From Paul McCartney to Neil Young: The 10 best songs written in tribute to dead musicians
For most musicians, creating songs and sounds is as close to therapy as one can get without sitting on the doctor’s couch. It makes sense then, that throughout the ages, musicians have turned to their creations as the foreword on their expression. Good or bad, the music usually holds the clearest autobiography of the artist’s life. While there are countless examples of joyful moments being documented in song, there are also plenty of sorrowful moments.
The death of a bandmate or musical icon is always likely to rock an artist and, more often than not, they use music to show their true feelings. Whether it is a homage for a fallen band member or a tribute to a past icon, the music world is littered with eulogies for music’s deceased. Below, we’ve picked out ten of the best songs written in tribute to musicians who have passed away. It makes for a poignant and emotional listen.
Plenty of musicians have sadly passed before their time, and it means plenty of other musicians have lost a friend or bandmate or hero. Though it may appear as one life has been lost, in fact, countless lives have been affected because of it. For example, it means the death of John Lennon has been widely written about, thanks to his ubiquitous appeal and unmovable image as a figurehead of rock and roll.
Across ten of the best songs below, we look at each of these facets of loss. Whether direct and personal or removed and external, the feeling of grief is never an easy one to handle. Of course, one of the best ways to do so is to express your sadness and, for the majority of the below songs, that’s exactly what happened.
It’s a beautiful and poignant collection.
10 songs written in tribute to dead musicians:
‘Here Today’ – Paul McCartney about John Lennon
Written in tribute to his friend after John Lennon’s shocking murder in 1980, the song sees Paul McCartney pose his now deceased friend a series of questions, answering them the way he thought John would have. It is a truly heart-wrenching song that as well as being laden with pop sentiment is also a voracious piece of therapeutic work as McCartney works through his grief.
McCartney takes to his canvas to paint a beautiful, earnest and honest reflection of his friend. Warts and all, Lennon is accurately rendered for a generation who will now only know his memory. Macca adds texture to this image, showing their relationship’s tender moments, hinting at the day they met and ‘the night they cried’.
While we cannot be sure, it’s fair to assume that when Lennon was alive, the two songwriters didn’t say half of what they should have to each other. We’d bet the use of the word ‘love’ in this track is a hint to what McCartney wishes he told his friend. It goes down as one of McCartney’s most poignant tracks and one that always deserves listening to as the typification of the Lennon-McCartney partnership.
‘The Needle and The Damage Done’ – Neil Young about Danny Whitten
Taken from 1972 album Harvest, this is quite possibly the greatest anti-drug song you’ll ever hear. Considering it was written in the early 1970s, the idea of such a track was a dicey affair. Inspired by Danny Whitten’s heroin addiction.
Young has often claimed Whitten to have been his musical soulmate, but Whitten’s addiction got the better of him, and he succumbed to an overdose on the night Young fired him from his touring band. It’s certainly one of the sadder stories on our list and, when considering Young’s connection the death of Whitten, it is certainly one of the bravest too.
Young puts his vulnerability on show and allows his friend’s spirit to rise from the tune. Young once described Whitten as the only guitarist he ever truly felt comfortable with and considering the talent he’s played with, that’s some compliment.
‘Never Without You’ – Ringo Starr about George Harrison
The guitarist and drummer of the Fab Four, George Harrison and Ringo Starr shared a kindred spirit because of their place in the comparative shadows. It meant when Harrison sadly passed away in 2001, Ringo was mortified by the loss and chose to work through his grief the only way he could, with a tribute to his friend and bandmate.
The song in question featured on Ringo’s 2003 album Ringo Rama and is one of the most honest and touching pieces ever composed by the drummer. ‘Never Without You’ is a straight-up tribute song and is drenched in the agony the Ringo felt when he lost one of his best friends in Harrison. The song is full of references to the guitarist including using another friend of Harrison’s, Eric Clapton who also contributed to the track.
Speaking of ‘Never Without You’ in 2003, Ringo said of the song: “George was really on my mind when I wrote it.” He claimed that he had remained closest friends with George following the band’s break-up and that the song was an attempt to convey “how I miss him in my heart and music.”
‘American Pie’ – Don Mclean about Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper
Officially known as ‘The Day The Music Died’, the night that Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and Big Bopper’s plane went down during a tour, was one of the darkest days pop music had ever seen. Three extremely talented musicians would never reach their potential, and the world collectively mourned their loss.
Don McLean incorporated the tragic set of circumstances within his eight-minute opus, ‘American Pie’ a song that not only referenced the musicians at hand but also worked as a eulogy to the sixties themselves.
As well as Holly, Valens and Bopper, the song also refers to Elvis, JFK, Bob Dylan, Charles Manson, The Beatles and so many more. While the track isn’t strictly aimed at Holly and co. it works as a tribute to a by-gone era.
‘2000 Miles’ – The Pretenders about Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott
Though it is now thought of as a Christmas staple, the foundations of the Pretenders’ classic ‘2000 Miles’ is actually one of the more sobering moments on our list. The song was penned for Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott, two of the group’s original members who lost their lives in tragic circumstances.
Both Honeyman-Scott and Farndon would die following a drug incident. Honeyman-Scott passed away following a cocaine intolerance which saw him succumb to heart failure. Farndon, who had been fired from the Pretenders and was forming a new group, passed away after a heroin overdose saw him drown in his own bathtub.
It left the Pretenders with only two original members. But Chrissie Hynde vowed to fight on and make the music the quartet had always wanted to. ‘2000 Miles’ is just one of those classic songs.
‘Oh Thank You Great Spirit’ – Chicago about Jimi Hendrix
Terry Kath of Chicago may well be one of the most underrated guitarists of all time. Kath had an ability like no other guitarist around and channelled the very versatility of spirit that handmade Jimi Hendrix such a prominent figure. It seems fitting then that Kath’s band Chicago should pay tribute to Hendrix through a song.
‘Oh Thank You Great Spirit’ is a classic tune, too. It not only gives Kath a chance to share his feelings about Hendrix through his vocals but through his guitar playing. As Hendrix did before him, Kath always said more with his guitar than his lyrics, and this is a fitting tribute to Jimi.
The slow melodic fretwork builds and builds to a simply feverish intensity, the kind that Hendrix cherished and, we imagine, would have loved to have heard on this song.
‘Back in Black’ – AC/DC about Bon Scott
Recorded and released just five months after the tragic death of AC/DC’s original lead singer, Bon Scott, ‘Back In Black’ is perhaps the biggest song on our list. Big in every sense of the word too. Not only is it now considered an anthemic moment of any AC/DC show but also one of the most commercially sound entries to boot.
“Forget the hearse ’cause I never die,” sings new singer Brian Johnson for Scott. The connection between the two singers goes deeper than that too. Johnson had previously been the singer for a band called Geordie, a group that Scott had caught once in 1973. Scott had always talked up the Geordie singer, and so, when Scott tragically passed away, Johnson was immediately lined up as his replacement.
There’s a relationship within this song between the band and their departed leader that suggests not only resilience but a refusal to accept their apparent loss. It’s defiant and deliberate, much like Scott himself.
‘Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’ – U2 about Michael Hutchence
For a while, INXS were one of the hottest bands around. The Aussie group had captured hearts and minds with a searing brand of pop-rock that had seen lead singer Michael Hutchence be endlessly compared with Jim Morrison. Sadly, as Morrison before him, Hutchence would pass away before his time.
U2 were an equally vital band around the same time as INXS’ rise to prominence so it seems only fitting that Bono and Hutchence would share a friendship. In ‘Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’, Bono is singing about an imagined argument he is having with Hutchence where he pleads with him to “get yourself together.”
“It’s a row between mates,” Bono told Rolling Stone. “You’re kinda trying to wake them up out of an idea. In my case, it’s a row I didn’t have while he was alive. I feel the biggest respect I could pay to him was not to write some stupid soppy f–king song, so I wrote a really tough, nasty little number, slapping him around the head. And I’m sorry, but that’s how it came out of me.
‘Sleeps With Angels’ – Neil Young about Kurt Cobain
Unlike many entries on this list, Neil Young and Kurt Cobain weren’t exactly friends. Young had gained a reputation as the “Godfather of Grunge” but had otherwise remained isolated in his own music before he learned of the death of Cobain. The Nirvana singer took his own life in 1994 and referred to a Young song in his suicide note, “It’s better to burn out than fade away.”
It was enough to prompt Young to pen a track for the fallen icon and take his own inspiration from Nirvana’s sound to produce ‘Sleeps With Angels.’ To make matters worse, Young had been attempting to contact Cobain in the weeks leading up to his suicide.
Though reluctant to talk about their connection, Young opened up about the singe rin an interview with The Guardian in 2002. “I like to think that I possibly could have done something. I was just trying to reach him. Trying to connect up with him. It’s just too bad I didn’t get a shot. I had an impulse to connect,” reflected the singer. “Only when he used my song in that suicide note was the connection made. Then, I felt it was really unfortunate that I didn’t get through to him. I might’ve been able to make things a little lighter for him, that’s all. Just lighten it up a little bit.”
‘Johnny Bye Bye’ – Bruce Springsteen about Elvis Presley
Bruce Springsteen may well be considered The Boss, but that has never stopped him from showing his admiration for his fellow musicians. While, usually, that’s a tribute to his childhood hero of Bob Dylan, on this song he pays homage to two of his greatest influences, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.
Using the Chuck Berry tune, ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ as a base, Springsteen pens a letter to his fallen idol Elvis with devastating effect. Not one to shy away from sharing, Springsteen has often noted the moment he decided to become a singer, and it had a lot to do with The King.
Springsteen has often stated that seeing Elvis perform on GTV when he was nine years old was enough to push him towards singing and leave him hollering “I wanna be just like that!”. Written only three years after Elvis died, the song is imbued with genuine sorrow.