Most great songs also have a great backstory—but the tragic or funny or drug-fueled origin stories surrounding these rock classics simply aren't true.
1. "LOVE ROLLERCOASTER"
The Legend: Known as the "Ohio Slayers" rumor, the faint scream heard midway through the song "Love Rollercoaster" was the cover model from the Ohio Players's Honey album being stabbed to death in the studio (or being burned by heated honey).
The Truth: That particular vocalization was keyboard player Billy Beck trying to hit a Minnie Riperton-style high note. The model in question, Ester Cordet, was a former Playmate of the Month who was provocatively drizzling honey into her mouth on the album cover. She is reportedly alive and well and has been married for many years to motivational guru Robert Ringer (whom she met at a party at the Playboy Mansion).
2. "IN THE AIR TONIGHT"
The Legend: The haunting 1981 hit was written by Phil Collins after he witnessed a man drowning. He was too far away to offer assistance, but he saw another man sitting idly by on the shore. The man could have easily reached the swimmer, but didn’t even try to help. Years later, after some clever detective work, Collins located the bystander and invited him to a concert, giving him a front row seat. He then had a spotlight shine on him when he performed this song to publicly humiliate him.
The Truth: Collins wrote “In the Air Tonight,” and many of the other songs on his first solo album, Face Value, while alternately depressed and angry over his disintegrating marriage. His first wife, Andrea, was reportedly fed up with his constant touring and had taken the couple’s two children and fled back to her native Canada, where she eventually filed for divorce.
3. "AMERICAN PIE"
The Legend: The private plane that Buddy Holly chartered on February 3, 1959 ("the day the music died") was named American Pie, which is what inspired Don McLean to write his number one hit.
The Truth: The single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza that Holly chartered in Iowa had no name, just a registration number (N3794N). It crashed shortly after takeoff, killing everyone aboard including Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (a.k.a. The Big Bopper). McLean had a paper route at the time and years later would remember cutting open a bundle of papers and seeing a headline about the deadly crash. He came up with the line “the day the music died” and proceeded to compose one of the most over-analyzed tunes ever.
4. "PUFF THE MAGIC DRAGON"
The Legend: The Peter, Paul and Mary hit that sounds like a childlike nursery rhyme is actually written all in code and is about smoking marijuana.
The Truth: “Puff” obviously refers to toking; Jackie Paper means rolling papers; Honah Lee was a sly nod to Hanalei, a Hawaiian village known for its potent pot… It was all too obvious to those in the know, right? Wrong. Leonard Lipton, a freshman at Cornell University in the spring of 1959, read a poem by Ogden Nash about a dragon at the campus library. Walking back to the dorms to meet his friend Peter Yarrow, he thought to himself that he could write a better poem about a dragon, and proceeded to weave a story of the end of childhood innocence via a magical character named Puff. Yarrow set Lipton’s poem to music, and “Puff” reached number two on the Billboard chart in 1962. About the weed rumors, both Lipton and Yarrow emphatically assert that “at Cornell in 1959, no one smoked grass.”
5. "ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST"
The Legend: Queen was secretly encouraging fans to smoke weed—just play the chorus to “Another One Bites the Dust” backwards and you’ll hear Freddie say “it’s fun to smoke marijuana.”
The Truth: Ever since someone decided to ruin their phonograph needle and play the Beatles’s “Revolution 9” backwards (“turn me on, dead man”), folks have been finding secret messages that artists have been allegedly hiding in their songs. How a backwards, garbled message would inspire millions of fans to seek out their neighborhood dealers is unclear, but what is patently ridiculous is that anyone would believe that Queen (or any artist other than Pat Boone) would go to such great lengths in 1980 to conceal a comment about marijuana. Also, Queen's label's spokesperson continues to deny any backmasking in the song.
6. "LOUIE, LOUIE"
The Legend: The lyrics to this Kingsmen garage classic are obscene, and could be clearly heard if you played the single on 33 1/3 rpm instead of 45.
The Truth: “Louie, Louie” was written by L.A. singer/songwriter Richard Berry in 1956 and became a local hit on the Pacific coast a year later. The lyrics, about a Jamaican sailor lamenting to a bartender how much he misses his girl, are written in Pidgin English (“Me see Jamaica moon above, it won’t be long me see me love”), which made them a bit hard to decipher in the first place. Add to that the inferior recording equipment in the studio used for the quicky-single, and the words became even more garbled. The rumor about the naughty lyrics had such legs, however, that the FBI even got involved after many parents complained to the Bureau about FCC regulations and obscenity laws. J. Edgar Hoover and his boys ultimately concluded (after a 30-month investigation) that they were “unable to interpret” any of the words on the record.
This piece originally ran in 2013.