reflects on his life and worries about his family, back on earth. At the time of the song's release, John and Taupin were accused of using the outer space theme to try and cash in on the popularity of David Bowie, and his Ziggy Stardust persona, although both denied this.

Unusual backstories of 1970s hits: Hall and Oats

RICH GIRL - Hall & Oates (1976)

Daryl Hall and John Oates met in the mid sixties, when both were fronting their own bands. They became friends, and by 1970 were appearing together as a duo, although their first albums were not successful; they took a stab at folk, rock and blues records, without making much of an impression.

But in 1975 they released 'Rich Girl', a smash hit that took them to the top of the charts. While the song lyrics describe a wealthy young woman who lives a life of carefree excess, this was actually a deliberate ploy to obscure the song's real inspiration. One of Hall's former girlfriend's, Sara Allen, had previously dated a young man who was from a wealthy family, heir to a fast food fortune. Allen had eventually taken a dim view of his privileged, out-of-touch lifestyle, which lead to the couple breaking up. Her subsequent descriptions of this to Hall had given him the idea for the song, the character's gender was changed to protect the real person's identity. 'Rich Girl' was Hall and Oates' first # 1 single, and lead to massive run of hits through the 70's and 80's. They are still the most commercially successful duo in music history.

Unusual backstories of 1970s hits: Blitzkrieg Bop

BLITZKREIG BOP - The Ramones (1976)

Also in 1976, but light years removed from Hall and Oates' smooth pop sound, punk band 'The Ramones' popped up in New York. Armed with ripped jeans, leather jackets, and a dozen soundalike songs that ran for two minutes each, The Ramones were there to turn the music world on its head. A contemporary description of them onstage, from that year: 'They counted off a song - ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR! - and I was hit with this blast of noise, I physically recoiled from the shock of it. Before I could even get into it, they stopped. Apparently they were all playing a different song'.

The first track off their debut album, 'Blitzkrieg Bop', was controversial. 'Blitzkrieg' is a German word meaning 'Lightning War', which was a term applied to the Nazi military tactics of World War II. Some critics took the use of the word to be a bit of off-colour provocation, evoking the image of the Nazi's to stir people up, in true punk fashion. But the band actually meant it as a tribute to the frenzied dancing of their fans, who would pogo and flail their limbs wildly, bouncing off each other, down the front at Ramones gigs. The song's famous kick off, 'Hey Ho, Let's Go!', was an unlikely tribute to mainstream rock band 'The Bay City Rollers', who started their hit 'Saturday Night' with a similar chant.

Unusual backstories of 1970s hits: Heroes

HEROES - David Bowie (1977)

By the mid 70's, David Bowie was at the height of his fame. Earlier in the decade, glam rock and Ziggy Stardust had made him a global superstar, and he had cemented his place in popular music with a string of mainstream hits. But success had lead to excess; a raging cocaine habit and an out of control private life. In 1976, Bowie relocated to Berlin, moving into a simple apartment with the hope of cleaning up.

Among his creative collaborators was producer Tony Visconti, who also came to Berlin to help Bowie work on new material. While there, Visconti, then living away from his wife, started an affair with a German woman; backup singer Antonia Maas. Visconti and Maas had a regular rendezvous point near Bowie's recording studio, in the shadow of the Berlin Wall (pictured). The song 'Heroes' is about the couple's relationship, a secret Bowie kept until 2003; in an interview that year he said, 'I'm allowed to talk about it now, I wasn't at the time. It was Tony Visconti and his girlfriend. Tony's marriage was in the last few months, and it was very touching because I could see that Tony was very much in love with this girl, and it was that relationship which motivated the song.' The happy-sad dynamic of the lyrics, upbeat but also melancholy, has made 'Heroes' one of Bowie's most enduring tracks.

Unusual backstories of 1970s hits: I will survive

I WILL SURVIVE - Gloria Gaynor (1978)

'I Will Survive', performed by Gloria Gaynor (pictured), has become one of the disco era's most resilient hits. Ever popular, in subsequent decades the song has also taken on a second life as a female empowerment anthem; the message being that woman are strong, independent, and can handle whatever life throws at them. But the origin of the song was quite different.

'Survive' was written by Dino Fekaris, a professional song writer who had found success creating bluesy Motown hits for groups like The Four Tops. Fired by his record label after seven years, Fekaris had a mid life crisis, settling into a depressive funk. He was revived when, by chance, he came across a song he had written in a movie playing on TV; Fekaris recalls, 'I remember jumping up and down on the bed saying, I'm going to make it. I'm going to be a songwriter. I will survive!' Gaynor's record label did not originally think the song would be a hit; it was first released as a B-side to forgotten pop song 'Substitute'.

Unusual backstories of 1970s hits: Bad girls

BAD GIRLS - Donna Summer (1979)

But if you are talking disco hits, you need look no further than Donna Summer, perhaps the era's biggest female star. Summer, born LaDonna Adrian Gaines, had first found success in the mid 70's, and reigned at the top of the charts for the rest of that decade. But inside her bouncy, popular tunes, lay some dark ideas; 1979's 'Bad Girls' is an unvarnished look at the prostitutes that frequent Sunset Boulevard, in downtown Los Angeles.

Summer was inspired to write the song by a bad experience one of her assistants had endured; leaving the recording studio late at night, the young black woman was accosted and harassed by police, who had assumed that she was out hustling for clients. Angry, but also inspired, on hearing the story Summer was able to create the lyrics in just a few hours, ad-libbing in the studio. Her record label initially thought the song too dark for Summer, and tried to get Cher interested. But Summer felt very connected to the song's origin, and insisted that she be allowed to record it.

Unusual backstories of 1970s hits: Rock Lobster

ROCK LOBSTER - The B52's (1979)

Somewhere between pop, punk, disco and rock, the B-52's were the perfect band for the end of the 1970's. Their songs often feature whimsical, playful lyrics, which appears to be the case in their very first single; 1979's 'Rock Lobster', which details a beach party where a someone steps on a lobster, and zaniness ensues. But the song's origin actually lies in singer Fred Schneider's lifelong vegetarianism.

As a child, Schneider had been traumatised by the sight of living lobsters being dropped into a pot of boiling water; he not only never ate meat again, but would later campaign for animal rights. In 2001, he wrote an article for PETA, recalling the inspiration for the song, 'I got the idea watching a slide show in an Atlanta disco. There was no budget for a light show, so they showed slides of puppies, children, and … lobsters on a grill! Ridiculous!' Angry, Schneider wrote a song about lobsters in a happier context; 'Rock music, why not rock lobster?!' he said. The song was a mild hit on release, and later became iconic, which lead to an unfortunate consequence; fans used to bring lobsters to B-52's shows, thinking Schneider liked to eat them, until he had to issue a statement asking them to stop.

Unusual backstories of 1970s hits: My Sharona

MY SHARONA - The Knack (1979)

For such a catchy and upbeat song, 'My Sharona's' origin story is surprisingly weird. Singer Doug Fieger wrote the song about Sharona Alperin, a teenage girl he had met in a clothing store. Despite being eight years older, and in a relationship, and in the store with his girlfriend, Fieger immediately asked the young woman out. Rebuffed, Sharona also had a boyfriend, Fieger quickly became obsessed; he ended his own relationship and professed his love for Alperin, hanging out at her workplace and repeatedly asking her out.

He also wrote 'My Sharona' during this period, a time he would later call 'like being a 14 year old boy'. The real Sharona finally agreed to a date, and the two became a couple, right as the song began a meteoric rise up the charts (that's Alperin on the album cover, pictured above). It was ultimately the highest selling single of 1979. Fieger and Alperin stayed together for about four years, before the rock 'n' roll lifestyle became too much; she later quipped, 'I needed to become my own Sharona, not someone else's'. 'My Sharona' was The Knack's only hit song.


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