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Seventeen Facts You Didn’t Know About Hit Songs

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Popular music has provided us with many of our most cherished and apocryphal stories, from juicy true tidbits to outright urban legends. You probably already know that “Candle In the Wind” was written about Marilyn Monroe and Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” is about his newborn daughter, but did you know these other fascinating facts about hit songs?


  • In 1980, the apartheid government of South Africa banned the song “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd. Black students, protesting inferior educational opportunities, had made the song their unofficial anthem, and the government banned it to prevent them from organizing.
  • The original name of Van Morrison’s hit “Brown-Eyed Girl” was “Brown-Skinned Girl.”
  • The Beatles’ hit “A Day in the Life” was banned by the BBC because of the lyric, “had a smoke, somebody spoke and I went into a dream,” which was interpreted to be a reference to marijuana, although the band denied it. Ironically, the song also contains the lyric, “I’d love to turn you on,” which was a blatant reference to LSD.
  • Although The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” is often lauded as a sweet and sentimental love ballad, it was written during a period when Sting was going through a divorce, and felt an uncontrollable need to monitor and exert control over his soon-to-be-ex-wife.
  • The ’80s hit “99 Luftballons” is actually a musical protest against the Cold War. The lyrics tell the story of the military, mistaking harmless balloons for a weapon and inadvertently starting a nuclear war.
  • “Love Song” was a smash hit for singer Sara Bareilles in 2007, but the song isn’t about an actual person, or even about love at all. In live performances, Bareilles tells audience the story of how her record label pressured her to write something more marketable—like a typical love song—to make her more commercially successful.
  • Barry Manilow had a #1 hit in 1976 with “I Write the Songs,” and it’s become one of his most-beloved signature performance pieces. However, Manilow did not write the song.
  • The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was named by the National Review as the #1 Conservative Rock Song. The magazine called it “an oath that swears off naïve idealism once and for all.”
  • Otis Redding’s classic “Dock of the Bay” features whistling instead of lyrics for the last verse. When he recorded the song, Redding didn’t have a verse written, so he whistled, intending to finish it later. Unfortunately, he died before he had the chance, and to release the song, producers had no choice but to leave the whistling in.
  • The lyric genius Prince is credited with launching many careers by simply giving away hit songs. For instane, The Bangles’ “Manic Monday” was actually written by him.
  • Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” was actually an obscure part of his canon until 2002, when the song was remixed and re-released. The re-release went to #1 in the UK, which gave Elvis the record for most #1 hits ever—twenty-five years after his death.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” is not about witnessing a drowning. Collins wrote it when he was going through a divorce, and the dark, accusatory lyrics are directed at his ex-wife.
  • In 2007, Neil Diamond revealed that the inspiration for his beloved hit “Sweet Caroline” was actually Caroline Kennedy.
  • Johnny Cash’s immortal classic “A Boy Named Sue” was written by Shel Silverstein.
  • In “I Love Rock ’n Roll,” Joan Jett sings, “Put another dime in the jukebox…” Actually, when the song was released in 1981, a song on a jukebox already cost a quarter. Jett kept the lyric as it was, because “dime” fit the meter of the song better.
  • “What’s Up” was a hit song by Four Non Blondes in the ’90s. Originally, the name of the song was “What’s Going On,” but they ended up changing it so that the song wouldn’t be confused with Marvin Gaye’s tune of the same name.
  • The first time Led Zeppelin ever played “Stairway to Heaven” in concert, the audience booed.

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