This month’s Top 11 is a list of some of the most noteworthy songs recorded by bands or artists with animal names.
“Animals may be our friends, but they won’t pick you up at the airport.”
– Bobcat Goldthwait
- “Small Town” by John Cougar Mellencamp
When John Mellencamp had a Top 10 hit in 1985 with “Small Town,” he was known as John Cougar Mellencamp. It was an improvement; Tony DeFries of MainMan Management gave the singer-songwriter the stage name Johnny Cougar early in Mellencamp’s career. “That was put on me by some manager,” Mellencamp told American Songwriter “I went to New York and everybody said, ‘You sound like a hillbilly.’ And I said, ‘Well, I am.’ So that’s where he came up with that name. I was totally unaware of it until it showed up on the album jacket. When I objected it to it, he said, ‘Well, either you’re going to go for it, or we’re not going to put the record out.’ So that was what I had to do … but I thought the name was pretty silly.”
Mellencamp wrote “Small Town” based on his experiences growing up in Indiana. “‘Small Town’ reflected conversations that I heard in the music business,” he said in Rolling Stone.
“I had a stuttering problem, and my accent, and people would say, ‘You talk funny.’ I would think, ‘You’re the one with the New York accent.’ In interviews people would ask, ‘Do people in Bloomington even have MTV? Do they have CNN?’
“I wanted to write a song that said, ‘You don’t have to live in New York or Los Angeles to live a full life or enjoy your life.’ I was never one of those guys that grew up and thought, ‘I need to get out of here.’ It never dawned on me. I just valued having a family and staying close to friends.”
- “I Ran (So Far Away)” by A Flock of Seagulls
Singer and keyboardist Mike Score revealed in Worcester the inspiration for A Flock of Seagulls’ name. “It came from reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And then, my favorite band was the Stranglers. One of their songs was called ‘Toiler on the Sea.’ We were at one of their concerts. [The singer] yells out, “a flock of seagulls.” We were in the front row. He looked like he looked right at us and called out, “a flock of seagulls.” We took it as a sign.”
The British new wave band scored a Top 10 hit in 1982 with “I Ran (So Far Away).” Score told Billboard how the group came to write the song. “We’d just been to the Cavern in Liverpool and saw a band play a song called ‘I Ran’ and thought ‘what a great name,’ although we didn’t particularly like the song. And then the next day saw a picture from the 1950s of a flying saucer and two people running away from it. And because we had this sci-fi thing going on, it was like ‘Look at that! First “I Ran” and now that!’
“So even though we had the basics of the music already, we went to rehearsal that night and the picture was in my head and we started to try to formulate words about that.”
- “Goody Two Shoes” by Adam Ant
Born Stuart Leslie Goddard, Adam Ant took his new name after his release from a mental hospital in the UK. It has been suggested that the name is a play on adamant. Another guess is it is a reference to Adam, the first man, and the industrious insects. His first band was named Adam and the Ants. “Goody Two Shoes” was his first solo success, reaching No. 12 in 1982. Its success was driven by its widely-played music video.
“I spent quite a bit of time doing the storyboards on that one,” the singer told azcentral. “I had been trained to make short films, so that was a chance to really try to interpret the lyric. It’s set in a big old hospital, using the space that’s available and putting a nice bit of ‘Jailhouse Rock’ in the middle. And track trampolines while people are dancing all over the place. It is a quite literal nod to the lyric but really moving at a fast pace. I mean, really, really moving at a fast pace.
“It was done in a flash. We were focusing so much on getting it done that once you’re done you kind of move on to the next one. So that was what was happening. But I remember, it was a couple of days shoot to do that and to edit everything together.”
- “Burnin’ for You” by Blue Oyster Cult
According to their site, Blue Oyster Cult’s name was coined by manager Sandy Pearlman from his poetry. The band had been known as Soft White Underbelly and the Stalk Forrest Group, but a disastrous performance led Pearlman to suggest the new name.
“Burnin’ for You,” released in 1981, was one of BOC’s biggest hits. The song was written by singer-guitarist Buck Dharma and rock critic Richard Meltzer. Dharma explained the song’s origins to the Herald-Tribune. “Richard would write on a typewriter and we’d have sheets of lyrics on the page and it would look just like poetry with a lot of lower case and free form, free association. I don’t know how long I’d had his lyric but it was about 1980 and we’d moved to Connecticut.
“Originally it was going to be on my solo record [1982′s Flat Out] but Sandy convinced me to give to BOC. I wrote it in my garage studio. I’m quite proud of it. It’s one of Richard’s more sentimental lyrics, something he’s not known for [laughs].
- “Sad Memory” by Buffalo Springfield
Buffalo Springfield formed in Los Angeles in 1966. Manager Barry Friedman spotted a steamroller parked outside his house where Stephen Stills and Richie Furay were staying. On its side was a plaque with its company name: Buffalo-Springfield, which the band adopted.
Stills and Neil Young wrote all of the songs on the band’s self-titled debut album. It was not until their second LP, 1967’s Buffalo Springfield Again, that Furay contributed songs. Furay told us how he came to write “Sad Memory.” “Neil and Stephen were both very prolific. They had a catalog of songs. I didn’t have a whole lot of songs for that first record.
“When the second record came around, I was writing but actually the first song that I got recorded was really an accident. I was waiting for Stephen and Neil and the rest of the band to show up. We were at a recording session and they were a little late coming to the studio so I was out, just playing my guitar and I was playing ‘Sad Memory.’ And Neil came into the studio and said, ‘Man, we gotta record that.’ And as it turned out that little demo that I did with him putting a guitar on it became the first song that I ever got recorded.”
- “Jesus Is Just Alright” by the Byrds
The Byrds had been known as the Beefeaters, to capitalize on the popularity of the British Invasion, and the Jet Set before settling on their avian name. In a conversation with Roger McGuinn and Byrds manager Eddie Tickner in Rolling Stone. McGuinn credited Tickner with the name. “I remember you saying ‘How about Birds?’ at that Thanksgiving dinner. I have a very strong audio-visual memory of that. The old name, the Jet Set, had been vetoed by Columbia that day, because some English group had filed for it. And you said Birds, and I said, ‘No, that’s English slang for girls and we don’t want them to think we’re a bunch of fags, right?’ So you said, ‘What if we change the spelling to B-u-r-d-s?’ and I said, ‘Yeccchh,’ and we got around to Byrds somehow.”
“Jesus Is Just Alright” was a 1966 gospel song by the Art Reynolds Singers when it was discovered by the Byrds, who recorded it in 1969. “Gene Parsons, who was my drummer in the Byrds at the time, came up with that,” McGuinn told Ultimate Classic Rock. “He’d heard the Art Reynolds Singers, who wrote the song, do it on a record and he introduced us to it. And we thought it was a good song to work up. The Doobie Brothers came out with almost an identical arrangement to the one we had done but they got the hit with it. It just had a real uplifting beat to it. We had a fun time singing it and recording it.”
“Jesus Is Just Alright” by the Art Reynolds Singers
“Jesus Is Just Alright” by the Byrds
“Jesus Is Just Alright” by the Doobie Brothers
- “You Showed Me” by the Turtles and the Byrds
The Turtles were named the Crossfires until they tried to emulate the Beatles’ witty alteration of an animal name and became the Tyrtles. That didn’t fly, or crawl, with White Whale Records, which convinced the band to call themselves the Turtles.
The Turtles featured Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, who later became Flo & Eddie. The last of the Turtles’ string of Top 10 hits was “You Showed Me.” The song was written by Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark of the Byrds, whose upbeat version was never released as a single. McGuinn told Ultimate Classic Rock,
“I’ve got a certificate from BMI on my wall that says, ‘Congratulations for one million radio plays.’ It’s one of the most recorded songs that Gene and I wrote, the other being ‘Eight Miles High.’ The Turtles got a big hit with it and then it was recorded later by Salt-n-Pepa; Kanye West and U2 sampled it so it’s a big song in my catalog. The Byrds didn’t get a big hit with it but it was a hit for the Turtles.
“I like it, it was very pretty. I think they hit the nail on the head by slowing it down, which was an accident when one of the guys from the Association, Chip Douglas, showed it to Howard and Mark of the Turtles. He was demonstrating it on an organ that had a leaky valve so he couldn’t play it any faster than he did, which was the tempo they recorded it at. And I think that tempo made it sound better because we were doing it too fast and it sounded kind of nervous. It didn’t have the romantic side to it.”
“You Showed Me” by the Turtles
“You Showed Me” by the Byrds
- “I Don’t Like Mondays” by the Boomtown Rats
The Boomtown Rats came by their name in 1975 when the Irish band was known as the Nightlife Thugs. In his autobiography Bound for Glory, Woody Guthrie wrote about a gang by that name. “The whole idea of the band was that we were slightly different,” drummer Simon Crowe told Penny Black Music. “We got our name from a book by Woody Guthrie, and we identified ourselves as doing something different. We were rebellious. When we were starting out in Dublin, there were all these muso bands that completely poo-poohed us because we just made a loud noise as far as they were concerned.”
In 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer went on a shooting rampage at a San Diego high school, killing two adults and injuring eight children. Her explanation was, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” Singer Bob Geldolf was doing an interview in Atlanta when the news came over a teletype machine.
“I read it as it came out,” Geldorf said in Irish Central. “Not liking Mondays as a reason for doing somebody in is a bit strange. I was thinking about it on the way back to the hotel and I just said, ‘Silicon chip inside her head had switched to overload.’ I wrote that down. And the journalists interviewing her said, ‘Tell me why?'”
The Boomtown Rats released “I Don’t Like Mondays” later in 1979. “It was such a senseless act. It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it. So perhaps I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it. It wasn’t an attempt to exploit tragedy.”
- “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish
Country Joe McDonald’s activist roots go back to his folk music days in the early 1960s. McDonald formed Country Joe and the Fish with singer-guitarist Barry Melton in 1965. Band manager Ed Denson came up with the “Fish” name, a reference to Chairman Mao Tse Tung, who described revolutionaries as “the fish who swim in the sea of the people.”
McDonald, a Navy veteran, told us that he wrote the song in 1965 for a play protesting the Vietnam War. “I just strummed a pattern on my guitar and all of a sudden scribbled out ‘One, two, three, what are we fightin’ for?’ Within thirty minutes at the most I wrote ‘Fixin’-To-Die Rag.’
“I had written songs about the military before that. At least one I remember was serious in that vein. The big difference with ‘Fixin’-To-Die Rag’ is that it’s not anti-soldier, it’s from a soldier’s point of view. I had been in the military. The humor is what we call ‘GI Humor’ – black humor.”
“I Feel Like I’m Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish
- “Shapes of Things” by the Yardbirds
The Yardbirds took their name from the hobos who congregated in rail yards described in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Drummer Jim McCarty attributed the idea to singer Keith Relf. “That was Keith,” McCarty said in South Coast Today. “I’m sure he saw it in a Jack Kerouac book. Yardbirds rode the trains, bunked rides like hobos. We didn’t quite fit that, being from the suburbs of southwest London [laughs].”
“Shapes of Things” has been called the first popular psychedelic rock song, in large part due to Jeff Beck’s guitar riffs and use of feedback. The 1966 song was also the first original composition by the band to become a hit. “‘Shapes Of Things’ was one of the best things we produced because it was original and it had the talents of all the band in it, and everyone put in their best,” McCarty told DME. “It had great vocals and fantastic guitar sound and good lyrics – and it was an interesting song that encompassed everything from the band.”
- “The Pusher” by Steppenwolf
Singer John Kay explained on the band’s site that he had not read Herman Hesse’s novel, Steppenwolf, when neighbor Gabriel Mekler suggested the name to the band. Mekler was about to put the band’s name on the box of a demo tape and asked, “Well, what is the band called?”
“Aside from the obvious joke names and other obscene suggestions which were not marketable, he finally said, ‘Well look, how about “Steppenwolf”? I think it’s a word that looks good in print, and it denotes a certain degree of mystery and power and you guys are kind of rough and ready types.’ Everybody said that sounds pretty interesting and if we don’t get a deal we can always scrawl another name on the box and send it to somebody else, so let’s go with that for now. Well, that’s what it’s been now for many years and, to be honest, it’s been a very good name.”
Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher” was used at the start of the 1969 film Easy Rider. The song was written by Hoyt Axton, whom Kay had heard at LA’s Troubadour club. “It was a song that I sort of took with me when I played places like Buffalo, Toronto and even the Village in New York City and not too many people had heard of Hoyt Axton,” Kay recalled in Classic Rock Here and Now. “Anyway, I would start playing ‘The Pusher’ and got pretty good reaction to it.”
Kay performed “The Pusher” with the Sparrows and when they broke up, recorded the song for Steppenwolf’s 1968 self-titled debut LP. “The Steppenwolf sound was a whole lot more aggressive. And so in many ways, I thought ‘The Pusher’ really got its rightful treatment when ‘The Wolf’ recorded it.”
“The Pusher” by Steppenwolf
“The Pusher” by Hoyt Axton
Honorary pick: “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals
When Eric Burdon and the Animals released their take on the old folk song “House of the Rising Sun” in 1964, they had to know they had something special on their hand s– and, decades later, their rendition is still considered the “first folk rock hit,” and spawned a legacy that will stand forever.