25 Great Songs About Rock & Roll Life

Ranking some of our favorite tunes that brought you behind the curtain

The Tubes (Image: Discogs)

I am not a rock star, nor have I ever been a rocker on the road. Nope, never in my youth did I schlep a guitar and a suitcase, trawling across the land in a crappy van, playing shambolic gigs in crappy bars for $100. I’ve never been blinded by the spotlight on stage.

I have, however, listened to scads of songs about being a rock star and/or a rocker on the road. (Sometimes, two different things.) The rule of thumb – or maybe fallback position – in literature or music is “write what you know.” Many a rocker has taken that to heart. Sometimes, it’s a good thing. Other times we – that is, those of us outside, listening in – wanna shout out, “Hey, stop wingeing about how wearying your privileged life and write about something that touches all of us out here in the wasteland or normalcy!”

Special razzie here goes to the band Boston for “Rock and Roll Band,” with that “We’re just another band out of Boston …” No, they were not a band playing clubs, sweating it out, grinding it out. They were mad scientist Tom Scholz’s studio project unleased upon an unsuspecting AOR world with creamy hooks and just enough hard rock/melody to bit the commercial bullseye. I get it. Some of their first album songs stick forever. This one, in a very bad way You keep yelling, “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” 

Yeah, it goes both ways. I also have to raise a glass that in many years of rock toil have never written a rock/road song. The list is many but off the top of my head, Mission of Burma, The Cure, The Cars, Tortoise, Spiritualized, Buzzcocks.

Some of these listed songs are about the process – the drudgery/delight of the road and others more about the biz itself.

So, in that I have lived vicariously, transported via the magic of music into a sweet, sweet Connie’s embrace with Grand Funk Railroad, ridden on a bus all the way to Memphis with Mott the Hoople, and hung out with the boozers and losers on the road with The Kinks.  


Speaking of …

1. and 2. Kings of the Road (winners, tie): The Kinks and Mott the Hoople. The aforementioned bits from “Life on the Road” and “All the Way to Memphis.” Add to that: “Motorway,” “Sittin’ in My Hotel,” “This Time Tomorrow” and “You Can’t Stop the Music,” “The Ballad of Mott the Hoople,” “Saturday Gigs” and “Marionette” plus Ian Hunter’s “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” from his solo debut LP.


Best of the rest:

3. “We’re an American Band,” by Grand Funk Railroad: As referenced up top. Your biggest, grandest fantasy as a teen boy about what the rock life is all about. Aside from Connie’s treats, there’s the joy of coming to your town to help you party it down. Ambassadors of goodwill. And sex recipients from the more than willing local girls. What more could there be to life?


4. “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” Patti Smith (written by The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. Even McGuinn has admitted he likes Patti’s better.) Kinda all you need to know about the ride, right?


AUDIO: Patti Smith Group “So You Want To Be…”

5. “Tubes World Tour,” The Tubes – “A mighty important crusade … We’ll be leaving as soon as we’re paid.” It’s a dizzy, busy life for these merry men (and one lady), a theatrical bunch that started life way on the outre side, before moving center. (The Plasmatics saw some Tubes, I guarantee it.) Along the way, blowing the fans mind with “Mondo Bondage,” thrown in jail and, well, the reward at the end of the night: “Oh ho ho ho,” Fee Waybill sings.  “Thank Heaven for little girls.”


6. “Rock and Roll Star,” David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars – “So exciting, so enticing to play the part … the wild mutation as a rock and roll star.” Bowie was a star or on his way to becoming one, but fantasizing about the rise and fall of such and, as we later learned, Ziggy was very much a role played by Bowie. The man had a lot of arrows in his quiver and “Rock and Roll Star” was but one. (An album that certainly veered away from maintaining his level of stardom.)


7. “I Wanna Be Sedated,” The Ramones: The road as a grind, a rat race, especially if, like Joey Ramone, you had OCD and getting to the airport was a chore with those tasked to do so. (Shoutout to Monte Melnick!) But sung and played in an upbeat way, the way The Ramones could make anything (brat beating, Nazi schatzes, getting the glory like Charles Manson) fun.


8. “Free Man in Paris,” Joni Mitchell: Her fantasy of not being in the biz, not being a star, the desire of (sort of/not really) of wanting out, understanding how the gears interlock. The job is “Stoking the star maker machinery/Behind the popular song/I deal in dreamers/And telephone screamers.


AUDIO: Bad Company “Shooting Star”

9. “Shooting Star,” Bad Company – One of more poignant in Bad Company’s catalog, a rise and fall story with the kid, Johnny, listening to The Beatles’ “Love Me Do,” having a dream of doing it himself, hitting the top of the pops and then tumbling down. Paul Rodgers doesn’t sing about the fall, but it’s there in the chorus: “Don’t you know that you are a shooting star.” We know that trajectory. Johnny ends up dead in a hotel, whiskey and pills again. But there’s kind of a sweet coda, “If you listen to the wind, you can still hear him play.”


10. “On the Road Again,” Willie Nelson – Yep, there he is, once again. No cobwebs on this song. Willie, at 89, is still on the road. Again.


11. “The Road’s My Middle Name,” Bonnie Raitt – Bonnie finding it hard to maintain a relationship at home because, well, the title says it all. Career vs. the rest of life, in a nutshell.


12. “(We Are) the Road Crew,” Motörhead – A salute to the fellas in the trenches, without whom … and you get the feeling that the distance, the class divide, between band and crew was pretty permeable in the Motörhead world, making us all feel part of this hyper fast steamroller of a show. Plus “Road Rats” by Alice Cooper paying tribute to the same guys. “The Load-out”/ “Stay” by Jackson Browne was one of the first of this sub-genre and though my least favorite of the bunch, needs to be noted.


13. “Head for Backstage Pass,” Jeff Beck – No words need in song, just the title. The ‘70s groupie/rock star equation in four words.


14. “History Lesson (Part 2),” Minutemen and Horsegirl. Originally written by San Pedro’s Minutemen, a tale about growing up scruffy and grasping onto what was really going on – “punk rock changed our lives” – and paying tribute forbears like Blue Oyster Cult’s Eric Bloom, Television’s Richard Hell, X’s John Doe and The Clash’s Joe Strummer. Also: Dylan and stating their band played “scientist” rock, which was true. (Lots of brainy twists and turns in short spaces.) The fact that Horsegirl, these three young ladies from Chicago, shambolically covered this last year gives me a big smile.


AUDIO: The Who “Long Live Rock”

15. “Long Live Rock,” The Who – Be it dead or alive. Ah, yes, Pete Townshend pondering the state of it all and declaring – and this is one of my favorites – “We were the first band to vomit at the bar!” Ultimately, even if The Who is waffling on dead or alive, the exultant tenor of the song makes it clear. Alive! Well, at least in this song.


16. “Smoke on the Water,” Deep Purple – Band goes to record in Montreux on the Lake Geneva shoreline. Something bad happens.


17. “Older Than You’ve Been Alive,” Old 97s – The alt-country pioneers from Texas check in by noting sub-standard hotel accommodations, the ever-present booze and the possible reality of the show itself:Most of our shows were a triumph of rock/Although in some nights I might have to check in the clock.” We’ve all been at shows of both types.


18. “Travelin’ Band,” Creedence Clearwater Revival – There’s a little road angst – “baggage gone” – and mostly John Fogarty and company are happy “flyin’ cross the land, tryin’ to get a and, play in a travelin’ band.”


19. “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll),” AC/DC – It ain’t easy, it’s a long slog but if you’re in Bon and Angus’s headspace, you’re with them, you’ve done it. Yeah, yeah, they’re “getting’ old … underpaid … undersold … getting’ ripped off,” but there’s no doubt this is a life they love. For you, fantasy fulfilled … unless maybe in your head you’re not as good as AC/DC, at which point you’ll taste the bitter hangover of disappointment.


20. “The Opening Act,” Drive-By Truckers – I like this premise, the song sung from the point of view of the act no one cares about and barely puts up with. Most every band has been there. Most every audience has, too. Sometimes, you get lucky: U2 opened for Barooga Bandit once. But mostly not. And so, from the D-by Truckers view here: “And it’s all such a fleeting thing so I’d best try and enjoy it / So much beauty and just enough time to figure out how to destroy it.”


21. “Taking Care of Business,” Bachman-Turner Overdrive – This crunchy Canadian band had the hard-rock hook thing down pat – Randy B. was ex-Guess Who – and they knew their job was: “Taking care of business … every day … every way.” But there’s also a sneer at the poor 9-to-5-er – “You start your slaving job to get your pay.” I mean, really guys, you gotta look down on those schlub ticket-buyers? Makes me recall the Guess Who’s “Bus Rider,” where Burton Cummings sang, “I’m so goddamn glad I’m not in your shoes.”


22. “Road Food,” The Guess Who – Speaking of the Guess Who, my guess here is that the “road food” sung about is not food at all but humans who might be available for rock star fucking. Bit of a “Lola”-esque twist in here, though.


23. “What’s Your Name?,” Lynyrd Skynyrd – Picking up on the Grand Funk “American Band” theme, Ronnie Van Zant starts musing about the post-show party in Boise, Idaho (party central?!). They’re tossed out of the hotel bar and up to their rooms where Ronnie’s got someone in his sex scope, though, dammit, he can’t remember her name. “What’s your name little girl? What’s your name?” Maybe unsung in the song: And what’s your age? Just askin’.


24. “Road Ladies,” Frank Zappa – Frank mulls life after the the rock life is done as is the road – a nice house in the country, maybe, no more Holiday Inns and no more shots for getting the damn clap from those ubiquitous road ladies.


25. “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” Beastie Boys – Back before MCA and the others found enlightenment came this little gem – the title a nod to Motörhead – and observations from the Beasties travelin’ pack: Play Madison Square Garden, sign autographs, observe a manager smoking dust and MCA “sleazin’ with a whore.” Lots about “girlies,” as was the Beasties wont back then. 


VIDEO: Beastie Boys “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”





Jim Sullivan
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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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