Vodka does not ease back pain. But it does get your mind off it.
– Fuzzy Zoeller
11. “King of Pain” by the Police
“I do my best work when I’m in pain and turmoil,” Sting once explained in Rolling Stone. The singer and bassist of the Police wrote “King of Pain,” which appeared on 1983’s Synchronicity, the final album by the band. Sting wrote the song after he’d separated from his first wife. While on vacation in Jamaica with Trudie Styler, whom he would marry, the song’s most memorable line came to Sting by chance.
“I was sitting moping under a tree in the garden, and as the sun was sinking toward the western horizon, I noticed that there was a lot of sunspot activity,” Sting related in his book Lyrics. “I turned to Trudie. ‘There’s a little black spot on the sun today.’ She waited expectantly, not really indulging my mood but tolerant. ‘That’s my soul up there,’ I added gratuitously. Trudie discreetly raised her eyes to the heavens. ‘There he goes again, the king of pain.'”
10. “Doctor My Eyes” by Jackson Browne
Like Don Henley and Glenn Frey of the Eagles, Jackson Browne is one of the rockers to come out of Southern California in the early 1970s. Songwriter J.D. Souther lived with Frey in an apartment above Browne’s before “Doctor My Eyes” became Browne’s debut hit in 1972. “There were many times I wish [Browne] would stop playing,” Souther told NPR.
“I heard ‘Doctor My Eyes’ so many times that I could hear it in my sleep. He was relentless. I’ll tell you, I learned a lot about patience in songwriting from Jackson Browne. He would work one phrase for hours and toss it and turn it and mold it. [It] gave me a lot more patience, because my instinct was just to just throw something down and move on.”
Browne explained in The Wrap that when writing songs like “Doctor My Eyes,” neither the words nor the music necessarily comes first. “A little bit of the words, a little bit of the music. Then two more words, a bunch more music. Eventually you’ve got a verse and a structure that you’d written that you now need to write the rest of the words to. So you can write words to music that exists because that’s what you do every time you write the second, third, fourth and fifth verses of the song. But in the beginning you’re constructing.”
9. “Poison Ivy” by the Coasters
Poison ivy is a poisonous flowering plant that causes an itchy rash if touched. The symptoms inspired legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to write “Poison Ivy,” a hit first recorded by the Coasters in 1959. The lyrics describe poison ivy as much worse than diseases like measles, mumps and chicken pox because “Poison ivy, Lord, will make you itch.”
“Poison Ivy” has been recorded by the Rolling Stones, the Hollies, Manfred Mann, the Romantics, even Linda McCartney. In Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography, Leiber revealed the true meaning of the song. “Pure and simple, ‘Poison Ivy’ is a metaphor for a sexually transmitted disease – or the clap – hardly a topic for a song that hit the Top 10 in the spring of 1959. But the more we wrote, the less we understood why the public bought what it bought. It didn’t make sense, but it didn’t matter. We were having fun.”
8. “Doctor Wu” by Steely Dan
“Doctor Wu” is one of Steely Dan‘s typically enigmatic songs, found on the 1975 Katy Lied album. “‘Doctor Wu’ is about a triangle, kind of a love-dope triangle,” Donald Fagen explained in Classic Rock Stories. “I think usually when we do write songs of a romantic nature, one or more of the participants in the alliance will come under the influence of someone else or some other way of life and that will usually end up in either some sort of compromise or a split. Okay, in this song a girl meets somebody who leads another kind of life and she’s attracted to it. Then she comes under the domination of someone else and that results in the ending of the relationship or some amending of the relationship. When we start writing songs like that, that’s the way it usually goes. In Doctor Wu the ‘someone else’ is a dope habit personified as Doctor Wu.”
Don’t expect to hear “Doctor Wu” when Steely Dan perform live. “We tried it out in sound check a couple times last year and it sounded okay,” said Fagen in Gothamist. “It’s mainly that I don’t like the way it feels on stage. I think a lot of those songs have aged really well and aren’t dated at all. And if the words still seem relevant in some way or can be recast to make some kind of sense, we rearrange it – if the music seems dated. That tune feels dated to me and it’s difficult for me to sing if I feel, you know, that it’s not … There’s something about the curve of the song that doesn’t work dramatically on stage for me.”
7. “Hurts So Good” by John Mellencamp
“Hurts So Good” was a Top 10 hit for John Mellencamp – then known as John Cougar – in 1982. Mellencamp said he came up with the idea in the shower and scrawled the first line in soap on the glass door. It wasn’t long before he and childhood friend George Green finished the tune. “George Green and I wrote that together,” Mellencamp recalled in American Songwriter. “We exchanged lines back and forth between each other and laughed about it at the time. Then I went and picked up the guitar, and within seconds, I had those chords.”
Despite its success, Mellencamp now places little importance on “Hurts So Good.” “There’s been such a paradigm change in our culture,” Mellencamp said in Esquire in 2014. “Music actually meant something when I started doing it. Too bad I wasn’t mature enough to write anything that meant anything [Laughs].
“You’ll find out that you get to be a certain age and it’s like ‘This stuff just doesn’t interest me anymore.’ I mean, I can’t even imagine writing a song like Hurts So Good. I don’t even know who that guy was who wrote that song.”
6. “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” by Culture Club
“Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” was the breakout hit for British new wave band Culture Club. Singer Boy George was with drummer Jon Moss when he wrote the song, a No. 2 hit in 1982. “I remember writing it in a flat in central London,” Boy George recalled in The Guardian. “Jon’s friends were smoking weed, and that’s where the idea was formed. I jotted some lyrics down on a piece of paper and put it in my pocket. The opening section, which is a very high falsetto, I only ever sang once – during the recording. Once I’d done it, I knew I’d never do it again. When the tape broke, there was talk about me having to redo it. I said no, fix the tape.
“I thought the song was too personal to be a hit and I didn’t want it to be a single. I went to Virgin and stomped my feet and sat on the stairs saying: ‘You’re going to ruin our career before we’ve even started!’ Our audience needed something to dance to, and “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” was too slow, too personal, too long. Everything about it was wrong. So its success was a big education for me: I learned that being personal was the key to touching people.”
5. “Needles and Pins” by the Searchers
Although originally recorded by Jackie DeShannon in 1963, “Needles and Pins“ did not become a hit until the Searchers‘ version reached No. 13 in 1964. “We actually discovered that song at the Star Club in Hamburg,” singer Mike Pender told Pop Culture Classics. “There was a group called Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers. They were from London. And they actually did it in their set. And we’d sit and listen and say, ‘Yeah, that’s a good song, man.’ We did it totally different to the way they did. The lead singer, he sang it differently to the way I did. And I, of course, added that little ‘pin-za’ as opposed to ‘pins.’
“When we did the session, I remember singing it and at the end of the take, I said to the producer, ‘I’m sorry. I said “pin-za,” instead of “pins.”‘ He said, ‘No, man, leave it in. It’s good.’ [Laughs] I don’t know why I sang ‘pin-za.’ It’s just something that came out. People in America, they call out, “Hey, Mike, what about pin-za?!” So it was something that caught on, really.”
4. “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” by Johnny Rivers
Huey “Piano” Smith is the legendary New Orleans pianist who co-wrote and originally recorded “Rockin’ Pneumonia” – an R&B hit in 1957. The song’s lyrics come from a variety of sources. “When I was a kid a gentleman used to tell me dirty jokes,” Smith said, with his own censorship, in Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues. “‘I got the tuberculosis and the Germany flu. I gotta stoppa in my beep and I can’t beep-beep.'” Smith cribbed “rockin’ pneumonia” from Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven. “Young Man Rhythm” was a play on “Old Man River” from the musical Show Boat.
Johnny Rivers turn “Rockin’ Pneumonia” into a Top 10 hit in 1973 with the help of L.A. session musicians like pianist Larry Knechtel. “‘Rockin’ Pneumonia’ was an old, old song from New Orleans,” Rivers explained in the Morning Call. “Larry Knechtel was a great piano player who was recording and was a fan of that song and that record. And I remembered it, and he brought it up to me. He said, ‘You ought to re-record ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia.” I said, ‘Well, I used to do that in my old high school band’ [Laughs]. And he said, ‘Well, let’s cut it again.’”
Huey “Piano” Smith & his Clowns
3. “Fever” by the McCoys
While most rock fans know “Fever” as the follow-up single to the McCoys‘ “Hang On Sloopy,” the song has been a standard since its 1956 debut by R&B singer Little Willie John. “Fever” was written by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell, who used the pseudonym John Davenport because of his affiliation with music publisher Joe Davis. “Eddie Cooley was a friend of mine from New York and he called me up and said ‘Man, I got an idea for a song called “Fever”, but I can´t finish it,’ said Blackwell in BlackCat Rockabilly. “I had to write it under another name because, at that time, I was still under contract to Joe Davis.”
Peggy Lee had a pop hit with the song in 1959. The McCoys reached No. 7 with it in 1965 but apparently it was the producers who profited from its success. “They made tons of money,” leader Rick Derringer told Pop Culture Classics. “In those days – in fact, it’s still the same – when a young artist gets old enough to know that they’re being cheated by the record business, the record business usually just kind of tosses them aside and says, ‘Well, you know, there’s more young artists out there [Laughs]. And we were probably in that category. So I don’t think they were unhappy at all. They were happy to have had the success that they had.”
Little Willie John
2. “Love Hurts” by Nazareth
When “Love Hurts” was recorded by Scottish band Nazareth, they did not expect it to be included on their Hair of the Dog LP, much less reach the Top 10 in 1975. “We did ‘Love Hurts’ as a B-side for a single,” bassist Pete Agnew told Classic Bands. “We never intended that to be a single. It’s when we brought the album over to Jerry Moss at A&M Records. Jerry heard “Love Hurts” first and said ‘I’d like to take ‘Guilty’ off that album and put that on.’ Thank God for Jerry Moss! That was the one that broke it in America for us.”
Written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, “Love Hurts” was first recorded by the Everly Brothers in 1960. “When we did ‘Love Hurts,’ I believe there were 42 different versions recorded of it,” continued Agnew. “And the one we used to listen to was Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, off the Grievous Angel album. We used to have that in our van. We used to listen to ‘Love Hurts.’ We loved the song.”
Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris
1. “Good Lovin'” by the Young Rascals
“Good Lovin'” was a No. 1 hit for the Young Rascals in 1966 but it was originally recorded a year before by R&B singer Limmie Snell under the name Lemme B. Good. The Olympics revamped the lyrics and had a minor hit with the song about a month later.
Enter the Rascals. Singer Felix Cavaliere told Rock Cellar in 2016 how he discovered the tune. “The difference between then and now is that the clubs wanted you to do covers. Forget about doing stuff that you wrote. They were not in the least bit interested. They wanted to bring the people in to drink and dance.
“So I would go out of my way to find obscure songs, which is how I found ‘Good Lovin.” I used to listen to the radio stations, especially the black radio stations. And I’d hear songs that kind of turned me on, got my attention. Then I would go to a record store, buy it. Then I’d bring it to the band and we’d learn it.
“The interesting thing about ‘Good Lovin’’ is that from the first time we played it, the people responded. To this day, that brings the house down.”
The Young Rascals