From Bob Dylan to Sonic Youth: The 10 best songs written about other musicians
We are digging into the Far Out vaults to look back at ten of our favourite tribute songs to other musicians. Despite what many diss tracks would have you believe, the music industry isn’t, or at least wasn’t, as cutthroat for artists as you may think. While it’s true that often the inspiration for songs is often rooted in a myriad of different sounds and artists, truly great artists have never been afraid to show their love for those who have come before them.
While most of the time a single line or a mention in an interview will suffice to showcase your love for another songwriter or performer, some musicians take things to a new level. That’s why, below, we have ten songs written by some of the biggest names in the business that are about other musicians. Those immortalised in song include the likes of Bob Dylan, Karen Carpenter, Neil Young and many more.
Now, we know what you’re thinking, if we were to add in every single song that had been directed at another artist we would be here all day. So, what we’ve done is find our ten favourites and brought you a little more of the story to help flesh out what you may have already known. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t want to hear from you. If there’s a glaring omission from the list then let us know in the comments below.
For us, this list of ten songs written about other musicians is simply perfect. Featuring Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Sonic Youth, Bob Dylan and more, the list below is simply chock-full of classic tracks.
The best songs written about other musicians:
‘The Circle Game’ – Joni Mitchell
It’s no surprise that Joni Mitchell’s name is included in our list. In fact, we could have had several songs that were written about just the members of Crosby, Stills Nash & Young. But we’ve decided to just focus on the latter and bring you her track about Neil Young—’The Circle Game’.
In Toronto back in 1964, a young Joni Mitchell was a member of a very small but growing folk scene. Another member of that scene was Neil Young, the two performers met in 1964 at the Fourth Dimension folk club at the University of Manitoba and she encountered him again in the Yorkville district of Toronto in 1965. At the time, the aspiring musicians were desperate for club experience but both were struggling to make an impact.
Mitchell would take her talents towards songwriting and began penning some of the decade’s anthemic folk music. She composed songs for Gordon Lightfoot and Judy Collins as well as a bunch of other hits including a track about her then-21year-old-friend Neil Young. The track pictured a man scared of growing old—a recurring theme in Young’s own work. ‘The Circle Game’ was written in response to Young’s own track, ‘Sugar Mountain’ a song written when he was just 19 years of age and lamented the loss of his teenage years.
Introducing the song in 1968, she said: “This is a song that’s been recorded by a couple of friends of mine, so maybe you know it a little better than the other ones. And if you do – if you know the chorus, wow – just sing along, cause it’s a chorus about people and growing old and growing young and carousels and painted ponies and the weather and the Buffalo Springfield.”
‘Brian Eno’ – MGMT
When MGMT burst on to the 2000s indie scene they arrived in a technicolour swirl of retro psych-rock and a heavy dose of electro nuances. What we’re basically saying is, when MGMT did arrive, they were already indebted to Brian Eno. One of the pioneers of electronic music and, despite working with Roxy Music, David Bowie and Talking Heads, Eno had spent much of his career slipping under the radar until recently.
It means that when the band paid homage to their own icon they did so without too many of their fans having a complete working understanding of the man at the centre of the song. The track features on the band’s sophomore album Congratulations and sees the duo happily play second fiddle to the master singing: “We’re always one step behind him/ He’s Brian Eno”.
It even goes a little further as the band dedicate a line in the song to his apparent full name: “Brian Peter George St. John Le Baptiste de la Sale Eno”. Whichever way you cut it, MGMT should certainly be offering up some gratitude for the pathway Eno clear din his career. The real surprise is why there aren’t hundreds of songs about him.
‘Daft Punk is Playing At My House’ – LCD Soundsystem
James Murphy is a liar. As far as we know, Daft Punk has never played at the musician’s house. However, it hasn’t stopped the song, written as an ode to the idea of endless freedom and teenage rebellion, Murphy paints the picture of the perfect house party.
It’s all here. The furniture squirrelled away to make enough room for a dancefloor, a friend working the door as makeshift security, a PA consisting of everyone’s stereo equipment put together and, of course, Daft Punk showing up with 15 cases of beer—a night that can only be dreamt of.
As well as being a tribute to the idealism fo youth, the song is also a genuine tribute to the band as Murphy confesses that he was formally introduced to dance music through house parties and other illicit gatherings. It was the only way a [punk rocker like him would ever come across the group and he’s certainly glad he did.
‘Song to Woody’ – Bob Dylan
Like most folkies of his day, Bob Dylan owed a huge debt of gratitude to those who had come before him, namely, Woody Guthrie. One of the most inspirational figures in the history of music, Guthrie’s talent and tone inspired countless musicians to turn their own guitars into fascist killing machines.
In this track, one of Dylan’s earliest compositions, the freewheelin’ troubadour pays tribute to Guthrie to the tune of the icon’s own ‘1913 Massacre’. While most of the songs on this list are in tribute to their titular icons, Dylan went one step further than the rest of them and largely tried to mimic Guthrie, especially in his early days.
This song certainly isn’t one of Bob Dylan’s best numbers from the period but it is one of his most honest. While Dylan was more than able to pen a spiralling soliloquy about the degradation of society, he did so without much thought, simply letting the words fall out of his brain. On this track, however, he knows every moment of every note on the song for he has lived in tribute to Guthrie for some time.
‘Chelsea Hotel No. 2 – Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen was never shy to put his lovers into song. In fact, they didn’t really need to be lovers, they could just be one of his many muses. However, we know for certain that this track was inspired by a sexual encounter, one that just so happened to be with none other than Janis Joplin.
At the time, the singer and songwriter was in a dismal place. His career was floundering both in the literary and musical world and the Chelsea Hotel, full of bohemians and artists, now only held so much promise. One night, as Cohen walked into the lift a wild-haired, fiercely confident woman entered the lift. The current resident of Room 41—the singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, and one of the voices of her generation—Janis Joplin.
Cohen gathered his courage and decided to use the slow pace of the lift to engage in some conversation with this shining light of womanhood. He remembered in 1988, “I said to her, ‘Are you looking for someone?’ She said ‘Yes, I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson.’ I said, ‘Little lady, you’re in luck, I am Kris Kristofferson.’ Those were generous times. Even though she knew that I was someone shorter than Kris Kristofferson, she never let on. Great generosity prevailed in those doom decades.”
The pair would make their way to Cohen’s room 424 and share a short romance together, the details of which are shared in Cohen’s song. Though he didn’t admit the object of the song’s affections to be Janis until years after her death. Joplin once said the pair’s romance hit her very hard, “Really heavy, like slam-in-the-face it happened. Twice. Jim Morrison and Leonard Cohen. And it’s strange ’cause they were the only two that I can think of, like prominent people, that I tried to…without really liking them up front, just because I knew who they were and wanted to know them. And then they both gave me nothing.”
They only saw each other a handful of times after this first meeting before Joplin died.
‘Song for Bob Dylan’ – David Bowie
A lot of the songs on this list are a homage to their namesakes. But for David Bowie, never really happy to do things the ordinary way, he used the spot on his album Hunky Dory to make a point—that point was, ‘I’m the leader now’.
It’s not our favourite song on the record as it feels a little too dad-rock but Bowie himself once highlighted the song’s significance in a 1976 piece in Melody Maker. He once recalled: “There’s even a song – ‘Song for Bob Dylan’ – that laid out what I wanted to do in rock. It was at that period that I said, ‘okay (Dylan) if you don’t want to do it, I will.’ I saw that leadership void.”
He added: “Even though the song isn’t one of the most important on the album, it represented for me what the album was all about. If there wasn’t someone who was going to use rock ‘n’ roll, then I’d do it.” You can’t argue with determination like that and Bowie proved himself right, again and again.
‘Song to Bobby’ – Cat Power
The second inclusion on the list for Bob Dylan. Well, he was pretty influential after all. While David Bowie’s addition was a little more confrontational than celebratory, Cat Power goes entirely the other way on this track taken from her album Jukebox.
Bowie’s song was a declaration that he was ready to take on the baton of rock legend, whereas Power puts herself back in time and reflects on a young girl dreaming of her own stardom. Written as if she was “15 or 16” in the form of letters, the lyrics share a singer utterly obsessed with not only the work of Bob Dylan but the freedom and iconography that permeated the air around him.
Her musical adoration soon became romantic infatuation and within the song we can see the journey a young Cat Power went on. It’s one many of us will be entirely wary of and there’s a certain candour and charm about this track which is a rose-tinted and golden-hued joy.
‘Velvet Underground’ – Jonathan Richman
Jonathan Richman may well have been the leading man of the Modern Lovers but before they even jammed together in Boston, Richman had been swayed by New York’s only royalty—the Velvet Underground. It was an infatuation that followed him throughout his life but it wasn’t until 1992 that he finally let it all out on this tribute song.
I, Jonathan is certainly a cult classic (one we highly recommend you check out, in fact) and it’s fitting that it offered Richman the chance to really express himself. In doing so, he was able to share his love for another cult classic band in the VU. Swayed by Lou Reed and John Cale’s simple and scathing songwriting, Richman has always cited the band as one of his major influences.
While most artists would simply bring that out every so often in an interview or two, Richman has always diarised his life through song. In the track, Richman is clear and to the point as he notes what makes the band so brilliant: “Twangy sounds of the cheapest types/ Sounds as stark as black and white stripes/ Bold and brash, sharp and rude/ Like the heat’s turned off and you’re low on food.” Later on in the song, Richman even drops in a few lines form the band’s song ‘Sister Ray’ as the ultimate compliment.
‘Tunic (Song for Karen)’ – Sonic Youth
One of Sonic Youth’s most highly underrated songs sees Kim Gordon try to connect with a lost soul, Karen Carpenter. “I feel like I’m disappearing — getting smaller every day, but I look in the mirror — I’m bigger in every way,” sings Gordon a reference to Carpenter’s death from anorexia nervosa and her connection to the idea of vanishing in front of people’s eyes.
“I was trying to put myself into Karen’s body,” recalled Gordon when looking back at the song’s conception. “It was like she had so little control over her life, like a teenager — they have so little control over what’s happening to them that one way they can get it is through what they eat or don’t. Also, I think she lost her identity, it got smaller and smaller. And there have been times when I feel I’ve lost mine. When people come and ask me about being famous or whatever and I don’t feel that, it’s not me. But it makes me think about it. The music is definitely about the darker side. But I also wanted to liberate Karen into heaven.”
A heavy meaning and all wrapped up in a fuzzed-out and fucked-up no-wave thrash that makes Gordon’s description of a tortured soul all the more tangible.
‘Mr. Wilson’ – John Cale
One artist who certainly deserves his own song is Brian Wilson. The mercurial orchestrator of everything good The Beach Boys have ever done, Wilson has long been your favourite musician’s favourite musician. Now, as proof, the equally legendary composer John Cale’s 1975 song ‘Mr. Wilson’.
Released on Cale’s fifth solo record following his split from Velvet Underground, titled Slow Dazzle the track is pretty much a straight-up love letter to The Beach Boys main man. In the song, Cale heartily puts their differing childhood experiences side by side before proclaiming his unstoppable belief in him as a person.
It’s quite a moving take as the song flirts between tribute and sympathy, noting the timeframe of the track and Wilson’s personal struggles at that time the opening lines, “I believe you Mr. Wilson/ I believe the things you say/ And I’m always thinking of you/ When I hear your music play,” hit particularly hard.