12 Hits Name-Checking Hollywood Icons

12 Hits Name-Checking Hollywood Icons

hollywood names in music
Marlon Brando, (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images), Marilyn Monroe (Photo by Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images), James Dean (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Lights, camera, action! Musicians have long turned to Hollywood for lyrical inspiration, with a number of artists referencing the golden era of film in their massive chart hits. Here we look at a dozen charting songs referencing classic Hollywood stars… 

David Essex – Rock On, #8 (1974)

Hollywood reference: James Dean

As well as appearing on David Essex’s self-titled 1973 debut album, “Rock On” featured in the 1973 film That’ll Be The Day, which starred Essex alongside Ringo Starr. “Rock On”’s bass line was created by acclaimed session muso Herbie Flowers, who also devised the memorable bass for Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”. Smashing Pumpkins, Def Leppard and Blondie are among the acts to have since covered the song. 

Charlene – I’ve Never Been To Me, #1 (1982)

Hollywood reference: Jean Harlow 

A flop on its original release in 1977, Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been To Me” disappeared from view until 1982, when a Florida DJ who became fixated on spinning the track convinced Motown of its hit potential. It was subsequently re-released around the globe and spent six weeks at the top of the chart in Australia. The earliest recorded version of the song actually featured on Randy Crawford’s 1976 album Everything Must Change and is worth checking out for an arguably more measured, soulful reading. 

David Bowie - China Girl, #15 (1983)

Hollywood reference: Marlon Brando

This Iggy Pop and David Bowie co-write originally appeared on Pop’s solo album The Idiot in 1977, but, with a little Nile Rodgers production fairydust, the song received a second wind on Bowie’s commercial juggernaut Let’s Dance in 1983. The accompanying music video was filmed here in Australia around Sydney’s Chinatown area. 

Madonna – Vogue, #1 (1990)

Hollywood reference: Greta Garbo, (Marilyn) Monroe, (Marlene) Dietrich, Marlon Brando, (James) Dean, Grace Kelly, Jean Harlow, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, Lauren (Bacall), Katherine (Hepburn), Lana (Turner), Bette Davis

Its parent album, the Dick Tracy tie-in I’m Breathless, might be one of Madonna’s less revered releases, but “Vogue” was one of her biggest hits. Paired with an iconic music video directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, The Social Network), the song shone a light on numerous icons from the golden age of Hollywood. Lauren Bacall’s death in 2014 meant all the performers Madonna referenced are now deceased.

Murray Head - One Night In Bangkok, #1 (1985)

Hollywood reference: Yul Brynner

Lifted from Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson’s Chess musical collaboration with Tim Rice, “One Night In Bangkok” felt less like a reheated ABBA tune than the musical’s first single, Elaine Page & Barbara Dickson’s “I Know Him So Well”. While “I Know Him So Well” only made it to #21 in Australia, Murray Head’s hit went all the way to number one. It was his first appearance in the Australian charts since his rendition of the Jesus Christ Superstar track “Superstar” reached #5 in 1969.

Harpo – Moviestar, #3 (1976)

Hollywood reference: Steve McQueen, James Dean

Speaking of ABBA, Swedish pop star Harpo (born Jan Torsten Svensson) had a little help from the ABBA camp on his ‘70s smash hit “Moviestar”: Frida Lyngstad can be heard providing backing vocals on the song, which was also recorded in Swedish. After the song’s release, Steve McQueen only appeared in three more films before his death from cancer in 1980.

Kim Carnes - Bette Davis Eyes, #1 (1982)

Hollywood reference: Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo

One of the most famous songs to reference a Hollywood icon, “Bette Davis Eyes” was co-written by Jackie DeShannon, the first singer to have a hit with Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “What The World Needs Now” in 1965. When Carnes’ version picked up Grammys for Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year in early 1982, 73-year-old Bette Davis sent her roses. 

Al Stewart – Year Of The Cat, #13 (1977)

Hollywood reference: (Humphrey) Bogart

For a brief moment, Al Stewart’s “Year Of The Cat” had the working title of “Horse Of The Year” and took the piss out of Princess Anne. Based around a piano riff he’d heard co-writer Peter Wood play when they were both supporting Linda Ronstadt on a US tour in 1975, “Year Of The Cat” became the British artist’s biggest hit. Interestingly, there is no ‘year of the cat’ in Chinese astrology, however it does feature in Vietnamese astrology.

Warren Zevon - Werewolves Of London, #8 (1978)

Hollywood reference: Lon Chaney, Lon Chaney Jr

Taken from Zevon’s classic album Excitable Boy, “Werewolves Of London” was the only US top 40 hit of his career. Originally written as an in-studio joke, Zevon’s friend Jackson Browne saw potential in the throwaway lyrics and produced the song with co-writer and guitarist Waddy Wachtel. Lon Chaney was a famed film actor and make-up expert specialising in horror films during the silent era, while his son Lon Chaney Jr was also a horror favourite whose roles included The Wolf Man, The Mummy’s Tomb and Son Of Dracula.

The Bangles - Manic Monday, #3 (1986)

Hollywood reference: (Rudolph) Valentino

One of their four top 10 hits in Australia in the ‘80s, photogenic American pop band The Bangles reached #3 in the Australian singles chart in June 1986 with the Prince-penned song “Manic Monday”. The object of Prince’s/The Bangles’ dreamy affections, Rudolph Valentino, was a silent film star from Italy whose breakthrough role came in 1921’s The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. He died just five years later in 1926, aged 31. He was also referenced in David Bowie’s "Don’t Look Down" and The Kinks’ "Celluloid Heroes".

Peter Sarstedt – Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?, #1 (1969)

Hollywood reference: Marlene Dietrich

As well as winning an Ivor Novello Award for “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?”, Peter Sarstedt also knocked The Beatles’ double A side “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”/”While My Guitar Gently Weeps” off the top spot in the Australian singles chart in April 1969. The track stayed there for four weeks before the troubadour was moved on by Russell Morris’ “The Real Thing”. It ended up being Australia’s 10th best selling single of the year.

Billy Joel – We Didn’t Start The Fire, #2 (1989)

Hollywood references: Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe, (Marlon) Brando, James Dean, (Brigitte) Bardot

Sure it’s one of the most loathed songs in Billy Joel’s catalogue, but imagine how much more of a cringe it would have been if the piano man had released it as a rap song as he originally intended. School teachers may have been the biggest benefactors of the hit: it was reported the song led to an increase in US students studying contemporary history.

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