Ashley Davies: Unflattering songs about real people

Jarvis Cocker of Pulp whose Britpop 1990's classic Common People is allegedly a dig at Danae Stratou. Picture: Getty
Jarvis Cocker of Pulp whose Britpop 1990's classic Common People is allegedly a dig at Danae Stratou. Picture: Getty
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THINK twice before annoying a musician – your personal life might end up immortalised in a lyric, writes Ashley Davies.

Imagine if a famous musician wrote a song about you – you’d be immortalised in music and the world would know how thoroughly you’d interfered with his or her heart. You could dine out on it for decades. But imagine if he or she wrote that song while purging some burning negativity, as Nick Cave did on Where Do We Go But Nowhere?, written, it is believed, about his Brazilian ex-wife: “You come for me now with a cake that you’ve made/Ravaged avenger with a clip in your hair/Full of glass and bleach and my old razor blades/O where do we go now but nowhere?”

Ouch, actually, Nicholas. Ouch. Still, that particular woman probably had a hunch that their poisoned union was unlikely to inspire Britain’s next Eurovision entry.

Over the past few days, dashing Greek finance minister Yanis “Say-No-To-Austerity-And-Also-To-Ruddy-Ties-While-We’re-At-It” Varafoukis has been gently responding to suggestions that his wife, Danae Stratou, is the woman who inspired Jarvis Cocker to write Pulp’s 1990s hit, Common People. The Britpop track, a scathing depiction of what we’re now calling class tourism, tells the story of a rich student from Greece asking the working-class narrator to show her how poor people live. In no way can it be described as flattering to her and I know I’d be mortified if anyone thought such a thing of me – let alone mythologised it so cleverly. Cocker, incidentally, has been vague and gentlemanly about the truth, but it is true that Stratou was at St Martin’s College in London at the same time as him. Studying sculpture too: tick. Thirst for knowledge: tick. Probably embarrassed: tick.

Still, for every Girl from Ipanema (Brazilian beauty Helo Pinheiro) or Rosanna (the actress Arquette who inspired Toto’s 1982 cheesy single) who has inspired a song about desire and allure, there’s an individual who has stimulated a songwriter to compose something that has the whiff of slander about it. The most famous example is Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, which is mainly about Warren Beatty (who is indeed so vain that he has actually said the song is about him), though Simon says a handful of other real people contributed to the character she painted.

Courtney Love, lead singer of Hole and widow of Kurt Cobain, seems to have a particular talent for winding people up to the point at which they sit down, write, record and perform unflattering songs about her. She’s something of an anti-muse. Cobain’s former bandmate Dave Grohl supposedly attacked her with his subsequent band Foo Fighters in I’ll Stick Around (“How could it be I’m the only one who sees your rehearsed insanity?”), Gwen Stefani hit back at an insult from Love in Hollaback Girl and Tori Amos is said to have penned Professional Widow about her. Nine Inch Nails have a song about her whose title doesn’t belong in this family newspaper. Ach, Poor Courtney.

If you’re in a relationship with a musician, for pity’s sake try not to break their heart or you’ll never hear the end of it, and neither will their fans. Fleetwood Mac, Taylor Swift and even Abba, for example, have shared with the world the details of breakups and relationship malfeasance in a manner that makes it achingly clear who is being referred to, even if their names aren’t actually used. A young American musician by the name of John Mayer – whose oeuvre, I must confess, has altogether passed me by – says he was “humiliated” by Swift’s song about him, Dear John. It includes the lines: “Dear John, I see it all, now it was wrong/ Don’t you think 19 is too young to be played by your dark twisted games, when I loved you so?” Those are harsh words and no doubt Swift’s vast army of adoring fans will have very real concerns for Mr Mayer’s standing in the community as a result.

Professional gripes are fertile ground too. (I’ve written my own biting ballad about a colleague but have left clear instructions for it not to be released until after my death.) In How Do You Sleep? John Lennon supposedly launches a full-on assault on former bandmate Paul McCartney. While he doesn’t mention him by name, he does say: “So Sergeant Pepper took you by surprise”, and “A pretty face may last a year or two/But pretty soon they’ll see what you can do/The sound you make is muzak to my ears/You must have learned something in all those years.” That must’ve stung, even if Lennon later claimed the jibe was directed at himself. Yeah, nice try, John. Some also claim the song is a response to McCartney’s earlier song, Too Many People, which is said to criticise Lennon and Yoko Ono for being too controlling.

Geoff Travis, head of Rough Trade Records, reputedly got himself referred to in The Smiths’ Frankly Mr Shankly after a dispute over finances and Morrissey’s desire to leave the label. I’m not sure which line is less complimentary: “Oh, I didn’t realise you wrote such bloody awful poetry, Mr Shankly” or “Frankly, Mr Shankly, since you ask/You are a flatulent pain in the a**e”.

Family members don’t escape the wrath of aggrieved musicians either. In an early track, Alfie, Lily Allen sings about her brother (now a successful actor whose credits include Game of Thrones) wasting his life away “smoking weed”. It includes the line “I’m trying to help you out so can you stop being a twat.”

Singer songwriter Loudon Wainright is well known for singing about his children, occasionally poking fun at them in an affectionate though vulgar way. But when his daughter Martha realised that the line: “Every time I see you cry you’re just a clone of every woman I’ve known” was about her, she responded with an unambiguously titled song, Bl***y Mother F***ing A**hole. The asterisks are ours, by the way. Those Wainwrights don’t pull their punches.

The world of hip hop is on a different planet when it comes to unflattering depictions of real people. Usually they’re as subtle as Nicky Minaj’s wardrobe and occasionally get people murdered. Still, who needs guns when you’ve got wit and a catchy tune?