Top 11 Songs About Fame

Frank MastropoloCategories:Latest NewsTop 11

Rock Cellar Magazine

“Fame attracts lunatics.”

— Elton John

  1. “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles

Trevor Horn, Geoff Downes and Bruce Woolley wrote “Video Killed the Radio Star,” a nostalgic look back at the early days of television. Woolley left to start his own band, Camera Club, in 1979 and was first to record the song. Horn and Downes soon released the tune as the Buggles. “We started as the Bugs — studio insects,” Downes recalled in The Guardian, “but when Trevor said, ‘We’ll never be as big as the Beatles,” I said, ‘So let’s call ourselves the Buggles.”

“I’d been writing advertising jingles up to that point,” said Downes. “We stayed up for nights experimenting with different sounds. We wanted to cram as many ideas as we could into a pop song. My jingles career helped, because you have to get everything across quickly. Bruce tried to stop our version of ‘Video’ and released his more straightforward before ours, but it wasn’t a hit. Ours is a more complex, modern-sounding pop song.”

“The original idea was that the Buggles — a robot Beatles —would never be seen, but once we had a hit we were as anonymous as an explosion,” added Horn. “My outsize glasses in the video were inspired by Elvis Costello’s. I came out of the opticians with these big specs and said to Geoff, ‘I’m a Buggle now.’”

“Video Killed the Radio Star” was the first video shown on MTV on its debut Aug. 1, 1981.

  1. “Lodi” by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Lodi is a small agricultural city in California about 70 miles from where Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty grew up. Fogerty’s song of a musician unable to raise enough money to leave town and achieve fame is the basis of “Lodi,” the B-side of 1969’s “Bad Moon Rising.”

“When were there in the ‘60s it was just kinda farmland and marshland and we played in this seedy bar,” CCR drummer Doug Clifford recalled in The Indian Specific. “There were nine people in there including the bartender and they were all big guys, all farmer-type guys, big strong guys who throw bales of hay around like they weighed nothing. We played for four hours and they kept telling us to turn it down. We went to get paid and the guy said, ‘I’m not paying ya.’ 

“It was just the four of us and none of us was near the size of the smallest guy in that room. We knew that if we didn’t get out of there fast that they were going to kick our ass and that really didn’t seem like a good idea.

“That’s what happened, and a song came out of it.”

  1. “Act Naturally” by the Beatles and Buck Owens

“Act Naturally” began as a country tune written by Johnny Russell that became Buck Owens’ first number one country hit in 1963. Russell explained in The Stories Behind Country Music’s All-Time Greatest 100 Songs that it originated when he broke a date with his girlfriend to perform in California in search of fame.

“When she asked me why I was going to L.A., I answered, ‘They are going to put me in the movies and make a big star out of me.’ We both laughed.”

Russell recorded “Act Naturally” but the song had little success until Buck Owens heard Russell’s demo and recorded it in 1963. The Beatles, longtime fans of country and rockabilly music, chose the song for Ringo to record during preparation of the Help! soundtrack (click here to pick up a copy from our Rock Cellar Store). 

Paul McCartney acknowledged in The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions that he and John Lennon “just couldn’t get behind” writing songs for Ringo. “I must admit, we didn’t really, until later, think of Ringo’s songs as seriously as our own. That’s not very kind, but it’s the way it was.”

When it was not included in the film, “Act Naturally” was left off the soundtrack and used as the B-side of “Yesterday.” It has become a staple of Ringo’s tours with his All-Starr Band. In 1989 Ringo recorded a duet of “Act Naturally” with Buck Owens.

“Act Naturally” by Buck Owens and Ringo Starr

  1. “Celluloid Heroes” by the Kinks

“Celluloid Heroes” was included on the Kinks’ 1972 LP Everybody’s in Show-Biz (recently reissued for its 50th anniversary). It was written by Ray Davies in the early 1970s while living in a small apartment off Hollywood Boulevard. That street’s Walk of Fame, lined with stars commemorating famous actors, inspired the song.

“I saw what a poetically tragic place it is,” Davies told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s all there. It’s all on that street. You could be so successful one day and completely forgotten the next. The poison chalice: fame.”

The song touches on the lives of stars like Bette Davis, Bela Lugosi, Rudolph Valentino and Marilyn Monroe: “People who worked and suffered and struggled for fame / Some who succeeded and some who suffered in vain.”

“Here is a place that celebrates stars,” said Davies, “but then you can walk right on them.”

  1. “Juke Box Hero” by Foreigner

“Juke Box Hero,” from Foreigner’s 1981 album 4, was written by singer Lou Gramm and guitarist Mick Jones. The song describes a fan’s rise to fame after he hoped to buy a ticket to a sold-out rock show. 

“That stemmed from an experience that we had, I think it was in Cincinnati,” Jones explained in Songfacts. “We’d gone to the arena for a soundcheck, and it was pouring down rain, and there were a bunch of fans waiting at the door when we went in. 

“When we came back for the show later on, all that was left was one lonely fan, a young guy waiting out there in the rain, soaked to the skin. I thought, well, he’s waiting like five hours here, maybe we’ll take him in and give him a glimpse of what happens backstage at a show.

“And this kid was just mesmerized with everything. I saw this look in his eyes, and I thought, he’s seeing this for the first time, he’s having this experience. And I just imagined what was going through his mind. And I’d been toying with this title, ‘Juke Box Hero,’ I thought it was almost a satire on what we did and how it was perceived from an audience level, and the public. That’s how it originated.”

  1. “The Entertainer” by Billy Joel

“The Entertainer” is Billy Joel’s cynical take on fame and fickle fans. The song was the only single from his 1974 album Streetlife Serenade, the follow-up to his successful Piano Man LP. 

“I did not have enough time to write new material after the Piano Man album came out,” Joel told WNYC. Piano Man made a lot of noise, got a lot of attention paid to it. The record company wanted another follow-up right away. Okay. ‘New album, now.’ But on the road, I haven’t had a chance to write. ‘Nope, need it now.’ I didn’t have any material, and you can hear it.

“I had one song that I thought was okay. ‘The Entertainer.’ I wrote it on a guitar, actually. But that was it. That was probably the one song that I had finished, and boom, I’m in the studio and the clock is ticking.”

Joel admitted to Entertainment Weekly in 2015 that one lyric did not prove to be true. “‘The Entertainer.’ I was wrong about that song, because I sing, ‘I won’t be here in another year if I don’t stay on the charts.’ And here I am, still on the charts. What the f- - - did I know? I thought I was so wise.”

  1. “Shooting Star” by Bad Company

“Shooting Star,” from Bad Company’s 1975 LP Straight Shooter, warns of the role drugs play in the life of a musician. It was written by singer Paul Rodgers, who explained on In the Studio with Redbeard that he was influenced by the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin as well as bandmate Paul Kossoff, who was addicted to drugs and died in 1976.

“I had seen the  way that certain people had gone,” said Rodgers. “It seemed a shame to me … It shouldn’t have to be, in order to be a successful and happy musician, you had to burn yourself out to do so.”

“‘Shooting Star’ started out as the arrangement on the record and it’s developed into a real audience-participation song, just from playing it,” Rodgers told Ultimate Classic Rock. “I picked up on the fact that they love to sing it, so we delve into that and we explore it and we see where it will take us. 

“We come from a generation where the music was very innovative, a lot of it coming out of blues and influenced by blues, the idea was that you would jam on things and you’d try things out. You took a journey and you took a left turn and you experimented live right there in the moment. You know, you’re walking a tightrope and it makes it very challenging and interesting.”

  1. “The Show Must Go On” by Leo Sayer and Three Dog Night

Leo Sayer’s first big hit in the UK was 1974’s “The Show Must Go On.” Co-written with David Courtney, the song became a number four hit in the US when it was covered by Three Dog Night later that year.

“They saw me performing in England and I was dressed as a pierrot, as the whiteface, and they thought, ‘Hang on, here’s something we can grab and make a hit out of,’ Sayer recalled in Rock Cellar. “So they went straight back to the States and they made their own version of it. I just couldn’t believe how banal it was that they walk around like clowns. It was a little like someone takin’ the piss out of me. I didn’t understand how somebody would take an original item like that and claim that it was their own idea in the way that they performed it.”

The last line in the chorus is “I won’t let the show go on.” In Three Dog Night’s version, the line became “I must let the show go on.” “That was the core of the song: Look, he’s not getting into fucking show business,” said Sayer. “And Three Dog Night sang, ‘We must let the show go on.’ So I thought, you bunch of bloody idiots.

“The irony was later on I’m playing at the Troubadour in Los Angeles and I get a visit. Three Dog Night. And they’ve come to thank me for the song. I did a quick head change and I pretended that I was really thrilled that they recorded it and we had a lovely conversation but inwardly I kind of hated them for doing it.”

“The Show Must Go On” by Leo Sayer

“The Show Must Go On” by Three Dog Night

  1. “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits

Dire Straits built on the success of 1979’s “Sultans of Swing” with “Money for Nothing,” a number one hit in 1985. The song was co-written by Mark Knopfler and Sting, who sings the “I Want My MTV” introduction and backing chorus. Sting has said his only contribution to the composition was that one line.

Knopfler told Richard Parkinson of the BBC how he came to write the monster hit.

“It was in New York and I was in a kitchen appliance store. It had a kitchen window display in the window and there’d be a row of microwaves or cookers or things like that and in the back of the store was a big wall of televisions all tuned to MTV. 

“And there was some bonehead who worked for the store, a great big macho guy with a checked shirt and a cap and a pair of work boots, and he’d been delivering stuff at the back. So he was watching MTV and he was saying all these great lines about ‘You know, that ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it,’ stuff like that. And ‘What’s that Hawaiian noises?’ he was saying. I just thought it was so classic that I went and asked for a pen and paper and started writing the lines down.”

  1. So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Starby the Byrds

Roger (then known as Jim) McGuinn and Chris Hillman wrote “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” for the Byrds’ 1967 Younger Than Yesterday album. The cynical look at the pop music industry reached number 27 as a single that year. South African musician Hugh Masekela played trumpet on the track, the first time horns were used on a Byrds record.

The song has been called an indictment of the success of the Monkees, whose hit show debuted in September 1966. McGuinn denied this in a 1974 interview with Best Classic Bands.

“Chris and I knocked off ‘So You Want to Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ in very late 1966 at his house. It really wasn’t about the Monkees. We were looking at a teen magazine, and noticing the big turnover in the rock business, and kinda chuckling about it. 

“A guy was on the cover that we’d never seen before and we knew he was gonna be gone next issue. A funny little song. People didn’t know how to take it. We just meant it as a satire. We got along well and we wrote well.” 

  1. “Fame” by David Bowie

“Fame itself, of course, doesn’t really afford you anything more than a good seat in a restaurant,” David Bowie told Performing Songwriter. “I’m just amazed how fame is being posited as the be all and end all, and how many of these young kids who are being foisted on the public have been talked into this idea that anything necessary to be famous is all right. It’s a sad state of affairs.”

“Fame” became Bowie’s first number one hit in 1975. Bowie co-wrote “Fame” with John Lennon based on conversations they’d had about Bowie’s displeasure with his management company.

“John was the guy who opened me up to the idea that all management is crap,” said Bowie. “That there’s no such thing as good management in rock and roll, and you should try to do it without it.

“It was at John’s instigation that I really did without managers, and started getting people in to do specific jobs for me, rather than signing myself away to one guy forever and have him take a piece of everything that I earn. Usually, quite a large piece, and have him really not do very much.

“You don’t have to end up signing your life away to some fool who’s just there kind of grabbing hold of the coattails.”

Frank Mastropolo is the author of New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock and Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever.

Related Posts