The metal hand sign is from an Italian gesture to ward off the evil eye.
Ronnie James Dio, considered one of the greatest metal vocalists, fronted a host of legendary bands – Rainbow, Dio, and Black Sabbath. In 1979, when he was replacing Ozzy Osbourne in Sabbath, he wanted to set himself apart from his predecessor. Ozzy would flash the peace sign during concerts and Dio wanted to do something different. He thought back to the hand gesture his Italian grandmother would use to ward off the “malocchio” or “the evil eye.” From this, Dio began to flash the “mano cornuto” or the “horned hand” gesture.
The mano cornuto is related to the Italian cornicello charm of a single horn that looks a bit like a chili pepper. They’re both used as protection against the evil eye. The hand gesture has the index and pinky fingers extended and may have evolved from the idea of the two extended fingers “poking the eyes” of the person giving you the evil eye.
Because Dio was using the sign as the vocalist for Black Sabbath, he helped popularize the gesture in heavy metal culture. Soon other musicians, as well as fans, began to make the same gesture and today it’s used all over pop culture. Dio never claimed to have invented the sign but he certainly did more to make it a part of heavy metal than anyone else.
Added info: Gene Simmons of KISS, never one to pass up an opportunity to shamelessly profit off of something, filed an application to trademark a strikingly similar hand sign. In 2017 he tried to trademark the metal hand sign but with the thumb extended instead of tucked in. What Simmons claimed was his also happens to be the sign for “I love you” in American Sign Language. He later withdrew his application but not before Dio’s widow, Wendy Dio, said of Simmons“To try to make money off of something like this is disgusting. It belongs to everyone; it doesn’t belong to anyone. It’s a public domain; it shouldn’t be trademarked.”
For an album of greatest hits Tom Petty wrote yet another greatest hit.
For his 1993 album Greatest Hits Tom Petty was asked to record two new songs. The album already included 16 of his best songs from the previous 17 years, but MCA wanted a few bonus songs (as was the style at the time, to include some bonus material on compilation albums). Petty was not interested in having to record new material so he dug around through some old song ideas. Producer Rick Rubin picked a fragment of a song that had a good riff and potential to be a good song.
Petty took the riff he created 5-ish years earlier, and wrote Mary Jane’s Last Dance. The song was a hit and peaked around #14 on the Billboard Hot 100. So, when pressured to write a new song for an album full of his greatest hits, Tom Petty wrote a song that itself became another one of his greatest hits.
Kim Basinger, dead woman
A driver of the song’s commercial success was the accompanying music video. The video (which has nothing to do with the lyrics) has Petty playing a morgue assistant who becomes infatuated with a beautiful dead woman (played by Kim Basinger). He takes her home, he tries to dance with her, he props her up at the dinner table, but eventually he release her body into the waves of the ocean.
Talent to Spare
It’s hard enough to write one hit song let alone a hit song to accompany your other hit songs. While Petty may have written the song under duress, it’s a testament to his talent that he still wrote one of his best songs. Regarding Mary Jane’s Last Dance, Petty later said “I complained about that [song] so much … I’m really glad I did it now.”
In most songs the melody aligns with content of the lyrics. Sad melodies have sad lyrics, upbeat melodies have happy positive lyrics. Lyrical Dissonance is when there’s a mismatch. Most typically lyrical dissonance is found in songs that have happy melodies but, upon closer inspection, have subversively dark lyrics. This juxtaposition of incongruent melody to lyrics is found across genres.
One of the most famous examples is 1940’s You Are My Sunshine first made famous by Jimmie Davis (but recorded by many musicians over the years). The melody is so bright & cheerful it’s understandable why it’s one of the official state songs of Louisiana. The lyrics however, are about a man who is heartbreakingly alone having been abandoned by his former love and that happiness (his sunshine) has left his life.
LDN by Lily Allen is very clever example in that it explores dissonance on multiple levels. The song is about how reality is not quite what it seems, the dissonance between perceived reality vs. actual reality, and that behind a happy surface-level exterior there is frequently a darker truth.
Then there is the second level with the lyrical dissonance between the happy upbeat melody and the dark lyrics. Finally, to add yet another level, the music video for this song visualizes this dissonance with Allen moving through a saturated colorful happy London, but when she moves away from a scene the grimy darker reality is exposed. The two versions of each scene conflicting with one another.
There are many happy sounding songs with lyrics about lost loves or failed romances
• Copacabana by Barry Manilow – is about a showgirl whose bartender love is killed, their Copcacabana nightclub eventually becomes a discotheque, and she lives out her life alone, disheveled, and depressed drinking herself blind thinking of the past. • Mamma Mia by ABBA – is about a failed relationship full of regret, wishing they could have the person back. • Act Naturally by Buck Owens – the singer is going to be successful in the motion picture industry with roles of sad depressed characters just by acting naturally given his experience at being depressed & lonely. • Walking The Floor Over You by Ernest Tubb – the singer has been left by his love and now, depressed and alone, he paces around the room not knowing what to do with himself. • Once A Day by Connie Smith – the singer has been left by her love but only feels depressed once a day. Unfortunately that “once” is the entirety of the day, every day. • Lovefool by The Cardigans – the singer is desperate to be loved by someone who isn’t interested. • Go Your Own Way by Fleetwood Mac – like many Fleetwood Mac songs, Go Your Own Way is about a failed relationship within the band. The song is about a man (Lyndsey Buckingham) doing everything for his love (Stevie Nicks) but realizing he has to end the relationship because he’s being used. • Build Me Up Buttercup by The Foundations – the singer is being strung along by a person who doesn’t really care about him, but despite this abuse he still wants a real relationship with this person. • Pretty in Pink by the Psychedelic Furs – is about a girl who has sex with various guys thinking it will make her popular, but in reality she’s treated like a joke and mocked behind her back. The John Hughes movie was named after the song, but the plot of the movie is nothing like the lyrics of the song.
Lyrical dissonance can also hide depression with upbeat music
• Dancing In the Dark by Bruce Springsteen – Springsteen was pushed to write another hit single for his 1984 album Born in the U.S.A.. Angry and pressured, he wrote Dancing In the Dark in one night. The singer is isolated, depressed, tired, and dissatisfied with his life, needing help to find a way out (and in Springsteen’s case, needing a way to escape the alienating pressure to produce hit songs). The “dancing in the dark” in this case is his moving in darkness trying to find meaning / light for his life. • Piano Man by Billy Joel – is about a piano player at a local bar observing the various regulars at the bar, each of whom have unfulfilled dreams with little chance of every finding success. • Chandelier by Sia – is about a protagonist whose excessive party lifestyle is masking pain and unresolved problems. • Another Day, Another Dollar by Wynn Stewart – is about working your life away, day after day. • Today by the Smashing Pumpkins – Today is the greatest day, because the suicidal protagonist (who has already cut himself in self-harm, “pink ribbon scars”) has decided that his life can not get any worse. The title is ironic, that from this point on things can only be better than absolute rock bottom.
Fun songs about heroin
• Lust For Life by Iggy Pop – is named for the 1956 bio film about Vincent van Gough, Lust for Life. That aside, it’s a song about recovering from heroin addiction, it references the work of William S. Burroughs, and generally speaks of depravity. It’s not the fun joie de vivre anthem people think it is, and Royal Caribbean certainly shouldn’t have used it to sell cruises. • There She Goes by The La’s – is about the love of heroin, or possibly about a woman. • I’m Waiting For The Man by the Velvet Underground – is about going up to Harlem to buy some heroin. The “man” in question is the protagonist’s drug dealer.
Going from nature, to industrial society, and back again
• Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell – is about environmentalism, regret, and the destruction of nature. • [Nothing But] Flowers by the Talking Heads – is like a reverse Big Yellow Taxi. It’s about a post-apocalyptic world where nature has reclaimed urban areas and the singer is torn between appreciating the new natural world and longing for the comforts of his former industrialized lifestyle.
Violence masked by fun melodies
• Shiny Happy People by R.E.M. – is a sardonic satirical song about the smiling happy people seen in Chinese propaganda in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre. (Bonus: the Sesame Street parody Happy Furry Monsters really is about happy furry monsters.) • Electric Avenue by Eddy Grant – is about the 1981 Brixton Riot in London where hundreds of people were injured clashing with the police. • Mack the Knife – has a long and complicated history, but the version popularized by Bobby Darin is about a knife-wielding murderous gangster. • Jack Straw by the Grateful Dead – inspired by Of Mice and Men, Jack Straw is a murder ballad about a group of outlaws who are on the run from the law. As there is no honor among thieves members start killing each other off. (Bonus: this video includes the legendary naked Oregon pole guy.) • Maxwell’s Silver Hammer by the Beatles – is about a hammer wielding murderer. • Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones – is an incredibly dark song about West African slaves being brought to the United States and the female slaves being raped at night by their owner. • Pumped up Kicks by Foster The People – is about a kid named Robert dreaming of shooting his classmates at school. • I Don’t Like Mondays by the Boomtown Rats – is about an actual school shooting in San Diego in 1979. The shooter, Brenda Spencer was asked why she killed people on the playground and she said “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”
And of course, happy songs protesting war
• Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival – used in montage scenes for Vietnam war movies, in ad campaigns to help sell blue jeans, and even without permission by the ultimate fortunate son Donald Trump (Trump, his staff, and his MAGA followers being too dumb to see the irony of its use) Fortunate Son is arguably the most famous anti-war anthem. Behind the up-tempo rock melody is a social criticism of how the unaffected elite social class wage wars that poor kids have to go fight & die in. • 99 Red Balloons by Nena – is about the futility of war and how something as innocent as releasing balloons near the Berlin Wall could cause military escalation and eventual mutual destruction on both sides. • Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen – like Dancing In the Dark, this song is also on the Born in the U.S.A. album. It’s a protest song. It’s about a disillusioned working-class veteran who society has rejected & alienated. It is not the pro-America Reagan-era anthem most people think it is, but rather it’s a scathing criticism of 1980s America.
Dark Melodies, Positive Messages
Not as common, but lyrical dissonance is also found the other way around with dark melodies & positive lyrics. Black Sabbath’s 1970 song War Pigs is very dark melodically, but the lyrics are strongly anti-war. War Pigs is like a darker sounding Fortunate Son. It’s a criticism of the Vietnam War (and war in general) and how the rich & powerful benefit from war while facing none of the dangers, sending the poor off to die.
Added info: Musical dissonance/incongruity can also be found in a slightly different way in TV & film. This is where the mood of the song being played does not align to what is taking place in the scene. Frequently this is done with a happy song being played as a counterpoint to a dark disturbing scene.
This has become a common trope in entertainment today but a few early examples helped define the concept. • David Lynch employed this concept in Blue Velvetwith Roy Orbison’s In Dreams. • The X-Filesused Johnny Mathis’s Wonderful! Wonderful! multiple times in perhaps the show’s most infamous episode Home. • However, no director is more famous for this than Quentin Tarantino. One of Tarantino’s earliest and best known uses of this technique is in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs and its well-known use of the Stealers Wheel song Stuck in the Middle with You.
The hell-raising sleigh song that became a Christmas standard.
Jingle Bells was published in 1857 under the title One Horse Open Sleigh. It wasn’t until it was reissued in 1859 that it got the title we know today. It was written by James Lord Pierpont, the uncle of Wall Street titan John Pierpont Morgan (aka. J.P. Morgan). By all accounts James Pierpont was a pretty awful person. He lived for adventure, traveled the world, abandoned his family, didn’t attend his first wife’s funeral nor did he care for their children after she died, he fought for the south in the Civil War despite being from an abolitionist family in Massachusetts, etc. But he did write one of the most famous Christmas songs of all time despite the fact that the song isn’t about Christmas.
Risqué High-Speed Sleigh Riding
Jingle Bells is one of several Christmas favorites that have nothing to do with Christmas. The lyrics & melody changed within Pierpont’s lifetime but in general the song is about a sleigh ride. Looking to the lesser known additional lyrics the song is specifically about getting away from the watchful eyes of the people in town and a boy taking a girl out for a secluded sleigh ride. The song then has the protagonist relaying his story to other guys and telling them to pick up girls in their sleighs and have a good time while they’re young.
These lyrics were most likely influenced by where & when Pierpont wrote the song. At the time the town of Medford, Massachusetts (where he wrote the song) had a strong winter sleigh racing scene. It was also a rum producing city. People would race their sleighs at top speed (frequently while drunk) down Salem Street. It was like a drunker 19th century version of American Graffiti. Today the town of Medford has a plaque commemorating the song and says the song is about sleigh racing. None of this is very Christmasy.
Jingle Bells … In Space
While in space for the 1965 Gemini 6 project, astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra snuck sleigh bells and a harmonica aboard the capsule. Alluding to Santa Claus, on December 16th they reported seeing “… a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit.” They then proceeded to play Jingle Bells to an initially very confused mission control. Their instruments were the first every played in outer space and are now in the Smithsonian.
During the mid 1960s the song began to take-on alternate lyrics, the most famous of which is the Batman themed parody. The Batman Smells version seems to have started around the time of the original Adam West television show. Australia has Aussie Jingle Bells to better align to the summer heat of Christmas down under.
Added info: the titular “jingle” doesn’t refer to a type of bell, but rather it is a verb telling you to jingle/shake bells. Sleighs can run fairly silent on snow and so jingling bells are a safety feature serving as an audible signal that you are approaching.
The pedal steel guitar shaped decades of country music and Ralph Mooney is a legendary master of the instrument.
Part of the sound of classic country is the pedal steel guitar. It’s the sliding, bending, sometimes crying sounding instrument that fills in the background as well as takes solos. Before modern country abandoned classic country artists & sounds, the pedal steel was a standard part of the genre.
The pedal steel guitar started out (without its pedals) in Hawaiian music. Hawaiians took the acoustic guitars of 19th century Europeans and laid them flat across their laps. This new style of playing eventually created its own kind of guitar, the lap guitar, which was designed to only be played laid across the performer’s lap. By the 1930s these were electrified and they got setup with legs to get them off the musician’s lap. Eventually these instruments found their way into western swing.
In 1939 Alvino Rey worked to get the first pedals added to his steel guitar. In 1952 Zane Beck added knee levers. With pedals and knee levers, this formed a new instrument called the pedal steel guitar. The pedals & knee levers, when pushed, bend the strings to raise or lower the pitch of notes changing their sounds. This augmentation of notes was done before the musician would play the strings, but in 1953 Bud Isaacs bent the notes while they were already played on the Webb Pierce song Slowly. While it sounds normal now, at the time it was an entirely new way of playing. This was the dawn of a huge change in country music. A whole host of pedal steel players arose to shape country music and one of the best was Ralph Mooney.
Born in 1928 in Duncan, Oklahoma, Ralph Mooney moved to California when he was 12. He started playing the steel guitar but when he learned about the pedal steel he built his own. He started playing in bands and it was in 1950 that he met Wynn Stewart. Stewart, along with Buck Owens and others, helped define the Bakersfield sound and Ralph Mooney was a big part of that. Like any genre, country music has lots of subgenres and the Bakersfield sound was the subgenre coming out of California in the 1950s. It didn’t sound like the more polished music that was coming from Nashville at the time (aka “Countrypolitan”), it had more of a honky-tonk early-rock sound and the pedal steel was integral to that sound.
Ralph Mooney’s pedal steel work alone would have made him a country music legend, but he was also the cowriter of the mega hit Crazy Arms. The 1956 version by Ray Price became a number one hit and stayed at number one for 20 weeks. It has since become a country standard but is so popular that it’s been recorded by musicians across genres by artists such as Chuck Berry, Jerry Garcia, and Louis Armstrong.
So while there have been many great pedal steel players, Ralph Mooney helped shape the Bakersfield sound, Outlaw country, and ultimately influenced country music in ways that are still heard today.
Added info: The fantastic Cocaine & Rhinestones podcast has an entire episode devoted to Mooney which is a must-listen for fans of classic country.
The 1992 Lithuanian mens basketball team had tie-dyed uniforms because they were financially supported by the Grateful Dead.
In 1990 Lithuania gained independence from the Soviet Union after 50 years of communist occupation. As a new country they had nationwide economic problems and funding their Olympic team was low on the priority list. So to try and raise funds for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Lithuanian basketball star Šarūnas Marčiulionis (who also played for the Golden State Warriors and eventually made the NBA hall of fame) went on a campaign to get sponsors & donors wherever he could. Enter the Grateful Dead.
An article in the San Francisco Chronicle about Marčiulionis and the Lithuanian team was brought to the attention of San Francisco based Grateful Dead who had Marčiulionis come to meet them at their rehearsal space. As drummer Mickey Hart said, “We’re always for the underdog, and this wasn’t just a basketball team. This was a struggle for life, liberty and freedom.” They cut Marčiulionis a check for $5,000 and supplied the team with tie-dyed uniforms in the colors of the Lithuanian flag with a slam-dunking skeleton on the front. When the Lithuanian team made it to Barcelona their tie-dye uniforms were an international sensation. While their actual game uniforms were fairly traditional, they did take the podium to receive their bronze medals (after a symbolic 82-78 victory over their former Soviet team) wearing their Grateful Dead tie-die.
An added bonus: Through the Grateful Dead’s charitable organization, the Rex Foundation, they sold Lithuanian tie-dye shirts to the public, with proceeds going to the Lithuanian basketball team and Lithuanian children’s charities, raising over $450,000. You can still buy a copy from the artist who designed them.
The organ became a part of early movie theaters and then moved over to entertain baseball fans
Hot dogs, the seventh inning stretch, and the organ are all a part of the summertime ritual of baseball. But how did the organ end up in baseball? Organs became a part of baseball game entertainment because, in the early 20th century, organs were played in theaters to provide music for silent films. Since they were associated with entertainment, baseball stadiums took the next step and incorporated the organ into their games. On April 26, 1941, Chicago’s Wrigley Field became the first baseball stadium to feature an organ (and they still feature a live organ, not a digital recording).
A feminist baseball anthem
Probably the most well known baseball song performed on the organ is Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Most teams feature the song (usually just the chorus) during the 7th inning stretch. The song was written in 1908 by Tin Pan Alley songwriters Jack Norworth & Albert Von Tilzer, neither of whom had ever been to a baseball game. The chorus speaks of the love of the game, but it’s the two verses that bookend the chorus that are groundbreaking.
The song is about a woman named Katie Casey whose young man asks if she wants to see a show, but as a sports fan she would rather go to a baseball game. She’s “baseball mad,” knows the players names, she argues with the umpire from the stands, she leads a chant to raise the home team’s spirits, etc – she does all of this as a woman in 1908. The character of Katie Casey was based on outspoken suffragist Trixie Friganza, a vaudeville star who also in a relationship with Norworth at the time. With Take Me Out to the Ball Game the early 20th century suffragist spirit of confidence & equality that was associated with politics is brought into the arena of sports (which was was also traditionally just for men). So while most people know the song’s chorus as an ode to baseball, the full song’s feminist message makes it more important than just a sports song.
It’s been called the most famous chord in rock ’n roll. It’s the jangly opening chord that starts the Beatles 1964 hit song A Hard Day’s Night which also starts the album & the movie of the same name. This one sound is actually multiple instruments playing different notes simultaneously. For years it has been the subject of debate trying to solve exactly what instruments and chords are being played.
One of the reasons it is so hard to solve this mystery lies in the concept of polyphonic music. In polyphonic music different instruments or voices are playing different melodies that together create a larger whole. European polyphonic music originated in the early Middle Ages but became much more complex by the 16th century and onward (as heard in the organ fugues of J.S. Bach). When you line up the rows of sounds being played, Renaissance era polyphonic music paid attention to the vertical sounds, the harmonies and chords, that could happen when the different rows of music would momentarily come together a key points. This brings us back to the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night.
The opening chord is made up of five instruments sounding simultaneously. When you line up those five instruments, together they produce a sound that no single instrument is playing on its own. This is why it has been so hard to solve exactly what was being played – you have to separate out five different instruments that are sounding as one big chord.
A lot more has been written on this chord, but you can listen to Randy Bachman (of The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive) recount his experience of getting to visit the Abbey Road Studio and listen to the opening chord one track at a time to break it down.
A Closing chord
From the most famous opening chord, to one of the most famous closing chords. The final chord in A Day In The Life ends both the song and the 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Like the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night, much has been written about the closing cord of A Day In The Life. The song was written by Lennon & McCartney as usual, but their contributions remained fairly separate in the song.
The opening portion of the song was by John Lennon which then transitions to the Paul McCartney portion following a chaotic swelling of the orchestra (which will be used again). The song transitions back to Lennon using a modified melody based on Hey Joe. Following the second Lennon portion the chaotic swelling orchestra is used again to build tension and dissonance. The orchestra swells higher and higher, with seemingly no end in sight.
Frank Lloyd Wright used a concept he called “compression & release” in his architecture. He would compress you into a small space and then, turn a corner, you are released into a spacious open room. His grand open rooms are that much more impressive after you have just been compressed in a small space. He would build tension and then release it in a big payoff. In a similar way, the Beatles architected the end of A Day In The Life.
The chaotic climbing swirling orchestra increasingly builds tension for the listener until suddenly a pause and then an explosion of a thunderous monophonic harmonious final chord. This final chord is actually produced by three pianos and a harmonium all playing an E-major chord simultaneously. It rings out for over 40 seconds by a slow increase in the volume in the studio.
It’s said that upon hearing an early version of A Day In The Life, an already frayed Brian Wilson was left in shambles realizing the the song’s greatness. Jonathan Gould, author of Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America, said the closing chord was “… a forty-second meditation on finality that leaves each member of the audience listening with a new kind of attention and awareness to the sound of nothing at all”
Bringing both chords together, British music critic Ian MacDonald said that the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night and the closing chord of A Day In The Life were “… opening and closing the group’s middle period of peak creativity.”
An added bonus: Jeff Beck’s all instrumental cover of A Day In The Life.
One of the most iconic photos of Queen was inspired by a photograph of Marlene Dietrich
For their second album, Queen II, Queen wanted to explore the theme of duality. This was visually explored through black and white imagery and even labeling the two sides of the album Side White and Side Black. They went to photographer Mick Rock (who had worked with David Bowie, Lou Reed, and others in the mid ‘70s glam rock scene) to photograph the album cover.
Rock had recently been shown a 1932 photograph of Marlene Dietrich from the film Shanghai Express. Dietrich was lit with a technique known as “butterfly lighting” where one of the lights is positioned in-front and above the subject, casting shadows down from the subject’s brow, cheeks, and nose (the shadow below the nose produces a butterfly looking image, hence the name). This was a technique frequently used with Dietrich to accentuate her facial features, especially in her collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg.
When Rock showed this photograph to the band, Freddy Mercury loved the idea that they could recreate it for the album cover.
“I don’t know if it was the shot itself or the idea that [Freddie] could be like Marlene Dietrich—probably a combination of the two,”
This Dietrich inspired pose was used again in the music video for Queen’s greatest masterpiece Bohemian Rhapsody. The video for Bohemian Rhapsody, at over 1 billion views on YouTube, extends Marlene Dietrich’s influence even further, despite some viewers not even knowing it.
The award winning actress Rosanna Arquette is said to have been the inspiration for more than one hit song of the 1980s.
A bit on the nose, 1982’s Rosanna by Toto was written while Arquette was dating Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro. While the name of the song was taken from Arquette, the lyrics are about a mixture of people and not specifically about Rosanna Arquette.
The video, which is fantastically very ‘80s, has a then unknown Patrick Swayze and Cynthia Rhodes as dancers, both of whom went on to be in 1987’s Dirty Dancing.
In Your Eyes and Say Anything …
Arquette is also said to be the inspiration for the even bigger hit 1986’s In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel. Arquette was dating Gabriel and is said to not only have been the inspiration for the song, but also to have encouraged Gabriel to let Cameron Crowe use the song in 1989’s Say Anything … .
In Say Anything … the song was used in the most iconic moment of the film, and one of the most memorable scenes in cinema where, like an ’80s Romeo & Juliet, John Cusack’s character holds his boombox over his head below the bedroom window of Ione Skye’s character.