Before science arrived on the scene, superstitions were often used by our less enlightened forebears to explain away the inexplicable. In the modern world, plenty of these curious beliefs live on – even in the lyrics of popular music. As Halloween approaches, I Like Your Old Stuff revisits a dozen songs referencing superstitions, as well as investigating their origins.
1. Stevie Wonder | 'Superstition'
Lifted from his amazing 1972 album Talking Book, Stevie Wonder’s song Superstition includes a multitude of examples of its titular topic, including a reference to ladders being bad luck. Some references have suggested this superstition is Christian-based; since a ladder forms three sides with a wall and the ground, any wayward walker is defying the Holy Trinity. The belief dates back even further, with ancient Egyptians believing anyone breaching the area between a ladder and the wall would disturb the balance of good and evil spirits in the space. The song only brought Stevie Wonder good luck, with the single (originally demoed as a collaboration between Wonder and Jeff Beck) winning two Grammys and topping the US Billboard R&B Chart.
2. Devo | 'Whip It'
3. Placebo | 'Every You Every Me'
The UK trio’s previous single Pure Morning toyed with old aphorisms such as ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’, but Placebo turned to an old Hebrew superstition for lyrical inspiration on 1999’s Every You Every Me. A popular custom still linked to wedding day rites, the motivation behind a bride wearing ‘something borrowed, something blue’ during her nuptials is “devices to baffle the Evil Eye”, according to Harry Oliver’s book Black Cats And April Fools: Origins Of Old Wives’ Tales And Superstitions In Our Daily Lives. Oliver suggests wearing blue is an ancient Hebrew symbol of fidelity, while wearing an item loaned by someone else avoids the bride being cursed.
4. Eddie Floyd – 'Knock On Wood'
Both the UK and Australia prefer the term ‘touch wood’ rather than ‘knock on wood’, but the superstition remains the same: the action prevents one’s luck from running out. The belief may stem from Christians seeking protection from the Cross, although it could perhaps be from ancient times when pagans worshipped wood gods. The superstition proved a money-spinner for songwriter Eddie Floyd and his co-writer Steve Cropper, with Floyd’s 1966 single being followed by popular covers by David Bowie in 1974 and Amii Stewart in 1979.
5. Mott The Hoople | 'Through The Looking Glass'
David Bowie’s old pals Mott The Hoople also turned to superstitious beliefs for inspiration on 1974’s Through The Looking Glass. ‘Seven years bad luck ain't that long,’ Ian Hunter sings to his mirror on their seventh album The Hoople, ‘before I smash you, hear my song.’ The notion breaking a mirror would result in seven years’ bad luck derives from the Roman Empire. Since reflections were believed to have magical powers, shattering a mirror would curse the culprit. Thankfully Romans also believed the body renewed itself every seven years, so the poor sod’s bad luck wouldn’t last forever.
5. Iron Maiden | 'The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner'
Seafarers and sailors have seen albatrosses as an omen since the publication of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner in 1798. The poem depicts the titular mariner killing a majestic seabird, cursing him to a lifetime of penance. Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris used Taylor Coleridge’s poetry as the basis for Powerslave’s The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, culling 636 lines down to a relatively swift 13 minutes. ‘A terrible curse a thirst has begun,’ vocalist Bruce Dickinson sings of the seaman, ‘his shipmates blame bad luck on the mariner. About his neck, the dead bird is hung.’ The albatross superstition has also inspired works of fellow British titans Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd.
6. U2 | 'An Cat Dubh'
The superstition at the heart of this 1980 U2 song is present in the title, but you’d probably need a handle on Gaelic to be aware. An Cat Dubh translates to 'The Black Cat' in the traditional language, with the title character a woman who engaged in a short-term relationship with frontman Bono. As per many superstitions surrounding black cats, the U2 singer looks at the tryst as one of misfortune. Black cats have been linked to bad luck since the Dark Ages, when women accused of witchcraft would often have ‘familiars’ in their possession – pets alleged to have been gifted to them by The Devil! While Bono’s teenage affair might have ended badly, it’s not all negative: after hooking up with the black cat who ‘broke [his] will’, Bono returned to the arms of his on-again/off-again high school love Ali Stewart. The pair have been married since 1982.
7. Ryan Adams | 'Halloweenhead'
American songwriter Ryan Adams name-checked a heap of superstitions in his 2007 song Halloweenhead, including black cats, walking under ladders and ‘salt shaker spills, just throw it over your shoulder, babe’. Spilling salt has been linked to bad luck since Biblical times: in Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper, Judas Iscariot appears to have knocked the salt over. Since Judas betrayed Jesus, spilling salt was linked to deceit and disloyalty. One can reverse the bad luck by throwing salt over their left shoulder, thereby momentarily blinding the Devil who always lurks behind us. Adams’ song appears to be more about his penchant for other chemicals rather than sodium chloride, as inferred by the line ‘head full of tricks and treats, places where junkies meet’. The infamously agitated Adams once denied the drug inferences to this writer (“I don’t necessarily think that song is about drugs… I think that song was meant to be taken in a light-hearted manner. It’s tongue-in-cheek.”), so maybe it’s best to focus on the superstitions instead.
8. Joni Mitchell | 'The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms)'
Folk icon Joni Mitchell turns to a fortune-telling superstition for inspiration on her 1988 song The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms): ‘Molly McGee gets her tea-leaves read, you'll be married in a month they say’. Often linked to Gypsy customs, the fortune teller looks for symbols among the tea leaves in the empty teacup. The practise of reading tea leaves actually dates from before tea arrived in Europe. Prior to the Dutch merchants returning with tea in the late 17th century, fortune-tellers across Europe would use other herbal mixtures instead.
9. Prince | ‘Play In The Sunshine’
Joni Mitchell fan Prince also plunders an old European superstition for his Sign ‘O’ The Times song Play In The Sunshine, where he sings ‘I'm feelin' kind of lucky to night, I'm gonna find my four leaf clover’. One of the most famous of all superstitious beliefs, the good luck charms of four leaf clovers date back to the 17th century. With the four leaves said to represent wealth, fame, love and health, discovering one was said to ward off witches.
10. Morrissey | ‘Ouija Board, Ouija Board’
Attempting to contact a deceased friend on this 1989 single, former Smiths frontman Morrissey turns to a spirit divination device. Ouija boards update an ancient method to communicate with the dead, with the name derived from the French and German words for yes. The superstitious believe Ouija boards allow communication with the spirit world, who utilise the alphabet, letters and symbols on the board to spell out messages to the living. Morrissey’s efforts to engage his dead pal ends with a comical message from the other side: ‘Steven, push off’.
11. The Rolling Stones | 'Dandelion'
A British superstition from the 19th century suggests blowing on a dandelion can offer a vision of your future: depending on how many breaths it takes to dislodge a dandelion’s seedheads, you could find answers such as the years until you marry, how many children you’d have or what vocation you’d take. The Rolling Stones’ 1967 song references this belief: ‘Play the game with ev'ry flower you bring, dandelion don't tell no lies’. Mick Jagger was joined by a couple of famous friends on vocals on Dandelion, with John Lennon and Paul McCartney backing him on the song.
12. The Doors | ‘The Changeling’
Called a “horrific and heart-breaking” superstition in Harry Oliver’s book Black Cats And April Fools: Origins Of Old Wives’ Tales And Superstitions In Our Daily Lives, the changeling story suggests fairies, envious of a pretty human newborn baby, would sometimes swap it with their own grotesque infant. If a baby was stunted, disabled or cried continuously, it might have been a changeling. Such children might be exposed to barbaric trials to test its true nature, much like a witch. In The Doors song The Changeling, lifted from 1971’s LA Woman, Jim Morrison suggests he is the changeling. Rather than an overt reference to fairies, it appears Morrison is in fact acknowledging his own visual shift from svelte heartthrob of the band’s early hits to an overweight, hairy drunkard. He was dead within six months of its release.
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