Songwriting is usually a secretive art, a thing you work on in private. If you're a writer of the confessional kind, you can vent your innermost thoughts and pent-up feelings in song. But if you're a songwriter of the successful kind, that also means that your private thoughts will soon become very public.
That's why pop has so many secret dedications - love songs that, with names taken out or changed, could be universal, but are actually about one special person in particular. Most of those secrets will probably never come out, but here are a few cats that escaped the bag...
Spandau Ballet - True
In 2012, Gary Kemp revealed to the Guardian that Spandau Ballet's beloved 80s slow-dance was inspired by his infatuation with Clare Grogan of Scottish new wave band Altered Images. They were friends but Grogan wanted nothing more, so Kemp put his pining to good artistic use: "I met her on Top of the Pops and, at one point, travelled up to Scotland to have tea with her and her mum and dad... The lyrics are full of coded messages to Clare. I'm still berated for the line, 'Take your seaside arms,' but it's straight out of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, which she had given me as a present - although in the book, it's 'seaside limbs'. The line, 'With a thrill in my head and a pill on my tongue,' is also a bastardisation of Nabokov. I don't want to embarrass Clare. I was 22 and she was 18. True was really a song about me and my idea of love."
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - West Country Girl
It's a pretty open secret, though never confirmed, that this song is about Nick Cave's brief relationship with PJ Harvey, with whom he'd duetted on Henry Lee from the 1996 album Murder Ballads. Several of the songs on the following year's The Boatman's Call are supposed to be about her, but the apparent reference in the title to Harvey's home county of Dorset make this the most obvious candidate. It's a sweet, generous tribute to a past lover, still infatuated with details: "Her accent which I'm told is broad / That I have heard and has been poured / Into my human heart and filled me / With love, up to the brim, and killed me."
Taylor Swift - We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together
Renowned as something of a serial kiss-and-not-quite-teller, Taylor Swift has many songs rumoured to be about old flames. One of the best, though, is this love-hate number, believed by fans to be about her relationship with actor Jake Gyllenhaal (telltale clues in the video, they claim, include a scene in which the actor playing Taylor's ex gives her his scarf to wear - Swift had been pictured wearing Gyllenhaal's scarf in public - and a bracelet similar to one gifted to her by Gyllenhaal).
Although the power of the on-off infatuation is clear, it doesn't paint a flattering picture: "I'm really gonna miss you picking fights and me / Falling for it screaming that I'm right and you / Would hide away and find your piece of mind / With some indie record that's much cooler than mine."
Swift told USA Today that the song was about an ex who "made me feel like I wasn't as good or as relevant as these hipster bands he listened to… So I made a song that I knew would absolutely drive him crazy when he heard it on the radio. Not only would it hopefully be played a lot, so that he'd have to hear it, but it's the opposite of the kind of music that he was trying to make me feel inferior to."
Rick Springfield - Jessie's Girl
Highlight of a hundred 80s teen movie nostalgia playlists, Rick Springfield's air-punching anthem actually takes inspiration from a real-life forbidden crush, only the friend in question was named Gary, not Jessie. In fact, he wasn't much of a friend - he was an acquaintance that Springfield briefly met while they were both, along with Gary's girlfriend, taking a stained-glass-making class in Pasadena, California.
"I was completely turned on to his girlfriend, but she was just not interested," Springfield told Songfacts. "So I had a lot of sexual angst, and I went home and wrote a song about it... He was getting it and I wasn't, and it was really tearing me up. And sexual angst is an amazing motivator to write a song."
All that pent-up frustration gave Springfield a global hit. After a few weeks the couple moved out of his life, never to be heard of again, despite his subsequent attempts to contact them.
Feargal Sharkey - A Good Heart
Some of the most intriguing secret declarations come in songs written for another artist to sing. So it is with Feargal Sharkey's 80s monster hit, which was written by Lone Justice singer Maria McKee (of Show Me Heaven fame). The soul-tinged, synthy number, full of gentle naivety, was written about the then-19-year-old McKee's relationship with Benmont Tench, keyboard player with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Tench also wrote a song for Sharkey's debut album, which follows directly on from A Good Heart, striking a slightly less warm note, to say the least: "How does it feel / To make a grown man wanna die?" It was a persistent rumour that Tench's song detailed his side of the story, but he's since denied it was about his relationship with McKee.
Crosby, Stills & Nash - Guinnevere / Lady of the Island
The 70s LA singer-songwriter scene was notoriously incestuous and self-referential. There are particularly juicy examples on the debut album by folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash, which opens with Stephen Stills's Judy Blue Eyes, a suite of songs dedicated to his soon to be ex-girlfriend, folk singer Judy Collins. Even more interesting, though, are Guinnevere and Lady of the Island, sung by David Crosby and Graham Nash respectively about the same woman - Joni Mitchell. Mitchell had dated Crosby for a while in 1967, but when ex-Hollie Graham Nash moved to the US in 1969, she moved him into her house almost immediately. As such, Crosby's song is more elegiac, a reflection on loves lost ("She turns her gaze down the slope to the harbour where I lay anchored / Turned out to be such a short day"), whereas Nash's song reflects intensely on new intimacy: "The brownness of your body in the fire glow / Except the places where the sun refused to go / Our bodies were a perfect fit in afterglow we lay."
Tricky moments in the studio? Not a bit of it. "The way that we went about our lives did not entail jealousy and it didn't entail raging about somebody being with somebody else's woman," Nash told Mojo in 2009. "Me and David and Joan didn't think anything of it, that's for sure." Mitchell's Ladies of the Canyon album, meanwhile, has her own song dedicated to Nash; Willy - his middle name is William - details the delicate dance of a passionate relationship rushed into.
Fleetwood Mac - You Make Loving Fun
Fleetwood Mac's Rumours is, as we all know, the product of one of the most romantically stressful recordings of all time, with guitarist John McVie and keyboardist Christine McVie divorcing, drummer Mick Fleetwood discovering that his wife Jenny Boyd (herself the inspiration for Donovan's song Jennifer Juniper) had had an affair with his best friend, and Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham's relationship floundering messily. Hidden away among the flying fur, though, is Christine McVie's relatively benign You Make Loving Fun, a tribute to her fling with the band's lighting director, Curry Grant. In order to get John McVie to play on it without having a massive barney, she told him it was about her dog. Only later did he find out the truth, but the song has remained a live staple.
Astrud Gilberto & Stan Getz - The Girl from Ipanema
Written by poet Vinícius de Moraes and bossa nova legend Antônio Carlos Jobim, the Latin lift-music classic is believed to be one of the most recorded pop songs in history, after The Beatles' Yesterday. It was inspired by De Moraes's observation of Helô Pinheiro, a real-life teenager living in the upmarket Rio suburb of Ipanema, who would walk the same route every day, followed by wolf whistles. "I watch her so sadly / How can I tell her, 'I love you?'... Each day, when she walks to the sea / She looks straight ahead, not at me."
In 1965's Revealed: The Real Girl from Ipanema, De Moraes wrote that Pinheiro was "a golden teenage girl, a mixture of flower and mermaid, full of light and grace, the sight of whom is also sad, in that she carries with her, on her route to the sea, the feeling of youth that fades". Which is a heavy burden to carry on a trip to the shops. Pinheiro became famous because of the song, appearing in Playboy twice. When she tried to name a boutique after the song's Portuguese title of the song, Garota de Ipanema, the songwriters' heirs sued her. Who'd be a muse, eh?
Paul Simon - 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
One of Paul Simon's best-known songs, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover is written from the point of view of a fling who advises him to quit the hand-wringing and end a painful relationship, delivered with warm, witty flippancy. The song is often assumed to be about his second wife, Carrie Fisher, but the dates don't match up: 50 Ways was released in 1975, while Simon and Fisher first met on the set of Star Wars, on which filming only began in 1976. It's actually about Simon's divorce from his first wife Peggy, although the identity of the fling has never been revealed.
His 1983 track Hearts and Bones, however, was definitely about Fisher - the couple married that year, and he gave her this song as a gift. It details "the arc of a love affair": "You take two bodies and you twirl them into one / Their hearts and their bones / And they won't come undone." Inevitably, they divorced less than 12 months later, although their tempestuous on-off relationship continued for another decade.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Maps
The New York art-punk trio's resplendent love song is as lyrically oblique as it is vocally passionate, but the subject of its heart-tugging refrain - "Wait, they don't love you like I love you" - was actually Angus Andrew, frontman of noise-rockers Liars. So intense was Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O's feeling for him that in the song's video, she cries real tears. "He was supposed to come to the shoot," she told NME. "He was three hours late and I was just about to leave for tour. I didn't think he was even going to come and this was the song that was written for him. He eventually showed up and I got myself in a real emotional state."
The Who - Athena
Pete Townshend wrote this song on the night he was knocked back by American actress Theresa Russell in 1980, he told TheWho.net: "I was really out of my mind with frustration and grief because she didn't reciprocate."
The demo version of the song that appears on Townshend's odds-and-sods compilation Scoop 3 is still called Theresa. By the time The Who came to record it for their 1982 album album It's Hard, Townshend thought better of publicly naming his crush - Russell was by this time married to film director Nic Roeg, while Townshend was married to Karen Astley. Roger Daltrey, however, felt that concealing the subject of the song's true identity stripped it of its power. "I've got a psychological problem with it," he told the News of the World in 2010. "It's a great record; there's so much energy on that thing, but I still don't think there's a centre to that song. The fact that he changed the title in that and didn't stick to what it was supposed to be lost its centre to me."
Red Hot Chili Peppers - I Could Have Lied
After first meeting at a European festival in 1989, Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis bumped into Sinead O'Connor in Los Angeles a couple of years later, and the unlikely pair started spending time together. "We'd drive around and listen to music and kiss and whatnot," Kiedis wrote in his autobiography Scar Tissue, "but she wasn't exactly letting me all the way in her door, so to speak." According to Kiedis, "the most wonderful, nonsexual relationship I'd ever had" ended unexpectedly when he received an abrupt answering machine message: "I’m moving out of Los Angeles tomorrow, and I don't want you to call me or come by before I leave. Goodbye." Wounded, he wrote the moody, stormy number I Could Have Lied ("There must be something in the way I feel / That she don't want me to feel") and posted it through O'Connor's letter box.
O'Connor has denied she and Kiedis - "or Walter Mitty, as I call him" - were any more than friends, telling Uncut: "I hung out with the guy for a few weeks. He thinks he's God’s gift to women, and I think he had it in his head that I fancied him, which I utterly didn't. One day, Jake, my son, who was then about three, was very ill, and Anthony gave us a lift to hospital. Which was very kind of him. Then, inside the hospital, Anthony made a bit of a pass at me… I did lose my f****** head at him. And, as for his claims that he kissed me, it must have been some other bald b****, 'cos it certainly wasn't me."