text by Marz Aglipay
In this article, we talk about five songs released in the ’80s or earlier that art lovers should know of. The songs selected in this article have directly referenced an artwork; they are associated with an artist as a work of art, or through an artist’s affinity to a particular artwork or visual artist.
1. Don McLean “Vincent” (1971)
2. Television “Venus” (1977)
It is quite the irony to hear a song about falling “right into the arms of Venus De Milo.” considering that the ancient Greek sculpture “Venus de Milo” is well known for the mystery of its missing arms. “Venus” is part of Television’s first studio album Marquee Moon. Venus was written during a short-lived psychedelic drug phase of Television’s frontman Tom Verlaine. Understandably the music industry at the time was plagued with rumors of artists engaging in drug use to induce a heightened state of creativity. In hindsight, no matter however vivid Verlaine’s allusions and references may be, he’s resigned to the fact that the meaning of most of his songs from Marquee Moon is much like those missing arms— a mystery.
3. Nat King Cole “Mona Lisa” (1950)
“you’re so like the lady with the mystic smile” that lady with the mystic smile is none other than Leonardo da Vinci’s muse, La Jaconde (Mona Lisa). The song was written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston crafted as a warning device of the sorts for a war film. In an interview Livingston gave to American Songwriter Magazine in 1988 he reveals “There was a picture called OSS, which took place during World War II, and Alan Ladd was in a little Italian town where the clandestine radio was, and they needed a song to warn them that the German patrol was coming.
There was this blind accordion player who wasn’t blind playing on the street and every time he saw the Germans coming he would play a certain melody, so we wrote ‘Mona Lisa’ and they said that it sounded Italian and they liked it.”
The film OSS would be bought and renamed Captain Carey, USA which would require the songwriters to ask for the rights of the song before they could pitch it to Nat King Cole who made it into the timeless hit that it is.
4. Toni Basil “Breakaway” (1966)
You may know Toni Basil as the one-hit-wonder behind the 80’s hit “Hey Mickey” but she’s been dancing and singing years before “Hey Mickey” was even a thing. American Sculptor Bruce Conner employed body movement and rhythmic editing into his 1966 dance film “Breakaway.” Connor’s abrupt, reversed and repetitive style in editing was uncommon in linear film post-production at the time. Conner filmed then 23-year old Toni Basil dancing to “Breakaway” which she also sings. If you’re wondering why Breakaway isn’t easily associated to the Hey-Mickey hit-maker is because Basil is credited in the work under her birth name “Antonia Christina Basilotta”. This music video was included in “Bruce Conner: Out of Body” that was exhibited at Bellas Artes Outpost in May 2018.
5. David Bowie “Andy Warhol” (1971)
David Bowie became a huge fan of Andy Warhol after seeing his 1971 play entitled “Pork” in London. His admiration for Warhol lead him to write a song aptly titled “Andy Warhol.” An early recording of the song would be passed on to the pop-icon with Bowie’s handwritten inscription on a record saying “To Andy with respect – Bowie.” This eventually led to the first and only meeting of the two artist in Warhol’s “The Factory”. Although the two never had the chance to collaborate Bowie would later play Warhol in the film Basquiat (1996). Fun fact: The Andy Warhol Museum loaned Bowie one of Warhol’s wigs and leather jackets for the singer to wear exclusively for the film.
What songs do you think should be on this list? Let us know by leaving a comment below.