"It was like finding it on the street": The Beatles' Yesterday and five other songs that were inspired by dreams

Paul McCartney of The Beatles holding a copy of Disc magazine in a dressing room at the Gaumont Cinema, Doncaster, 10th December 1963. Behind him are George Harrison (1943 - 2001, left) and John Lennon (1940 - 1980, centre)
(Image credit: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Getty Images)

Songwriting inspiration can come from anywhere – but the realms of sleep are perhaps the most mysterious. It it the subconscious or something more? The not knowing is part of the magic, and dream-inspired songwriting has given birth to some absolute classics. 

Whether it's a line, hook, riff or a whole song the writer wakes up to capture before it slips away again, we're here to look at the top 40 songs that owe their existence to 40 winks. 

1. Drops Of Jupiter (Tell Me) – Train (Pat Monahan)

The US band's 2001 hit and Grammy-winner Drops Of Jupiter took a deeper dimension for listeners when its genesis was revealed by vocalist Pat Monahan. It was the band's breakthrough hit, but its inspiration came at a bittersweet price. 

"I would give it back," Pat Monahan candidly told the Daily Blast in 2022. "I lost my mother that year so that's why the song was written. So I'd give the song back if I could still call my mom but it was a great gift that she gave me."

She came to me in a dream

A gift because Monahan felt that his late mum Patricia was reaching out to him one night. "She came to me in a dream and she said she can do all these things now, including swimming through the planets and coming back with drops of Jupiter in my hair. But I'd rather be there with you – heaven is overrated and you should really pay attention to your life, because this is important."

It wasn't just inspiration for a great song then, it was life advice for Monahan to carry forward with the band. But there was one thing the singer wanted to set straight with any guitarists coming after him after mishearing the 'Man heaven is overrated' line in the chorus.

"When the song came out people thought I was singing 'Van Halen is overrated' so I was getting hate mail like crazy," he told the Daily Blast. 

2. Yesterday – The Beatles (Paul McCartney)

The ultimate dream song? It's certainly the most covered one. Paul McCartney stayed with former flame Jane Asher's family in London for three years in the mid-'60s. They allowed him to stay in the upstairs attic room. "Perfect for an artist," the Beatle recalled to Paul Muldoon in the excellent podcast series McCartney: A Life In Lyrics. "And I managed to get a piano in there – a small swan-off piano. I went to sleep one night and dreamed this tune.

When I woke up I thought, 'It's great – I love that tune'

"Somewhere in this dream I heard this tune, and when I woke up I thought, 'It's great – I love that tune'. It was so vivid that the songwriter couldn't pinpoint whether it was an existing song he was recalling from childhood. 

"Is it a Fred Astaire – Cole Porter thing? What is it?" he wondered. "So I fell out of bed and the piano was right there to the left of my bed. So I just thought, well I'll try and work out how this song goes. I wonder what it is? It's got to be some old standard that I've just heard years ago and forgotten it.

"So I worked out chords, and the two opening chords are kind of nice," continued McCartney. "I got pretty lucky there because I didn't have to go to those chords."

Luck? This is Paul McCartney talking. "It was very clear," he says, humming the melody that starts the song. But with no portable recording device invented / at hand, what if he forgot it?

Bassist Paul McCartney of the rock and roll band "The Beatles" plays an organ in circa 1965

Paul McCartney in 1965 (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

"In order to solidify it in my memory, I just blocked it out with some words which were 'Scrambled egg / oh my baby how I love your legs…'  It turns out these kinds of placeholder lyics were not common for McCartney in the Beatles. "We did that sometimes but not often," he explained. "Mainly we would sit there writing it so you'd get your only lyrics. We never really revised our stuff". But McCartney was still convinced the melody he had came from someone else's song. 

"So I had this tune, and I think the first person I saw was John. I said, 'What's this that's been bugging me – what's this song?' I was thinking he'd know it." He'd never heard it before. Then McCartney tried George Martin's encyclopedic musical mind. 

"After a couple of weeks of this it became clear no one knew it and it didn't exist, except in my heard," added McCartney. "And so I claimed it. It was like finding it on the street."

3. La Villa Strangiato – Rush (Alex Lifeson) 

Who dreams up a nine-and-a-half-minute instrumental? Alex Lifeson of course! In truth, rather than a specific melody or lyrics surfacing from a recurring nightmare the guitarist would have, it's more an attempt to recreate his experience of it musically with Geddy Lee and Neil Peart on the trio's 1978 opus Hemispheres.

Alex has some of the most bizarre bad dreams

"Alex has some of the most bizarre bad dreams, especially when we're away touring on the road," Peart explained to Geoff Barton for Sounds magazine in 1978. "Sometimes, when we're all supposed to be fast asleep in our hotel rooms, he'll wake up either Geddy (Lee, the band's vocalist and bass player) or me with a phone call in the middle of the night and start telling us all about these terrible dreams he's been having. When you're barely conscious, some of the stories he comes up with can be quite mind-blowing."

So too was the way Rush recorded it. "That was all recorded in one take," Lifeson told Guitar World in 1996. "Because we were writing on the road, we used our soundchecks to run through songs that we were going to record. We would come off the road, have a few days off and start recording. It was all recorded at the same time with all of us in the same room. 

"We had baffles up around the guitar, bass and drums and we would look at each other for the cues," the guitarist remembered. "My solo in the middle section was overdubbed after we recorded the basic tracks. I played a solo while we did the first take and re-recorded it later. If you listen very carefully, you can hear the other solo ghosted in the background."

4. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – The Rolling Stones (Keith Richards)

Who really knows the mysteries that have been swirling in the subconscious of Keef for decades. They did the Rolling Stones legend proud here though; presenting him with one of the most famous guitar riffs of all time in his sleep, which was put to use within a month to not only be recorded, but make the then three-year-old innovation of the Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone pedal famous.  The only initial stumbling was, Richards had forgotten he'd written it. Luckily he'd put it on tape. 

I wish all the songs could come this way, you know, where you just dream them, and then the next morning, there they are, presented to you

"I wish all the songs could come this way, you know, where you just dream them, and then the next morning, there they are, presented to you," Richards told Fresh Air in 2010. "But Satisfaction was that sort of miracle that took place. I had one of the first little cassette players, you know, Norelco, Philips, same thing, really. But it was a fascinating little machine to me, a cassette player that you could actually just lay ideas down and, you know, wherever you were.

"I set the machine up, and I put in a fresh tape," he continued. "I go to bed as usual with my guitar, and I wake up the next morning, I see that the tape is run to the very end. And I think, well, I didn't do anything, you know? I said, maybe I hit a button while I was asleep, you know? So I put it back to the beginning and pushed play and there, in some sort of ghostly version, is [singing] da, da, da, da, da – I can't get no satisfaction.

"And so there was a whole verse of it. I won't bore you with it all. But – and after that, there's, you know, 40 minutes of me snoring."

5. All You Had To Do Was Stay – Taylor Swift 

This cut from Taylor Swift's 1989 album has a chorus hook directly lifted from a vivid dream Swift had about an ex – an unnamed individual that's mooted to be Harry Styles

"There's this really high-pitched 'stay!' and I had a dream that my ex showed up at my door, knocked on my door, I opened it up and was just about ready to launch into the perfect thing to say," she revealed to Ryan Adams – who would also cover the song, and indeed the whole 1989 album in 2015. "Instead all that would come out of my mouth was that high-pitched chorus of people singing 'stay!'. 

6. River Of Dreams – Billy Joel

"I had this idea for a song, I woke up one day [sings], 'In the middle of the night / I go walking in my sleep'", Billy Joel recalls in the video below about a song he wrote, almost against his will. "It was kind of like a gospel song, [I thought] I can't write this. I'm not a gospel artist. I tried to shake it off, then I got in the shower that morning [carries of singing the song] and it would not go away.

I still don't know what it means

"That's it – if you go in the shower and it becomes an earworm, forget it – you're not gonna shake it off," he adds. "It's not gonna go away. It's got all these biblical references – I still don't know what it means. But it was very strong visual images; 'Through the valley of fear', 'The desert of truth'… baptised by whoever it was. I'm not a biblical person, I'm not a religious guy but these images were very strong and the reason I wrote it, I haven't figured it out but it became a hit record."

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.