Diss Tracks of Classic Rock: Before Hip Hop

Music expresses a lot of emotions. Some happy, some sad, and some angry. If you’ve been reading my blog or following me online for a while, you’ll know that I relate almost everything to classic rock. Recently I’ve been on a bit of a hip hop and rap kick thanks to Hip Hop Family Tree, Straight Outta Compton, and The Get Down. When I was a kid I liked rap, but I took a bit of a break from it for a while and it took me a few years to rediscover the genre and its roots. My brother (a huge hip hop fan) was playing the Ice Cube song “No Vaseline” in the car. What first attracted my attention was the sampling of “Dazz” by Brick, a 70s funk song. But it also got me thinking, did classic rockers have their own diss tracks before they were called diss tracks? Of course! The diss track has existed as long as music has. People express their anger and like to throw jabs at each other in creative ways. I’ve talked about rap and disco and its crossovers in classic rock, but let’s go specific into one topic – diss tracks.

You Keep Her (1962): One of the most famous music beefs was between James Brown and Joe Tex. It was not an exaggerated one. Joe Tex wasn’t being discreet with his anger towards James Brown in this song, mentioning his name a lot in the song. The song is about how Joe Tex’s girlfriend left him for James Brown. If you want more information on the feuds between Joe Tex and James Brown, check out this article.

Like a Rolling Stone (1965): Not exactly towards anyone (although some critics say it’s about an ex-girlfriend), but the lyrics in this song are confrontational. One of the most influential songs of all time.

Positively 4th Street (1965): This song was a hit for Bob Dylan, reaching #1 in Canada and breaking the top 10 in the US and UK. There are theories that this song is about criticism that Bob Dylan received for changing his musical style from a more acoustic sound to electric. A very classy way to say “f-you” to the haters.

Helter Skelter (1968): Not exactly a diss track, but The Beatles wanted to prove to The Who that they could make a louder, noisier song than “I Can See For Miles”. Could this be one of the first metal songs? Not only did Paul McCartney want to compete with The Who, he also wanted to prove to critics he was more than just a pop songwriter.

Only A Northern Song (1969): George Harrison is thought of as the quiet one. I, and many others, also think of him as the overlooked one. A lot of credit is given to Lennon and McCartney. On most of The Beatles albums you’ll find mostly Lennon-McCartney compositions, with only one or two Harrison compositions at most (exception: Revolver, with three George Harrison penned songs and Let it Be had two George Harrison songs, with one written by the entire band). George Harrison expressed his displeasure towards Northern Songs, the Beatles’ publishing company, with “Only A Northern Song”. Interestingly enough, this song was cut from the Sgt Pepper album, but was put on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack.

Victoria (1969): Ray Davies wrote this satirical song about the Victorian era of Britain, when society was prudish, colonisation was in full swing, and there was rampant economic inequality. The narrator of the song is a poor guy who talks about life during the era, with sex being obscene and rich people with their stately homes playing croquet. The man says he will fight for his country and his queen. The end of the song mentions some of the countries (save Cornwall, that’s a county in England, but there is an independence movement there) that were British colonies at the time: Canada, India, Australia, Cornwall, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Then the song goes “From the rich to the poor, Victoria loved them all,” which I think is a very sarcastic line. Some people instead heard it as “Victoria fucked them all”. It’s up to you to interpret it. Maybe it was ambiguous for a reason.

Too Many People (1971): Paul McCartney felt that John Lennon and Yoko Ono were being too preachy and wrote a couple of trash talking lyrics about them in the song. He felt tired of being bossed around. It was the B-side to “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”. One great moment in the song is the guitar solo.

How Do You Sleep? (1971): John Lennon wrote this song as a response to the Paul and Linda McCartney song “Too Many People”. As you can see, there was definitely some bitterness after the breakup of The Beatles. Aside from the emotion behind the song, there are many famous names in the credits of this song from George Harrison playing slide guitar to Alan White (who would later be in Yes) playing drums to Klaus Voormann playing bass to session musician Nicky Hopkins playing Wurlitzer electric piano. Overall a great song with a bit of a psychedelic and hard rock sound. You decide which Beatles solo song won in this beef.

Wah Wah (1971): George didn’t just stop at “Only a Northern Song”. He was the underestimated and underrated Beatle and was tired of being dismissed as the baby of the band and wanted to have more of his own songs on The Beatles albums so he let out all his frustration on his solo album, All Things Must Pass, easily one of the best Beatles solo albums. The Let It Be sessions were a time when he felt undervalued. Wah-wah has two meanings, headache and for the guitar effect. On the same album, “Isn’t It a Pity” was also written about the breakup of The Beatles.

Believe It Just Like Me (1972): This Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs song was a diss track to Australian radio stations preferring to play music from the UK and US to music from their own country. Similar idea to Bob Seger’s “Rosalie.” It’s a kind of cultural cringe (a term coined in Australia) – internalised beliefs that cause people to dismiss their own country’s culture as inferior to that of overseas.

You’re So Vain (1972): Pretty obvious what this song is about, just looking at the title, but it isn’t as obvious who the song is about. Carly Simon has not revealed much about who she had in mind when she was writing the song, except for one verse being about Warren Beatty. The mystery is what makes this song relatable to so many people.

Glamour Boy (1973): Hard/psychedelic rock band The Guess Who wrote this diss track towards the glam scene that was getting a lot of attention in the early 70s. Some people think that the song particularly mocks David Bowie, Elton John, and Alice Cooper. I can even hear some Elton John influences in the sound of this track. Some hard rock fans dismiss glam rock as just gender bending, but in actuality, some glam rock acts really know how to put on a show.

Rosalie (1973): Don’t be fooled, this is not a positive song about the Canadian radio legend that is Rosalie Trombley. Bob Seger actually wrote it out of frustration because as music director of CKLW, a Windsor radio station with a significant portion of listeners in Detroit, she snubbed his songs.

Smooth Dancer (1973): The lyrics in this Deep Purple song are about Ritchie Blackmore. Ian Gillan and Ritchie Blackmore did not get along very well and Gillan would leave the band after Who Do We Think We Are was recorded. Ian Gillan wrote this as a diss track towards Ritchie Blackmore. The “Black suede don’t mean you’re good for me/ Black suede just brings your mystery” lyric is a reference to Richie Blackmore’s dress sense. Plenty of insults in this hard rock diss track.

Flick of the Wrist (1974): Freddie Mercury wrote multiple diss tracks? Yup! Before the biting “Death on Two Legs”, he wrote “Flick of the Wrist” – what people call a precursor. It was part of a 3 song medley, in between “Tenement Funster” and “Lily of the Valley”. The song is interpreted to be about Queen’s former manager Norman Sheffield or about the greed of the music industry and record labels. During this time, the band were broke, far from living like glamorous rock stars.

Sweet Home Alabama (1974): Lynyrd Skynyrd made this song in response to Neil Young’s songs “Southern Man” and “Alabama”. Those two songs were about racism in the south. Alabama was where a lot of the Civil Rights movement took place. You’ve probably heard of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and Martin Luther King leading a march from Selma to Montgomery. The band felt that Neil Young generalised the region they were from (interestingly enough, none of the band members were from Alabama – the band formed in Jacksonville, Florida) and the people from the region, and from that came their biggest hit. Here is some information on the meaning of the song and an analysis of the lyrics. The band didn’t think that the south was perfect, but they believed that the north had their own issues and shouldn’t be so quick to criticise the south.

Death on Two Legs (1975): Freddie Mercury was not happy with his band’s original manager, Norman Sheffield, and wrote some brutal lyrics attacking him (without mentioning his name) in the opening track of the A Night At The Opera album. It is very obvious in the lyrics that Mercury was accusing Sheffield of being greedy and that there were alleged financial disputes. Sheffield sued the band for defamation and there was a settlement, but the legal actions brought more attention to him.

Someone Saved My Life Tonight (1975): Elton John wrote this song about real life events in 1968, before he was a household name. He was engaged to Linda Woodrow, but he was not feeling good about it, to the point of thinking of suicide. He felt that married life would trap him. His friend Long John Baldry, called sugar bear in the song, told him to break off the engagement and work on his music career. The diss towards Linda can be found in the lyrics: “You almost had your hooks in me didn’t you dear/ You nearly had me roped and tied/ altar-bound, hypnotised” and “I never realised the passing hours of evening showers/ A slip noose hanging in my darkest dreams/ I’m strangled by your haunted social scene/ Just a pawn out-played by a dominating queen”.

Rumours (1977): Fleetwood Mac’s new lineup in 1975 were five band members and there were two couples: Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, and John and Christine McVie. The relationships quickly fell apart by 1976-1977 and what resulted? The classic album, Rumours. Many of the songs were written about each other. Some that might be considered diss tracks are “Go Your Own Way” (about Stevie Nicks leaving Lindsey Buckingham), “Don’t Stop” (about Christine McVie’s breakup with John McVie), and “The Chain” (about the breakups in general).

Barracuda (1977): One of the hardest Heart songs of that era and the memorable first song of the album Little Queen. This song was written because of an advertising scandal with the record company and the attention it lead to. For those who don’t know, the Dreamboat Annie album cover had Ann and Nancy Wilson sitting back to back shirtless and the record label ran with that and had a tabloid like ad of the two sisters with the phrase “it was only our first time” as a caption under a picture of them from the same album cover photoshoot. A man harassed Ann Wilson at a concert meet and greet asking her how her “lover” was. She at first understood it was the man asking about her boyfriend, but he was really asking about her sister.

God Save The Queen and New York (1977): A lot of punk rock songs are about rebellion and this is one of the best known punk songs that is against the government. With iconic lyrics, it’s no wonder it’s stuck with us for decades and is still talked about.Just a few iconic lyrics in the song: “no future”, “…she ain’t no human being”, and “And our figurehead is not what she seems”. Contrary to popular belief, the song had nothing to do with the Silver Jubilee. The band wrote the song about the working class being fed up with the monarchy screwing them over. As you can imagine, the song was censored in the media and there was a famous incident where the band tried to play the song on a boat on the River Thames. If you’re looking for a song that would better fit the definition of diss track, there’s the song “New York”, which talked trash about the New York Dolls (see what I did there? they had a song called “Trash”).

Prince of the Punks (1977): A few years before the song was written, Ray Davies saw Tom Robinson performing and was so impressed he signed his band Café Society to his record label, Konk Records and produced their first and only album. The album flopped, only selling 600 copies.

Later, the Tom Robinson Band saw Ray Davies walk into their gig at the Nashville Rooms in London and then started playing The Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting For You” sarcastically. Ray Davies hit back with a diss track about Tom Robinson, “Prince of the Punks”: insulting his appearance, calling him a phoney, a wannabe, and uncool.

The opening lyrics:

“A well known groover, rock ‘n’ roll user
Wanted to be a star
But he failed the blues, and he’s back to loser
Playing folk in a country bar”

Tom Robinson was openly gay in the 70s, so there’s no question this song is about him. Here are lyrics that allude to it:

“He’s the prince of the punks and he’s finally made it
Thinks he looks cool but his act is dated

He tried to be gay, but it didn’t pay
So he bought a motorbike instead
He failed at funk, so he became a punk
‘Cause he thought he’d make a little more bread”

Don’t Take No For An Answer (1978): One of Tom Robinson Band’s biggest hits and a could be considered response to Ray Davies’ diss track. As you read above, Tom Robinson was signed to Ray Davies’ label and released one album through that label, which was a flop. Ray Davies was flaky throughout the recording of that album and Tom Robinson felt like Ray did him dirty.

The song basically tells the story of that time from Tom’s point of view. He was at the beginning of his music career and naive, didn’t know much about the industry. During that time, he was broke and because of that he couldn’t do much. On his website, you can find out more about the story of this song.

Here My Dear (1978): Not just a song, it was an entire album Marvin Gaye wrote about his divorce with Anna Gordy Gaye and his frustration with the divorce. Unlike a lot of Marvin Gaye’s earlier albums, he was the sole songwriter on most of the songs. My favourite tracks on the album are “Anger”, “Is That Enough”, “Time To Get It Together”, and “A Funky Space Reincarnation”.

Punk is Dead (1978): A diss track towards the mainstream punk bands like The Clash that helped commercialise punk, changing it from its core meaning, to be against the establishment, and turning it into something vapid. Notably in the song, they accused The Clash of hating the corporate machine, but still making profit off of it because they were signed to CBS Records (although they hated being signed to them). They make comparisons between the punk and hippie subcultures and how they were commodified. Crass also attacked Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, saying that he would preach all this anarchy talk just to make money off it because it’s the flavour of the month. They also attacked Patti Smith, basically calling her a Rimbaud ripoff.

Crass didn’t have the success of The Clash or The Sex Pistols, so it’s understandable why they wrote this song out of frustration.

Teenage Wildlife (1980): David Bowie wrote this diss track about new wave musician Gary Numan, who took a lot of inspiration from Bowie’s more experimental albums like Low. In an interview, Bowie said that Numan was repetitive in sound. One key lyric in the song is:

“A broken-nosed mogul are you. One of the new wave boys, same old thing in brand new drag comes sweeping into view, As ugly as a teenage millionaire, pretending it’s a wiz-kid world.”

Boy George said one of his favourite lyrics ever is “as ugly as a teenage millionaire”. Reminds me of a read on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The KKK Took My Baby Away (1981): One interpretation of this song is that Joey Ramone wrote it about his conservative bandmate Johnny Ramone, who used to make fun of him for being Jewish. Johnny Ramone dated and later married Linda, who used to be Joey’s girlfriend. Joey’s brother, Mickey, disagrees with that interpretation and says that it’s about when he dated a black woman and her parents did not approve of the relationship. It’s up to you to decide which interpretation makes the most sense to you.

Back Chat (1982): Freddie Mercury wasn’t the only one in Queen to write a diss track, many fans believe. One interpretation of this funky John Deacon-penned song is that it’s about Brian May. Hot Space was a polarising album among fans and even the band members. John Deacon loved funk music and wanted to take Queen in that direction, Freddie Mercury was cool with going in that direction too. As for Brian and Roger? They hated it and wanted to do rock music. There were arguments within the band.

Bullshit Crass (1982): A diss track towards punk band Crass. Pretty straightforward and doesn’t pull any punches with its opening line: “Fight Crass, not punk”.

Money For Nothing (1985): This Dire Straits song is sung from the point of view of a macho guy mocking the feminine rock stars he sees on MTV who get laid and get lots of money just for playing rock music. The music video for this song was the first to be played on MTV Europe, when it premiered in 1987. This song’s message is “fuck male chauvinism”. Some people have accused the song of being homophobic because of one lyric that uses a homophobic slur, but I think those critics miss the point. The song is to parody and point out how ridiculous these toxic homophobic attitudes and machismo.

She Belongs to Me (1986): Allegedly Joey Ramone wrote this song about how Johnny Ramone “stole” his girlfriend Linda. Their relationship was strained.

Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance to Anything) (1987): Another punk rock diss track, this time mocking/parodying drum machine heavy synthpop and new wave acts like The Communards, Public Image Ltd, The Smiths, and Depeche Mode and taking some of those influences in the sound of the song. Basically calling that genre of music and its fans vapid, and generic.

Letter to a Fanzine (1987): College rock band Great Plains parody the hipster-esque attitudes seen in these college radio stations.

Amarok (1990): Virgin had humble beginnings in the 70s. Richard Branson and Nik Powell ran a small record shop that specialised in krautrock imports called Virgin Records and Tapes on Notting Hill Gate in London. The name came from how they were virgins in business.

From there, they started their own label and the first artist to be signed to the label was a young multi-instrumentalist named Mike Oldfield, who brought the label success with his famous, critically acclaimed album, Tubular Bells. Over the next decade and a half, his relationship with the label was strained because of disagreements over royalties and poor marketing of his music.

To fulfill contractual obligations, Mike Oldfield had to release two more albums and Amarok was one of them. This album was his revenge album to get back at them for the lack of support. The album is made up of just one 60 minute long track, “Amarok”. You thought Jethro Tull were hardcore for making a 43 minute long song/album called “Thick as a Brick”? Mike Oldfield beat them!

Hidden inside this song is a Morse Code sequence that spells “Fuck off RB”, RB being Richard Branson. A £1000 prize was offered to whoever could find that Morse Code diss first. The message can be heard 48 minutes in.

In 1991, his contract with Virgin ended and in a power move, he released the album Virgin wanted him to release, Tubular Bells II, but through a different record label.

Heaven’s Open (1991): A goodbye to Virgin Records! Free at last! The last thing you hear on the closing track, “Music From the Balcony”.

Hatred (A Duet) (1993): It’s no secret that the Davies Brothers hated each other. In this song, Ray writes about how they will never get along with each other.

Shout out to my good friend and Topaz level Patron, Patrick and my friend Matt.

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