Top 10 Classic Rock songs that tell a story

8 December 2023, 10:00

Deep Purple have a true story to tell in Smoke On The Water
Deep Purple have a true story to tell in Smoke On The Water. Picture: RooM the Agency/Alamy Stock Photo/Jorgen Angel/Redferns/Getty

In December 1971, Deep Purple saw Montreux Casino burn to the ground - and wrote a song about it. Which other great songs tell tall tales and long and winding stories?

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  1. Dire Straits - Sultans Of Swing (1978)

    Mark Knopfler was inspired by watching a jazz combo play in a deserted pub in Deptford and their ironically exotic name. The rest of the story came from the songwriter's vivid imagination.

    Dire Straits - Sultans Of Swing (Official Music Video)

  2. Led Zeppelin - Stairway To Heaven (1971)

    Some critics have tried to claim this Zeppelin classic has a "subliminal Satanic message" in its grooves, but Robert Plant’s fanciful lyrics were partly inspired by The Lord of The Rings and by the book Magic Arts In Celtic Britain.

    Led Zeppelin - Stairway To Heaven (Official Audio)

  3. Deep Purple - Smoke On The Water (1972)

    The British rock band were in the Swiss town of Montreux in December 1971 to record what would become their album Machine Head at the nearby casino. However, a flare let off during a Frank Zappa gig at the venue burnt the entire building to the ground. The visions of smoke across Lake Geneva inspired the musicians to write one of rock's greatest tracks.

    Deep Purple - Smoke on the Water (Audio)

  4. The Police - Message In A Bottle (1979)

    Is he actually on a desert island, or is it all a big metaphor for the loneliness of the big city? Knowing Sting, the answer is probably yes. A chart-topper in the UK back in 1979.

    The Police - Message In A Bottle (Official Music Video)

  5. John Cougar Mellencamp - Jack And Diane (1982)

    "Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone." Mellencamp's hit is based on the 1959 Tennessee Williams play Sweet Bird Of Youth about the relationship between a drifter and a former movie star.

    John Mellencamp - Jack & Diane

  6. J Geils Band - Centrefold (1981)

    "My blood runs cold, my memories have just been sold." Frontman Peter Wolf tells the story of a high school crush that ends up in an "adult magazine" in this memorable tune that made Number 3 in the Uk charts.

    J. Geils Band - Centerfold (Official Music Video)

  7. Rod Stewart - Maggie May

    Based on a formative experience Rod the Mod had a jazz festival in 1961 – if you get our meaning - the singer named the character in his song after the old Liverpool folk ditty. The single topped the charts in the summer of 1971.

    Rod Stewart - Maggie May (1971)

  8. David Bowie - Life On Mars (1971)

    A domestic row sees a young girl flounce out of the house where she finds solace in the cinema. One of Bowie's greatest compositions.

    David Bowie – Life On Mars? (Official Video)

  9. Meat Loaf - Bat Out Of Hell (1977)

    Operatic rock courtesy of songwriter Jim Steinman, penned as the ultimate “motorcycle crash song” that was originally intended for a rock musical version of the Peter Pan story.

    Meat Loaf - Bat Out of Hell (PCM Stereo)

  10. Squeeze - Up The Junction (1979)

    "I never thought it would happen, with me and the girl from Clapham" - a person's life story (from bar to street to bookie) summed up perfectly by Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook.

    Squeeze - Up The Junction