“You know, I do speak the Queens’ English. It’s just the wrong Queens, that’s all. It’s over the 59th Street Bridge. It’s not over the Atlantic Ocean.”
– Cyndi Lauper
11. “King Tut” by Steve Martin
“King Tut” was a 1978 novelty hit for comedian Steve Martin. The spoof of the Egyptian pharaoh was inspired by the popular Treasures of Tutankhamun museum exhibition of the day. Martin’s backup band, the Toots Uncommons, was really members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt band.
The band’s founder, John McEuen, explained in Examiner.com how they came to record the tune with Martin. “My brother [William] was managing Steve and producing his albums and also managing us. Steve had come up with ‘King Tut’ a week earlier before one of our shows in Los Angeles [and]kind of mapped out where he’d say, ‘You guys say, “Tut, Tut,” and when I sing, “King Tut,” you guys sing, “Funky Tut!”‘
“So we worked it up that night in the dressing room and we did it that night at our show in the Chandler Pavilion in LA. The place just blew apart. Then we got together a week later in Aspen and recorded it.”
10. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears was released in 1985, a follow-up to the band’s “Shout” from a year before. The new wave song was written by band members Roland Orzabal and Ian Stanley and producer Chris Hughes.
Hughes told the Red Bull Music Academy how the song was composed. “Every now and then, Roland would pick up a guitar, and he would be strumming two chords. I remember asking him, ‘Do you have something? What is it?’ He replied, ‘Oh. It’s nothing. It’s just a couple of chords.’
“So I wrote the chords down and programmed the little drum box and these two chords. Every now and then, when we had a break, I would sit there listening to this programmed beat and these two chords. I kept saying to Roland, ‘You really, really must write a song with these two chords. It’s so great.’ He wasn’t interested.
“He came back a couple of weeks later, and he said, ‘Well, I haven’t got the song, but I have the two chords and I have a melody which goes, “Everybody wants to rule the world.” I said, ‘Let’s write it now. Let’s make that song.’ So Ian, Roland, and I sat down and wrote, recorded, and finished that track within a week. It was super quick. It didn’t take any time at all.”
9. “Her Majesty” by the Beatles
At 23 seconds long, “Her Majesty” is the shortest tune in the Beatles‘ catalog. Written by Paul McCartney, the song was intended to fit between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” in the Abbey Road medley. Engineer John Kurlander instead added the 1969 song to the end of the album after 14 seconds of silence to separate it from the last song. When the Beatles heard it there, they decided to retain it.
“It’s just a cheeky little song,” McCartney told The Telegraph. “It sort of sums up how things have changed, doesn’t it? You can write songs like that and not get sent to the Tower. I totally understand the republican point of view but then I think if they got rid of the royals, who are you gonna replace them with? A politician? I’m not sure that would be an improvement.”
8. “Duke of Earl” by Gene Chandler
Gene Chandler recorded “Duke of Earl” in 1961 when he was still the lead singer of the Dukays. When the vocal group’s label, Nat Records, passed on the song, Chandler released “Duke of Earl” as a solo artist with Vee-Jay Records. Chandler wrote the tune, a No. 1 hit in 1962. Chandler explained in Setting the Record Straight how Dukays’ member Earl Edwards and manager Bernice Williams were included in the writing credits.
“We were in a rehearsal just opening up our throats and we sang the word ‘do.’ I told the guys to sing ‘duke,’ and they did. Earl was in the group and I said, ‘Duke of Earl,’ and that’s how I began to put lyrics to it. Aside from Earl, I gave Bernice Williams a piece of the song. That’s because when we ran to her house to tell her that we had this great record, she changed one line.
“I can’t remember what she took out but what she put in was ‘we’ll walk through my dukedom and the paradise we will share.’ That’s why there are three people listed as writing the song.”
7. “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits
“Sultans of Swing,” first released in 1978, became Dire Straits‘ first hit when re-released the following year. Singer and guitarist Mark Knopfler wrote the song after seeing a jazz band perform in a South London pub.
“I’ve always been attracted to people who can find a way expressing themselves in tough circumstances,” Knopfler recalled in an interview for the Track by Track Guide. “It was a deserted little pub in Deptford where we were all living at the time — the pub was semi-deserted and the band were down at heel and it was just playing these Dixie standards of Louis Armstrong things, the way they always do.
“They’re an interesting make up, those kind of bands in that they’re blokes who do all sorts of things, aren’t they? They’re postmen, they’re draughtsmen, whatever, quantity surveyors, teachers, different things, and they were expressing themselves. I mean, that’s one thing that struck me that whatever I might have felt about it, they were expressing themselves and when the guys said, ‘Thank you very much,’ you know, ‘We are the Sultans of Swing,’ there was something really funny about it to me because Sultans, they absolutely weren’t. You know, they were rather tired little blokes in pullovers.”
6. “King Midas in Reverse” by the Hollies
Graham Nash wrote 1967’s “King Midas in Reverse” after visiting David Crosby and Stephen Stills in the US. Nash tried to create a more sophisticated sound for the Hollies, but when the song didn’t fare as well in the charts as earlier singles, the band lost confidence in him. It would lead to Nash’s decision to leave the Hollies and found Crosby Stills & Nash. “The Hollies made a great record of ‘King Midas in Reverse,'” Nash wrote in Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life. “They liked the song, liked what it had to say, and it made us stretch in the studio.
“It was innovative, a huge leap forward. I thought it signaled a real transformation. Once we put it out, the doors would be wide open again and the Hollies could do anything . . . but it wasn’t the hit that we’d all expected. It was a so-so commercial success.
“The worst backlash from the record was what it did to my relationship with the Hollies. Afterward, they no longer trusted my judgment. I suggested any number of songs to pursue as a follow-up, but they backed away from all of them. It was as if my miscalculation with ‘Midas’ had cursed our hit-making prowess.”
5. “Killer Queen” by Queen
“Killer Queen” was released on Queen‘s 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack album. Written by Freddie Mercury, the song became the band’s first hit in America. “I wrote ‘Killer Queen’ in one night,” Mercury said in Rock Candy. “I’m not being conceited or anything, but it just fell into place . . . I scribbled down the words in the dark one Saturday night, and the next morning I got them all together and I worked all day Sunday and that was it. I’d got it. It gelled. It was great.”
“It was made at a time when I was almost dying of stomach problems,” guitarist Brian May told Absolute Radio. “I was in hospital in the middle of recording that album, during which time, although we’d recorded together the beginnings of ‘Killer Queen,’ the boys went in and did some harmonies. And I remember they brought it in for me to hear in hospital. I went, ‘It’s really good but it sounds very abrasive. Perhaps we ought to make things sound a little more rounded in the vocal harmony department.’
“So Freddie said, ‘You’re absolutely right, Brian, we will do it again when you get better. So you’d better damn well get better.'”
4. “Roller Derby Queen” by Jim Croce
The underappreciated “Roller Derby Queen” was released on Jim Croce‘s 1973 Life and Times LP. Croce’s wife Ingrid included the singer-songwriter’s stage introduction to the song in her book, I Got a Name: The Jim Croce Story. Croce told how he met the song’s inspiration in a country and western bar. “I met a lot of characters in these places, and a lot of them I ended up putting into songs.
“I was playing one afternoon in one of these local bars where we live. And sittin’ down about ten feet away from me was this cute little woman, chubby, about this high, and about as big as a fireplug. She had this blonde hair that stood up real tall. And I found out she drove the school bus in the township where we lived and she was a Spray Net freak.
“So I started talking to her, and it turned out she came from Texas. She used to be a roller derby queen. And that afternoon I just knew I just had to write a song about her.”
3. “The Acid Queen” by the Who
Pete Townshend wrote “The Acid Queen” for the Who‘s 1969 rock opera, Tommy. The Acid Queen plied Tommy with psychedelic drugs as a cure after he was struck deaf, dumb and blind. Townshend sang on the original; the song has since been performed by Patti LaBelle, Merry Clayton and Tina Turner.
“The song’s not about just acid,” Townshend told Rolling Stone. “It’s the whole drug thing, the drink thing, the sex thing, wrapped into one big ball. It’s about how you get it laid on you that you haven’t lived if you haven’t fucked forty birds, taken sixty trips, drunk fourteen pints of beer — or whatever. Society — people — force you. She represents this force. On a number of occasions I’ve got this sinister, feline, sexual thing about acid, that it’s inherently female. I don’t know if I’m right . . . it’s fickle enough.”
2. “Crown of Creation” by Jefferson Airplane
“Crown of Creation” is the title track of Jefferson Airplane‘s 1968 album. Paul Kantner explained in the Huffington Post that “Crown of Creation” was probably the first of his songs based on science fiction.
“At the time, I was at our house on Fulton Street and the Democratic convention of 1968 called us, the way they do – famous musicians, when they’re having their conventions. They wanted us to write a song for them and I was reading a book called Rebirth by John Wyndham and I was playing a little blues lick that I had stolen from Jorma [Kaukonen]. Sort of a shuffle.
“There was just a good collection of song lyrics that popped out of that book that became most the lyrics of ‘Crown Of Creation.’ I just put it all together as a joke, knowing that if they read the lyrics, they’d never use it. I’ve never been very political in terms of dealing face-to-face with political people and we’ve never done a benefit except for Barry Melton from Country Joe & The Fish when he ran for judge or something in San Francisco; another sort of joke.
“I sent ‘Crown Of Creation’ to them and, to their credit, somebody read the lyrics and knew that it was not what they wanted to say for their convention. So they turned it down, but it became one of our most popular songs in the aftermath.”
1. “Mississippi Queen” by Mountain
Mountain‘s 1970 “Mississippi Queen” is the band’s biggest hit. Singer and guitarist Leslie West told Best Classic Bands that drummer Corky Laing came up with the beginnings of the lyrics. “He says, ‘Look, I have this lyric, “Mississippi Queen.”‘ He said when he was in Nantucket and playing this bar and the power went out, he was just playing the drums and shouting the words ‘Mississippi Queen, do you know what I mean?’ He’s watching this girl dance — this is what he says. So I started fooling around with the guitar in the apartment and I came up with this riff and it’s three chords.”
Laing’s cowbell to count off the song has made its intro instantly identifiable. “The cowbell was always in there because we had to start the fuckin’ song,” said West in Music Aficionado. “He hit the bell and I went into my riff. He did his drum fill — ‘whack-a! whack-a!’ — and I went into the lead. It’s a great opener. So that’s how I remember it. I wasn’t taking LSD back then, so I’m pretty sure that’s right.”
Bassist and producer Felix Pappalardi suggested adding a piano — to West’s continuing annoyance. “You know what I hate? That fucking piano. Oh, yeah. It was unnecessary. It sounds like shit. He’s doing these little parts in the holes — you can hear it at the end. It’s terrible. I was totally opposed to it. Felix’s whole thing was, he didn’t want us to look or sound like Cream, so he put that piano in.”