“Why are a ‘wise man’ and a ‘wiseguy’ opposites?”
– George Carlin
- “Right Place, Wrong Time” by Dr. John
“Right Place, Wrong Time” was Dr. John‘s biggest hit, cracking the Top 10 in 1973. It was the first single from his In the Right Place LP. Dr. John described how the song was written in his autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon: The Life of the Night Tripper.
“A lot of different artists pitched in to give me lyrics on the song ‘Right Place, Wrong Time,’ which became one of the A-side singles off the album. Bob Dylan started it off by laying a line on me – ‘I’m on the right trip, but in the wrong car.’ Then Bette Midler gave me one: ‘My head’s in a bad place, I don’t know what it’s there for.’ Doug Sahm also pitched in: ‘I was in the right set, but it must have been the wrong sign.’ Everybody gave me a little something, which helped because I was way short of a finished song myself.
“They got me all inspired, and I came up with the old Ninth Ward slang ‘I’m just in need of a little brain salad surgery,’ which was a way of saying you’re out looking for head. The brain salad surgery bit got caught up in pop slang through my record promoter, Mario Medious, whom we called the Big M. M was also working as a promoter for Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and through Mario, who loved New Orleans slang, they heard the ‘brain salad surgery’ rib and used it as the title of their next album.”
- “Black and White” by Three Dog Night
“Black and White” became a No. 1 hit for Three Dog Night in 1972 but the song’s origins go back Pete Seeger’s 1956 folk version. The tune was inspired by the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision which outlawed racial segregation in schools. “Black and White” was one of the few hits by the band that featured Danny Hutton on lead vocals.
“I heard ‘Black and White while I was in England,” Hutton told Martins Music. “I walked into my hotel room and heard it playing on the radio while the maid was cleaning the room. It was by a Jamaican reggae group called Greyhound. It was written in 1954 by folk singer Earl Robinson. When I got back to America, I tracked the song down and we recorded our version. I used my best ‘Gene Pitney’ vocals on it.”
“Black and White” by Three Dog Night
“Black and White” by Greyhound
- “Live and Let Die” by Paul McCartney & Wings
Paul McCartney was asked to write the main theme for the 1973 James Bond film Live and Let Die by producer Harry Saltzman. The song, based on the Ian Fleming book, would reunite McCartney with Beatles producer George Martin. “I got the book and it’s a very fast read,” McCartney told Mojo magazine in 2010. “On the Sunday, I sat down and thought, OK, the hardest thing to do here is to work in that title. I mean, later I really pitied who had the job of writing ‘Quantum Of Solace.’
“So I thought, ‘Live And Let Die,’ OK, really what they mean is live and let live and there’s the switch. So I came at it from the very obvious angle. I just thought ‘When you were younger you used to say that, but now you say this.'”
McCartney asked Martin to produce a demo of what he’d written. “He asked me to orchestrate it in a very dramatic/Bond way,” Martin told Cinetropolis. “You don’t usually get to make a demo with a full orchestra, but that’s what we did. Harry Saltzman invited me to come out to Jamaica where they were shooting the film. We had lunch the day after I arrived and the first thing he said was, ‘Great score you did there, George. Now who do you think we’re going to get to sing it? Aretha Franklin?’ I then realized I had to diplomatically tell him that if he didn’t use Paul’s version then he wouldn’t get the song.”
- “Cruel to Be Kind” by Nick Lowe
Nick Lowe wrote “Cruel to Be Kind” with Ian Gomm when the two were bandmates in Brinsley Schwarz. Lowe recorded the song when he went solo and in 1979 it became his biggest hit.
“When I had my couple of hits, I sort of felt like I was ticking a box more than, ‘Great, I’m off now on a chart-topping career.'” Lowe recalled in GQ. “I felt that in order to do what I wanted to do, I had to do certain things, and one of them was to have a hit in my own right. At least one. I managed two or three, if you take in Europe. But in the United States, where it really matters, I had one hit and people still remember it, and it’s a pretty good little song, you know?
“And we do it now rather like it was when I first thought it up, which was a copy of ‘The Love I Lost’ by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. And I love doing it. I really love it. It cheers people up. How I do it now sounds quite different. In fact, it was on the radio the other day and I was quite amazed how differently I do it now. If they’re good songs, they really will stand the test of time.”
“Cruel to Be Kind” by Nick Lowe (1979)
“Cruel to Be Kind” by Nick Lowe (2017)
- “Heroes and Villains” by the Beach Boys
Brian Wilson produced and composed the music for “Heroes and Villains” and Van Dyke Parks wrote the lyrics. The 1967 song was the follow-up to “Good Vibrations” and the foundation of the unfinished LP Smile. “Heroes and Villains,” which became the opening track of Smiley Smile, never lived up to its pre-release hype.
Parks wrote the lyrics in the style of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso.” “To me, ‘Heroes And Villains’ sounds like a ballad out of the Southwest,” Parks said in Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece. “That’s what it was intended to be – as good as any of those – and, really, to be a ballad. This Spanish and Indian fascination is a big chapter in Californian history, and that’s what it’s supposed to be – historically reflective, to reflect this place. I think it did it.”
- “With or Without You” by U2
U2‘s Bono wrote the lyrics of “With or Without You” in 1986 as he struggled with the conflict between married life at home and the musician’s life on the road. Bono wrote the song while visiting the French Riviera in 1986. “Down here we just fell in love with music again,” he told The Guardian. “It was something to do with living rather than working. I know that sounds decadent.”
“With or Without You” was the lead single from 1987’s The Joshua Tree and became a No. 1 hit. Bono gives much of the credit to guitarist The Edge. “I think he’s delighted to be out of the line of fire,” Bono told Rolling Stone. “He’s the clever guy who actually figures being the frontman is hard work. Smart people know what he does, and he doesn’t care about the rest of the world. I get annoyed and I say, ‘How do people not know?’
“An example would be ‘With or Without You.’ It was self clear early on that this was a little bit special. The song is all one build to a crescendo. The song breaks open and comes down, and then comes back. Everyone in the room is, ‘OK, Edge, let’s see if you can let off some fireworks here.’ Three notes – restraint. I mean psychotic restraint, and that is the thing that rips your heart out, not the chorus.”
- “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by the Clash
“Should I Stay or Should I Go” appeared on the 1981 Clash LP Combat Rock. Written by Mick Jones and Joe Strummer, the song was loosely based on Mitch Ryder’s cover of “Little Latin Lupe Lu.” Singer Joe Ely explained in the Austin Chronicle how a chance meeting with the band led to his participation on the track.
“I ran into them accidentally in New York when they were cutting ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ and Strummer said, ‘Hey, help me with my Spanish.’ So me and Strummer and the Puerto Rican engineer sat down and translated the lyrics into the weirdest Spanish ever. Then we sang it all.
“When you listen to ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go,’ there’s a place in the song where Mick says, ‘Split.’ Me and Strummer had been yelling out the Spanish background lyrics and we had snuck up behind him as he was recording. We were behind a curtain, jumped out at him in the middle of singing, and scared the shit out of him. He looks over and gives us the dirtiest look and says, ‘Split!’ They kept that in the final version.”
- “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins
“Both Sides Now” was written by Joni Mitchell but was first recorded by Judy Collins in 1968. “I was reading Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King on a plane and early in the book Henderson the Rain King is also up in a plane,” recalled Mitchell in the Los Angeles Times. “He’s on his way to Africa and he looks down and sees these clouds. I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song. I had no idea that the song would become as popular as it did.”
Collins told the Grammy Awards how she discovered the song. “I was sound asleep in my uptown New York apartment in 1967 when my old friend Al Kooper called on the phone. ‘I’ve just met this girl here in the bar … She and I were talking and she told me she wrote songs. She’s good-looking and I figured I could follow her home, which couldn’t be a bad thing no matter how you look at it.’
“He put her [on the phone] and Joni Mitchell proceeded to sing me ‘Both Sides Now.’ It turned out she could write songs. I told him, ‘I’ll be right over.’ I recorded the song and it became a big hit.”
“Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell
“Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins
- “Hello, Goodbye” by the Beatles
Paul McCartney’s “Hello, Goodbye” became a Top 10 hit for the Beatles in 1967 after John Lennon unsuccessfully lobbied for his “I Am the Walrus” to be the A-side of the single. “That’s another McCartney,” said Lennon in All We Are Saying. “Smells a mile away, doesn’t it? An attempt to write a single. It wasn’t a great piece; the best bit was the end, which we all ad-libbed in the studio, where I played the piano.”
“‘Hello, Goodbye’ was one of my songs,” McCartney asserted in Many Years From Now. “There are Geminian influences here I think: the twins. It’s such a deep theme in the universe, duality – man woman, black white, ebony ivory, high low, right wrong, up down, hello goodbye – that it was a very easy song to write. It’s just a song of duality, with me advocating the more positive. You say goodbye, I say hello. You say stop, I say go. I was advocating the more positive side of the duality, and I still do to this day.”
- “Good Times Bad Times” by Led Zeppelin
“Good Times Bad Times” is the opening track of Led Zeppelin‘s 1969 self-titled debut album. “[Bassist] John Paul Jones came up with the riff,” guitarist Jimmy Page told Rolling Stone. “I had the chorus. John Bonham applied the bass-drum pattern. That one really shaped our writing process. It was like, ‘Wow, everybody’s erupting at once.'”
“I had the music for it and I was writing for this thing that was going to be put together for the band,” Page said in Dangerous Minds. “The whole thing on ‘Good Times Bad Times’ is recognized by John Bonham’s bass drum, isn’t it? Initially I had a sketch for it and then Robert [Plant] supplied lyrics to the verses.
“I was very keen on concentrating on the music, and whoever I was going to be working with, for them to be coming up with lyrics. I didn’t think that my lyrics were necessarily good enough. Maybe they were in certain cases, but I preferred that very close working relationship with whoever was singing, whether it be Robert Plant, Paul Rodgers or David Coverdale. The starting point would always be coming from the music, whether I had written that acoustically or electrically.”
- “If 6 Was 9” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
“If 6 Was 9” was featured on Jimi Hendrix‘s 1967 masterpiece Axis: Bold as Love and the 1969 Easy Rider soundtrack. The song suffers from relatively poor sound quality because the original master tape was lost. Bassist Noel Redding fortunately had a quarter-inch tape of an early mix of the song, which was transferred and used on the album.
“If 6 Was 9” has been called “acid-fueled blues” but Hendrix had his own definition. “You can have your own blues,” the guitarist told Experience Hendrix magazine in 1968. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that folk blues is the only type of blues in the world. I heard some Irish folk songs that were so funky – the words were so together and the feel. That was a great scene. We do this blues one on the last track of the LP, on the first side. It’s called ‘If 6 Was 9.’ That’s what you call a great feeling of blues. We don’t even try to give it a name. Everybody has some kind of blues to offer, you know.”
“If 6 Was 9” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience (from Easy Rider)
Got a favorite Opposites Song not on the list? Let us know in the comment section!