Tom Bryant uncovers the individuals who've unwittingly served as muses for some of rock's best-known anthems.
Soundgarden - Spoonman
Artis The Spoonman was a Seattle street performer who, as his name suggests, played the spoons. After being asked to write some music for a fictional band who would appear in the grunge film Singles, Soundgarden considered renaming themselves Spoonman for the film – they went with Citizen Dick in the end – and Spoonman eventually became an acoustic song played in the film. It was extensively overhauled by Soundgarden for 1994’s Superunknown, with the band’s singer Chris Cornell wanting to write about how society looked down on the likes of Artis, seeing him as a tramp. Artis would go on to appear in Soundgarden’s subsequent video and become something of an underground grunge icon.
Pink Floyd - Arnold Layne
Pink Floyd’s debut single was inspired by a local Cambridge man who, by night would raid washing lines for women’s underwear. Both bassist Roger Waters and guitarist Syd Barrett’s families would take in female students as lodgers who would, on washing days, often be irritated to discover their clothes had been swiped – hence the opening lines: ‘Arnold Layne has a strange hobby, collecting clothes, moonshine washing line.’
Slipknot - Eyeless
The two key songwriting members of Slipknot, drummer Joey Jordison and bassist Paul Gray, and the band talisman Shawn ‘Clown’ Crahan were walking into CBGBs in New York hours after signing their record deal with Roadrunner in 1998. As they arrived, they were approached by a rambling tramp who blurted the line “You can’t see California without Marlon Brando’s eyes” at them. “I repeated it over and over in my head so I wouldn’t forget it,” said Clown. “Joey and I both knew that was a great line.” When they got into their practice space a few days later, they built a song around it – Eyeless. “It came together in about 10 minutes,” said Jordison. “Do we owe him a royalty for that? Ha! No.”
Dire Straits - Money For Nothing
Mark Knopfler was in a New York appliance store when he overheard one of the shop workers – a delivery man – talking in front of a bank of TVs showing MTV music videos. The man was moaning about the fact he had to install microwaves and kitchens and lug TVs and refrigerators around for a living, while the “little faggot with the earring and makeup” in the music videos had his own “jet airplane” and was a millionaire rock star. Knopfler pulled out pen and paper and wrote down, almost verbatim, what he said. The results were a song that helped make Knopfler a millionaire rock star, somewhat ironically.
AC/DC - Whole Lotta Rosie
Following an early AC/DC show in Tasmania, the band’s original singer Bon Scott said he was going to hit the local clubs. Within a few minutes of walking out of the door, a woman yelled ‘Hey Bon’, flashed a bit of leg, and he thought, ‘Oh well…’ She was, as the subsequent song revealed, on the large side at 19 stone and with a figure of 42-39-56. A night of drinking and debauchery followed and, when Scott woke up the following morning pinned to the wall, he figured she deserved a song: Whole Lotta Rosie was the result. “There’s very few people who’ll go out and write a song about a big fat lady,” revealed guitarist Angus Young later, “but Bon said it was worthy.”
Van Halen - Jump
Van Halen vocalist David Lee Roth was watching TV in LA when it cut to news footage of a suicidal man 33 stories up the city’s Arco Tower. Beneath the man was a crowd begging him to think about it, urging him not to jump. Roth considered the man’s plight for a few minutes. “Might as well jump,” he figured. “Go ahead, jump.” By the end of 1984 it would be Van Halen’s first (and only) US No.1 hit.
Dream Theater - Count Of Tuscany
While a Tuscan count is not perhaps strictly ‘regular folk’ he did inspire Dream Theater’s Count Of Tuscany. Count Niccolò Capponi is a prominent Florentine art historian and wine merchant who ended up inviting Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci and his guitar tech to his mansion during the band’s Train Of Thought tour in 2004. The place freaked Petrucci out, and the subsequent song’s lyrics have him singing about not getting out of the mansion alive and saying goodbye to the world. Which is not generally considered the best etiquette after being invited to an Italian count’s country gaff.
Chic - Le Freak
After being invited to the legendary disco club Studio 54 by Grace Jones, Nile Rodgers and bandmate Bernard Edwards were all set for a hell of a night out. But, on getting to the club, the bouncer on the door informed them they could still have a hell of night out… but they would have to do it elsewhere. Chastened, they returned to Rodgers’ apartment, got drunk on champagne and wrote a song about the bouncer with the grabby chorus of “Awwww… fuck off!”. Deciding that they might be in with more of a chance of radio play, they later changed it “Awwww … freak out!”.
Pearl Jam - Jeremy
One of Pearl Jam’s most haunting songs was inspired by the suicide of a 15-year-old Jeremy Delle, who shot himself in front of his classmates. Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder read about the incident in a small, tucked away newspaper article and felt that something more should be made of it. The song’s video proved controversial, with MTV ruling that they couldn’t show the boy putting a gun in his mouth. As a result, the subsequent cut suggested to many that, in fact, he had shot his classmates rather than himself. Irritated, for years, Pearl Jam refused to make any more videos at all.
Billy Joel - Piano Man
After Billy Joel’s first album Cold Spring Harbor tanked, he found himself playing lounge piano in The Executive Rooms in Hollywood to make ends meet. Slowly, the drinkers in the room began to assemble themselves as a song in his mind – the old man with the gin and tonic, John the barman who dreams of being an actor, the lonely waitress getting drunk. It was not initially a hit when released in 1974, but following the release of 1977’s hit album The Stranger it would resurface as new fans investigated Joel’s back catalogue.