It may be a much overused adage but the fact remains that no news is indeed good news. Imagine a day without all those miserable headlines about death and destruction. No wars, no mass shootings, no fires or disasters, no corrupt politicians. Imagine all the people … Oh wait, John Lennon did that and it didn't turn out too well, so it looks like we're stuck with it.
But while the headlines may be depressing, they have inevitably inspired countless songs over the years. Some of those song titles were taken directly from newspaper headlines while others deal with the stories themselves, sometimes days that changed the world, sometimes more personal tales, local news that perhaps no one had heard about before the songs were written. Here are 10 such tunes, and while no news may be good news, bad news can make for spectacular music.
1. The Beatles, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”
Speaking of Lennon… While this one is not strictly taken from a newspaper, the title did apparently come from the cover of a gun magazine that was shown to John Lennon by producer George Martin. Various interpretations of the lyrics have suggested that the song was actually about sex — Lennon and Yoko Ono having just started their relationship – and Lennon admitted, in an interview with Playboy, that there was a double meaning to the tune. There is no small irony, however, in the fact that Lennon was shot and killed in 1980 by a deranged fan.
2. Nirvana, “Polly”
Released in 1991 on their classic Nevermind album, “Polly” tells the tale of a 14-year-old girl who was abducted and raped in 1987 after being picked up on her way home from a rock concert. Singer Kurt Cobain read about the incident in a Washington newspaper, writing the song as early as 1988, originally with the title “Hitchhiker.” Sadly, the song would go on to have deeper meaning to Cobain, as he expressed in the liner notes of the Incesticide album in 1992. “Last year,” he wrote, “a girl was raped by two wastes of sperm and eggs while they sang the lyrics to our song 'Polly.' I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience.”
3. Filter, “Hey Man Nice Shot”
In January 1987, Pennsylvania state treasurer R. Budd Dwyer made headlines when, having been convicted of bribery charges, he called a press conference and, after professing his innocence, shot himself in the mouth during the live TV broadcast. Which inspired Filter frontman Richard Patrick to write this rather insensitive ditty about the event. Although Patrick claims that the song was written in 1991, due to its release date in 1995 it was thought to be about Kurt Cobain's suicide, which against all reason made the song more popular. Oakland's Neurosis, meanwhile, showed a loop tape of Dwyer's suicide during their gigs.
4. Bauhaus, “Terror Couple Kill Colonel”
Released as a single in 1980, “Terror Couple Kill Colonel” is, as the Winston Churchill quote goes, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Some claim that it's about the killing, in the '70s, of a former Nazi officer, but while the title is clearly taken from a newspaper headline, the details have been lost. We know from the lyrics that said colonel was shot and killed in his West German home and that the murderers were apprehended — otherwise how would anyone know it was a couple? — but beyond that your guess is as good as ours. Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy, meanwhile, has recently been making headlines himself after being ejected from his own gig for throwing bottles at the audience.
5. The Smiths, “Suffer Little Children”
Written about the Moors Murders, in which five children were killed between 1963 and 1965, their bodies buried on Saddleworth Moor, “Suffer Little Children” was actually inspired by the book Beyond Belief: A Chronicle of Murder and Its Detection by Emlyn Williams. But the song itself made headlines when the Manchester Evening News reported that relatives of the victims had, understandably, taken exception to the lyrics. The song was featured on The Smiths' self-titled debut album and also as the B-side of the “Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now” single, both of which were then banned from several record stores, although, to be fair, the song in no way glorifies or condones the murders.
6. GBH, “City Baby Attacked by Rats”
From Black Sabbath and Napalm Death to Godflesh and UB40, Birmingham, England, has given the world all manner of excellent bands, but one thing they tend to have in common — apart from Duran Duran — is that their music is rather dark. This is because Birmingham is, without wanting to offend its residents, a bit of a dump. Indeed, the fact that punk legends GBH took the title of their debut album from a billboard with the headline “City Baby Attacked by Rats” tells you much of what you need to know. Remarkably, that baby would now be 27 years old. And probably doesn't live in Birmingham.
7. Crass, “Gotcha”
British tabloid newspaper The Sun is no stranger to controversy but was perhaps at their most offensive with the “Gotcha” headline of May 4, 1982, following the sinking of the Argentine navy cruiser ARA General Belgrano during the Falklands War. Some 323 people were killed in the attack, the legality of which has been disputed, and even The Sun realized it had gone too far, amending the headline for later editions. But not before anarchist punk band Crass had seen it, their outraged response being this three-minute rant aimed mostly at then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had ordered the attack.
8. Don McLean, “American Pie”
The story goes that on Feb. 3, 1959, American folk singer Don McLean — then 13 years old — was doing a paper route in which he delivered news of the fatal plane crash involving Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, and was so moved that he wrote the song “American Pie.” Certainly the crash is referenced in the line “February made me shiver/with every paper I'd deliver,” but many of the other lyrics are open to interpretation and are, according to McLean, more about a loss of innocence. Ironically, that day in '59 was not known as “the day the music died” until the song was released in 1971.
9. Boomtown Rats, “I Don't Like Mondays”
In 1979 Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Gefdof was doing an interview with a campus radio station in Atlanta when news came through — from a live telex feed — about a school shooting in San Diego in which two people were killed and nine injured by a 16-year-old girl named Brenda Spencer. Sadly, such incidents are commonplace these days, but what intrigued Gefdof was not the shooting so much as the reason Spencer gave for her crime: “I don't like Mondays.” The song went on to be the band's biggest hit, spending four weeks at No. 1 on the U.K. charts, but not without the consequence of Spencer writing to Geldof and thanking him for making her famous.
10. George Michael, “Outside”
OK, let's lighten the mood a little here. Not all news has to be depressing; occasionally it can be kinda fun. Like when George Michael was arrested in a public restroom in Beverly Hills for “engaging a lewd act” after inadvertently showing his penis to a police officer. Inadvertent, that is, inasmuch as he didn't know it was a police officer. Given that Michael had been caught during a sting operation and had been encouraged to flash his bits, public sympathy lay with the singer and not the cop. That became even more true when Michael released his next single, “Outside,” which poked fun at the arrest with a video featuring, among other things, two male cops making out in public. Genius.
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