Top 10 Headline News Songs
Rockers love to record media name check songs because they can settle scores, or even get the last word when criticized by snotty newspaper reporters. And sometimes artists will drop a TV news anchor’s name into a tune to convey that something is an important event.
But once in a while name checks are just a gimmick to get the band’s mugs on a magazine cover, as you’ll see below. When it works, it wins them the No. 1 spot on our list of Top 10 Headline News Songs.
Art imitates life in ‘Polythene Pam,’ John Lennon’s inscrutable song about a girl who’s “so good-looking but she looks like a man.” John has said its inspiration was a tryst with a woman who dressed in polythene, a plastic used in shopping bags: “Perverted sex in a polythene bag. Just looking for something to write about.” Lennon describes Pam as “the kind of a girl that makes the News of the World,” a British newspaper that shut down in 2011 amid a phone hacking scandal.
In recent interviews, Pantera’s Phil Anselmo has taken a Zen approach to what he feels have been unfair portrayals of him by the media: “I realize that people have the power to type away whatever they want, man. Go for it. Fill your life up with it. That doesn’t deter me at all; it really doesn’t. ” But on 1996’s ‘War Nerve,’ Anselmo drops a few f-bombs on his critics and sings, “Meet the lies and see what you are…/ Invite mayhem, produce weapons, shoot out, burn down / No CNN or media now.” Phil’s frenzy makes this tune one of our Top 10 Headline News Songs.
The stresses of everyday life are just too much for Billy Joel in ‘Pressure.’ Billy is bugged by everything from Sesame Street to a newsweekly. “All your life is Time magazine / I read it too, what does it mean?” Billy, who also mentions Channel 13 – the New York City PBS station – in the song, explained that the anxiety he felt when he had run out of ideas writing ‘The Nylon Curtain’ would inspire the hit single. “My secretary came into the house at that point and said, ‘Wow, you look like you’re under a lot of pressure. I bet you that’d be a good idea for a song.’ And I went, ‘Thank you!’”
In ‘Levon,’ Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin say the title character was born “on a Christmas Day when the New York Times said, ‘God Is Dead’ and the war’s begun.” Despite the tune’s religious allusions (and fictional headline) , Elton has said, “It’s about a guy who just gets bored doing the same thing.” The inspiration for ‘Levon’ was the late Levon Helm, drummer of the Band; Elton and Bernie had been fans of the group since ‘Music from Big Pink.’
In his first solo album since his breakup with Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon came up with a rock mystery to rival the meaning of “pompatus of love”: What crime did Mama witness in ‘Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard’? When pressed, Simon admitted, “I have no idea what it is… something sexual is what I imagine.” It must have been serious, as Paul sings, “When the radical priest come to get me released / we was all on the cover of Newsweek.” In 2012, 40 years after the song’s release, Newsweek ended its print edition after 80 years in business. Paul Simon, on the other hand, is still going strong, as is this classic track, one of the Top 10 Headline News Songs.
1979’s ‘Freedom at Point Zero’ was Jefferson Starship’s first album without Grace Slick and Marty Balin and boy, were they missed. Critics called the songs “predictable dirges” and “sexist tripe”… and those were the positive reviews. By 1981, Grace had rejoined the band for ‘Modern Times’ and one standout track, ‘Stairway to Cleveland’ used humor to get back at the critics. The psychedelic pioneers included New York’s famous alternative weekly in their rant: “Village Voice, picky picky picky! / Said we can’t sing, can’t play, can’t write anyway… / Said we couldn’t make it but here we go again.”
When the Clash recorded ‘Career Opportunities’ in 1977, there were few good jobs in Britain, especially for guys with attitudes like the Clash. The punk rockers say they won’t take boring gigs like bus driver and ticket inspector and name check the U.K.’s biggest broadcaster: “Do you wanna make tea at the BBC?” Mick Jones, who co-wrote the song with Joe Strummer, knows rotten jobs. As a government bureaucrat, he used to inspect mail for letter bombs before opting for the relative safety of the mosh pit at CBGB.
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan have often worked places from their past into their songs. The pair met at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., which was the campus of ‘My Old School.’ Two miles away is a hamlet that gave its name to ‘Barrytown,’ where Becker and Fagen mock those who parrot the opinions of a New York tabloid: “Don’t believe I’m taken in by stories I have heard / I just read the Daily News and swear by every word.”
Creedence Clearwater Revival poked fun at the country’s UFO frenzy in 1970’s ‘It Came Out of the Sky.’ Though he never explains what made Jody fall out of his tractor, John Fogerty mentions two news stars of the era: “Oh, the newspapers came and made Jody a national hero / Walter and Eric said they’d put him on a network TV show.” Before the yelling heads of 24/7 cable news dominated TV, the CBS Evening News was where most folks learned the day’s events. Walter Cronkite, “the Most Trusted Man in America,” anchored the show, which featured commentary by reporter Eric Sevareid. Though they’ve gone to that great anchor desk in the sky, Walter and Eric will always be on the air in one of our Top 10 Headline News Songs.
‘The Cover of Rolling Stone’
In 1972 cartoonist and songwriter Shel Silverstein came up with a scheme to help his pals, country rockers Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show. Silverstein had written their first hit, ‘Sylvia’s Mother,’ and his new song’s title, ‘The Cover of Rolling Stone,’ was designed to land the band on the most prestigious spot in rock. The novelty tune highlighted the excesses of that era’s rockers; though they had money, drugs, groupies, even their own guru, they couldn’t experience “the thrill that’ll getcha when you get your picture on the cover of the Rollin’ Stone.” The song became a Top 10 hit and within months, Rolling Stone featured a caricature of the band on the front of its March 29, 1973 issue with the caption, “What’s-Their-Names Make The Cover.”