Win Butler of Arcade Fire said that “songwriting is reliant on inspiration, which ideally you don’t have that much control over.” More often than not, the uncontrollable urge to put pen to paper and pick up the acoustic is driven from some deeply personal inspiration, some sort of cathartic deliverance in song. Sometimes, however, the inspiration jumps up and grabs the songwriter from an external source.
Although it is hard to imagine, musicians do in fact live normal everyday lives like the rest of us and thus they are equally likely to be bombarded by all the incoming data from the unfurling of the day-to-day world. While it is true that stories from outside the art realm don’t permeate their creative bubbles, every now and again a musician will take enough of an interest in a current event or news story and be moved enough by it to transpose the inspiration into a melody.
Whether the resultant song is an epic lament about a front-page catastrophe, some tender prying at the fabric behind an interesting snippet on page nine, or a tidbit from the annuls of history, is up to the unspooling predestined fate of the songwriting God’s.
The ten below represent the most spellbinding times when the world of reality has collided with the mystic sovereignty of song, and the curious tales behind them.
Let’s get to it.
10 best songs based on true events:
10. ‘Marlene’ (1965) – Jackson C. Frank
A lot of the songs on this list are retrospective laments about some of history’s most regrettable moments. What sets ‘Marlene’ apart, in heart-strained detailed, is that Frank was a direct victim of the tragedy itself.
In the song, he sings about the harrowing incident in his youth when a fire broke out after a furnace exploded at Cleveland Hill Elementary School in Cheektowaga, New York. The resulting blaze killed fifteen of Frank’s classmates including his girlfriend Marlene.
This direct connection to the incident adds a resonant level of significance to a catastrophic tale, starkly revealing the sad reality of the victims of tragedies that many of the songs on this can only touch upon.
9. ‘The King of Rome’ (2012) – The Unthanks
The real events put to music are more often than not sombre affairs. Song can be such a reverential tool that musicians have often chosen to illuminate tales of hardship and suffering, however, thankfully for this lists sake, that isn’t always the case.
‘The King of Rome’ is the story of Charlie Hudson’s famous racing pigeon of the same name. Hudson sent his bird to Rome to take part in a race and as the lyrics detail, “On the day of the big race a storm blew in / A thousand birds were swept away and never seen again.” Only as Charlie was drowning his sorrows in the pub, there was The King of Rome, the pigeon who defied all the odds. As the official race report from the day states, “eclipsing all past long-distance records in the United Kingdom,” in the process mirroring the fortitude and spirit of its hardy owner Charlie in braving whatever storms may come.
Behind the real events of the story is a message about working-class life in northern Britain, “When you’re living in the West End there ain’t many dreams come true.” It is an old-timey folk tale illuminating real events. Originally put to song by Dave Sudbury, the soaring arrangement of The Unthanks brings the tale to life in the most uplifting fashion.
8. ‘Valentine’s Day’ (2013) – David Bowie
The fourth single released from Bowie’s penultimate record The Next Day was anything but a story about romance and heart-shaped chocolates, behind the ‘Waterloo Sunset’-like riff is a much more sombre tale. The title may well pertain to the Chicago 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, but the lyrics are penned in regards to the Virginia Tech shooting of 2007. Placing the incidents together Bowie reveals the long-chartered chequered past that America has with gun-control.
More so than regaling the horrific incidents in great detail, Bowie probed at the psychology behind the shooter, with the lyrics stating, “who’s to go […] the teachers and the football stars,” as well as, “Valentine told me how he feels / If all the world were under his heels.”
Long time collaborator and producer Tony Visconti stated, “The subject matter is pretty scary. It’s […] about people who acquire a gun and do awful things with it.”
7. ‘All and Everyone’ (2011) – PJ Harvey
For her 2011 album Let England Shake, Harvey broke out the history books with three songs detailing the 1915 battle for Gallipoli, a grotesquely miscalculated attempt to seize Constantinople, which resulted in catastrophic losses for the Australian and New Zealand Army.
The track itself is perhaps one of the most well-researched outings by any musicians as Harvey once stated, “I took about two and a half to three years,” working on background material for the album. Adding, “I read lots of books on war from all different eras. I read about war in a philosophical way, I read about it from all angles. I did lots of research on English history. I looked at the way other artists have spoken about England.”
‘All and Everyone’ is the fruits of her tireless labour and it is a song that encapsulates the horrors of the Gallipoli war in such a way that illuminates the ridiculous nature of war, the horrors the besiege upon us and the brave souls tasked with serving in them.
6. ‘Murder Most Foul’ (2020) – Bob Dylan
Last year saw Bob Dylan release of a song that seemed like the culmination of an entire career in ‘Murder Most Foul’, an epic near-17-minute lament on the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. It was a song about a real-world event that Dylan lived through, released nearly six decades after the fact.
The song opens with the rather archaic seeming ‘Twas’, which places the incident well into America’s past like some folklore tale and from that obsolete start off he rattles through the cultural revolution of the country up to the present day, always grounded into that gruesome origin point when the President was “shot down like a dog in broad daylight.”
Although the song may be dressed in old-timey wordplay, this clever use of mythicising historic reality shines a light on how the reverberations are still felt today. It was recorded during the Tempest sessions eight years prior to its release but the height of COVID-19’s first wave was a very apt time bestow it upon the public as the final message declares that no matter how grim the news, music will always offer deliverance.
5. ‘Jeremy’ (1991) – Pearl Jam
Behind one of Pearl Jam’s biggest hits is a real-life tragic tale of suicide. In January 1991 Jeremy Wade Delle, shot himself in front of his classmates.
The lyrics of the song illuminate the issues that led to the fateful incident in chilling details, sending a message about the dangers of bullying to many young fans, as singer Eddie Vedder howls, “Clearly I remember / Pickin’ on the boy / Seemed a harmless little fuck.”
The song may have garnered criticism in recent years by the Delle’s family who told ABC WFAA, “That day that he died did not define his life,” and added, “I was angry at them for writing that song. I thought ‘You don’t know’. You weren’t there. That story isn’t accurate.”
However, there is a notion that aside from the distress it may have caused the family, the song itself disseminates a necessary message about bullying and the fragility of mental health. It is a message that thanks to the song’s success managed to reach the right audience.
4. ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ (1979) – The Boomtown Rats
At a glance the new wave pop melody and upbeat stylings make this song seem like a conventional chart hit. The story behind it is anything but chart-friendly and with only half an ear for the lyrics that becomes very clear.
The song documents the 1979 Cleveland Elementary School shooting during which a 16-year-old girl, Brenda Spencer, who lived in a house across the street from the school opened fire killing the school principal and a custodian and injuring eight children and a police officer.
Regarding the juxtaposition of the songs upbeat melody and irreverent lyrics and title, Geldof told BBC Radio 6 Music, “I was doing a radio interview in Atlanta with Johnnie Fingers and there was a telex machine beside me. I read it as it came out. Not liking Mondays as a reason for doing somebody in is a bit strange. I was thinking about it on the way back to the hotel and I just said ‘silicon chip inside her head had switched to overload’. I wrote that down. And the journalists interviewing her said, ‘Tell me why?’ It was such a senseless act. It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it. So perhaps I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it. It wasn’t an attempt to exploit tragedy.”
3. ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ (1969) – The Band
Although songwriter Robbie Roberts may have taken some fictional liberties with this song, the pertinent details remain true to history and the brooding, swelling, triumphant melody makes us for the rest. Perhaps there never was a Virgil Caine, but there really was a “Danville train” and a “Stoneman’s cavalry.”
Stoneman was a Union Officer and his men led daring raids on the Danville Railroad, a vital proponent of the Confederate Army’s war effort, so that much about the song really is true. Where the song truly succeeds, however, is colouring these historic details with a palpable narrative. The melody and the three-part harmonies really seem to capture the camaraderie that ran counterpoint to the horrific and divisive details of the American Civil War. It is a resonant piece of history captured in song.
The track itself has almost become a piece of culture history itself having been covered many times over, the best of which for my money is the very spiritual rendition by Richie Havens.
2. ‘A Day in The Life’ (1967) – The Beatles
The Beatles epic ‘A Day in The Life’ is a menagerie of interwoven news articles. The song functions as a front to back rock opera of a slow news day, with John Lennon perusing current-events, of varying degrees of importance, and transposing them into song while McCartney provided a more conventional middle section.
The first story to take Lennon’s interest in the chronology of the lyrics is hilariously played up by The Beatles with melodramatic intent. The following extract from the very article that Lennon may well have read is terrifically banal and it is this seemingly overblown triviality that endeared the story to John in a creative sense: “There are 4,000 holes in the road in Blackburn, Lancashire, or one twenty-sixth of a hole per person, according to a council survey. If Blackburn is typical, there are two million holes in Britain’s roads and 300,000 in London.”
Such is the way that we consume news the innocuous often sits inches from the reverent and the song mirrors this in an unfurling wayward journey through incidents and sound. That pothole problem in Lancashire is quickly followed by a man blowing his mind out in a car, which is a reference to a friend of The Beatles and Guinness heir Tara Browne who died in a car accident in 1966. Lennon stated, “I didn’t copy the accident, Tara didn’t blow his mind out, but it was in my mind when I was writing that verse.”
1. ‘American Pie’ (1971) – Don McLean
When Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and Big Bopper’s plane went down it represented one of the darkest days in pop music history and whilst that tragedy is irrevocable there is solace in the fact that it also spawned one of pop’s best-loved songs.
Similar to Bob Dylan’s Murder Most Foul is a song long enough to be fitting of ‘epic’ tag and similarly, it also offers deliverance from the rather more grisly details that it depicts.
The song wanders from the details of the plane crash into the reverberating fall-out, journeying through the ’60s in a great eulogy of narrative of storytelling. It touches on everything that the ’60s had to offer from the sublime to dangerous, from the magic music of the peace and love decade to Manson, JFK and the darker side to all that flower power. If the song is the ’60s in review from the singular real-world starting point of the ‘day the music died’, then it certainly sounds as good as it should.