The Inside Stories of "Africa," "God Only Knows," and Other Songs with Multiple Lives

by Corey O'Flanagan

In this episode of the Songfacts Podcast, we take a deep dive into some classic songs with Steve Baltin, author of Anthems We Love: 29 Iconic Artists on the Hit Songs That Shaped Our Lives. Baltin got his stories directly from the artists who recorded the songs, conducting interviews with the likes of Joe Perry, Brad Delson of Linkin Park, and even the famously elusive Tom Waits.

As fellow song investigators, we're very impressed with Baltin's work. He does a great job tracing the trajectory of these songs and putting them into context. He posits, for instance, that "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" would be too smart for 2022 but was perfect for 1985, the "golden era of political songwriting."

Baltin also explains his process - how he got these artists and songwriters to open up about their songs. Below is the audio and the transcript.

The Concept

I was approached by Harper Horizon about doing a book, and they wanted to do something about how songs were written. I was like, no. Been done a million times and been done well, but for me, who's interviewed everyone over the last 30 years, I always found it fascinating the way that artists talk about how songs, once they go off into the world, they're not theirs anymore. Once you put a song into the world, it becomes the world's. And most artists, 99.5% of artists, do not go back and listen to their own material. So to have them go back and revisit all these songs was immensely interesting to me because it's something they don't typically do.

I gave artists a lot of leeway in selecting songs. So for example, with Lindsey Buckingham, I might have chosen "Go Your Own Way," but he chose "Big Love" because that song was so seminal in his solo career. Hall & Oates, I gave them a listing of several options and Daryl [Hall] chose "Sara Smile," which has become one of my favorite songs out of this book. It's a song I always loved, but I really appreciated it in a different way after this.

Joe Perry, I said, "Dude, you can go 'Walk This Way,' you can go 'Sweet Emotion,' 'Dream On,' any one of those works." And he chose "Walk This Way." With all these artists, they all have multiple songs.

Hit vs. Anthem

All these songs have second lives - the whole point of an anthem is that it has to go on and take on a different life. It's funny, Verdine White talked about "September." The song came out in the late '70s, it was a fill-in on a greatest hits album, became a hit, but it wasn't something that became a big part of the show until later on. In the '90s, it became "September," then they rerecorded it with Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake for Trolls, and it became this massive thing. Look at Toto's "Africa," and with the Weezer cover.

So the difference between a hit and an anthem is the anthem has multiple lives.

"God Only Knows" by The Beach Boys

"God Only Knows" is the greatest pop song ever written. And I will fight on that hill. But funny enough, Al Jardine was like, "Dude, that's not even the signature Beach Boys song. It should be 'Good Vibrations.'" That's how many great songs The Beach Boys have.

But "God Only Knows" is an interesting one because like so many in this book, it wasn't initially appreciated for the genius it was. Of course Pet Sounds is now considered one of the two or three greatest albums of all time, but it won no Grammys, it wasn't at the time hailed as this genius work. And "God Only Knows" is something that over time just developed with people. It's really interesting, all the musicians who love it so much, because that gives it so much of the credibility.

The Beach Boys said it started to become special live right away. I also like the analogy they used talking about the classical component, how it has sort of a "Nutcracker Suite" feel to it. They see an element of the timelessness in it because it has that same element.

"Africa" by Toto

That's one of my favorite stories in the book. There's only one artist in the entire book out of the 29 who admits to trying to write an anthem, and that's Kiss's Paul Stanley with "Rock And Roll All Nite," and it's only because he was given an edict by Casablanca Records' legendary Neil Bogart: You need to write an anthem.

So everybody else had no idea what they were doing. No clue. You write a song, you're like, uh, hopefully, it's good, and you have no clue that it's going to become freaking Toto "Africa." David Paich literally takes it to the band and they're like, "Yeah, dude, that's gonna be really good on your solo album, we're not doing that." And then that song had such an interesting journey well before the whole Weezer thing and all that. I love the fact that that song started on the dance charts. That was such an early world anthem and was way more advanced than people give it credit for. People weren't at that time calling it world music. I don't think it was intended to be world music, it just sort of resonated with people in a way.

It's funny because it's one of those things where literally, they had extra studio time. It's like, "Well, we don't love it, but we're going to see what we can do with it."

U2 talk a lot about this with the song "One" as well. A lot of times you start with the germ of an idea, but when you're in a band, of course, it becomes fleshed out with everybody. So Toto, when they're making the album IV, just had some extra time in studio. They're working on this song and now all of a sudden it becomes something where the band feels like it's theirs as well.

It was all done analog, and he tells a story about there being pieces of tape hanging all around the room.

"Everybody Wants To Rule The World" by Tears For Fears

Roland Orzabal from the band didn't even like it, he didn't wanna finish it. It was his wife who made him finish the song.

I grew up in the '80s, and this song to me represents such a fascinating period. Think about a song like "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" today hitting #1 on the charts. That would never happen in 2022 because it's just too smart for the pop charts. Look at the time it represented. You had a period where U2, REM, Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The USA," these were considered pop hits, so "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" really made me think about the era as a whole. The '80s was a really under-represented golden era for political songwriting, and "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" was at the center of that.

Orzabal said it was originally called "Everybody Wants To Go To War." It was written at the height of the Cold War between Russia and the United States, so that was always in the back of his mind.

Protest Songs

You look at a H.E.R song like "I Can't Breathe." It's very difficult to write a good protest song. I think a lot of the artists today who are very outspoken don't have the skill set to do so, and it's not because they're not great artists. But again, these artists - Tears For Fears, Springsteen, Michael Stipe, Bono - they all grew up on this stuff. They grew up listening to Dylan, Jimmy Cliff, Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" So that stuff is ingrained in them because it was part of their upbringing.

The other thing about it is social media. I love Billie Eilish, but if you're Billie Eilish, you don't need to write a protest song because you have an Instagram base of 80 million people that you can reach out to and deliver your message.

I hosted a podcast for a little bit called People Have the Power, named after the Patti Smith song because it's one of my favorite songs of all time. I would interview everyone from the Chicks and Shepard Fairey to Carlos Santana and Graham Nash on their favorite protest songs of all time. It's a very skillful art and "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" is a perfect example of that because it's a catchy-as-hell pop song. So it's this wonderful pop song that you're listening to in a venue of 20,000 people, you're singing along having no idea that in fact it is, as Orzabal says, all about power struggles. In the same way that "Born In The USA" was so misinterpreted.

Tom Waits!

An outlier among the 29 songs covered in the book is "Take It With Me" by Tom Waits, an obscure song from his 1999 album, Mule Variations. Waits and his songwriting partner (and wife) Kathleen Brennan wrote their own commentary, which Baltin published unedited. Baltin chose the song, which surprised them.

My favorite chapter is the Tom Waits chapter. The craziest thing was getting Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan to write an original chapter, and I have no idea how the hell that happened. I reached out. I love that song, and I was told by their people, it's never gonna happen, he doesn't do anything, doesn't talk to anyone. And then I get a note back saying yes, they're interested in participating, but writing their own chapter.

They actually wrote it as a dialogue to me. Tom Waits is my favorite songwriter of all time, so the fact that this happened is just astonishing beyond belief.

I make the argument that it's a song that can be played at both a wedding and a funeral. That song to me is so detail oriented, so intimate. Look at how intimate an anthem can be. People think of an anthem as like "Free Bird," which is one of the greatest songs of all time. But people think of it as big and this sort of overall thing. And actually, an anthem can be the most intimate detail. So "Take It With Me," similar to both "Our House" and "Sara Smile," has that same intimacy. Like just the detail in that song.

Tom and Kathleen wrote, "We thought you were crazy when you wanted us to write about this song, that there has to be a mistake. But we went back and listened to it and it holds up really well."

There's a difference between commercial artists and musicians' musicians. And let me tell you, when you get Tom Waits to do something, everyone pays attention. I literally had Sammy Hagar walk up to me at a party and be like, "I heard you got Tom Waits..."

Baltin's Interview Process

It's just total stream of consciousness, total conversation. I've done interviews for 30 years, and there was more of a formula to this than there was to any other project I've ever done because there are certain things that you want to hit upon, like iconic live performances. Barry Manilow's story about doing "Could This Be Magic?" at Red Rocks and how that set him on his way to being a performer was utterly fascinating to me.

In the chapter on "Anticipation," Carly Simon talks about how she never planned on being a performer. She had a crush on Cat Stevens. He asked her out and invited her to open for him, and she was like, "Sure." She tells the whole story of how she wrote "Anticipation" waiting for him on a date.

But it's funny because Cameron Crowe, who's a friend and wrote the intro, and was one of the first people to read the book, I asked Carly what she made him for dinner and Cameron was laughing at me. He's like, "How the hell did you think that?" When you want to paint the picture, just as a fan, I think, OK, Carly Simon in 1971 is making dinner for Cat Stevens. What's on that menu? That's the stuff that's fascinating to me.

How great is it that she talks about writing the song while making dinner, and that was one of the first big songs to become a commercial hit when it was used in the Heinz Ketchup ads, which she says she did not want to do. So the song went full circle from dinner to ketchup.

"In The End" by Linkin Park

I spoke with Brad Delson, who's the guitarist for the band. Linkin's interesting, I've known them for many years. Back in 2004, I randomly was invited to come out and do a book with them on the road. They were doing a coffee table book. So I have a long history with them and that probably influenced me a little bit because I got to watch the fans on a nightly basis and realized what this song meant to people. Some people might not consider the song an anthem in the same way that "Light My Fire" or "Rock And Roll All Nite" is, but I would argue yes, 100 percent it is.

I love the stories Brad tells about how they finished the song needing a single in this really sketchy, sketchy rehearsal space in Hollywood where Mike Shinoda, who was one of the writers with Chester [Bennington], was working on it. They went to see him the next morning, not even sure if Mike was still gonna be alive.

It's a song that transcends when it came out, which is also true of the last song in the book, My Chemical Romance's "Welcome To The Black Parade." I saw them twice on their reunion tour. That's the most recent song in the book - it came out in 2006. Gerard [Way] and I spoke about how you've got kids who were not even born when that song came out screaming their freaking heads off for that song in the same way they did for "Stairway To Heaven" and "Bohemian Rhapsody."

An anthem is a song that becomes generational. How it gets discovered, who knows? I spoke with Robby Krieger about that for "Light My Fire." Who is it that says you're 14, here's your first joint and "Light My Fire." I know that I experienced it. Every freaking boy in the history of the world does.

How Songs Become Anthems

There are several ways. One is cover versions. Going back to "Everybody Wants To Rule The World," Roland Orzabal was saying they loved Lorde's version of it so much from The Hunger Games that they used her version to open their live show and then went into their version. So if Lorde, who was 20 at the time, is doing this song, then there's a whole new generation that's hearing it.

Movies are another huge thing. "September," for example, is the closing song in the party scene in Night At The Museum, so now you've got a bunch of six-year-olds who associate the song with being the biggest party song of all time.

Great live performances also get passed down, whether it's awards shows or the Super Bowl, like, "Walk This Way."

Steve's Next Book

Who knows? I've done so many interviews. You just start doing them and you're like, all right, we'll figure it out as we go.

Someone asked me how this ended up at 29. Because U2 took six months to say yes, and when U2 finally says yes, you don't say, "Sorry, I don't have room anymore." You just start doing interviews and as it continues to build, you go with it.

You're obviously a music geek like I am. I think from a music geek standpoint, the second edition is probably even geekier. I talked to Roger McGuinn about "So You Want To Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star," Steve Winwood about "Gimme Some Lovin'," Lynyrd Skynyrd about "Free Bird," Gloria Gaynor about "I Will Survive," both Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart about "Sweet Dreams," Michael Stipe about "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" - that was a huge one for me to get just as a huge R.E.M. fan.

There's wishlist songs I'll become obsessed with. For example, I went to Barry Gibb at least 15 times - I'm a huge Bee Gees fan, massive fan. Al Green, "Let's Stay Together." I would pick that as arguably the best song of the '70s, and the '70s is my favorite musical decade. But he's not doing any interviews.

December 16, 2022

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Further Reading:
Interview with David Paich of Toto
Interview with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics
Interview with Linda Perry

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