Rock stars have found many reasons over the years to name-drop fellow musicians.
Most commonly, it’s a sign of praise, as they effectively pay tribute to artists who influenced their work. Other times, a name-drop can stoke controversy, igniting or further fueling a squabble. Then there are the cases where a name-check is used for creative purposes, helping to establish a song’s characters or time period.
We’ve rounded up 47 instances where musicians have referenced classic artists in their work. True to form, we solely focused on rock songs for this list, so those looking for Maroon 5‘s “Moves Like Jagger” will have to continue searching elsewhere.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sweet Home Alabama”
“Well I heard Mr. Young sing about her / Well I heard ol’ Neil put her down / Well I hope Neil Young will remember / A southern man don’t need him around anyhow”
The connection between Lynyrd Skynyrd’s iconic tune “Sweet Home Alabama” and Neil Young has been well-documented. Young released a track in 1970 called “Southern Man,” which noted the region’s violent history of slavery. He lambasted racism again two years later with “Alabama.” Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to Young’s songs, determined to prove all Southerners weren’t redneck stereotypes. Though they specifically mentioned him in the lyrics, Gary Rossington insisted Skynyrd held no ill-will toward Young. “We all loved Neil. Ronnie [Van Zant] used to wear Neil Young T-shirts all the time. Those lines about ‘Southern Man’ were almost like a play on words. We didn’t know that song would be so big, or turn into such a big deal with Neil Young fans.”
Neil Young, “Downtown”
“Jimi’s playin’ in the back room / Led Zeppelin on stage / There’s a mirror ball twirlin’ / And a note from Page”
Speaking of Mr. Young, Neil released the song “Downtown” in 1995, backed by members of Pearl Jam. But it’s not the grunge kings he mentioned within the songs lyrics. Instead, Young used “Downtown” to go back in time, celebrating the ‘60s in all their hippie and psychedelia glory. The tunes final verse mentioned Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, two of the era’s defining rock acts. Young had been friends with Hendrix; the two even hot wired a truck together to get to Woodstock. Young later joined the surviving members of Led Zeppelin on stage in January 1995 during a performance at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The experience was an exhilarating one, and likely influenced the writing of “Downtown.”
John Lennon, “God”
“I don’t believe in Elvis / I don’t believe in Zimmerman / I don’t believe in Beatles / I just believe in me”
John Lennon was fearless on his first post-Beatles album. Rather than tiptoeing around the elephant in the room, he confronted time spent in the biggest band in the world head on, dismissing the Beatles and all other things he dubbed as false idols. Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan (whose real name is Robert Zimmerman) also got a mention, but saying he not longer believed in his former group got the most attention. “I was going to leave a gap, and just fill in your own words: whoever you don’t believe in,” Lennon later told Rolling Stone. “It had just got out of hand, and Beatles was the final thing because I no longer believe in myth, and Beatles is another myth. I don’t believe in it. The dream is over. I’m not just talking about the Beatles; I’m talking about the generation thing.”
Bob Dylan, “Highlands”
“I’m listening to Neil Young, I gotta turn up the sound / Someone’s always yellin’ ‘Turn it down’ / Feel like I’m driftin’, driftin’ from scene to scene / I’m wonderin’ what in the devil could it all possibly mean”
Like so many artists, Neil Young was influenced by the work of Bob Dylan, so much so that Dylan once said he could hear himself in Young’s 1972 hit “Heart of Gold.” They’ve enjoyed a mutual respect for decades, with Dylan praising the sincerity of Young’s work, as well as his “God-given talent.” Released in 1997, “Highlands” found Dylan waxing a long, poetic tune about a man lamenting that he’s lost in the wrong time. Somehow, Dylan was able to sneak a tip of the cap to Young in there for good measure.
Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
“Buddy Holly, ‘Ben Hur,’ space monkey, mafia / Hula hoops, Castro, Edsel is a no-go / U2, Syngman Rhee, payola and Kennedy / Chubby Checker, ‘Psycho,’ Belgians in the Congo”
Does any song name-drop better than Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”? The 1989 hit referenced 118 noteworthy historical people, places and events, including several groundbreaking musicians. In addition to those named in the lyric above, Joel also mentioned Presley, Dylan and Jonnie Ray, the latter of whom was instrumental in the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll.
Queen, “I Go Crazy”
“So I ain’t gonna go and see the Rolling Stones no more / I don’t want to go and see Queen no more, no more / I ain’t gonna go and see the Rolling Stones no more / I don’t want to go and see Queen no more, no more”
Safe to assume that many a man lost his girlfriend to Mick Jagger through the years. It’s a little less believable, however, when the message is being delivered by another rock star, but that’s nonetheless the case in Queen’s “I Go Crazy.” The song, penned by guitarist Brian May, was told from the point of view of a young man who takes his girlfriend to a Rolling Stones concert, only to have her disappear then run off with Jagger. “I Go Crazy” never appeared on one of Queen’s studio albums, but was instead released as the b-side to 1984’s “Radio Ga Ga.”
Weezer, “Buddy Holly”
“Ooh-wee-ooh, I look just like Buddy Holly / Oh oh, and you’re Mary Tyler Moore / I don’t care what they say about us anyway / I don’t care ’bout that”
Weezer’s 1994 hit “Buddy Holly” almost had different classic artists in its chorus. Rather than Buddy Holly and Mary Tyler Moore, the original lines said: “Oo-wee-oo you look just like Ginger Rogers / Oh, oh, I move just like Fred Astaire.” Rivers Cuomo changed the lyric because Holly better suited the mood of the track. (His name also fit well phonetically.) Even then, Cuomo was reluctant to put the song on Weezer’s debut album. The Cars’ Ric Ocasek, who produced the LP, championed its inclusion. “Buddy Holly” went on to become one of the biggest hits of Weezer’s career.
Pantera, “Goddamn Electric”
“To walk through world by one’s self, you can’t be protected / Your trust is in whiskey, weed and Black Sabbath / It’s goddamn electric”
This track from 2000’s Reinventing the Steel found Pantera paying tribute to metal icons who came before, specifically Black Sabbath and Slayer. “The song is about the vibe that we get when we crank up or play loud music, when we’re in our element. Music heals the soul. It’s goddamn electric. That’s what we call it,” Dimebag Darrell told Guitar World. “Phil [Anselmo] was calling out all these bands that stuck true to their guns. They’re our kind of guys.”
Deep Purple, “Smoke on the Water”
“Frank Zappa and the Mothers / Were at the best place around / But some stupid with a flare gun / Burned the place to the ground”
There’s no secret meaning behind Deep Purple’s lyrics to “Smoke on the Water”: The band simply relayed what they witnessed on Dec. 4, 1971, as they were preparing to record Machine Head. The session was to start immediately after a Frank Zappa concert, but fate had other plans. Someone in the crowd fired a flare gun during Zappa’s performance at the Casino at Montreux in Switzerland, setting the place ablaze. Smoke from the fire could be seen over nearby Lake Geneva – and the rest is history.
Nirvana, “Pennyroyal Tea”
“Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld / So I can sigh eternally”
It’s easy to see similarities between Kurt Cobain and Leonard Cohen, both powerful songwriters willing to chronicle the dark and painful sides of humanity. “The song is about a person who’s beyond depressed; they’re in their death bed, pretty much,” Cobain once explained, noting that the titular drink was an herbal abortive. He’d dealt with serious stomach pains prior to recording “Pennyroyal Tea,” which was where the Cohen influence came in. “That was my therapy, when I was depressed and sick,” Cobain said. “I’d read things like [Malone] Dies by [Samuel] Beckett, or listen to Leonard Cohen – which would actually make it worse.”
Radiohead, “Anyone Can Play Guitar”
“Grow, my hair, I am Jim Morrison / Grow, my hair / I wanna be, wanna be, wanna be Jim Morrison”
One of the highlights from 1994’s Pablo Honey, “Anyone Can Play Guitar” was Radiohead’s criticism of rock cliches. “Anybody can play guitar, but writing songs is a far harder challenge,” Jonny Greenwood once argued. “I’d rather idolize someone like Elvis Costello than I would Steve Vai.” Radiohead chose deceased Doors frontman Jim Morrison as their example of the rock myth, partly because Oliver Stone’s biopic The Doors had been released right around the time they were penning the track. “It’s really just a series of thoughts about getting up on stage, making a brat of yourself and making a career out of it,” Thom Yorke told Melody Maker in 1993. “I’m sure it was great to be Jim Morrison in 1968, but a lot of people can’t relinquish these obsessions.”
The Who, “Be Lucky”
“You wanna travel across the great divide / You really gotta have some luck on your side / You wanna climb without a safety line / AC/DC, it’s gonna be fine”
The only previously unreleased song on The Who Hits 50! compilation was an ode to striving for success. the Who also reference AC/DC in a different verse: “If you wanna sell you gotta kiss and tell / Then you gotta do a cover of ‘Highway To Hell’ / If you wanna fight, if you need to fight / Then you better get ready to rock through the night.” (The Who named-drop the French electronic duo Daft Punk elsewhere in the tune.) Proceeds from “Be Lucky” benefited Teen Cancer America.
The Ramones, “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?”
“Will you remember Jerry Lee, John Lennon, T. Rex and Ol’ Moulty? / It’s the end of the ’70s / It’s the end of the century”
End of the Century ranks among the Ramones’ most polarizing releases. They recruited Phil Spector, known for his slick Wall of Sound production style, to create the band’s cleanest, most commercial-sounding LP. Spector added piano, trumpet, saxophone and synthesizers to their sound, evident on “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?” It was heresy to punk-rock purists, but frontman Joey Ramone had a well-chronicled respect for rock history. Here, he honors some of the genre’s greats – including Jerry Lee Lewis, Lennon, T. Rex and Victor “Moulty” Moulton, drummer for the Barbarians.
Tom Petty, “Free Fallin’”
“She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis / Loves horses and her boyfriend, too”
Tom Petty used his opening lines of this 1989 classic to describe his wholesome, all-American female protagonist. Among her other loves beyond the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll were Jesus and her mama. The character wasn’t based on one person, Petty later confirmed. “I don’t know [who] the girl in ‘Free Fallin’ is,” he told Billboard. “I was having to make this drive every day. The studio was in the valley and I was driving from Beverly Hills to the valley and back every day, and on that drive I just used to look at Ventura Boulevard, and just life’s great pageant was going on up and down that street. And I tried to grab a little bit of these characters on the road and it was kind of how I saw it.”
Bon Jovi, “It’s My Life”
“My heart is like an open highway / Like Frankie said, ‘I did it my way’ / I just want to live while I’m alive // It’s my life”
Jon Bon Jovi had admired Frank Sinatra long before name-dropping him in this 2000 hit for Bon Jovi. “I emulate a lot of what I do after Frank,” Bon Jovi told Howard Stern. “I have very, very, very few regrets. I wish I’d met him. That’s the one regret.” The connection with his fellow New Jersey native actually goes deeper than fandom: They were blood relatives, as Sinatra was Bon Jovi’s great uncle on his father’s side.
The Dream Academy, “Life in a Northern Town”
“He said, ‘In winter 1963 / It felt like the world would freeze / With John F. Kennedy / And the Beatles / Yeah, yeah, yeah”
Many famous names went into the making of this song. Folk singer Nick Drake, who died in 1974 at age 26, was its inspiration – though “Life in a Northern Town” was not about him, so much as an elegy. Pink Floyd‘s David Gilmour co-produced the track, while Paul Simon helped name it. Still, it was the Beatles who appeared in the lyrics. Their Liverpudlian background matched the track’s overarching working-class theme.
The Who, “The Seeker”
“I asked Bobby Dylan / I asked the Beatles / I asked Timothy Leary / But he couldn’t help me either”
“The Seeker” was the first release following the massive success of the Who’s 1969 rock opera Tommy. Lyrically, this stand-alone 1971 single described a man so desperate for success that he’d willingly destroy anything in his way. “It just kind of covers a whole area where the guy’s being fantastically tough and ruthlessly nasty and he’s being incredibly selfish and he’s hurting people, wrecking people’s homes, abusing his heroes,” Pete Townshend told Rolling Stone at the time. “He’s accusing everyone of doing nothing for him.” The character seeks guidance along the way from such luminaries as Bob Dylan, the Beatles and LSD proponent Timothy Leary, but to no avail.
Beastie Boys, “The New Style”
“If I played guitar, I’d be Jimmy Page / The girlies I like are underage”
Producer Rick Rubin opened up the Beastie Boys to a world where classic rock and rap could collide. They’d famously sample Led Zeppelin on several tracks from Licensed to Ill – but, ironically enough, not the one where guitarist Jimmy Page was specifically name-dropped. “The New Style” became their hugely successful 1986 LP’s third single, peaking at No. 22. on the Billboard hip-hop chart.
Chicago, “Bigger Than Elvis”
“All I ever dreamed I’d be / Is what you are to me / Bigger than Elvis / And for all the missing years / A memory reappears / Bigger than Elvis”
“Bigger Than Elvis” is not an homage to Presley, but rather a tribute to the father of now-departed Chicago bassist and vocalist Jason Scheff. Jerry Scheff was also a musician, serving as bassist in Presley’s famed TCB Band. Jason, who grew up idolizing his dad, asked Jerry to play on “Bigger Than Elvis” but didn’t tell him about his planned lyrics. Jason later presented the song as a gift to his father, though fans had to wait some 15 years to hear the results. “Bigger Than Elvis” was recorded in 1993 for Chicago’s Stone of Sisyphus studio project, but the LP was shelved until 2008.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Poster Child”
“The ’70s were such a win, singing the Led Zeppelin / Lizzy lookin’ mighty thin, the Thompsons had another twin”
Red Hot Chili Peppers released a funky new track in March 2022 that paid respects to a very long list of their favorite acts. Included were Robert Plant, Billy Idol, Adam Ant, Parliament, Led Zeppelin, Richard Hell, Thin Lizzy, Thompson Twins, the Ramones, Judas Priest, Yoko Ono, Steve Miller, Van Morrison, Duran Duran, Motorhead, MC5, Status Quo, Queen, Flavor Flav, Chubby Checker, Prince, Jane’s Addiction and Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols. We may have missed some, but you get the idea.
Ben Folds, “Rockin’ the Suburbs”
“I’m rockin’ the suburbs, just like Quiet Riot did / I’m rockin’ the suburbs, except that they were talented”
Ben Folds originally conceived the title track for 2001’s Rockin’ the Suburbs as tongue-in-cheek criticism aimed at popular nu-metal bands of the era. In Folds’ view, the aggression of the white male middle-class was humorous. “I used to do this big rant at the end of some gigs with Ben Folds Five,” he later explained. “The band broke into this big heavy-metal thing and I started as a joke to scream in a heavy-metal falsetto. I found myself saying things like: ‘Feel my pain; I am white, feel my pain.’ I was going to write this song about Korn. I don’t know, it wasn’t as funny when I directed it at somebody. So I thought I would write it not directed to anybody.” Folds ended up taking the perspective of a triggered young rocker, while also comparing himself to Jon Bon Jovi – before again adding: “except that they were talented.”
John Mellencamp, “Aint Even Done With the Night”
“Well, our hearts beat like thunder / I don’t know why they don’t explode / You got your hands in my back pockets / And Sam Cooke’s singin’ on the radio”
Though still known as John Cougar, John Mellencamp began stretching the boundaries of his traditional rock sound on 1980’s Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did. “I wanted to write something that was soulful and had an R&B feel to it,” he told Billboard. “And being a young guy, I thought we should get Mr. Stax Soul himself to produce the record.” He was referring to Steve Cropper, the famed guitarist and producer who worked with the likes of Booker T. & the M.G.’s and Otis Redding. Together, they name-dropped a different soul star – Sam Cooke – on the album’s most successful single, which peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Prince, “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”
“‘Mind if I turn on the radio?’ / ‘Oh, my favorite song,’ she said / And it was Joni singing: ‘Help me, I think I’m falling’”
Prince was an admirer of Joni Mitchell, once even proclaiming that her “music should be taught in school.” That fandom bled into his lyrics on this deep cut from 1987’s Sign ‘O’ the Times, which quoted Mitchell’s 1974 tune “Help Me.” Prince later sent her a song called “Emotional Pump” in the hopes that Mitchell would record it. She declined, however, suggesting that its tone and connotation didn’t work for her.
Mott the Hoople, “All the Young Dudes”
“The television man is crazy / Saying we’re juvenile delinquent wrecks / Man I need a TV when I’ve got T. Rex”
David Bowie and Marc Bolan had a tumultuous relationship. The pair spent their formative years in the mod scene, before becoming friends and rivals as emerging glam-rock stars. Bolan and his band T. Rex earned fame first, creating a unique dynamic. He actually invited Bowie to tour with him – but as a mime. “Marc was quite cruel about David’s as-yet-unproven musical career,” producer Tony Visconti later remembered. “I think it was with great sadistic delight that Marc hired David to open for Tyrannosaurus Rex – not as a musical act, but as a mime.” Despite the tension, there was also mutual respect. When Bowie penned “All the Young Dudes,” he added a notable mention of T. Rex within the lyrics. The tune became a hit for Mott the Hoople, reaching No. 3 in the U.K. and No. 37 in the U.S.
Motley Crue, “Poison Apples”
“Sex smack rock roll mainline overdose / Man we lived it night and day / We love our Mott the Hoople / It kept us all so enraged”
Nikki Sixx’s links to Mott the Hoople run deep. The future Motley Crue co-founder saw the band perform when he was a teenager and immediately became hooked. Later, after Sixx moved to Los Angeles to pursue his own music career, he worked alongside former Mott the Hoople singer Nigel Benjamin in the short-lived group London. Sixx returned to that fandom while delving into personal experiences for Motley Crue’s 1994 song “Poison Apples.” There are references to his hard-partying lifestyle, and a comment on tabloid obsessions with bandmate Tommy Lee, but Sixx also made room for his beloved Mott the Hoople. “Ian Hunter’s one of my favorite lyricists,” Sixx happily admitted, “and Overend Watts is the reason I play”
Elton John, “Club at the End of the Street”
“From the alleyways / Where the catwalks gently sway / You hear the sound of Otis / And the voice of Marvin Gaye”
Elton John and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin shared a mutual respect for the Drifters. The song “Club at the End of the Street” from 1989’s Sleeping With the Past reflected that influence. “When you hear it, it has the feel of a song like ‘Under The Boardwalk.’ It’s a real Drifters-style song,” Taupin told Music Connection magazine. “So what I would do is, I’d make notes for Elton at the bottom of the lyric sheet, like ‘Think Drifters; think this or think that.’” They completed this loving look back by name-dropping two other favorite soul acts, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye.
Neil Young, “From Hank to Hendrix”
“From Hank to Hendrix / I walked these streets with you / Here I am with this old guitar / Doin’ what I do”
Neil Young chronicles a relationship that has fallen apart on this 1992 track, once again turning to his old friend Hendrix for lyrical inspiration. The “Hank” in “From Hank to Hendrix” is guitarist Hank Marvin of the Shadows – not Hank Williams, as many have assumed. Together, they serve as musical mile markers that are meant to represent how long the relationship had lasted.
Bob Dylan, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”
“Goodbye Jimmy Reed, godspeed / Thump on the Bible, proclaim a creed”
Dylan has long admired Jimmy Reed, covering his material on numerous occasions over the decades. He didn’t slip Reed’s name into a lyric, however, until 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways. “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” mixes in references to the bluesman’s discography, along with lyrics about sex and religion.
Beatles, “For You Blue”
“Elmore James got nothing on this, baby”
Another blues legend gets name-dropped, as George Harrison mentions Elmore James while complimenting John Lennon’s work on the lap-steel guitar. George was a noted fan of James, known as the King of the Slide Guitar. Harrison says “Elmore James got nothing on this, baby,” while Lennon plays.
Neil Young, “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)”
“The King is gone but he’s not forgotten / This is the story of a Johnny Rotten /
Neil Young took a long hard look at his own career and his determination to continually churn out material on “Hey Hey My My (Out of the Blue)” and “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black),” the two tracks that bookended 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps. The lyrics were almost identical, with references to the meteoric careers of Elvis Presley and John Lydon in both. Young was careful to clarify that he didn’t mean to glorify rock ‘n’ roll’s darker side, but rather to examine it in the song.
Steely Dan, “Hey Nineteen”
“Hey nineteen / That’s Aretha Franklin / She don’t remember the Queen of Soul”
Steely Dan’s 1980 single tells the story of a man who is seducing a significantly younger woman. The age difference leaves him conflicted, especially when he brings up Aretha Franklin in conversation, only to find out that the youngster has no clue who that is. Franklin was apparently unhappy about the name-drop in “Hey Nineteen”: “She didn’t like hearing that. She wanted to sue the writer,” her brother Cecil said in Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. “‘Sue for what?’ I asked. ‘Sue for libel. He’s defaming me. He’s saying I’m old hat.’”
Tom Petty, “Runnin’ Down a Dream”
“I had the radio on, I was drivin’ / Trees flew by, me and Del were singin’ ‘little runaway’
/ I was flyin’”
Tom Petty had admired the work of Del Shannon for years, going back to the singer’s ’60s-era heyday. Petty later produced Shannon’s Drop Down and Get Me LP in 1981, which served as his comeback. Petty name-dropped Shannon on “Runnin’ Down a Dream” eight years later, also referencing his 1961 hit “Runaway.” “I put that in for [Shannon],” he said in Conversations With Tom Petty. “He was very pleased. I got a big smile from him on that – and ‘Little Runaway’ fit the whole concept. So, that was that.”
The Replacements, “Alex Chilton”
“And children by the million sing for Alex Chilton / When he comes ’round / They sing, ‘I’m in love / With That song’”
Alex Chilton, lead singer of the Box Tops and Big Star, befriended the Replacements early in their career. Chilton did early demo work on their 1985 LP Tim, and they shared a booking agent. Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg later decided to change the name of a song originally called “George from Outer Space” to pay homage. “In my opinion, Alex was the most talented triple-threat musician out of Memphis — and that’s saying a ton,” Westerberg said after Chilton’s death in 2010. “His versatility at soulful singing, pop rock songwriting, master of the folk idiom, and his delving into the avant garde, goes without equal. He was also a hell of a guitar player and a great guy.”
Van Morrison, “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)”
“Jackie Wilson said / It was ‘Reet-Petite’ / Kinda love you got / Knock me off my feet”
The opening track to Van Morrison’s 1972 album, Saint Dominic’s Preview is a tribute to – you guessed it – soul singer Jackie Wilson. He’d been a major influence on Morrison, beginning with Wilson’s breakout single “Reet Petite,” which hit the top of the U.K. charts in 1957. “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)” didn’t do quite as well, stopping at No. 61 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Eddie Money, “Take Me Home Tonight”
“Take me home tonight / I don’t want to let you go ’til you see the light / Take me home tonight
/ Listen honey, just like Ronnie sang, ‘Be my little baby’”
Eddie Money’s career had hit a mid-’80s low point when producer Richie Zito presented him with a song called “Take Me Home Tonight.” At first, Money was indifferent to the track, but his ears perked up on the line “Just like Ronnie said … ‘Be my little baby,'” a reference to Ronnie Spector’s 1963 hit. Money agreed to record the song, but insisted on reaching out to Spector herself when it was suggested that Martha Davis of the Motels serve as his female counterpart on the song. “[Money] called me and said, ‘Ronnie, I need your help with this. It needs you to be on it,'” Spector later recalled. “I said, ‘Baby, I don’t do that anymore,’ but he was insistent.” “Take Me Home Tonight” became one of the biggest hits of 1986, spurring career comebacks for both artists.
Run D.M.C., “King of Rock”
“Every jam we play, we break two needles / There’s three of us but we’re not the Beatles”
Run D.M.C.‘s video for “King of Rock” mocked the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame a full year before the first-ever class was inducted. They’re found running amok at the fictitious “Museum of Rock N’ Roll,” mocking several of artists on display – including Little Richard and Buddy Holly. Run D.M.C. were following a long tradition of braggadocio in hip hop, though in this instance the disses were more comical than mean spirited. Perhaps the most famous line found Run D.M.C. knocking the Fab Four, though Darryl McDaniels would later declare his group “the Beatles of hip-hop” after their induction into the (real) Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Wings, “Let ‘Em In”
“Sister Suzie, brother John / Martin Luther, Phil and Don / Brother Michael, Auntie Gin / Open the door and let ’em in, yeah”
Paul McCartney used Wings’ 1976 song “Let ‘Em In” to nod towards several of his famous friends. “Sister Suzie” was a reference to his wife, Linda. “When we went to Jamaica on holiday, a lot of the local guys used to call Linda ‘Susie’ for some reason. And we kind of liked that,” McCartney told Event magazine. “Then ‘brother John’ – I would be thinking either of John Lennon, or Linda’s brother, John.” Meanwhile, “Phil and Don were the Everly Brothers, while “Uncle Ernie” was Keith Moon’s character in the Who’s rock opera Tommy, later portrayed by Ringo Starr.
Bob Dylan, “Murder Most Foul”
“Play Don Henley, play Glenn Frey / Take it to the limit and let it go by”
Eagles cofounders Don Henley and Glenn Frey are just two of the many artists referenced in 2020’s “Murder Most Foul.” Bob Dylan also name-drops the Beatles, Patsy Cline, Etta James and Beach Boys co-founder Carl Wilson, as well as songs by the Everly Brothers, the Who, Queen, the Animals, Johnny Cash, Randy Newman and Billy Joel.
Bob Dylan, “I Contain Multitudes”
“I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones / And them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones”
The Rolling Stones memorably covered “Like a Rolling Stone,” then Dylan referenced the group in 2020’s “I Contain Multitudes.” “The Rolling Stones are truly the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world and always will be. The last too,” Dylan told NME. “Everything that came after them, metal, rap, punk, new wave, pop-rock, you name it – you can trace it all back to the Rolling Stones. They were the first and the last and no one’s ever done it better.”
Barenaked Ladies, “Brian Wilson”
“’Cause right now I’m lying in bed / Just like Brian Wilson did / Well I am lying in bed / Just like Brian Wilson did”
Founding Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page is an ardent fan of Brian Wilson. He found inspiration not just in the Beach Boys’ music, but also in Wilson’s efforts to overcome mental illness. “Sometimes I’d take [my parents’] car down to Sam the Record Man and wander around all of the record stores,” Page says in Barenaked Ladies: Public Stunts, Private Stories. “It was on those days you just don’t feel like getting out of bed, and listening to music was there to help take you out of that.” The song “Brian Wilson” would appear on Barenaked Ladies’ EP The Yellow Tape, as well as their 1992 debut studio album, Gordon.
Barenaked Ladies, “Be My Yoko Ono”
“You can be my Yoko Ono / You can follow me wherever I go / Be my, be my, be my, be my Yoko Ono, whoa, oh”
Another name-drop song from Barenaked Ladies? Yes. From the same album? Yes. In fact, “Be My Yoko Ono” immediately followed “Brian Wilson” on the track listing for Gordon, forming an impressive classic rock-referencing combo. “Be My Yoko Ono” imagines a passion so consuming that the singer is willing to give up everything to be with the woman he loves, comparing it John Lennon’s relationship with Ono. She heard the song as Barenaked Ladies became a Canadian phenomenon, and enjoyed “Be My Yoko Ono” so much that she sent the band footage of herself and Lennon to use for its music video.
Counting Crows, “Mr. Jones”
“I wanna be Bob Dylan / Mr. Jones wishes he was someone just a little more funky / When everybody loves you, ah son / That’s just about as funky as you can be”
Counting Crows frontman Adam Durwitz was influenced by Bob Dylan, following generations of music makers. His band became a huge success thanks to 1993’s August and Everything After, which featured the hit “Mr. Jones,” and Durwitz found himself hobnobbing with rock’s A-listers. Still, he was intimidated to talk to Dylan: “I was around him a few times; we opened for him and I saw him,” Duritz told American Songwriter. “But I don’t always rush to meet my idols because I don’t know what the fuck to say to them. And I don’t want to stand in front of them like an idiot, and I’ve done that with some of my idols. [I] stood in front of them like a fucking idiot who couldn’t think of anything to say. So, I’m not always rushing to do that.”
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Looking Out My Back Door”
“Dinosaur Victrola, listenin’ to Buck Owens / Doo, doo, doo, lookin’ out my back door”
Given the southern-rock influence evident in CCR’s sound, it’s no surprise that John Fogerty grew up listening to country. “I think about what I listened to growing up and the radio was really different than it is now,” he told AZ Central. “So many of the great songs that we may look back now and call country were played on the radio right next to Elvis Presley and the Beatles. I remember hearing Buck Owens on the rock ‘n’ roll stations. And if the artist had a sound like Buck – who, of course, featured Don Rich on guitar – my ear just gravitated to that record. I wanted to know what those guys were doing.”
Phil Lynott, “Ode to a Black Man”
“If you see Stevie Wonder tell him I hear / If you hear Stevie Wonder tell him I see / I don’t want no songs for plants / I want songs for me”
Phil Lynott released his first solo album, Solo in Soho, in 1980. The tunes were more personal than his output with Thin Lizzy, as exemplified by “Ode to a Black Man.” Lynott, who was mixed-race, name-dropped a slew of Black historical figures on the track – including Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bob Marley, Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix. He began by referencing Stevie Wonder, including a nod to his 1973 hit “Living For the City.”
John Mellencamp, “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”
“There was Frankie Lyman, Bobby Fuller, Mitch Ryder / (They were rockin’) / Jackie Wilson-Shangra-Las-Young Rascals / (They were rockin’) / Spotlight on Martha Reeves / Let’s don’t forget James Brown”
“R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” was subtitled “A Salute to ‘60s Rock,” and that’s exactly what John Mellencamp did when name-dropping artists on the track. Frankie Lymon, Bobby Fuller, Mitch Ryder, Jackie Wilson, the Shangra La’s, Young Rascals, Martha Reeves and James Brown were among the acts mentioned. “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 , helping to propel Mellencamp’s 1985 LP Scarecrow to multi-platinum sales.
Golden Earring, “Radar Love”
“The radio’s playin’ some forgotten song / Brenda Lee’s ‘Coming On Strong’”
This 1973 radio favorite told the story of a couple connected by an unseen bond, and the narrator’s determined quest to get back to the woman he loves. “I was listening to the music on the side and the story just took wings,” Golden Earring’s lead singer Barry Hay told American Songwriter. “I remember, in those days, I was really interested in ESP. I read some shit about it, and that sort of crawled in. Like there’s an accident, but these people still have ESP They still have contact in a way, which is sort of a magical thing.” His completed the tale with a moment of musical specificity as Brenda Lee’s 1966 hit “Coming on Strong” comes out of their car speakers.
Grand Funk Railroad, “We’re an American Band”
“Up all night with Freddie King / I got to tell you, poker’s his thing”
Grand Funk Railroad were at a pivotal point in their career. They’d released six albums and developed a decent national following, but had yet to take the next step to stardom. “I remember lots of discussions in the back of cars going, ‘What are we going to do next?’” drummer Don Brewer told Songfacts. “Our manager kept saying, ‘Why don’t you just write songs about what you do: You’re out here on the road, you’re going to this hotel. You go to different places, there’s people. You come into town …’” The tune began taking shape during the band’s tour in support of 1972’s Phoenix. “I came up with the line about staying up all night playing poker with Freddie King, the great bluesman,” Brewer told American Songwriter. “Freddie actually was opening the Phoenix tour for us, and it was true. We would stay up all night playing poker with Freddie.”
Top 100 Classic Rock Artists
Click through to find out how they stack up, as we count down the Top 100 classic rock artists.