We published our interview with Charlie Rayne last week – you can read it here – and he was kind enough to contribute to our long list of lists. Charlie was one of Revolver’s first contributors, check his Top 10 Sunday Songs which we published 4 years ago here.
This is a list of some of my favourite songs by musicians about other musicians. Some are earnest homage, others tongue-in-cheek pastiche, but all of them feature musicians paying tribute to their musical heroes in one way or another. I excluded songs that mention/are dedicated to musicians without really being about them (Brian Jonestown Massacre’s David Bowie I Love You; Weezer’s Buddy Holly) and put-downs of other bands (Prefab Sprout’s Cars and Girls; Randy Newman’s The Story of a Rock and Roll Band). There are also a couple of songs I couldn’t find on youtube I would have liked to include (Bob Dylan’s Blind Willie Mctell, the Mountain Goats’ Song For Dennis Brown), and I’m sure I’m forgetting others.
By Charlie Rayne
1. Jonathan Richman – Velvet Underground
As a teenager, Jonathan Richman was obsessed with the Velvet Underground. He watched as many performances of the band as he could and even moved to New York in 1969 and lived on the couch of the band’s manager. His first album with the Modern Lovers, a proto-punk classic, was hugely influenced by the band and was partially produced by the Velvets’ John Cale. Though Richman would subsequently pick up an acoustic guitar and veer away from abrasive rock and roll, his first love remained the Velvet Underground and he’d go on to pen this lovely tribute to his heroes on his 1992 album I, Jonathan. One of the many songs he’d write in tribute to artists. (See also: When Harpo Played His Harp, Vincent Van Gogh).
Check out this chart drawn by a 16-year-old Richman
“They were wild like the USA
A mystery band in a New York way
Rock and roll but not like the rest
And to me America at it’s best
How in the world were they making that sound?
2. John Cale – Mr Wilson
John Cale, who went on to a successful solo career as musician and producer after leaving The Velvet Underground in 1968, is often thought of as being the main source of experimentation in the group due to his background working with experimental composers like John Cage and La Monte Young and his unorthodox use of the cello in the band. It may come as a surprise that one of his heroes is Brian Wilson, the wide-eyed Beach Boy who aimed to write symphonies to God. In this song off his 1975 album Slow Dazzle, the Welsh musician manages to capture both the paranoia and the innocence that have characterized Brian Wilson’s struggles through his life, as the song goes back and forth between lovely and ominous.
“I believe you, Mr Wilson
I believe you anyway
And I’m always thinking of you
When I hear your music play”
3. The Replacements – Alex Chilton
Alex Chilton’s band the Box Tops scored an international hit with their song The Letter in 1967 when he was just 16. His next venture was a power-pop band named Big Star that wed British Invasion melodicism to the rhythm and blues swagger of their hometown of Memphis. Although critically-acclaimed, Big Star was a commercial failure and the group disbanded in 1974. Chilton moved on, releasing solo albums and producing bands like The Cramps. But Big Star’s brand of jangle-pop quietly made its way into the music of bands like R.E.M and The Replacements. The latter paid tribute to their hero when they recorded “Alex Chilton” for their 1987 album Pleased To Meet Me. Chilton was also invited to perform on the song Can’t Hardly Wait off the same album.
“I never travel far
Without a little Big Star”
4. They Might Be Giants – We’re The Replacements
The Replacements (‘Mats for fans) get their own tribute in this They Might Be Giants song. Unfortunately following in the footsteps of their heroes in Big Star, the Replacements would never reach the heights of popularity of some of their contemporaries, largely due to the band’s notorious behavior. Despite writing some of the catchiest tunes of the era, The Replacements’ chaotic live shows, drunken hi-jinks and their proclivity for self-sabotage (see the band’s disastrous SNL performance, or their intentionally-dull-as-a-statement videos) cast them forever as could-have-beens and left the industry bemoaning their wasted potential. They Might Be Giants riff on the pun in the ‘Mats name for one their many songs about being a touring band and the chaos a life on the road entails. Tommy in the song is none other than Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson.
“Hey, where’s Tommy? Someone find Tommy
We’re out on the road
Moving equipment, where’s the equipment?
Soon we’re going home”
For another Replacements homage, see Art Brut’s The Replacements.
5. The House of Love – The Beatles and The Stones (John Peel Session)
Another could-have-been band. The “U2 that never were”. The House of Love formed in 1986 and were hailed early on in the UK as the next big thing. Unfortunately, their label’s meddling, the band’s hedonistic lifestyle and the creative differences with their producers led to the band’s downfall as the two core members fell into drugs and depression. Guitarist Terry Bickers quit and the band, helmed by Guy Chadwick, soldiered on and released records until 1993 but the band never fully recovered. A brief respite came with the success of their single “The Beatles and the Stones” in 1990, in which Chadwick fondly recalls finding refuge and comfort in the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in his youth. That the song pays tribute to these two bands is fitting as The House Of Love was one of few bands to adopt 60s classic songwriting so successfully. The ubiquitous John Peel was an early supporter of the band and this version taken from The Complete John Peel Sessions is my favourite.
“The Beatles and the Stones
Sucked the marrow out of bone
Put the V in Vietnam
The Beatles and the Stones
Made it good to be alone”
6. Spacemen 3 – Suicide
While we’re on the topic of drugs and downward spirals, here’s Spacemen 3. The band is best explained by the title of one of their compilations: “Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To”. Working within a sort of minimalistic psychedelic approach, the band’s songs focus on drones and repetition, are based on simple riffs and loops, and make heavy use of effects such as fuzz, distortion, tremolo and wah-wah. The result is hypnotic, visceral neo-psychedelia. Not unlike Suicide, a pioneering post-punk band from the late 70’s, Spacemen 3 could do spaced out heavenly mantric ditties as well as spazzed out spastic ominous rock n roll songs. The spacemen pay tribute to their predecessors on one of the noisier tracks off their 1988 album Playing with Fire, the aptly titled instrumental “Suicide”. The band’s two members went their separate ways in 1991, carrying their neo-psychedelic vamps into Spectrum and Spiritualized.
7. LCD Soundsystem – Daft Punk Is Playing At My House (London Sessions)
LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy has always worn his influences on his sleeve. From first single Losing My Edge that mostly consists of name-dropping bands (one of which is coincidentally Suicide) to career highlight All My Friends that nicks a New Order riff, not to mention the countless nods to David Bowie, Brian Eno, David Byrne and ESG, among others. While Murphy tends to favor 80’s sounds and the New York disco scene of that time, in this track he pays a tongue-in-cheek tribute to a more recent outfit, albeit one that owes a lot to 80s music: French electronic duo Daft Punk. Taking inspiration from punk rock bands who often play in houses and basements, Murphy imagined doing the same with dance music, all the while poking fun at holding Daft Punk as a badge of cool. A neat illustration of Murphy’s love for both rock and dance music and the way he synthesizes those influences with LCD Soundsystem.
“Well everybody’s lined up in my house, my house
And Sarah’s girlfriend is working the door
Got everybody’s PA in my house, my house
All the robots descend from the bus
There’s a freak out brewing in my house, my house
In the basement, ’cause Daft Punk is playing at my house, my house”
8. Television Personalities – I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives
He actually does. The band was dropped from a tour opening for David Gilmour after reading out Syd Barrett’s address to the audience. Formed in England 1978 by part-time punk Dan Treacy, Television Personalities’ youthful, fey, classic pop rock predated the rise of twee pop. This song, an uncharacteristically folky tune taken from their fantastic 1981 debut …And Don’t The Kids Just Love It, exemplifies the love for whimsy and psychedelia the band shared with the Pink Floyd founder: the song references Pink Floyd’s famous use of sound effects and the way Treacy sings the song conjures images of the gnomes and goblins Barrett was so fond of singing about. Barrett had been sacked from Pink Floyd in 1968 when his mental illness, exacerbated by heavy drug use, proved too much for the band. He hadn’t been seen in public for over a decade when this song came out. Dan Treacy would get his own tribute in MGMT’s Song For Dan Treacy.
“He was very famous
Once upon a time
But no one knows
Even if he’s alive
But I know where he lives
And I visit him
In a little hut in Cambridge”
9. Syd Barrett – Bob Dylan Blues
One of Syd Barrett’s earliest songs, this affectionate parody was recorded in 1970 and stayed unreleased until 2001. Writing the song after reportedly watching a Bob Dylan concert in 1964, Barrett satirizes the Dylan myth with a take on the folksinger’s Talking Blues songs, with typical British humor and wordplay. With characterically Dylanesque imprecision, swagger and nonchalance, Barrett gives us what might be his most straightforward song and a glimpse into a more carefree side of the notoriously tortured artist he’d become.
“Got the Bob Dylan blues
And the Bob Dylan shoes
And my clothes and my hair’s in a mess
But you know I just couldn’t care less”
10. The Magnetic Fields – My Only Friend
Stephen Merritt has always been partial to older music. His project The Magnetic Fields has made a career out of a mishmash of girl-group type songs, vintage synthesizers and an affinity for theatricality. His songs are like Gilbert and Sullivan operas condensed into 3 minute pop songs. Of their breakthrough and career highlight 69 Love Songs, Merritt says the songs aren’t about love, but about love songs. As such, we get all sorts of tongue-in-cheek archetypal love songs: cowboy romance, songs about jealousy, and punk love. In “My Only Friend”, the singer addresses Billie Holiday, whose tragic life story finds sublimation in her achingly beautiful singing.
“Billie, you’re a miracle
And God knows I need one
Sing me something terrible
That even dawn may come
You and me, we don’t believe in happy endings”
11. Robyn Hitchcock – I saw Nick Drake
Another tribute to a tragic figure. English folk singer Nick Drake died in 1974 after releasing three hauntingly beautiful albums that were all but ignored at the time. A virtuoso guitarist with a beautiful gentle voice, he was reluctant to perform live or give interviews and toiled in virtual obscurity. He suffered from major depression and died from an apparently intentional overdose of anti-depressants. He began receiving recognition in the mid-80s when musicians cited him as an influence and his popularity has grown since, especially after his song “Pink Moon” was featured in a Volkswagen commercial in 1999. Robyn Hitchcock led the prominent 70s psychedelic band The Soft Boys, whose 1980 album Underwater Moonlight was equally-undeservedly ignored. His solo career has seen him move toward a more pop-oriented sound, and on this song Hitchcock leans closer to the folky sound of Nick Drake. It appeared on 2000’s A Star For Bram but I’m partial to this particular performance.
“I saw Nick Drake
At the corner of time and motion
I caught his eye
And he caught mine
I said ‘You’re tall.’
He said ‘No taller than tomorrow’s ocean.’
I saw Nick Drake
And he was fine”
12. Daniel Johnston – The Beatles
Daniel Johnston’s story has become legendary. The struggle with schizophrenia, the stints in mental hospitals, the homemade tapes he distributed in the early 80’s, the t-shirt Kurt Cobain wore with the cover image of Johnston’s album Hi, How Are You, the acclaimed documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the countless covers ranging from Beach House to Tom Waits to Wilco. But Johnston is first and foremost a songwriter, and his songs are brilliant. Recorded crudely on his boombox and sung in his whiny high register, they belie the craft behind them. It’s no surprise that his favorite band of all time is the Beatles. The Beatles crafted sophisticated pop songs, and Johnston’s attempt to emulate them, hampered by the primitive equipment, his unpolished performances and his quavering yelp resulted in weird and fractured pop gems. Johnston covered the fab four on multiple occasions, and even wrote this song about them, released in 1983 on Yip/Jump Music.
“When I was born in ’61
They already had a hit
They worked so hard and they made it too
They really were very good”
Interbellum – Brian Wilson
This is the first track off my band’s album Now Try Coughing. While not as straight up a tribute as the other songs here, its final chorus was inspired by the Beach Boys’ Till I Die from Surf’s Up. It’s one of their darker songs but there’s still something wonderfully innocent about it and I always associated that with Brian. He supposedly wrote it after having an existential moment on a beach. The song I was writing was a kind of meditation on death, feeling powerless in the face of it all, and I was trying to remind myself to take things lightly. Listening to Till I Die, the lines “I am a cork on the ocean”, “I am a rock in a landslide” really resonated with me, this feeling of insignificance, but in a way that’s sort of liberating. I named the song after Brian because those lines were the sentiment I felt I wanted to highlight most.
“The four angels are wavering
With each spread of newspaper
‘There’s been a crash in the Alps, dear’
And ‘the plague has crossed the equator’
And Brian Wilson is singing
Through the speakers’ distortion
I am rock in a landslide
I am cork on the ocean”
About the author:
Karl Mattar, aka Charlie Rayne, is a songwriter from Beirut. He emerged in 2013 with an EP that featured intricate acoustic guitar-playing coupled with dense lyrics. 2014’s full-length “Wider Waters” further explored the folk aesthetic and saw him on a 50-date tour of Europe, as well as festivals both in Lebanon and abroad. In 2016, he collaborated with other Beirut musicians for the release of a lo-fi rock album, “Now Try Coughing”, under the name Interbellum.