Songwriters get inspiration from all kinds of things, including great works of art. At the end of the day, they are fans. Their love of the visual arts and architecture brings out the fan in them. They immortalize their heroes in their songs. Here are 10 rock songs written about artists.
# 10 – They Might Be Giants: Meet James Ensor
We start off our list of 10 rock songs written about artists with a look at Belgian painter James Ensor in the quirky vision that only They Might Be Giants has. Songwriter John Flansburgh recalled being amazed and amused by this little-known artist when he discovered him in a boring art history class. Like They Might Be Giant’s songs, Ensor’s paintings were often colorful with an undercurrent of darkness under the bright exterior. The song first appeared on the 1994 album John Henry.
# 9 – Peter Bjorn and John: Blue Period Picasso
It’s common that songwriters use metaphors to express how they feel, but it’s uncommon to compare themselves to a painting by Pablo Picasso. It is a love song, not only to the typical love-object that appears in songs, but also a love song to Picasso’s Blue Period paintings. It first appears on their 2009 album Living Thing.
# 8 – Talking Heads: Artists Only
This piece is unique in our look at 10 rock songs written about artists. Here, David Byrne and Talking Heads looks at artists in general and gives voice to a painter as he is painting. It’s lively, punk-ish and deliciously tongue-in-cheek. The artist paints to “clean” his brain and claims that he does not need to prove that he’s creative. It first appeared on the 1978 album More Songs About Buildings and Food.
# 7 -Manic Street Preachers: Interiors (Song for Willem de Kooning)
A rough and jagged song inspired an artist known for some rough and jagged lines in his work, Willem de Kooning. Kooning’s work is one of those you either love or hate. It is almost childishly simple, which led to it being denounced. The song claims, “Are we too tired to try and understand?” which could apply to de Kooning’s art as well as the songs by Manic Street Preachers. At least de Kooning found fame and fortune in his lifetime. It first appeared on their 1996 album Everything Must Go.
# 6 -Peter Gabriel: Fourteen Black Paintings
One day, guitarist David Rhodes told his friend and boss, Peter Gabriel, about a collection of remarkable huge paintings by American artist Mark Rothko. Rothko often worked in huge squares or rectangles in huge canvases. Although at first his work seems simple, on close inspection, the color combinations can be remarkably complex. Gabriel was so moved by the experience, that he wrote this mostly instrumental song about what the paintings inspired. It is dark and disturbing, with an undercurrent of hopeful strength. The song also features “Gabrielese,” which is his form of wordless singing. It first appeared on his 1992 album Secret World.
# 5 – Paul Simon: Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War
This song has the most unusual title in our list of 10 rock songs written about artists. It’s an actual caption to a photo Simon saw about the surrealist painter Rene Magritte. Simon took the photo and did his own surrealist painting in words, referencing great music groups of the 1950s, “decades gliding by like Indians” and getting dressed up to “dine with the power elite.” It appeared on Simon’s underrated 1983 album Hearts and Bones.
# 4 – Simon & Garfunkel: So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright
This simple, elegant eulogy to the great American architect echoes the simple, elegant and yet innovative lines of his buildings, such as Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, now christened a UNESCO World Heritage site. How inspiring he was is put succinctly: “When I run dry/ I stop a while and think of you.” This is a dual-purpose eulogy, though. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were already thinking of breaking up and going solo. The song first appeared on the hit 1970 album Bridge Over Troubled Water.
# 3 – Alan Parsons Project: La Sagrada Familia
The Alan Parsons Project was so inspired by the works of architect Antonio Gaudi that a whole album was devoted to him. It was called, appropriately enough, Gaudi. This song opens the album. It starts with sounds of the city and a ghostly voice talking about Gaudi. It then goes into a spiritual anthem about – well, just about anything you want it to mean. It’s not that specific, but it does keep coming back to the name, “La Sagrada Familia”, a basilica in Barcelona. Gaudi died in 1926 before it was completed, so it remains unfinished.
# 2 – David Bowie: Andy Warhol
Unlike most of the artists on this list of 10 rock songs written about artists, the actual artist got to listen to the song about him. Pop artist giant Andy Warhol reportedly did not like David Bowie’s song. The song makes a perceptive look at Warhol’s most famous type of art, the silkscreen painting, stating, “Can’t tell ‘em apart at all.” Bowie not only got to hang out with Warhol for a while in the early 1970s, but also played him on-screen with an eerily accurate performance in the 1996 film Basquiat. Andy Warhol first appeared on Bowie’s hit 1971 album Hunky Dory. He performed it live frequently, often saying in Warhol’s voice, “Gee, that’s great.”
# 1 – Don McLean: Vincent
Since it first appeared in Don McLean’s 1971 hit album American Pie, this adoring bow to ill-fated artist Vincent Van Gogh has seemingly been high on radio station rotations ever since. It’s a simple arrangement peppered with images from Van Gogh’s paintings. The song helped introduce people to Van Gogh’s work. After reading a book on Van Gogh, McLean wrote the lyrics in pencil. In 2020, those pencil scrawls sold for $1.5 million, about a fraction of what a real Van Gogh would cost. It’s a fitting topper for our list of 10 rock songs written about artists.
10 Rock Songs Written About Artists article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
Classicrockhistory.com claims ownership of all its original content and Intellectual property under United States Copyright laws and those of all other foreign countries. No one person, business or any organizations is allowed to republish any of our original content anywhere on the web or in print without our permission.