Stories Behind Classic Songs, Part 12

1. Ramones wrote I Wanna Be Sedated about excessive touring

One fascinating aspect about music is how a band can change the industry’s face almost overnight and at the same time not be quite accepted by its consumers at large. It would be hard to deny that in the mid-70s, punk was the new big thing. The guitar-driven music that the kids went nuts for and that their parents despised. It was fresh, exciting, original and current – all the needed ingredients for a musical revolution. And it all started with The Ramones. Surely enough, bands like The Clash and Sex Pistols then made it political, Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains made it hardcore, and Buzzcocks made it radio-friendly; but none of those bands would have existed without the chainsaw-guitar, 2-minute length, 1-2-3-4! start of The Ramones’ songs.

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But despite seeing their influence everywhere they looked, the band never quite convinced the buying public. None of their albums or singles can be considered truly successful from a commercial point of view, and this explains why The Ramones’ main revenues always came from playing live. And boy, did they do a lot of that during their career. One glance at their touring history reveals a band that never stopped having concerts, sometimes throughout the whole year with no break whatsoever. So when Joey sings “Just put me in a wheelchair and get me to the show/Hurry, hurry, hurry, before I go loco” in the instantly-recognizable classic that is I Wanna Be Sedated, I tend to believe him. At the beginning of a solo performance of the song, the lead singer admits that the lyrics were inspired by the ‘77/’78 tours, where they “would be on the road 360 days a year” and just couldn’t take it anymore. The “nothing to do, nowhere to go” parts are a direct reference to one particular visit to England during Christmas time, where all the shops were closed and the band had nothing to do until it was time to go on stage. Fortunately for us, they turned that boredom and exhaustion into one of punk’s all-time signature songs.

2. Eddie Van Halen did the solo in Beat It for free

My favorite Michael Jackson singles were always the ones that have what I like to call a bit of an edge. I understand that ballads like The Girl Is Mine or anthems like Man in the Mirror have a place in making him the all-around superstar that he was, but it’s the funky euphoria of Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, or the paranoid delivery of Smooth Criminal that best stood the test of time to my ears. Same goes for Beat It, where I think the edge comes from two particular elements: one, there’s the gang rivalry theme portrayed in both the lyrics and the video; and two, Eddie Van Halen’s riffs and solos that make the song Jackson’s most rock-oriented up to that point.

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I was pleasantly surprised to find out that both elements come with their own backstory. According to Jackson brother Jermaine, he and the rest of the family would often witness gang fights in their hometown Gary, Indiana. Bob Giraldi, the video’s director was no stranger to those himself: “I grew up in Paterson, New Jersey – always an edgy town but full of people really trying to be so much tougher than they really are.[…] A real tough kid from Jersey told me that he’d witnessed two guys who had their wrists tied and they held switchblades, and only one came out – and not too well. It was based on that little fable.” Even Eddie Van Halen seems to have resonated with something in the song, because he accepted no payment whatsoever for his contribution. “I did it as a favor. I was a complete fool, according to the rest of the band, our manager and everyone else. I was not used. I knew what I was doing – I don’t do something unless I want to do it” he is quoted as saying. His solo would become so legendary that much has been written even about the little details, such as the knock sound in the middle of it – nothing more than Michael Jackson himself hitting a drum case.

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Categories: Stories Behind Classic Songs

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11 replies

  1. That story about Eddie Van Halen is only half true. He didn’t get paid for his studio time. He did get royalties. He did as a favor to Quincy Jones, who he hung up on four or five times, thinking he was being pranked. I have no idea how that story about knives even relates to the backstory.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great to read about the Ramones – what a band!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting post! 🙂

    I don’t know if you aware of this but it was Steve Lukather of Toto who came up with the riff for “Beat It”. He said so in a documentary that aired on UK TV last year. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A good portion of “I Wanna Be Sedated” was inspired by an accident Joey Ramone had before a concert. He was somehow burned/scalded pretty badly (I think he was making tea, but can’t be sure about that) and went to the ER. He insisted on going onstage anyway. I have no idea how that show turned out.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. If you’re like me, you’re always looking for new stories to write about. There’s a pretty good story behind Cat Stevens and Rick Wakeman and “Morning Has Broken.” Check it out. Might be a good topic for your Stories Behind Classic Songs.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Good job dude ! Those stories make the songs more humain. People often forget that the “stars” are persons like them and that stories tolled in the songs (most of them !) are humain based stories.

    Like

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