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Who was Dolly Parton talking to when she wrote “I Will Always Love You?” And which power pop ballad was originally written for a vampire musical? You'll learn the answers to those questions and more as Erin (@erincmccarthy) discusses the unlikely origins of 12 popular songs.

This episode of The List Show dives into the strange stories behind pop songs, from the real-life tragedies that led to catchy tunes to the time an imperfect translation gave Britney Spears a hit.
In case you forgot, The List Show is a trivia-tastic, fact-filled show for curious people.

For more of the stories behind the music you know, check out our article on The Strange Origins of 17 Popular Songs:

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Did you know that Elton John’s 1972 song “Rocket Man” was based on a short story by Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451?

Hi, I’m Erin McCarthy, editor-in-chief of, and welcome to The List Show, from my living room. According to co-writer Bernie Taupin, many people assumed that “Rocket Man” was inspired by another hit song about an astronaut: David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” released in 1969.

But it actually harkened back to “The Rocket Man,” from Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story collection The Illustrated Man. The story is narrated by Doug, a young boy whose astronaut father leaves for 3-month stints in space. While the song is sung from the astronaut’s perspective, it matches the story’s themes pretty closely—both men, for example, yearn for their families while in orbit, and struggle with the feeling that they’re leading two separate lives.

The space suit worn by Bradbury’s character probably wasn’t quite as glamorous as Elton John’s typical stage gear, though. And that’s just the first of many surprising and sometimes strange origins of popular songs that I’m going to share with you today. After music producer Clive Davis listened to the as-yet-unreleased first record of a novice rock ‘n’ roller from New Jersey, he had some feedback.

There were “no hits,” he told the musician. “Nothing that could be played on the radio.” So Bruce Springsteen rushed home to Asbury Park and churned out two more tracks: “Spirit in the Night,” which he wrote on the beach, and “Blinded by the Light,” which he wrote on his bed with the help of a good old-fashioned rhyming dictionary. Featuring phrases like curly-wurly and brimstone baritone anti-cyclone rolling stone, it’s basically one big, edgy nursery rhyme. Or rather, a really tough tongue-twister that’s taken me about 4 takes to get right.

Today, there’s even an indie pop band called Go-Kart Mozart, after another memorable expression from the song. The album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N. J., was released by Columbia Records in January 1973, with “Blinded by the Light” as the very first track.

And it did become a hit played all over the radio—just, not Springsteen’s version. Three years after its debut, London-based rock group Manfred Mann’s Earth Band recorded a cover of the song that catapulted to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1977. The next time you find yourself humming The Bangles’ “Manic Monday” at the beginning of a busy week, you can thank Prince.

Not only did he give us decades’ worth of dance bops and unparalleled guitar solos, he also penned the anthem for every bleary-eyed employee wishing their Sunday had never ended. It all started when Prince showed up to a Bangles concert in 1984 and asked to perform their single “Hero Takes a Fall” with them. They were happy to oblige.

Bangles lead singer Susanna Hoffs later told NPR, quote, “It was truly mind-blowing. … It was almost like his guitar was just part of his body. There was no disconnect.” That same year, Prince was helping his female pop trio Apollonia 6 put together their first (and only) album, which was supposed to include “Manic Monday.” But after recording a demo with them, he decided the song wasn’t a good fit, and it stayed on the cutting room floor for two years. When he offered it to the Bangles, it was clear he’d found the perfect fit.

Hoffs, who still has the cassette tape that Prince first played for them, said, quote, “We were smitten with the song.” The Bangles released it as their first single from their second album, Different Light, and it soon climbed to the #2 spot on the pop charts. It never dethroned the reigning #1 of the time, though. That song? “Kiss,” by Prince.

The “Purple Rain” rocker wrote more than a few songs that became mega-hits for other artists in the ’80s and ’90s, including Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You,” Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and Celine Dion’s “With This Tear.” Back in the ’60s, Carole King was also cranking out hit after hit. With the help of her then-husband Gerry Goffin, King wrote “Some Kind of Wonderful” for The Drifters, “One Fine Day” for The Chiffons, and “The Loco-Motion,” which was supposed to be for Dee Dee Sharp. King and Goffin modeled their locomotive-inspired track after Sharp’s 1962 smash hit “Mashed Potato Time,” but for some reason the collaboration never came to be.

Carole King, for her part, suggested that Sharp’s record label wasn’t interested in buying songs from outside talent. What is clear is that the songwriters gave “The Loco-Motion” to their babysitter. Really.

The duo had hired a young Eva Boyd in 1961 on a recommendation from the music group The Cookies, and her job interview ended up being an unofficial music audition, too. When she mentioned she could sing, her future employers invited her to perform a little something on the spot. King told NPR in 2003, quote, “We thought, ‘Oh, this is cool, she’s got a really great voice.

Make note to self.’” Boyd sometimes sang on demos for them, and she recorded the vocals for “The Loco-Motion” demo, too. When Sharp turned it down, music producer Don Kirshner—whom King and Goffin worked for—proposed that they give the song to Boyd, which they did. Though the lyrics imply that “The Loco-Motion” is a line dance, King and Goffin didn’t come up with one while composing it.

That was all Eva, or “Little Eva,” as she came to be known. As King recalled in her memoir A Natural Woman, Little Eva invented the corresponding dance moves for publicity appearances. “The Loco-Motion” ascended the charts in the ’60s … and again in the ’70s … and yet a third time in the ’80s. The success of Grand Funk Railroad’s 1974 version and Kylie Minogue’s late ‘80s rendition pretty much proves that a ride on “The Loco-Motion” is a one-way ticket to the top.

About two years after Minogue’s “Loco-Motion” chugged all over the world, a 40-year-old Billy Joel was brainstorming song ideas in the studio when he met John Lennon’s son Sean, accompanied by a friend who had just turned 21. The young man was complaining about how 1989 was a terrible time to be 21, and an empathetic Joel shared similar feelings about having come of age during the political unrest of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. His new acquaintance didn’t seem to feel like the situations were comparable, telling Joel that it was different for him because, quote “you were a kid in the ’50s, and everybody knows that nothing happened in the ’50s.” “Didn’t you ever hear of, like, the Korean War?” Joel responded. “The Suez Canal Crisis?” He started jotting down all the events that had happened in his lifetime thus far, from 1949 to 1989, and the song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” quickly took shape.

As for whether the Piano Man will ever write a sequel for his rapid-fire history lesson, chances aren’t great—he’s talked openly about how dull he thinks the melody is, comparing it to a “dentist’s drill” and a “mosquito buzzing around in your head.” If “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is the stuff of history, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is the stuff of legend—and not just any legend. Long before it became the magnum opus of ’80s ballad belter Bonnie Tyler, the tune was intended as a “vampire love song.” Composer Jim Steinman told Playbill that “its original title was ’Vampires in Love.’” He was working on a musical adaptation of Nosferatu at the time, because nothing screams “Broadway potential” like German expressionist horror. Steinman is probably best known for penning Meat Loaf’s entire 1977 album Bat Out of Hell (which, ironically, had nothing to do with vampires).

Tyler, blown away by the title track off Meat Loaf’s album, asked her record label to put her in touch with Steinman, who agreed to work with her. At that point, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was only half-written and still called “Vampires in Love,” so Steinman finished it up and handed it over to his new collaborator. Though the Nosferatu production never saw the light of day, Steinman did end up getting a different vampire musical onto a Broadway stage: 2002’s Dance of the Vampires, loosely based on Roman Polanski’s 1967 film The Fearless Vampire Killers.

Act II opened with an eerie, emotional number that most of the audience had likely heard before. Yeah, it was “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Tyler’s powerhouse ballad isn’t the only classic with a Transylvanian backstory. Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” was inspired by a scene from the 1974 Mel Brooks film Young Frankenstein.

In it, a creepy servant named Igor (played by Marty Feldman) meets Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein at the train station and utters “Walk this way” as he hobbles down the stairs. Joe Perry had already come up with the riff and Steven Tyler had started on the lyrics, but they were still looking for a funky refrain to tie it all together.

Most of the band thought “Walk This Way” had the ideal vibe, and they convinced Tyler to center the song around it. Though Tyler did borrow the phrase, he didn’t go so far as to embody the spirit of the spooky, spoofy henchman. “Walk This Way” is rife with thinly-veiled innuendo, and David Johansen of the New York Dolls even said it was “one of the raunchiest songs he ever heard on the radio,” according to Perry (who took it as a compliment). Like “Walk This Way,” most of the Bee Gees’ song titles have a nice ring to them.

Think “Stayin’ Alive,” or “How Deep Is Your Love.” “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” on the other hand, sounds more like something you’d find in the pages of a history textbook than at the top of the music charts. But there’s a reason you never learned about that particular mining disaster in school—because it never happened. In early 1967, band mates (and brothers) Barry and Robin Gibb were sitting in a dark, echoey stairwell at London’s Polydor Records when they came up with a song about a man trapped in a dark, echoey mine.

According to Maurice Gibb, the lyrics were also inspired by a catastrophic mining disaster in Aberfan, Wales, that had occurred just a few months earlier. According to Barry, they chose New York for the titular disaster of their song because, “the name New York is just a little more glamorous than . . . Southampton Mining Disaster 1941 ...

New York held just a little bit more glamour for record buyers.” It’s also possible that the group wanted to distance the song a bit from the source material, since the UK was still reeling from the very recent tragedy. Whatever the case, the song kickstarted the Bee Gees’ international career. Their success may have been related to the fact that some of their songs were quite reminiscent of another popular band from the era: the Beatles.

Some fans thought the Bee Gees actually were the Beatles, and their band name was code for the “Beatles Group.” If you spent the year 1999 with Britney Spears’s debut album on repeat in your portable CD player, you know as well as I do that the album and its titular track are called ... Baby One More Time, not Hit Me Baby One More Time. Spears’s record label made the title more ambiguous because they were worried young listeners would think the teenage pop star was singing about—or even condoning—domestic abuse.

In fact, the lyric may just be the result of a linguistic misunderstanding. It was composed by Swedish songwriters Rami and Max Martin, who reportedly thought that American slang for Call me was Hit me, rather than Hit me up. In other words, Spears should be saying “Hit me up, baby, one more time.” Less catchy, sure, but less questionable, too.

The phrasing didn’t seem to have any impact on the song’s success, though: It sat on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 32 weeks, a personal record for Spears. And without the error, the song may never even have landed in her lap in the first place. Before offering it to Spears, Rami and Martin had tried to give it to TLC, who passed.

In 2013, T-Boz told MTV news, quote, “I was like … ‘I’m not saying ‘hit me baby.” Another song with unintentionally dark undertones is “The Tears of a Clown,” by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. At a Motown Christmas party in 1966, Stevie Wonder gave Robinson a fully recorded instrumental track and asked him for help coming up with some lyrics for it. When Robinson listened to it, the opening notes immediately reminded him of a circus, so he decided to base the song on the story of a lovelorn clown named Pagliacci that he had heard as a kid.

Robinson explained that, quote, “Everybody loved him, and then he went back to his dressing room and he was very sad, because he had all this love, but he did not have the love of a woman.” The narrator of “The Tears of a Clown” follows that same pattern of acting upbeat in public and succumbing to his sorrow behind closed doors. Robinson even mentions Pagliacci in the song, singing “Just like Pagliacci did / I try to keep my sadness hid.” And that isn’t even the first time Robinson penned a couplet along those lines. A couple years earlier, he had co-written “My Smile Is Just A Frown (Turned Upside Down)”, which included the line: “I only laugh to fool the crowd / Just like Pagliacci did / I'll keep my sadness hid.” Clearly, something in the story of Pagliacci spoke to Robinson, but he may have misremembered a few key details about the story.

He might’ve also chosen to elide some details to avoid crafting a more macabre pop song. Pagliacci is an Italian opera that was composed by Ruggero Leoncavallo; it premiered in 1892. Pagliacci actually means clowns in Italian.

In the opera, a man named Canio performs a clown act with his wife, Nedda. As Nedda’s rumored affair reaches the ears of her jealous husband, he becomes more and more enraged, and the story culminates with Canio murdering Nedda and her lover. On stage.

It makes for a more dramatic tale, but it is harder to dance to. Fastball front-man Tony Scalzo knew exactly how morbid his inspiration was for 1998’s “The Way.” He wrote the song after hearing about Lela and Raymond Howard, an elderly couple who had gone missing on their way to a local fiddling festival in Texas. Two weeks after their disappearance, police located their Oldsmobile at the bottom of a roadside cliff in Arkansas, a few hundred miles from their destination, and confirmed that they had died in the crash.

According to some reports, Raymond had recently suffered a stroke and Lela had been showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease, leading officials to assume that they had simply gotten lost. “The Way” imagines a happier story for the ill-fated couple, where “The road that they walk on is paved in gold / And it's always summer, they'll never get cold.” The victims’ family members were touched by what they considered a tribute to their parents. One of Lela’s grandsons told KVUE, quote, “I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe somebody would do something like that for my grandma.

Powerful, very powerful.” “I Will Always Love You” is an iconic breakup song, but songwriter Dolly Parton wasn’t thinking of a romantic relationship when she wrote it. She was trying to split up with her duet partner, Porter Wagoner. After spending seven years as a regular on his syndicated television show, Parton was ready for the next phase in her career.

She knew Wagoner wouldn’t receive the news well, so she decided to deliver it in the best way she knew how: by singing it. She later explained to CMT, quote, “It’s saying, ‘Just because I’m going don’t mean I won’t love you. I appreciate you and I hope you do great and I appreciate everything you’ve done, but I’m out of here.’” When Parton performed the song for him, he said it was “the prettiest song [he’d] ever heard,” and told her that she could leave, as long as she let him produce the record, which she did.

Parton’s version hit #1 on the country music charts in 1974, but it was Whitney Houston’s version for her 1992 film The Bodyguard that turned it into “the song that won’t die” in Parton’s words. “I have to thank Whitney for making me a lot of money with it,” she said at a concert in 2008. Our next episode is all about puberty. Unlike actual puberty, it will only last about 10 minutes, but things might still get a little awkward.

If you want to be featured in that video, leave a comment below with a fun PG-rated-fact about adolescence, in human beings or other animals. Make sure to check back every Wednesday at 3pm for new Mental Floss videos. We’ll see you then!