Learn the Stories Behind Iconic Songs: The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” REM’s “Losing My Religion,” Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” & More

There was a time when pop lyrics did not exact­ly spark curios­i­ty, doo-lang doo-lang doo-lang.

They may have tapped into some uni­ver­sal teenage feel­ings, but rarely inspired fur­ther thought along the lines of “Hmm, I won­der what—or who—inspired that.”

Dutch sta­tion NPO Radio 2’s inter­view series Top 2000 a gogo lifts the veil.

Each entry reveals the ori­gin sto­ry of a well known song.

The late Bill With­ers, above, inti­mat­ed that every woman he’d even been involved with thought “Ain’t No Sun­shine” was about her, when real­ly, the inspi­ra­tion was the mis­er­able alco­holic cou­ple played by Jack Lem­mon and Lee Remick in the 1962 film Days of Wine and Ros­es.

Danc­ing in the Moon­light,” the endur­ing, incred­i­bly catchy hit for King Har­vest, paints an endear­ing pic­ture of care­free, cavort­ing youth, but as recount­ed by song­writer Sher­man Kel­ly, the event that led to its cre­ation is deserv­ing of a trig­ger warn­ing. Rather than lean­ing in to the dark­ness, he con­jured a light­heart­ed scene far dif­fer­ent from the one he had endured, a switcheroo that the uni­verse saw fit to reward.

One need not be the song­writer to be at the cen­ter of a song’s hid­den his­to­ry. Glo­ria Jones, preacher’s daugh­ter and even­tu­al soul­mate to T. Rex’s Marc Bolan, was a teenag­er when she record­ed Ed Cobb’s “Taint­ed Love,” a song she dis­liked owing to the impli­ca­tions of “taint­ed.” The song became a hit in Eng­land, thanks to a series of mis­ad­ven­tures involv­ing a sailor swap­ping a .45 for ciggies—a devel­op­ment that could have had an impact on Jones’ career, had any­one both­ered to inform her. All this to say, Soft Cell’s 1981 cov­er helped put MTV on the map, but it couldn’t have hap­pened with­out the teenag­er who held her nose and record­ed the orig­i­nal.

Top 2000 is unsur­pris­ing­ly full of deep and touch­ing rev­e­la­tions, but Rolling Stone Ron­nie Wood’s refusal to take things seri­ous­ly is also wel­come. Talk to Mick Jag­ger if you want con­fir­ma­tion that “Miss You” con­cerns the frus­tra­tions of star­dom. Accord­ing to class clown Wood, and his straight man drum­mer Char­lie Watts, the song was a sol­id attempt to go with the dis­co flow. The frus­tra­tion arose from being caged in a Paris record­ing stu­dio, bare­ly able to duck out for escar­got before task mas­ter Kei­th Richards cracked the whip to sum­mon them back.

Bit­ter­sweet is not the adjec­tive we’d choose to describe this his­tor­i­cal moment, but it gave us all the feels to see Alan Mer­rill, whose “I Love Rock n Roll” was a response to the Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll,” as well as a break­through hit for Joan Jett. Mer­rill died of com­pli­ca­tions from COVID-19 at the end of March.

Explore more songs—over 200—on Top 2000 a gogo’s YouTube chan­nel.

Mul­ti-lin­guists! Con­tribute trans­la­tions to help make the videos avail­able world­wide.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Tom Pet­ty Takes You Inside His Song­writ­ing Craft

How Talk­ing Heads and Bri­an Eno Wrote “Once in a Life­time”: Cut­ting Edge, Strange & Utter­ly Bril­liant

How David Bowie Used William S. Bur­roughs’ Cut-Up Method to Write His Unfor­get­table Lyrics

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Here lat­est project is a series of free down­load­able posters, encour­ag­ing cit­i­zens to wear masks in pub­lic and wear them prop­er­ly. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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