Romeo and Juliet – the star-crossed lovers who are the hero and heroine of William Shakespeare’s play, which first appeared in 1597 – are probably the most famous fictional couple in history. Their story has been the subject of many, many re-interpretations, as well as being referenced in some manner or other in countless books, movies, TV shows, etc. Romeo and Juliet is also undoubtedly the Shakespeare work which has turned up the most in some way or other in rock ‘n’ roll songs (at least we can’t think of any rock songs that reference Henry V Part II).
It’s through popular cultural, at least, that most people know the story: Romeo and Juliet were two young people who fell in love, despite the fact that there was a bitter feud raging between their respective families. The play, then, ends with both characters dying (we assumed we didn’t need a “spoiler alert” for that one).
Not to sound misogynistic, but between the two of the them the name “Romeo” probably appears more commonly by itself in popular cultural, being used as shorthand for a ladies’ man. Two examples of popular songs that use the name in that context are the Supremes’ “Back in My Arms Again” (“… ‘cause the boy she loves is a Romeo”) and Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” (“So you think you’re a Romeo/Playing a part in a picture show… “)
Maybe one day we’ll do a Romeo solo list. But for now, here’s a list of ten songs (by artists ranging from the king of rock ‘n’ roll to probably the most successful current solo artist to a one-hit wonder) which in some way reference William Shakespeare’s immortal play Romeo and Juliet, whether it’s re-imaging the entire original story or just name-dropping the famous couple.
#10 – “Happy Ending” by Elvis Presley
This deep cut from the king of rock ‘n’ roll comes from his 1963 film starring vehicle It Happened at the World’s Fair and is performed during the movie’s final scene. The song (written by Bob Weisman and Sid Wayne) actually ignores the common romantic reinterpretation of the Shakespeare play and uses its actual tragic essence (“Our love story gets me so upset/Like Romeo and Juliet/I’m not smart enough to figure out why/Some folks love a good cry”) as a counterpoint to the song’s appeal for a “Happy Ending,” which Elvis does get in the movie (what did you expect? He’s Elvis).
#9 – “Round and Round” by Ratt
This number #12 single from 1984 was one of the earliest major hits in the Eighties sub-genre which would come to be known as “hair metal,” and also probably one of the best. Lyrically, no songs in that genre were exactly, well, Shakespeare sonnets, and the words to this one don’t really make a whole lot of sense in general. The one mention of the bard’s famous lovers (“Like Romeo to Juliet/Time and time, I’m gonna make you mine”) probably just fit the meter more than anything else.
#8 – “Romeo Had Juliette” by Lou Reed
Did New York City rock innovator Lou Reed change the traditional spelling of “Juliet” on this song for copyright reasons? Nah (all of Shakespeare’s works have been public domain for centuries). Rather, continuing his own tradition of creating songs based on gritty urban reality, this take on the famous couple from Lou Reed’s 1989 album New York re-imagines their situation as being set against the backdrop of a rough inner-city neighborhood in the twentieth century (admittedly, West Side Story had already put a similar spin on the original story, but that one didn’t include references to uzis or crack dealers).
#7 – “Fire” by the Pointer Sisters
A few of the lyrics to this 1978 #2 hit by the Pointer Sisters written by Bruce Springsteen have probably not aged well in the #MeToo era (“Your pullin’ me close/I just say no/I say I don’t like it/But you know I’m a liar”). This is also another example of Romeo and Juliet being not only pretty much just name-dropped, but also having a share space with another famous could (Samson and Delilah) whose story goes back even further, all the way to the ancient Hebrew Bible (still, one could argue that when people think about this track, the “Romeo and Juliet” lyric is the first part of the song that comes to mind).
#6 – “Not Romeo Not Juliet” by Bryan Adams
Another deep cut from a classic rocker, this song from Bryan Adams’ 2004 album Room Service actually uses the idealized interpretation of Shakespeare’s famous couple as the “perfect lovers” to contrast the feelings of the boy and the girl in the song who realize and accept that they are who they are (“He ain’t pretty,” “She’s all skinny like a cigarette”) and their relationship is just what it is, quite possibly need more than love (“We’re just two lost souls and baby we got no regrets”) as well as a desire to live in the here and now.
#5 – “Love Story” by Taylor Swift
The twenty-first century’s reining pop princess did her own take on Romeo and Juliet on this track which originally appeared on her 2008 album Fearless. The song is told from the perspective of “Juliet” (logically enough) but definitely understates the tragic aspect of the original Shakespeare work, as in this song the worst the couple really has to contend with is the disapproval of Juliet’s father (which, to be fair, is a holdover from the play).
And it seems that when all is said and done the lovers do have a happy ending – this Romeo seemingly ends up winning the approval of Juliet’s father (“I talked to your dad, go pick out a white dress”) – which is of course is also in stark contrast to the fate of the couple in Shakespeare’s version. But who can argue with love? (or with the song, which was Top 10 in at fourteen countries).
#4 – “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult
Possibly the best-known song on our list, long-running New York rockers Blue Oyster Cult enjoyed their only US Top 20 hit with “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” in 1976. The song has largely been interpreted – and in turn, criticized – as being about a suicide pact between a teenage couple, who partially use Romeo and Juliet as the inspiration for taking their own lives together (“Romeo and Juliet/Are together in eternity… /We can be like they are”). Ironically, while the two Shakespeare characters do both end their own lives, it is not through a suicide pact: Romeo kills himself after erroneously believing that Juliet is dead, and then she does the same after finding him dead (as for the song, it can be argued that it’s more about immortality that suicide).
#3 – “Cinema Show” by Genesis
One more classic rock deep cut, this one from the early days of Genesis (1973) re-imagines Romeo and Juliet as a modern couple who are a pair of young British adult professionals. The two never technically “meet” in the song, as each of the first two verses focuses on them separately as they prepare to ultimately get together for a date (she puts on perfume, he dons a floral tie, etc.). The song’s lyrics then shift their focus entirely, taking inspiration from an entirely different classic work (T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land”) and thus we never learn the fate of this Romeo and Juliet (still, the song includes some amazing vocal harmonizing from the band’s pair of legends, Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins).
#2 – “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet” by the Reflections
There’ve been at least a half-dozen recording groups called the Reflections (including a current metalcore band from the Twin Cities), but this vocal ensemble from Detroit scored their only major hit in 1964 with the #6 single “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet.” As the parenthetical in the song’s title would suggest, the Shakespeare characters here are used mainly as an analogy. The song’s narrator at first revels in the original story (“Our love’s gonna be written down in history/Just like Romeo and Juliet”) before ultimately realizing just what that “history” entails: “Our love’s gonna be destroyed like a tragedy/Just like Romeo and Juliet” (although to be fair, he blames the situation on his own inability to find a job, not the girl or the relationship).
#1 – “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits
This track from Dire Straits which originally appears on their 1980 album Making Movies also re-imagines Romeo and Juliet as being in the modern day, at least as far as we can tell from some of the references in the song (TV, streetlights, the 1963 hit “My Boyfriend’s Back” by the Angels). Though also not quite the tragedy that the original play is, the song is nonetheless quite somber.
Romeo tells Juliet that he loved her yet overtly questions the love that she gave back, summing it up by asking her: “When you gonna realize, it was just that the time was wrong?” Dire Straits lead singer, guitarist and songwriter has apparently acknowledged that the song was based on his own troubled romance with British singer Holly Beth Vincent (but the time at least was right for the song, as it went Top 10 in the UK).
Top 10 Songs That Mention Romeo And Juliet article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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