12 great songs about other singers

Is there any joy greater than when your favourite band drops in a reference to your other favourite band? Here are 12 songs that do just that…

Camera Obscura – ‘Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken’

Back in 1984, Lloyd Cole asked ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?’ on his seminal Rattlesnakes. Twenty-two years later, Scottish indie poppers Camera Obscura answered in the affirmative on this superb Motown-inflected jangler. Admittedly, it’s less about Lloyd himself than it is about finding a song that perfectly represents your current situation.

Bob Dylan – ‘Song To Woody’

One of the verifiable parts of Dylan folklore is that he travelled to New York from his native Minnesota and visited with Woody Guthrie while the great folk singer was dying in hospital. For all Dylan’s love of subterfuge and obfuscation, the song he wrote for his hero is stark, raw and personal. Even as he’s singing it, he seems to doubt whether he deserves to. Time would quickly answer that question.

Cat Power – ‘Song To Bobby’

Chan Marshall (who appears as the subject of another song further down the list) underscores that desperate need to tell your hero just how much they mean to you. Affecting Dylan’s own inflections as she drops in references to the songs she loves, Marshall pole vaults over every awkward “OhmyGodIloveyousomuch” encounter with a truly lovely song. Such soul-bearing earnestness should be uncomfortable to witness, but nobody else makes vulnerability so relatable.

The Replacements – ‘Alex Chilton’

Big Star never got the success they deserved, but their influence has a half-life beyond Twinkies and cockroaches. Paul Westerberg of The Replacements could relate to that. He himself was a devotee of the band and their frontman Alex Chilton, writing this song to his hero that The Replacements then recorded in the same studio where Big Star created their three albums. The chorus of “I’m in love/What’s that song?/I’m in love/With that song” is apparently what a flustered Westerberg said to Chilton when they first met.

Jonathan Richman – ‘Velvet Underground’

How in the world were they making that sound? The beauty of Richman’s hero-worshipping song is how utterly Richman-esque it is, right up until it suddenly becomes utterly Velvets-esque. But probably the best thing about ‘Velvet Underground’ is that it contains the most perfect summation of the band’s sound: “Bold and brash/sharp and rude/like the heat’s turned off and you’re low on food”.

Dntel – ‘(This Is) The Dream Of Evan And Chan’

Ben Gibbard (also of Death Cab For Cutie) wrote this song about a dream he had involving Evan Dando of The Lemonheads and Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power). It’s beautifully true to the dream logic, down to the incongruous details. In it, Ben stirs his drink, while Chan hold him close and Evan runs through “every song from 1993”. True to every interesting dream, the whole scene is shattered by the telephone ringing.

LCD Soundsystem – ‘Daft Punk Is Playing At My House’

Daft Punk didn’t play at James Murphy’s house. Instead, the song came from an idea the LCD Soundsystem frontman had to cross pollinate his love of house music and DIY punk shows by filming Daft Punk playing in his basement, next to the kegs and washing machine. The video also pays homage to the French duo, riffing on ‘Around The World’ and ‘Da Funk’.

Kevin Morby – ‘1234’

Morby’s motivation for ‘1234’ was simple: to write a song dedicated to one of his favourite bands, The Ramones. After listing the names of the now-deceased original members of the band, Morby also gets in a tribute to Jim Carroll, quoting his song ‘People Who Died’ in the final line: “They were all my friends and they died”.

U2 – ‘Angel Of Harlem’

Though she’s never actually named in the lyrics, U2’s soaring ‘Angel Of Harlem’ is about the great Billie Holliday. On U2’s first visit to New York, they were picked up by a limo and as they drove into the city, “Lady Day” came on the radio. Bono immortalised this evocative moment in the song which U2 then recorded at the famous Sun Studios in Memphis with help from the Memphis Horns and legendary producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement.

Teenage Fanclub – ‘Gene Clark’

It’s no secret that Teenage Fanclub are a little bit partial to The Byrds and thus unsurprising that they would dedicate a song to that band’s tragic talent, Gene Clark. Gerry Love’s song draws a line from Clark’s country rock through Neil Young’s squalling feedback to the band’s own grungey power pop, as much a sonic tribute as a thematic one.

Leonard Cohen – ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’

Again, Cohen never mentions anyone by name but it’s pretty much undisputed that he’s singing about Janis Joplin. It’s unlikely there’s a song in existence that is made sadder by its blunt honesty, especially given that Cohen wrote it after Joplin’s death. He doesn’t sugar coat a single word, quoting Joplin as saying: “We are ugly but we have the music.” It’s the last verse that really cuts though: “I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best/I can’t keep track of each fallen robin/I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/That’s all, I don’t even think of you that often”.

Pavement – ‘Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence’

As tempting as it is to include Pavement’s Rush-referencing ‘Stereo’ (“What about the voice of Geddy Lee, how did it get so high?”), ‘…Picket Fence’ is more fitting for this list. Stephen Malkmus specialises in the opaque, but it’s pretty clear here that he’s paying tribute to the great R.E.M., listing all his favourite songs from the band’s second album, Reckoning, before admitting that he doesn’t really care for ‘Time After Time’.