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Behind the song title – The real story of Janie, Jane, Baba O’Riley and just what Teen Spirit Smells like

Posted by mandyf on August 23, 2011

What do the bands Black Sabbath, Tommy Tutone, Nirvana, Led Zepplin and The Who have in common? They are all iconic in their own way and they all have at least one hit single with a name that leaves people wondering – “Why did they call it that?” While it is hard to imagine, sometimes the story of how a song came to exist is almost better than the song itself.

The original incarnation of Black Sabbath was known for drugs, mayhem and some pretty good music. Looking at how many rock performers over the past thirty years cite Sabbath as a major influence and there is no denying their impact on the industry. Something else they were known for is song titles that grabbed people’s attention. I mean think about it – “Jack the Stripper“, “Electric Funeral” and “Sabbra Cadabra.” The song title that is almost universally misunderstood however is “NIB.”

From interviews given in support of the release of the Black Sabbath home video, “The Last Supper”, Ozzy Osbourne, Bill Ward and Geezer Butler discussed what NIB means and how it became a song title. Most people read something into “NIB” that simply was not there. In fact, if you are lucky enough to go way back in Sabbathology, the first appearances of the song were as “NIB”, but shortly after “NIB…”. People wanted it to mean something special and someone came up with the idea it stood for “Nativity In Black” according to Bill Ward. The truth is very different.

According to Ward, he and Ozzy, and maybe Geezer had been indulging in some particularly strong opium. Ozzy looked at Ward, who then had a rather long beard, and commented that he looked like a “pen nib.” Geezer commented that perhaps he, or Ozzy as the opium really was that good, began calling Ward “Nibbly.” When they were more or less sobered up and returned to the studio, they realized they were working on an untitled song. When asked what it should be called, Ozzy shouted “NIB” and that really is all there is to the story. No evil undertones, no masked messages. Just some very strong opium, distorted vision, and a pointy beard.

People have loved and requested The Who song “Teenage Wasteland” for years, but the thing that is weird is there is no song by The Who named “Teenage Wasteland.” There is however a song called “Baba O’Riley” that contains the lyric teenage wasteland. It’s a simple mistake people have made for years, but how did a song that uses the phrase teenage wasteland so prominently and powerfully get such a very different title?

Baba O’Riley is the union of two important influences on the members of the Who. “Baba” is a reference to Meher Baba, and Indian mystic and spiritual master, who served as a spiritual guide of sorts for the band. Terry O’Riley was an experimental musician whom Pete Townshend was a big fan of. If you’re a fan of the album “Who’s Next”, you’ll here plenty of O’Riley influenced riffs.

For years people tried to interpret exactly what the Led Zepplin song title “Black Dog” meant. The song definitely has lyrics that are pretty plain in being about a woman – an attractive woman that Robert Plant really seems to want to sex up in the worst kind of way. Taking those lyrics and the title, a load of fans concluded that it must be a story of a black woman Plant fell in love with that “dogged” him by dumping him/breaking his heart/passing on an STD. They aren’t even close. Neither are those who decided that “black dog” must be slang for some kind of kinky sexual perversion. Nyet on that as well. Actually, “Black Dog” was derived from seeing a black Labrador retriever outside of Headley Grange Studios when the album was being recorded.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the song that launched Nirvana into a whole different stratosphere and solidified the grunge movement is a song title that has puzzled people endlessly. Is it some kind of reference to anarchistic behavior? Did it have something to do with drugs as heroin addicts are often a bit lax on the showering routine? Was it nonsense? The answers are: No, no and kinda sorta. A friend of Cobain’s left the Nirvana front man a message spray painted on the wall of his apartment that read “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Still confused?

Teen Spirit was an anti-perspirant sold by Mennen that was targeted towards young women. Also, it was wicked cheap so plenty of broke people were familiar with it. In any case, Kurt’s girlfriend at the time wore Teen Spirit, and the message was just a little jab at Cobain that he smelled like a teenage girl. Cobain thought it sounded edgy and kind of hardcore and dropped his name from it and used the rest as the title of Nirvana’s breakout hit.

In some cases, the origin of titles really are as simple as they seem – but people still get the stories behind them wrong.

The Knack Classic “My Sharona” really is named for a girl named Sharona Averre whom lead singer Doug Fieger had a crush on.

8675309 Jenny by Tommy Tutone was actually written for a girl that he knew – and that was her real phone number. As a joke, he wrote her name and number on the bathroom wall of a motel. He and his bandmates got a kick out of that for years according to an interview he gave WGN Morning News.

Janie’s Got a Gun by Aerosmith is not about any one specific girl named Janie or anything else. It was a name chosen for melodic quality. Steven Tyler said in a Rolling Stone interview:  “I looked over at a Time magazine and saw this article on 48 hours, minute by minute, of handgun deaths in the United States.” He continued: “Then I got off on the child-abuse angle. I’d heard this woman speaking about how many children are attacked by their mothers and fathers. It was f—ing scary. I felt, man, I gotta sing about this. And that was it. That was my toe in the door.”

Jane’s Addiction famous song “Jane Says” (as well as their name to a real degree) was derived from the story of a real life Jane that was a real heroin addict lead singer Perry Farrell knew. In a December 2006 Blender magazine interview, Farrell said: “Around 1984, I rented a big house on Wilton, near Hancock Park, right in the heart of everything good in Hollywood, but the whole neighborhood seemed deteriorated. I deceived the landlord into thinking I was a gay interior decorator rather than a Punk rocker, and one of my housemates was Jane, this strangely beautiful, well-to-do girl who got caught up in the drug scene and fell in love with a dealer named Sergio. Jane was an intellectual and knew how to act aristocratic, even with a needle and a spoon on the table. I’m not sure if the song mythologized the neighborhood – St. Andrew’s Place is nothing special to look at – but I do think it glamorized her life in a way. That was a great time, though. When the landlord found out I wasn’t a gay interior decorator, he came after me with a gun.”

Jackson Browne’s 80’s hit “Lawyers in Love” had nothing to do with materialism or even lawyers- it was about nuclear détente and the manner in which politicians gamble with the lives of millions of innocent people.

The songs we love may not always have titles that mean what we think they do or even the titles we think they do, but it sure is fun to figure out the stories behind what really happened before the tracks were laid.

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