Rounding out Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” can be described as ethereal, trippy, and evocative. The main theme of the lyrics describes a man experiencing confusing and conflicting emotions as he gets up in the morning and reads the newspaper. John Lennon was the primary songwriter of this track. It was inspired by a car crash that claimed the life of his friend, the 21-year-old heir to the Guinness empire, Tara Browne. Lennon adapted the story in the Daily Mail newspaper into the first two verses of the song.
Even the third verse, the enigmatic one about “holes” filling the Albert Hall, was adapted from another article in the same edition of the same newspaper. The article was about the numerous holes in England’s roads, and Lennon was inspired to make it a little more psychedelic.
“Chelsea Hotel #2” by Leonard Cohen
The 1974 Leonard Cohen album New Skin for the Old Ceremony contains one of the most memorable of his early songs, “Chelsea Hotel #2”. In it, he describes in surprising detail a one-night stand with a woman he would later reveal was rock star Janis Joplin. The Chelsea Hotel in New York had been a famous temporary residence for itinerant artists ever since Mark Twain had stayed there.
Cohen used to love regaling his audience not only with the song (which is explicit enough) but with the story and name behind it. Eventually, he would come to repent the “locker room” mentality that caused him to kiss and tell. He felt it was wrong to associate Joplin’s name with what he had done, and he apologized, so to speak, to “her ghost.” In 1968 it was far from given that Leonard Cohen would ever be a legend in the music industry. His one album at that point had not sold very well, and he was already older than many established stars. That was when he started staying at the storied Chelsea Hotel. Who knows; maybe between the ambiance and Janis Joplin, he got the inspiration he was looking for.
“Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton
Pattie Boyd was still married to former Beatle George Harrison when Harrison’s friend and fellow rock superstar Eric Clapton met and fell in love with her. After Clapton finally won her over and made her his own wife, he wrote the dreamy smooth ballad “Wonderful Tonight” for her. They say the song was inspired by Clapton watching Boyd one evening getting ready to go out to an annual musical memorial for Buddy Holly. “Wonderful Tonight” can be seen as a sequel of sorts to “Layla,” which Clapton wrote for Boyd when she was still married to Harrison.
Pattie Boyd was married to George Harrison from 1966 until 1977. After leaving him for Eric Clapton, she was married to the latter from 1979 until 1989. She divorced Clapton after his numerous infidelities led to the birth of a son with one of his mistresses. She married her third husband in 2015.
“Philadelphia Freedom” by Elton John
Rock star Elton John and tennis star Billie Jean King made for an unlikely friendship, but a deep and lasting friendship they nevertheless forged. John asked his longtime songwriting partner and lyricist Bernie Taupin to help him write a song in her honor, to be called “Philadelphia Freedom” after her professional tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms. Taupin claimed he had no idea how to write a song about tennis. In the end, Taupin wrote a song about life, and every listener simply filled in the meaning in their own head about what the song meant to them. The song was a smash number-one hit single.
Over the years, Elton John and Billie Jean King have leveraged their friendship and their respective fame to create a major philanthropic movement that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for HIV/AIDS causes and LGBT rights causes as well.
“Candle in the Wind” by Elton John
Elton John first released “Candle in the Wind” in 1974 as a memorial to Marilyn Monroe. Almost a quarter-century later, when his good friend Diana Princess of Wales, died in an automobile accident, John was inconsolable. He discussed with his longtime writing partner and lyricist Bernie Taupin the possibility of adapting their classic song in memory of Diana. Within a few days, the new version was ready. He performed it at Diana’s funeral, and a studio version was released. It was not only more successful than the original version but indeed went on to become one of the best-selling singles of all time, behind only “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby. It captured the imagination and hearts of people worldwide who had just lost one of the most beloved public figures of the century.
Elton John has been one of the most popular performers in the world for nearly half a century. Together with his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin he has written hundreds of songs, including dozens of smash hit singles, making him one of the highest-selling musicians of all time. But who would have imagined that his greatest success would come from a revision of one of his oldest songs?