Area Resident’s Stylus Counsel | Diss Tracks

Track 114 | Musical feuds for thought.


John Lennon could be really pissy. This week I scored a quadraphonic copy of his 1971 classic Imagine. I don’t have the 2021 “ultimate mix” 2LP special release, so this replaces my Canadian early pressing. Imagine is one of those albums — like Atom Heart Mother by PInk Floyd — which had a variety of quadraphonic pressings. There was a vinyl quad pressing in Australia, two in Germany, Japan and the U.K. The US quad versions of Imagine, and there were two, were both on Q8 (8-track cartridge). The 2018 “Ultimate Edition” 4 CD, 2 BluRay box which was issued in the States and Japan also included the quadraphonic mix. I have a Samsung BluRay player hooked up to my vintage quad receiver to play stuff like this.

Anyway, I was spinning my latest acquisition and found that, for two different reasons, I enjoyed two songs more than I used to: I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier and How Do You Sleep? The former, laden with excessive Phil Spector production, actually sounds pretty cool in quad. The latter, is actually quite an enjoyable song musically rather than predominantly because of its mean anti-Paul McCartney lyrics.

The friction between John and Paul was never more intense than it was at this time. Paul had just successfully won a court case to have The Beatles officially dissolved. He also got a mild dig in at John in the lyrics of Too Many People — the opening track on he and Linda’s 1971 album Ram.

“That was your first mistake
You took your lucky break and broke it in two
Now what can be done for you?
You broke it in two.”

Lennon also interpreted a family photo of the McCartneys dressed up for Halloween (Paul as a clown and Linda as the Popeye character Wimpy) as a mockery of himself and Yoko Ono. The McCartneys were wrapped in a white sheet, which is similar to the bag the Lennons appeared in during their Bed-In For Peace in 1969.

The former songwriting duo, perhaps the most celebrated musical partnership of all time, was very much at odds. John was writing deeply personal songs like the ones inspired by the primal therapy he engaged in prior to the Plastic Ono Band sessions or political songs like Power To The People, Give Peace A Chance and Instant Karma!

Paul, on the other hand was releasing mild stuff like Another Day and had become something of a recluse, living on his farm in Scotland with a pregnant Linda and their two young children. It seems to me, as far as John was concerned, Paul was wasting his voice and talent. As far as McCartney was concerned, John — who had given back his MBE to Buckingham Palace in 1969 — was being over zealous and too edgy.

Compared to Too Many People, How Do You Sleep? was vicious. Lennon attacked Paul’s current songwriting, personally accusing him of being a momma’s boy and surrounding himself with sycophants:

“Those freaks was right when they said you was dead
The one mistake you made was in your head
You live with straights who tell you, you was king
Jump when your momma tell you anything
The only thing you done was yesterday
And since you’ve gone you’re just another day
A pretty face may last a year or two
But pretty soon they’ll see what you can do
The sound you make is Muzak to my ears
You must have learned something in all those years
How do you sleep?”

Adding to the insult, George Harrison plays slide guitar on the song. Ringo Starr’s not on the track, but did visit the studio during recording. By all accounts, he wasn’t on board with the attack. Klaus Voormann — who illustrated the Revolver cover and was a friend of The Beatles from their Hamburg days — plays bass. The Gimme Some Truth documentary film shows run-throughs of the song and made-up, discarded lyrics more vicious than what went out on the album. Years later, Lennon said the song was born of his resentment of Paul, rather than any dislike. This doesn’t change the fact that it is what’s called a “diss track.”

John and Paul would continue trading mostly good-natured jabs at each other for the rest of Lennon’s life. Paul’s 1976 Wings hit Silly Love Songs is a direct response to Lennon saying in an interview that’s all his former bandmate wrote anymore.

So, I thought I’d fish out a series of other examples and let you know who did it, what they said — and why. As I said right off the top, Lennon could be pissy. He has a bunch of diss tracks. The two others which spring to mind right away are Sexy Sadie from The White Album (1968). The original title of the song was Maharishi, and its lyrics take shots at the transcendental meditation guru The Beatles followed, who ended up being just a regular guy like anyone else.

“Sexy Sadie (Maharishi) what have you done?
You made a fool of everyone.”

Lennon also laid waste to Allen Klein, the man he once backed to replace Brian Epstein as The Beatles’ manager. Klein had become the manager of Lennon’s own affairs as well as those of Starr and Harrison — who also did a diss track about Klein (Beware Of Darkness) on his triple album All Things Must Pass. After three years under the notoriously tight Klein’s control, the former Beatles had really soured on him:

“Your mouthpiece squawks as he spreads your lies
But you can’t pull strings if your hands are tied
Well your teeth are clean but your mind is capped
You leave your smell like an alley cat.”

Lennon himself was the target of the Steely Dan song Only A Fool Would Say That. Writer Donald Fagen was reacting to all the peace stuff the former Beatle was saying on TV talk shows like Mike Douglas and Dick Cavett, believing Lennon was out of touch with normal people:

“I heard it was you
Talking ’bout a world where all is free
It just couldn’t be
And only a fool would say that.”

There are lots of stories about musicians becoming quite oppositional with their managers. It’s not exclusive to Lennon and The Beatles. Queen’s smash album A Night At The Opera, famous for containing Bohemian Rhapsody, opens with a savage attack on their first manager, called Death On Two Legs (Dedicated to…). Queen had only recently parted ways with Norman Sheffield, who sued the band for defamation over the song. The lawsuit ended in an out-of-court settlement.

“Killjoy, bad guy, big talking small fry
You’re just an old barrow boy
Have you found a new toy to replace me?
Can you face me?
But now you can kiss my ass goodbye.”

The stunning and talented Carly Simon is the author of one of the most famous diss tracks of all time — You’re So Vain. Lots of people thought the song was at least partially about Mick Jagger — something which was fun to talk about because he actually sings on the track. But it’s not true, and for years Simon refused to reveal who the song was about. Finally in 2003 she agreed to reveal the target to the highest bidder in a charity auction, providing that person agreed to not disclose the information. The president of NBC Sports, Dick Ebersol, paid $50,000 for the knowledge. In 2015 she wrote in her memoir that Warren Beatty was the subject of the song — well, the second verse for sure and maybe more. The second verse:

“You had me several years ago when I was still quite naive
Well, you said that we made such a pretty pair and that you would never leave
But you gave away the things you loved
And one of them was me.”

Rat Scabies and Captain Sensible of The Damned wrote an angry song about Tom Verlaine and his band Television after being refused a spot on a bill with the band. Idiot Box is definitely a clever title, given the inspiration for the track — which appeared on the curiously Nick Mason-produced sophomore Damned album Music For Pleasure:

“People standing in the rain
Just to see a dream of him
Supersonic, oh come back soon
‘Cause all we got is a Marquee Moon.”

Old-school rappers Kool Mo Dee and L.L. Cool J had a very public feud in the mid-to-late ’80s. When J suggested Dee was copying his rapping style, Dee responded with the diss track How Ya Like Me Now? in 1987. There are soooo many hip hop diss tracks that I could fill two columns with just those. It’s kind of the reason why the term diss track exists.

“You took my style, I’m takin’ it back
Comin’ back, like Return of the Jedi
Sucker MCs in the place that said I
Could only rock rhymes and only rock crowds
But never rock records, how ya like me now?”

Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys had a go at Morrissey with their 1991 song Miserablism. I just discovered that’s actually a word.

“Just for the sake of it
Make sure you’re always frowning
(Angst! Angst! Angst!)
It shows the world
That you’ve got substance and depth.”

Taylor Swift is widely believed to have taken aim at Katy Perry with the song Bad Blood for reportedly hiring away her dancers for her own stage show. The two had been having a very public feud. Perry responded in kind two years later with the song Swish Swish featuring Nicki Minaj. The song isn’t so much a diss track as a response track — one in which the theme is “don’t let bullies get you down.” Wift hit back again with Look What You Made Me Do but, enough already.

Bad Blood
“Did you think we’d be fine?

Still got scars on my back from your knife
So don’t think it’s in the past.”

Swish Swish
“Keep calm, honey, I’ma stick around
For more than a minute, get used to it
Funny my name keeps comin’ out your mouth
‘Cause I stay winning.”

Speaking of call-and-response diss-tracks, one of the first times I noticed such a thing was when I heard Neil Young’s name uttered in the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic Sweet Home Alabama. Young had done two songs (Southern Man and Alabama) which were critical of the south and the prevalence of racism and segregation in places like Alabama. Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant (with Ed King and Gary Rossington) penned Alabama as a response.

“Well, I heard Mister 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.”

We’ll finish where we started, with The Beatles. King Crimson, of all bands, actually took shots at the freshly broken-up Fab Four with the track Happy Family off their third album, 1970’s Lizard. As with all those early Crimson songs, Peter Sinfield wrote the lyrics:

“Happy family, pale applause, each to his revolving doors
Silas searching, Rufus neat, Jonah caustic, Jude so sweet
Let their sergeant mirror spin if we lose the barbers win
Happy family one hand clap, four went on but none came back.”


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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check him out on Discogs.

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