From time to time, we like to pick and choose several songs with backstories that aren’t necessarily front and center in the music archives. These are the songs we all know, love, and sing along to whose behind-the-scenes stories aren’t well known to the public, or even to the fans of these bands. The following songs are not just super famous or addictive to listen to. They also happen to have some interesting stories behind them.
The thing is, we just never knew about them. After reading this, you’re gonna wanna play the songs again. And this time, you’ll listen with a new perspective (which is always refreshing).
We will be covering the following songs:
Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)
Toto – Africa (1982)
Leonard Cohen – Chelsea Hotel No. 2 (1974)
Deep Purple – Smoke on the Water (1973)
The Who – Baba O’Riley (1971)
The Animals – The Real House of the Rising Sun (1964)
Dolly Parton – I Will Always Love You (1974)
Tracy Chapman – Fast Car (1988)
“Load up on guns, bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s over-bored and self-assured
Oh no, I know a dirty word”
The song that brought Nirvana (and grunge music) into the mainstream and teen angst to the forefront of a generation was inspired by a beautiful combination of deodorant, drunken antics and a breakup.
It was the song that spawned about a thousand grunge bands and changed the course of popular music as we knew it. Smells Like Teen Spirit was conceived in a grocery store in Olympia, Washington, back in August 1990.
As he was pacing the aisles, Kurt Cobain’s musician girlfriend Tobi Vail, from the band Bikini Kill, and her bandmate Kathleen Hanna found a can of deodorant named Teen Spirit. Hanna recalled in 2016 that they were laughing about the name: “I mean, who names a deodorant Teen Spirit?”
She continued, “What does teen spirit smell like? Like a locker room? Like pot mixed with sweat? Like the smell when you throw up in your hair at a party?” A little graphic, but we get the point. That night, after too much drinking, Hanna was trashing Cobain’s apartment and found a Sharpie.
She then wrote on his wall, “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit.” Cobain noted that he figured the phrase referred to his and Hanna’s earlier discussion about teen revolution. He thought the phrase suggested, ironically, that he was an inspirational figure.
“I took that as a compliment,” Cobain admitted in Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. But it really meant that he smelled like the deodorant. Funny enough, Cobain didn’t even “know that the deodorant spray existed until months after the single came out.” As it turns out, Cobain wrote the song after breaking up with Tobi Vail.
He said he channeled his frustrations into writing new songs, including the one that would become Nirvana’s breakout hit. References to Vail were still fresh in his mind – someone “over-bored and self-assured,” a call to “load up on guns” and “entertain us.”
Somewhere during all these new ideas that were swirling around in his mind was the desire, he confessed to Rolling Stone in 1994, to write “the ultimate pop song.” It was mentioned in Nirvana: The True Story that Cobain wanted to call the song “Anthem.” But Vail pushed back on that idea because Bikini Kill already had a song with the same name.
Cobain then spoke to Hanna, who was confused but glad to give permission for her drunken writings on the wall to be used for a song title. As for his bandmates, they considered the song to be derivative and clichéd. Cobain was aiming high (remember, “The ultimate pop song”), but the early feedback from his bandmates was less than encouraging.
Bassist Krist Novoselic seemingly skimmed through the lyrics, and when they started rehearsing it, which initially consisted of just the guitar riff and chorus, he called it “ridiculous.” Even Cobain himself thought the riff was “clichéd” and similar to Boston’s More Than a Feeling. But eventually, the pieces fell into place as the band kept rehearsing.
Novoselic made the suggestion of slowing things down, which laid the groundwork for the verse. It also gave some space for drummer Dave Grohl to join in on the beat. As the rehearsing went on, the song sounded less like Boston and more like the Pixies, the grunge group that Cobain idolized at the time.
The song came off as powerful and new, especially with Cobain’s sort of cryptic lyrics and wailing. In the end, fans agreed. And they were in awe. Soon enough, after Nirvana’s public debut of Smells Like Teen Spirit in Seattle’s OK Hotel on April 17, 1991, a buzz was definitely happening.
A few weeks after the debut, as the band was recording the tracks for their album Nevermind, producer Butch Vig was overwhelmed with excitement when he first heard the explosive song in the studio. But none of them really knew just how much of a money maker they had on their hands.
According to Grohl, Nirvana wasn’t overwhelmed with the song, and they wanted another track, In Bloom, to be the new album’s lead single. Others at GDC Records, the group’s label, wanted Come as You Are to be the big hit. For Cobain, it was a song that he described as a call to arms.
“It has revolutionary themes, but I don’t really mean it in a militant light,” Cobain said in a 1991 interview. “The generation’s apathy is getting out of hand. I’m pleading to the kids, ‘Wake up!'” At the end of the day, the push for Smells Like Teen Spirit made its mark, and the rest is history.
There was a quiet release on September 10, 1991, after which the song caught fire with its memorable video clip that landed in MTV’s regular rotation. By January 1992, Nevermind took over the place of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous at the top of the Billboard 200. It marked a dramatic change in the music industry.
Many people will agree that Toto’s 1982 smash hit, Africa, is undoubtedly one of the greatest songs of all time. It’s pretty impossible not to bop your head and hum along to the famous intro: “Do do do do do do do doooo.”
And that hook: “I bless the rains down in Africa!” If that isn’t catchy, then I don’t know what is. But do you know the song’s backstory? And that the band never even set foot in Africa? Well, as the story goes, it started when the band’s singer and writer of the song David Paich was a child…
David went to an all-boys Catholic school, in which many of the teachers had been missionaries in Africa. According to David, the teachers would tell him how they would bless everything. They blessed the villagers, homes, books, crops, everything.
And when it rained, they would bless the rain. Sound familiar? Yes, that’s where that famous hook, “I bless the rains down in Africa!” came from. While it sounded like a dream life to David, he also says that the teachers struggled out there.
According to David’s teachers, loneliness was definitely the hardest thing about spending time in the African villages. “Some of them never made it into the priesthood because they needed companionship,” David told The Guardian in 2018. So, he decided to write a song about someone flying to meet a lonely missionary in Africa.
But it wasn’t until the artist saw a UNICEF commercial showing families that were living in poverty that he decided to write a song about Africa. Since he never set foot on the continent, he says that most of the song’s descriptions came from what he had read on National Geographic.
“I remember you well in Chelsea Hotel
You were famous, your heart was a legend
You told me again you preferred handsome men
But for me you would make an exception”
New York City’s Chelsea Hotel (located at 222 West 23rd Street) isn’t necessarily famous for its excellent service or wonderful views. Instead, it’s known for being a cesspool of musical creation and genius. For a time, in one of the hotel’s bohemian rooms, there lived a struggling poet and singer named Leonard Cohen.
But it was in another room that he spent the night with Janis Joplin and notoriously wrote one of his most famous songs, Chelsea Hotel No. 2. In the song, featured on his 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony, Cohen tells a bold and shameless tale of a moment in history when two of music’s greatest artists crossed paths.
The Chelsea Hotel is as much a key figure in music (and literature) as those who occupy its rooms. To give you an idea, you should know that it was in this hotel that Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it was home to Patti Smith on many occasions. It was also where Jack Kerouac typed out his novel On the Road on a very, very long scroll of paper.
The point is that during the ‘60s, the hotel was a creative hub for some of the decade’s biggest artists, including Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, and Jefferson Airplane, as well as the late Leonard Cohen, who created one of his most perfect pieces of work in the Chelsea Hotel. But, during the spring of 1968, Cohen’s career wasn’t in the best shape.
Despite his efforts, he wasn’t really making a name for himself in literature nor music. He started straying from the pack, beginning to nurture his dark and moody role of the storyteller, the observer, the poet. He was sad and lonely, and needed to get out – to find fuel for both his aching body and mind.
He reflected later on the night in question. “It was a dismal evening in New York City,” he recalled. He went to a diner where he ate a cheeseburger, but “it didn’t help at all.” Now that he had food in his belly, he looked for a different kind of nourishment.
Cohen headed to the Greenwich Village bar, which was known for its creative minds. Eventually, Cohen was back in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, whose elevator was notoriously tricky. While Cohen was doing the usual slamming of the buttons, a wild-haired and confident woman entered.
She was the current resident of Room 411 – the lead singer for the band Big Brother and the Holding Company – the voice of her generation: Janis Joplin. She intrigued him, so Cohen decided to make use of the slow pace of the elevator to engage in some conversation with Joplin.
In 1988, he recalled what he said to her in that moment: “Are you looking for someone?” Joplin responded: “Yes, I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson.” Cohen then said, “Little lady, you’re in luck, I am Kris Kristofferson.” (Yes, the Kris Kristofferson who wrote the original version of Me and Bobby McGee.)
As Cohen put it, “those were generous times.” Even though Joplin knew that he was shorter than Kristofferson, “she never let on. Great generosity prevailed in those doom decades.” And so, the two talented strangers made their way to Room 424: Leonard Cohen’s room. What happened in Room 424 was shared in Cohen’s song.
He only admitted that Janis Joplin was the object of his affections years after her death. Joplin, in her brief 27 years of life, did mention their fateful romance that night. She said it hit her very hard: “Really heavy, like slam-in-the-face it happened. Twice.”
Twice? Well, she clarified: “Jim Morrison and Leonard Cohen. And it’s strange ’cause they were the only two that I can think of, like prominent people, that I tried to…without really liking them up front, just because I knew who they were and wanted to know them. And then they both gave me nothing.” In the end, Cohen and Joplin saw each other only a handful of times after that chance meeting at the Hotel before she died.
In the years after she died of overdose in 1970, Cohen found himself reminiscing about that very encounter. Soon enough, words began to form on the page in front of him. His song depicts her wit, freedom and desire. But there’s one line that Cohen admittedly regrets because of the song’s association to Joplin.
He once referred to it as his biggest indiscretion and he wished he could take it back. (If you don’t already know which lyrics he was referring to, you’re going to have to figure it out as it’s a bit too naughty to repeat here).
Even if Joplin didn’t die before her time at 27, chances are these two would never have made it as a couple.
“We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn’t have much time”
The song came out in 1973, but it was written and recorded in 1971, all thanks to the events that went down in on December 4, 1971 in a small town called Montreux in Switzerland – a place that forever became linked to the history of rock music.
A fire broke out at the Montreux Casino during a Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention concert which ultimately inspired Deep Purple’s classic Smoke on the Water. Deep Purple was in Montreux at the same time, planning to cut an album.
“Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground”
They were using a mobile recording studio that they rented from the Rolling Stones on the shoreline of Lake Geneva, near the Montreux Casino and a theater. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were scheduled to play at the casino, and the plan was that after they left, Deep Purple would start recording.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way. About 80 minutes into The Mothers’ casino performance, they played the song King Kong. During Don Preston’s synthesizer solo, someone suddenly shot off a flare gun (of all things). The flare hit the wooden roof and spread, literally, like wildfire.
“They burned down the gambling house
It died with an awful sound
Uh, Funky Claude was running in and out
Pulling kids on the ground”
At first, the band treated the incident with their typical mockery. Background vocalist Howard Kaylan shouted, “Fire!… Arthur Brown in person.”
But they realized the actual danger of the situation, and Frank Zappa composed himself enough to tell everybody to head calmly toward the exits. The lyrics of Smoke on the Water paint quite a vivid picture, with Claude Nobs, the director of the Montreux Jazz Festival, running in and out of the casino to help fans escape.
According to a fan who was there, Peter Schneider, “The fire spread so quickly that all the people in the front were trapped.” The crowd was trying to get out through the large glass windows as a Swiss fireman came in with a huge axe and started to break each and every window.
People started to jump out of the casiono’s second-floor auditorium. Luckily, everyone got to safety in time before the building’s heating system caused an explosion. The casino was completely engulfed in flames. But if you ask Schneider, it wasn’t a flare gun that did it, as Deep Purple’s song indicates.
“The fire was started by a young man from Eastern Europe (who fled the very next day back home),” Schneider stated. He was apparently lighting matches and throwing them at the ceiling. Anyway, Deep Purple’s plan to record at the site was obviously destroyed.
The band scrambled to find another place to record, choosing a local theater to lay down the basic track for the song that would become Smoke on the Water. Then, they moved on to the Montreux Grand Hotel, where they finished most of their Machine Head album – their first to reach the top 10.
It was at that hotel that the vocals for the song, the title (provided by bassist Roger Glover), the lyrics (by Ian Gillan), and the guitar parts by Ritchie Blackmore were all put in place. It eventually became one of rock music’s greatest songs, whose guitar riff is almost always placed at the top of the “best of” lists.
In Montreux, a sculpture commemorating the incident stands inside the casino that currently thrives there. The four notes that lead in to Smoke on the Water are displayed on a balcony. As a side note: Zappa died on December 4, 1993, 22 years to the day of the fire.
It’s only teenage wasteland
The Who’s Baba O’Riley, written by Pete Townshend, is often mistakenly called “Teenage Wasteland”. It’s likely because the actual name of the song is never mentioned in it.
Baba O’Riley, was a name chosen to honor the famed spiritual leader Meher Baba and musician Terry Riley, the philosophical and musical influence behind the song. Baba was a famous Indian spiritual guru who proclaimed himself to be the reincarnation of God. Riley was a minimalist musician and classical composer that Townshend simply admired a lot.
Riley’s music actually influenced the composition of the song, particularly the keyboard riffs. Townsend first wrote Baba O’Riley as a follow up to their album Tommy, called Lifehouse. The original version of the song was about 30 minutes long.
Lifehouse, however, never got picked up by anyone, so The Who took many of the tracks from the project and shrunk them down in order for them to be put in the 1971 album Who’s Next – one of the band’s most popular albums. In Lifehouse, the song was meant to be sung by Ray, a Scottish farmer.
In the song, Ray gathers his wife Sally and their two kids to take them to London – to escape the “Teenage Wasteland.” Oh, and that awesome violin part at the end of the song? That was reportedly drummer Keith Moon’s idea.
At their concerts, instead of having a violin being played live, The Who almost always had the end jig played on a harmonica. And while Roger Daltrey sings lead vocals in the song, it’s Townshend who sings the part: “Don’t cry. Don’t raise your eye. It’s only teenage wasteland.”
“There is a house in New Orleans
they call the Rising Sun
it’s been the ruin of many poor girls,
and me, O God, for one.”
Of course, we all know and love The Animals’ The House of the Rising Sun, which is considered one of the best British pop classics ever.
While The Animals’ version is told from the perspective of a young man following his father into alcoholism and gambling, the original American folk song was sung in the character of a woman led into a life of degradation. The date and writer of the song are unknown, but some musicologists say that it could very easily have been written in the 16th century.
The oldest record of House of the Rising Sun in reference to a song was back in 1905, and it was first recorded by an Appalachian group in 1933. There are other early recordings, like Woody Guthrie’s 1941 version and Bob Dylan’s in 1961. The song by The Animals, however, is without a doubt the most popular.
In fact, Dylan gets reportedly annoyed when people assume that he covered the song from them. So, what’s the story behind this song that has been covered countless times, popularized by the British band in the 1960s, and has remained one of the most famous folk songs ever?
The House of the Rising Sun tells the story of a seemingly very young woman recounting how her life has become a living hell once she decided to abandon her family. Many see the tale as a representation of poverty and injustice – an anthem that many people can relate to.
The story is set in New Orleans, and many historians, musicologists, as well as anthropologists have tried to find the song’s origins, as well as the said house’s location to get an understanding of what happened to this young woman in the song.
According to music specialists, the song belongs to the folk ballad tradition that was very popular during the 16th to 19th centuries. Yes, it’s very vague, but they believe that due to its folkloric nature, it can be traced back to over two centuries ago.
Many people assume that it’s an American song (“There is a house in New Orleans”), but some specialists believe it evolved from a popular song called The Unfortunate Rake, which was an English 16th century folk song. This folk song has many variants, the most popular being a story about a man dying from syphilis.
Over the generations, being passed from voice to voice, the song was transformed and adapted to different situations, including one about soldiers dying in the war and sailors lost at sea. As for the name, it’s believed that “Rising Sun” was a prevalent name for English pubs.
Eventually, placing it in New Orleans was just a way to claim the song and make it relatable to Americans. From the moment the song arrived in the U.S., people have wanted to know the source of the mysterious song. There are two folk singers who made a record with it….
Clarence Ashley recorded the song in 1933, and he claimed that he learned of the song from his grandfather. The other artist was Alan Lomax, who produced the song in 1941, getting a girl named Georgia Turner to be the main voice of the song, making it more relatable to the story it tells.
The book Chasing the Rising Sun by Ted Antony explains that the song came to both of those musicians during a time when information was hard to move from town to town. Antony believes the song was told orally thanks to the railroad.
Clarence Ashley traveled in the Appalachian region in the 1920s, when people sold “medical” remedies (really just alcohol mixed with sugar) at medicine shows, while singers performed for the crowd who gathered around them.
Whereas the singers made money from their performances, the “doctors” used those songs as jingles that people would later remember and associate with their products.
That’s one theory. Another theory is that in the decades preceding the ‘20s, the railways were being built, and laborers sang folk songs as they worked, allowing the song to travel across the country.
Many New Orleans tour guides claim it was a hotel (more of a brothel, actually) in the French Quarter of the city that operated between 1808 and 1822. This has become the most popular story surrounding the song, seeing as how the story indicated that the life of the young woman changed when she abandoned her house.
It’s most likely that she was taken to the brothel to work. There’s another theory involving a women’s prison outside of New Orleans that had a sun over the gate. There’s no evidence about the sun image, but many think the story is plausible since early versions of the song mention a ball and chain. There’s also the fact that in the 19th century, many women were sent to prison if they disobeyed their husbands or worked as prostitutes.
“If I should stay
I would only be in your way
And so I’ll go, but I know
I’ll think of you each step of the way
And I will always love you”
Country fans probably already know that it was Dolly Parton – and not Whitney Houston – who wrote the original song, I Will Always Love You. And while the lyrics have a true and heartbreaking meaning, it’s not necessarily what you might think.
The lyrics make it sound like they’re about the end of a relationship, which is technically true. But what the song is really about is the end of a professional one. Parton wrote the iconic song when she decided to leave Porter Wagoner’s show.
In 1973, Parton hit a roadblock in her relationship with Porter Wagoner, her on-screen duet partner on The Porter Wagoner Show who was also her mentor. She had agreed to star on his show for five years and did so successfully, but it came time for her to go out on her own and make a name for herself.
Wagoner, however, wasn’t ready to let her go, and they butt heads over the decision. “There was a lot of grief and heartache there, and he just wasn’t listening to my reasoning for my going,” Parton told CMT in 2011.
What Parton did was what she does best: She wrote a song about it. She recalled going home and finding herself in “a very emotional place” as she started writing the song. The next day, she walked back into the office and asked Porter if he could just hear her out for a minute.
That’s when she sang I Will Always Love You to him. Wagoner was overcome with emotion and started crying. When she finished singing the song, he said, “Well, hell! If you feel that strong about it, just go on — providing I get to produce that record because that’s the best song you ever wrote.”
The rest is history, as they say. Parton left the show and Porter produced her next album, Jolene, with I Will Always Love You on the track list. Parton and Wagoner went on to perform the single together at a special Grand Ole Opry show.
She reportedly sang it to him one last time, on the day he died in 2007. Parton later noted the song’s sentiment: “Just because I’m going, don’t mean I won’t love you. I appreciate you and I hope you do great and I appreciate everything you’ve done, but I’m out of here.'”
“You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Any place is better”
Not long after Tracy Chapman performed Fast Car at Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute concert on June 11, 1988, the song began its rise on the American charts. For most of Chapman’s fans, it’s the song that introduced them to the singer.
Chapman talked about the hit single in 2010 on the BBC radio. She said that Fast Car played a significant role in shaping her as a singer/songwriter who writes songs that tell stories.
Chapman grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in a working class home and neighborhood. She was raised by a single mom and would “just watch people, being in a community of people who were struggling.” She remembers everyone working hard and hoping that things would get better. Chapman revealed that Fast Car wasn’t directly autobiographical.
“I never had a Fast Car. It’s just a story about a couple, how they are trying to make a life together and they face challenges.” She remembers writing the song late in the evening, and at the time, she had a Miniature Dachshund who would stay up with her.
Her dog was sitting on the couch right next to her when she started writing the first few lyrics of the song. The first part of the song that came to her was the song’s first line: “You’ve got a fast car…” As Chapman remembers that evening, her dog was “more procked up than usual” and “felt my energy.”
Chapman wrote the song in 1986, and when she wrote it, she “actually didn’t really know who I was writing about.” She only understood it much later.
“I think that it was a song about my parents… about how when they met each other they were very young and they wanted to start a new life together,” Chapman revealed. She remembered her mother being anxious to leave home. Her parents married “and went out into the world” to make a place for themselves, and it was very difficult.
Her mother didn’t have a high school diploma and her father was a bit older. According to Chapman, her father was struggling to create the kind of life that he dreamed of with the education he had and the opportunities that were available to him. The way she sees it, her parents came together, thinking that “together they would have a better chance at making it.”