April Fool’s Day is around the corner, and what better way to celebrate this holy day of pranksterism with a list composed entirely of fictional (or partially fictional) stories of rock ‘n’ roll debauchery, terror, hilarity and misdeeds. We trust most of our readers have heard some variation of most of these stories at some point, and some of them, despite being decades old, are still endlessly entertaining. And what’s more, they remind us of a naïve, pre-Internet age in which falsehoods took a lot more effort to debunk (and also, for that matter, a lot more creativity to invent). Here are our 10 favorite pop music urban legends, with the backstories to match.
10. Marilyn Manson’s Wonder Years
Marilyn Manson, born Brian Warner, has spent most of his adult life making a career out of shock value, his schtick making more than a few parents nervous in the ’90s. But the idea of a dark, threatening rock star actually having in his past a tenured role as a nerdy best friend in a prime-time drama apparently seemed pretty romantic, if not hilarious, to some. And thus the rumor began that it was, in fact, Marilyn Manson who portrayed Paul Pfeiffer, Kevin Arnold’s geeky chum, on The Wonder Years. This one’s pretty easy to debunk though. Josh Saviano, a very different person, played Paul Pfeiffer. A variation on the legend is that Manson played Kevin on Mr. Belvedere, but no, that was Rob Stone.
9. Takin’ Care of pizza
Some myths are so hilarious that they’re plausible, and given how funny the story is, singer/guitarist Randy Bachman is actually responsible for spreading it as truth! When recording their hit “Takin’ Care of Business,” Bachman-Turner Overdrive apparently invited a pizza delivery guy to play piano in the studio. Per Bachman’s story, a guy sent to deliver pizzas to Steve Miller Band, who were recording next door, stopped in the wrong room by mistake. He suggests their song could use a piano, they take him up on it, and the rest is history. Bachman’s brother Robbie, however, said that was a bit of an exaggeration on Randy’s part, and what really happened is a session musician recording next door was asked to play piano on the song, and in a hurry he wrote the chord progression on a pizza box. Seattle radio station KZOK actually had members of the band in the studio to sort out the truth of the matter, in fact, as well as a telephone interview with the pianist himself, Norman Durkee, a professional whose credits include being Bette Midler and Barry Manilow’s musical director. His best quote? “They don’t get high; they just eat a lot of pizza.” So, not actually a pizza guy. One more thing, though: get to the working overtime part!
8. Lou Reed gives something to cry about
Lou Reed has made a career of turning rock music into an endurance test, sometimes for better or for worse, his bleak concept album Berlin being one of those that definitely falls on the better side. Folks will debate over which moment is the most chilling, though it’s hard to overlook “The Kids,” which ends in a jarring chorus of screaming, crying children. The story goes that producer Bob Ezrin told his kids that their mother was dead in order to get such an emotional and intense reaction out of them. It’s not too out of the question to believe, considering that listening to it is an upsetting experience in and of itself. But apparently, not true. In the liner notes to Lou Reed’s anthology Between Thought and Expression, Ezrin merely recorded his kids around bedtime when they were cranky: “It’s something you’ve seen a thousand times but because of the compression on it and the way that it’s in your face [in the mix] it’s relentless. And it’s totally dry. It’s completely dry, it’s distorted, and it’s compressed to death. It makes it so unbelievably emotional people accused me of beating my kids.”
7. Phil Collins, drowning witness
Phil Collins’ 1981 hit “In the Air Tonight” is undeniably his greatest song (and even made our Top 200 Songs of the ’80s list), but it’s also the one that courted the weirdest legend, if one that takes its lyrics a little too literally. During the verse, Collins sings, “Well if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand.” And from there, a combination of the telephone game and vivid imaginations interpreted the song to be a true story about a supposed drowning incident that Collins witnessed, in which someone refused to come to the aid of the victim. The myth gets even juicier when coupled with a follow-up myth, that Collins came face-to-face with the culprit at a concert while performing the song. It’s good enough to be a movie script, but it might as well be, because it’s complete fiction. Collins has said he was going through a divorce at the time and his own frustration and bewilderment led him to wrote those words, but that the drowning incident in question never happened. Or did it? (No, it didn’t).
6. Keith Richards snorts dad
Keith Richards could pretty much do any outrageous kind of stunt that involves ingesting a foreign or illicit object of some kind and people would believe it. And so it went in 2007 after Keith Richards said he snorted his father’s ashes after he was cremated. Not long thereafter, Richards denied it, saying that he was merely joking. However, apparently there was a little truth to the story. In 2010, Richards stated in his autobiography “Life,” that he acted on impulse in an otherwise innocent situation involving the ashes: “The truth of the matter is that after having Dad’s ashes in a black box for six years, because I really couldn’t bring myself to scatter him to the winds, I finally planted a sturdy English oak to spread him around. And as I took the lid off of the box, a fine spray of his ashes blew out on to the table. I couldn’t just brush him off so I wiped my finger over it and snorted the residue.”
5. Rollercoaster of death
A persistent myth since the ’70s surrounding the Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster” goes that while the band was recording their 1975 funk hit, a woman was murdered in the room adjacent to the studio, and the scream captured on the song (which, to be fair, is a curious element to the song) is that of the victim. It’s one of those myths that gets passed around over decades and decades because, above all, it’s a really good story! But not true. However, the band seemed to agree that the myth was good for their image. The band’s Jimmy “Diamond” Williams explains, “The DJ made this crack and it swept the country. People were asking us ‘Did you kill this chick?’ The band took a vow of silence because that makes you sell more records.”
4. Deborah Harry’s brush with Bundy
The most intriguing legends are often the ones that are the most terrifying. To wit: Blondie singer Deborah Harry claimed in 1989 that notorious serial killer Ted Bundy lured her into his car in the ’70s. According to Harry’s story, she was trying to hail a cab in New York City around 2 or 3 a.m., and wasn’t able to flag one down, so a guy in a small car offered to give her a ride. As she entered the car, she saw that the inside was stripped bare and there were no door handles that would allow her to open the door from the inside, so in a fortuitous moment of panic she was able to get the door open from the outside and escape. And later on, after seeing his face on TV, she realized the driver was none other than Bundy himself. While nobody doubts that some creepy bastard gave her a lift that night, there’s no evidence that suggests it actually was Bundy, and lots of evidence that contradicts that being the case. Snopes gives a pretty detailed account of his history and whereabouts for most of his life, and it appears he never spent any time in New York City. That said, whatever happened that night definitely sounds like a close call, and Harry certainly is lucky for having gotten out of that car.
3. Paul is dead
The Beatles have long been the source of some funny rumors, myths, legends and whoppers, but in 1967 one in particular spread far and wide, and persisted up through the band’s final days. Paul McCartney, conspiracy theorists believed, had been killed in a car accident in 1967 and was replaced in the band by a look-alike. Seems silly now, but in the ’60s radio stations and publishers discussed and exploited the myth at length, and fans pointed to numerous clues heard in their music or displayed in artwork. There was the “I buried Paul” that’s supposedly heard at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever” (actual phrase “Cranberry sauce”). The “turn me on, dead man” message heard when “Revolution #9” plays backward. And then there’s the supposed imagery of Abbey Road: John, in white, is the heavenly body; Ringo, in black, is the mourner; George, in denim, is the gravedigger; and Paul, barefoot and out of step, is the corpse. It took a Life magazine article in 1969 to convince people otherwise (apparently). Nowadays the rumor seems quaint, given that McCartney has been continuously performing and releasing new music. But never let the truth get in the way of a good conspiracy.
2. Whole Lotta Mudshark
Thanks to the Internet, stories about rock stars and groupies have become easier to track down, and considering some of the tales circulating out there, far more disgusting than you’d ever imagine. Yet the story of Led Zeppelin’s encounter with a groupie and a shark is far more entertaining, particularly because it’s, to some degree, actually true. When the tale circulated, various versions of the story involved one or all members of Led Zeppelin involved in some kind of sexual mischief involving a groupie and a shark, and you can use your imagination to fill in the details. Well, apparently, this all arose from an incident at the Edgewater Hotel in Seattle, at which John Bonham and manager Richard Cole were fishing and caught some red snapper. Some groupies show up, and Cole introduces one to one of the snappers in a, erm, rather creative manner. That there’s a kernel of truth here makes it that much better, if a little icky.
1. Robert Johnson’s Faustian bargain
Robert Johnson, for a variety of reasons, was America’s first true rock star. A Delta blues pioneer, Johnson inspired countless musicians in the past century, and, having died young at the age of 27, was one of the first to cast a dark shadow over the infamously cursed number. But perhaps most incredible of all, long before heavy metal bands began singing about Satan, a myth arose that Johnson was given his musical abilities via a Faustian bargain of his own. While living on a plantation in Mississippi, Johnson was reportedly visited by the Devil himself, who tuned Johnson’s guitar and strummed a few tunes before giving it back to Johnson along with exceptional musical skills, in exchange for his immortal soul. Later details, like the meeting happening at the “crossroads”, were added later. There is, of course, no evidence that it happened, and Johnson’s song “Cross Road Blues,” which some have attributed to being inspired by the supposed soul sale, is more likely about hitchhiking. Furthermore, the story is one that’s been repeated in various forms of folklore and literature. Nonetheless, this is easily the most badass rock ‘n’ roll urban legend you’re likely to hear.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.