12 songs about being a musician

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They say 'write what you know' and if there's one thing that musicians know - aside from that story about Van Halen's brown M&Ms - it is, in fact, being a musician.

Here we've compiled a 12-song playlist of questionable variety and self-reverence in order to illustrate this very point. You'll notice we have not included David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust or Oasis' Rock 'n' Roll Star, because frankly - following the depressing events of 2016 - there's almost nothing left to say about the former, and very little that should be written about the latter.

So here it is: from struggles with industry bean counters and touring nightmares to bad gigs and press encounters, it's all here in song-form. 12 of them, to be precise...

1. KISS - Beth

Written and sung by drummer Peter Criss (with co-writer Stan Penridge), Beth was reportedly inspired by the duo's experiences in pre-KISS New York rock band Chelsea.

The story goes that Becky Brand, AKA 'Beck' - wife of drummer Mike - would call up during rehearsals to find her errant hubby. The song is about as subtle as KISS get but that in no way diminishes our enjoyment of a video in which the Catman and his KISS kolleagues creepily serenade their protagonist, before an orchestral outro soundtracks a wholly unfitting montage of onstage pouting and pyro.

2. Creedence Clearwater Revival - Lodi

John Fogerty's tale of a musician stuck in Lodi came as part of a phenomenal hot streak in which he set him self the Beatles-esque task of writing double A-side singles.

"I did that for eight singles in a row. Starting with Proud Mary, it was Born On The Bayou, Bad Moon Rising, Lodi, Green River, Commotion, Fortunate Son, Down On The Corner," he told us in 2013.

"Somewhere around the fourth single, Billboard, which had been listing the songs as separate numbers, started listing them as the same number. I took that as a slap in the face. It was like we couldn't have two different songs in the Top 10 like The Beatles."

3. Joni Mitchell - For The Roses

The track's eloquent portrayal of the tug of war between artistry and commerce makes it our pick

The Canadian high priestess' fifth album, For The Roses, was released in 1972, a year after the hugely successful Blue, and saw the songwriter dealing with the pros and cons of her situation.

You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio was a rebuke to label bosses' requests for a radio-friendly unit-shifter and worthy of inclusion here, but it's the title track's eloquent portrayal of the tug of war between artistry and commerce that gets our pick.

"Remember the days when you used to sit/ And make up your tunes for love/ And pour your simple sorrow/ To the sound hole and your knee/ And now you're seen/ On giant screens/ And at parties for the press." Bloody press.

4. The Clash - Garageland

Garageland arrived at an interesting time for The Clash. The band had just signed to C.B.S. for £100,000, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the nascent punk police.

As such, Joe Strummer felt the need to lay out a pledge to fans in song form that the band would not be manipulated by their major label deal: "My bumming slumming friends have all got new boots / And someone just asked me if the group would wear suits."

The idea for the song was first sparked by a notorious Charles Shaar Murray review, which stated "The Clash are the kind of garage band who should be returned to the garage immediately". And people say critics are good for nothing.

5. PUP - If This Tour Doesn't Kill You, I Will

From a classic punk band, to a contemporary one. Acclaimed Canadian sugar-rush punks PUP turned a brutal mirror on themselves for this year's second album, The Dream Is Over, including this barn-storming ode to tormented, claustrophobic hours in a van watching your best friends become your mortal enemies.

The fact the song also sounds like a four nerdy musicians beating the crap out of each other in a splitter is entirely appropriate, but it's the lyrics that keep us coming back. For example: "I'm trying not to let you get in my head, but every word, every goddam syllable/ Makes me wanna gouge out my eyes with a power drill."

6. Dire Straits - Sultans Of Swing

Knopfler's imagined document of a London jazz band started life on a National guitar but its writer considered it boring in its original state. It wasn't until he tried it through his Fender '61 Strat that it came to life.

It's not clear whether an old guitar was all he could afford to play his thing at that time, but it made a difference. "It's really a good example of how the music you make is shaped by what you play it on, and is a lesson for young players," Knopfler told Guitar World. "If you feel that you're not getting enough out of a song, change the instrument."

7. Sweet - Ballroom Blitz

The title inspiration struck shortly after a flurry of bottles, when a show in Kilmarnock, Scotland went rapidly south

Ballroom Blitz was released by The Sweet as part of a trio of singles that occupied the upper reaches of the charts in 1973.

The title inspiration struck shortly after a flurry of bottles when a show in Kilmarnock, Scotland went rapidly south. However, like all three of those singles, 'Blitz was actually penned by Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, the glam-focussed songwriting svengalis behind the likes of Mud and Suzi Quatro.

The pair had enormous success throughout the decade, landing 19 songs in the UK top 40 in just two years across 1973 and 1974.

8. MGMT - Time To Pretend

Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser created Time To Pretend while they were still at college, predicting a life lived-out as fantasy rockstars.

The irony here, of course, is that it played a considerable part in attracting the attention of Columbia Records, who snapped them up and made subsequent album Oracular Spectacular a million-seller.

No one seems to have been more shocked than the band themselves and follow-up, Congratulations, saw them seemingly purposefully sabotage their own popularity with a considerably more obscured psych rock sound.

9. The Byrds - So You Want To Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star

Like many of the best songs about making music, beneath its sweet exterior, So You Want To Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star seeps cynicism like an infected wound.

Jim McGuinn and Chris Hillman wrote the song in response to the late 60s boom in Monkees-esque conveyer belt 'rock' bands. The lyrics are therefore heavily laced with sarcasm: "Then it's time to go downtown / Where the agent man won't let you down / Sell your soul to the company/ Who are waiting there to sell plastic ware"

They do at least instruct you to learn electric guitar, which some would say is more than is deemed necessary for today's Monkees equivalents…

10. The Libertines - Boys In The Band

The idea of a scene existing is pretty controversial itself now. Back when The Libertines wrote this deep cut for their 2002 debut Up The Bracket, they were still very much a thing.

At that point in The Libs' North London stomping ground, there were the movers and shakers and then the fakers. It's the latter that Boys In The Band addresses, calling out those they crossed paths with in their urban rambles that acted dangerous, yet "all I've ever seen you do is run".

The bitter irony acknowledged here, is that in any scene it's often the loudest talkers that get the attention - and the limousine wheels.

11. Mclusky - Fuck This Band

Nobody does self-reflexive smart-arsery better than Cardiff's most cutting post-hardcore three-piece

Nobody does self-reflexive smart-arsery better than Cardiff's most cutting post-hardcore three-piece.

Frontman Andrew Falkous (lately of Future Of The Left) is famed for his withering put-downs and mid-way through Steve Albini-produced second album Mclusky Do Dallas, he takes three becalmed minutes to send-up all manner of musical cliches, including those of his own perpetuation.

"Fuck this band, 'cos they swear too much," he states, with weary annoyance. "It's an obvious ploy. And irresponsible."

12. Bruce Springsteen - Dancing In The Dark

In the early months of 1984 Springsteen had finished Born In The USA, but manager/producer Jon Landau wasn't fully satisfied, telling his his charge that the record needed a hit. Dancing In The Dark was The Boss' response: a hit single that documented his frustration at trying to write a hit single.

"You can't start a fire worrying about your little world falling apart," sings Springsteen, which is exactly - well, figuratively - what he did with Dancing In The Dark. The song was chosen as the debut single, sparking an astonishing run of seven top 10 hits from the record, before Born In The U.S.A. became the best-selling record of the year.

Matt Parker

Matt is a freelance journalist who has spent the last decade interviewing musicians for the likes of Total Guitar, Guitarist, Guitar World, MusicRadar, NME.com, DJ Mag and Electronic Sound. In 2020, he launched CreativeMoney.co.uk, which aims to share the ideas that make creative lifestyles more sustainable. He plays guitar, but should not be allowed near your delay pedals.