You’ve heard them a million times. You may even know all of the lyrics. But no matter how often you’ve encountered these songs, there’s a good chance you’ve been interpreting them incorrectly. The little-known meanings and stories behind these seven tunes will make you think twice the next time they cross your path.
“Philadelphia Freedom,” Elton John (1975)
With lyrics like “From the day that I was born/I’ve waved the flag/Philadelphia freedom,” and because the song came out just a year before America’s bicentennial, it’s easy to assume that Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” is about patriotism. In reality, it’s about tennis legend Billie Jean King.
After becoming friends with King in the early ’70s, the British-born John told her that he wanted to write a song in her honor and came up with the idea to name it after her tennis team, The Philadelphia Freedoms. He debuted the rough cut of the song for King and her team during the 1974 playoffs; King immediately fell in love. “He said, during the part where he goes ‘Philadelphia’… ‘That’s you getting upset with an umpire.’ Walking up to the umpire … stomping: ‘PHIL. UH. DEL-phia.’ I was laughing so hard,” she said in an interview with eltonjohn.com.
King knows most people don’t know the song was written for her — and she doesn’t care. “We didn’t want it to be anything about tennis. No, it’s a feeling. It’s a great song for a team. It’s a great song if you’re not a team.”
“Walk This Way,” Aerosmith (1975)
In late 1974, Aerosmith was messing around during the soundcheck at a show where they were opening for the Guess Who. They managed to land on the iconic guitar riff and drum beat that would eventually become “Walk This Way.” The lyrics, however, took a little longer.
For a while, as they worked on the song, Steven Tyler would just scat nonsensical words — but then Mel Brooks came along. After seeing Brooks’ Young Frankenstein in early 1975, the band members were quoting lines from the movie at each other, including the part where Marty Feldman’s Igor tells Gene Wilder to “walk this way” and Wilder begins to imitate Igor’s hunched steps. Aerosmith’s producer heard the quote and suggested that it could make a great title for the song. Tyler worked his spontaneous scatting into lyrics, and a classic tune was born. When Run DMC covered the tune a decade later, it became a hit all over again — and helped revive Aerosmith’s sagging career.
“Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Bonnie Tyler (1983)
This epic ’80s ballad is certainly a heartbreaker, but the lyrics are just vague enough that it’s not entirely clear what the heartbreak is. In 2002, lyricist Jim Steinman — who was also responsible for Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” (1983) and Meatloaf’s “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” — came clean about the song’s origins to Playbill. “I actually wrote ["Total Eclipse of the Heart"] to be a vampire love song. Its original title was 'Vampires in Love' because I was working on a musical of 'Nosferatu,' the other great vampire story. If anyone listens to the lyrics, they're really like vampire lines. It's all about the darkness, the power of darkness and love's place in [the] dark.”
Steinman revived the idea for a musical called Dance of the Vampires that opened on Broadway in December 2002, but despite starring the legendary Michael Crawford (of Phantom of the Opera fame), the brief, 56-performance show was a flop. Costing $600,000 per week to produce, and ultimately creating a loss of $12 million, the New York Times deemed Dance one of the most expensive Broadway flops of all time.
“Blackbird,” the Beatles (1968)
The lyrics “Take these broken wings and learn to fly” have inspired many people from many different walks of life in the 50-plus years since Paul McCartney wrote “Blackbird.” But at a concert in 2016, he revealed that he had written the song with a very specific issue in mind: civil rights in the U.S. Although he has mentioned the connection several times over the decades, it was particularly poignant when he talked about his inspiration during a 2016 concert in Little Rock, Arkansas.
“Way back in the Sixties, there was a lot of trouble going on over civil rights, particularly in Little Rock,” McCartney said. “We would notice this on the news back in England, so it’s a really important place for us, because to me, this is where civil rights started,” he told the crowd, which included two members of the Little Rock Nine (a group of Black students whose enrollment at a previously all-white high school in Little Rock in 1957 drew national attention). “We would see what was going on and sympathize with the people going through those troubles, and it made me want to write a song that, if it ever got back to the people going through those troubles, it might just help them a little bit, and that’s this next one.”
“Sweet Caroline,” Neil Diamond (1969)
The story of “Sweet Caroline” seems to be ever-evolving. For decades after the song first charted in 1969, no one knew who the mysterious Caroline was. Diamond managed to keep his inspiration a secret until 2007, when he played at a very famous 50th birthday party and revealed that the woman of the hour — Caroline Kennedy — had been his muse all of those years ago after he saw a picture of her riding a horse in a magazine.
The claim was a little suspect; Caroline was only nine in the photo, and the lyrics contain some decidedly adult lyrics. But the rest of the story came together in 2014 when Diamond told the Today show that the song itself was about his then-wife, Marsha. Because the two syllables in her name didn’t fit the scheme of the song, the singer racked his brain for a three-syllable substitute that would roll off the tongue. He recalled the famous photo of the young Caroline Kennedy, and that’s when he realized that her name was so good, so good, so good.
“Imagine,” John Lennon (1971)
Many people — presumably including the celebrities who covered it during the pandemic — think of “Imagine” as a hopeful look at what the world could be like if humans came together. But it’s a little more radical than that. Lennon said it was “virtually the Communist Manifesto ... But because it is sugarcoated, it is accepted.” After the song was released in 1971, it shot to #3 on the Billboard Top 100. “Now I understand what you have to do,” Lennon said. “Put your political message across with a little honey.”
When the song experienced a resurgence after 9/11, Yoko Ono discussed its meaning with Rolling Stone and agreed with Lennon’s assessment. “He played it to a few people after he wrote it, and they all said, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ But you got the feeling that they really liked it because it sounded so sweet — that if they tuned into the lyrics more, they might not have thought it was so pretty.” As Rolling Stone put it, the song actually “calls for a unity and equality built upon the complete elimination of modern social order: geopolitical borders, organized religion, [and] economic class.”
“Sabotage,” the Beastie Boys
The subject of this 1994 classic with the even more iconic video was a mystery until the Beasties’ memoir was released in 2018. As it turns out, it was their creative response to a producer who was rushing them to finish Ill Communication. While working on their fourth album, the group was having some trouble making decisions about their songs, and producer Mario Caldato was over it. In order to move things along and complete the album, he pushed on tracks that weren’t ready or good enough — much to the Boys’ chagrin. To protest, Ad-Rock penned the famous “I can’t stand it” opening scream with Caldato in mind. “I decided it would be funny to write a song about how Mario was holding us all down, how he was trying to mess it all up, sabotaging our great works of art,” he wrote.
Featured image credit: Alexandr Screaghin/ iStock