A new book unearths the muses behind the music.
Turn on the radio and dial in any station of your choosing. Listen to three songs. Chances are at least one of them will be about a girl. That fact drove Brit writers Michael Heatley and Frank Hopkinson to write The Girl in the Song: The True Stories Behind 50 Rock Classics, wherein the duo did just what the title suggests, explored the women who inspired the famous songs penned about them. In the addictive page-turner—required reading for those interested in music trivia—we find out who Phil Collins wouldn’t save from drowning in “In the Air Tonight” (answer: his ex-wife, who banged the couple’s interior decorator/house painter while Collins was on tour), who Sting was stalking in the Police hit “Every Breath You Take,” who Mick Jagger had under his thumb, whose eyes were of bluest skies, and who Noel Gallagher’s “Wonderwall” was, on top of a host of other mysteries revealed. We caught up with Hopkinson, who phoned from across the pond, to talk about the book, the surprises unearthed while researching it and Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom,” which The Girl in the Song forces you to hear in a wholly new way.
Which song in the book surprised you the most?
“I think the most surprising was ‘See Emily Play’ by Pink Floyd because that was just a song about a 15-year-old girl Syd Barrett saw across the dance floor. Turns out Emily is Emily Young, who is one of Britain’s leading sculpturesses. She’s got a studio and she retails sculptures at about $100,000. In fact I went to the website and, being a fan, was quite shy of ringing her up. But she was charming about it. (Some people wouldn’t return calls.) She was really pleased to talk and had all of her own theories about why Syd Barrett left Pink Floyd and his dementia.”
Who was less than enthusiastic about participating?
“We emailed Suzanne Verdal of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ after finding that she was living in a truck in California, but she wouldn’t get back to us. Mick Jagger portrayed Chrissie Shrimpton really badly. They went out together for three years and he wrote ‘Under My Thumb’ about a nervous breakdown she had after she vanished from public eye. Her sister Jean Shrimpton was a top London model. They both modeled, but where Jean went on to fame and fortune, Chrissie went out with Jagger and then attempted suicide. Jagger refused to pay for the doctors’ bills for her treatment, and she didn’t want to revisit that period of her life.”
Any others surprise you?
A story [co-author] Michael [Heatley] wrote is about Sharona Alperin from [the Knack’s] “My Sharona.” It’s this cliche rock star lust story of a guy, [Knack lead singer] Mike Chapman, seeing a girl in the local record shop thinking, ‘Well I can have her cause I’m a rock star. I can use my rock star cache and get with her and then start going out with her.’ They started dating, he put her on the cover of the album, they split up, but kept in touch, even after they were divorced. They remained lifelong friends, and Sharona was friendly with [Chapman’s] other wife, and when he got cancer, she was there with him. It’s just such an odd thing that out of this sort of lustful record you have a whole sort of cycle or life knowing each other.”
Speaking of surprises. “Philadelphia Freedom,” is a song we hear a lot in this town—at sporting events, Fourth of July celebrations etc. I never knew what it was about, and I’m sure most people don’t either. Elton John had an obsession with tennis pro Billy Jean King and her 1970s team, the Philadelphia Freedom. The song was his tribute to them, a fight song written in the style of Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia soul.
“‘Philadelphia Freedom’ was interesting because it was quite a radical departure for Elton John at the time. He was always a big record collector, and he’s always been interested in American sounds. He toured with the Muscle Shoals Horns prior to going to Philadelphia and working with Tom Bell, and there was an aborted album he did called the Tom Bell Sessions which is brilliant stuff, but they didn’t have the courage to release it at the time.”
The Girl in the Song is in stores now.
PW's Music Issue 2014