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From Tupac to John Lennon: 10 great songs that musicians used as insults

For all the peace, love and flower power of music, it proves to be a bouquet with a fair few thorns in the bunch. Regardless of the generation, feuds have been as ever-present in music as Fenders. In fact, long before the dawn of pop culture, you had Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky calling Johannes Brahms a “giftless bastard” and, before that, you probably had silent bickerings among the Benedictine choirs of old. Simply put, there is a community formed within music and anywhere that occurs a pinch of tension and a slug of competitiveness is bound to follow. 

Whether the rivalry between artists is simply down to healthy competition or something rather more personal, it always seems to come out in the candid yet somehow covert realm of song. Over the years, reams of chart-topping hits have dropped hints at some behind the scenes bitterness; many of these tracks have seemed ill-advised or childish in the cold light of day, but there are others that outshine the downside of cynicism and stand-up as golden moments of music at its most visceral. 

Below, we have collated ten of the best of these searing songs. From the almost tongue-in-cheek parodies of Bob Dylan to the brutal and arguably justified rage of others, these tracks serve up anger at its artistic best, with a hint of rock ‘n’ roll irony to boot. But before we begin, that hint of irony is always vital, because it’s always worth remembering the golden words of Kurt Vonnegut: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies: ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind’.”

10 great songs that musicians used to insult each other:

10. ‘Fourth Time Around’ by Bob Dylan – The target: John Lennon

Bob Dylan blazed a trail of introspection right through the centre of popular music with a golden deluge of electrified poetry that stirred up everything in its wake. It was the sort of luminous pioneering art that led The Beatles themselves to champion him as an idol, but sometimes the adulation delved a little bit too close to imitation for Dylan’s liking.

When it comes to ‘Norwegian Wood’, Dylan claimed that the song was so similar to his style that he set about penning a return parody with ‘Fourth Time Around’. Listening to Rubber Soul, Dylan replied: “What is this? It’s me, Bob. [John’s] doing me! Even Sonny & Cher are doing me, but, fucking hell, I invented it.” In the track, he caustically purrs: “I never asked for your crutch, Now don’t ask for mine” — which make his thoughts on Lennon hero-worshipping him evidently clear.

9. ‘Go Your Own Way’ by Fleetwood Mac – The target: Stevie Nicks

If Buckingham was a bit more willing to excuse the French, this track might well have been called “fuck right off”. It is a full hammer blow of heartfelt fury, and it has only one target, the target being the woman who poignantly lends fantastic backing vocals to the bullet with her name on it, in an act akin to being present at your own autopsy. 

“Packing up/Shacking up is all you want to do” is the line that sliced Nicks the cleanest with its tinge of domesticity, but let’s face it, hardly any of the couplets are glowing. The song itself lives and breathes on the firecracker rage behind it. Somehow the craft of the band gilded this ‘fist-shaped hole in the wall’ of a song into a piece of playlist gold.   

8. ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ by The Libertines – The target: Pete Doherty and Carl Barât

The life and times of bandmembers are often tempestuous and sometimes it would seem that the closer the members are, the more violent the fallout that follows. In fact, the brotherly love between Pete Doherty and Carl Barât reached such a fiery head that Doherty eventually served time in prison for burglarising Barât’s flat. 

When they re-entered the studio, they sought some sonic way of burying the hatchet, albeit they still had to be separated by bodyguards. The result is some sort of bittersweet recognition of a bond battered but unbroken and it’s all pulled together in a piece of quintessential vagabond indie music.

As bassist John Hassell once remarked about seeing the whole thing unfold and the song it spawned: “Maybe the only thing Pete and Carl could honestly sing about was the situation, what they felt about each other. Almost a sort of therapy in itself.”

7. ‘C.R.E.E.P.’ by The Fall – The target: Morrissey

There’s misanthropy, and there’s whatever you’d call Mark E. Smith. If the late Fall frontman gave any less of a shit, then he’d be in dire need of a colonic. He was a monolith of sadism tearing down the icons of all the filthy Bolshevist and backstabbing bastards that he perceived to be in his merry way as he went slashing through the norm like some demented daemon of the demimonde.

According to the writer Jason Heller, Mark E. Smith once professed that the following verse from ‘C.R.E.E.P.’ was about Morrissey: “He reads books; of the list book club / And after two months—his stance a familiar hunch / It’s that same slouch—you had the last time he came around / His oppression abounds, his type is doing the rounds / He is a scum-egg; a horrid trendy wretch.”

6. ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The target: Nick Cave

Another of the in-house insults comes from the late great Anita Lane’s time in the band with one of the few songs not written by Nick Cave, and while the meaning of the lyric in the beautifully layered song might be somewhat obfuscated, it certainly not a glowing indicted of the frontman. 

“She wrote a song called ‘Stranger Than Kindness’,” Cave declared, “Which we still perform to this day, mostly because it’s such a beautifully obscure lyric.” And the obscurity of the lyric derives from the fractious tumult that comes with being in a relationship with a drug-addled Nick Cave. The imagery of ambivalence and the ambiguous helplessness held within the powerful poetry is as stirring as they come. Despite the fact that the song was about him, he still happily sings it to this day, and it is this lustreless allure that makes it reside as one of his favourites. 

“It’s an obscure, delicate, strange lyric, and I assume that it is about me because we were dating at the time, and it’s one of those beautiful lyrics that can reveal more every time you sing it, really.”

5. ‘How Do You Sleep?’ by John Lennon – The target: Paul McCartney

Perhaps the most famous insult song in history comes from the lengthy backstory that stands as its crutch. The track represented the sorry moment that the lofty ascent of concurring the world with your old friend finally crash-landed. In fact, in an outtake version, Lennon even goes so far as to label McCartney a c u next Tuesday, which hits with all the more force considering the track is housed on an album all about peace, love and the power of a becalmed mind. 

Lennon would late cite: “I used my resentment against Paul… to create a song… not a terrible vicious horrible vendetta… I used my resentment and withdrawing from Paul and The Beatles, and the relationship with Paul, to write ‘How Do You Sleep’. I don’t really go ’round with those thoughts in my head all the time”.

However, at the time he claimed: “There’s really no feud between me and Paul. It’s all good, clean fun. No doubt there will be an answer to ‘Sleep’ on his next album, but I don’t feel that way about him at all. It works as a complete song with no relation to Paul. It works as a piece of music.”

4. ‘Hit ‘Em Up’ by Tupac – The target: Biggie Smalls

In some ways, rap become a genre about insults in its latter years of rap battles and the warring gang culture that it inhabited. When Biggie Smalls dropped ‘Who Shot Ya?’ it was inevitable that Tupac would follow suit with something, but it wasn’t predicted how blunt and utterly unambiguous his response would be. 

As Chuck Philips, the journalist who closely followed the investigations into the tragic murders of both men that followed remarked: “The song is a caustic anti–East Coast jihad in which the rapper threatens to eliminate Biggie, Puff, and a slew of Bad Boy artists and other New York acts.” While the fallout that followed remains condemnable, as a piece of music, ‘Hit ‘Em Up’ remains a jarring blast that proves as unflinching as any song ever written.

3. ‘You’re so Vain’ by Carly Simon – The target: Mick Jagger?

While the radio ubiquity of this song might have rendered it a bit kitsch for a while, it seems to be emerging from the dark realm of the discarded ‘overplayed’ to regaining its glory. Aside from the singalong chorus, it rattles off one of the most beguiling bass intros there is and offers up some golden ensemble musicianship. 

Speaking of that singalong chorus, Mick Jagger might end up lending backing vocals, but it has long been speculated that he is actually celebrating the bonfire of his own vanities in the process. The result is a wildly convoluted web of ironies that you’d need the brain of a pop culture Carl Rogers to untangle. However, while the discussion as to whether Jagger really is the target might amount to bland hearsay, the track itself is a vivified stab catchy enough to survive the test of time.

2. ‘Too Many People’ by Paul McCartney – The target: John Lennon

Naturally, in the tit for tat world of music, John Lennon’s raging lambast was fuelled by a dig in the ribs from his old pal in the first place. The line that Lennon perceived to be insulting in ‘Too Many People’ was “Too many people preaching practices,” and seemingly it stuck in his craw, even if the vitriol it prompted does seem a little bit disproportionate.

The other line that wasn’t shrouded in any subtlety was, “You took your lucky break and broke it in two.” As McCartney would later reveal in an interview with Mojo Magazine: “‘Too many people preaching practices.’ I felt that was true of what was going on with John. ‘Do this, do that, do this, do that.'” While the gloves weren’t quite off, it was clear Macca was at least finding his range with this one.

1. ‘A Simple Desultory Philippic’ by Simon & Garfunkel – The target: Bob Dylan

With Dylan pushing on into electric music around the time that this apparent parody was recorded in June 1965, his folk peers began to weigh in on the hysteria surrounding the star and Paul Simon was one of the first to make a mockery of it all. In this clear divergence in style for Simon & Garfunkel, they added the twists of organ and psychedelic guitar sounds that had entered Dylan’s oeuvre. 

However, Simon then takes a look at Dylan’s songwriting style by seemingly mocking his penchant to throw in obscure lines and list off literary and pop culture references. In a Dylan-esque vocal affectation, he purrs: “Not the same as you and me, he doesn’t dig poetry / He’s so unhip, when you say Dylan / He thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas, whoever he was.”

Simon, however, would treat the track as more of a satirical exploration than a full on dig at the man who he has dubbed an inspiration. As he told Rolling Stone: “One of my deficiencies is my voice sounds sincere. I’ve tried to sound ironic. I don’t. I can’t. With Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He’s telling you the truth and making fun at the same time.”

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