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How do you sleep?: 23 highly specific rock and roll diss tracks

Illustration: Nick Wanserski
Illustration: Nick Wanserski

1. Pavement, “Range Life” (1994)

After 1992’s Slanted And Enchanted, critics started writing about Pavement as the voice of the slacker generation, and on the 1994 followup Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, frontman Steven Malkmus seemed to take that tag seriously. Alongside “state of alt-rock” addresses like “Cut Your Hair” and “Fillmore Jive,” Malkmus wrote the country shuffle “Range Life,” which for most of its five minutes is an earnest meditation on how the desire to live freely conflicts with a yearning for security. Then in the final, semi-improvised verse, Malkmus laconically lashes out at Smashing Pumpkins (singing “they don’t have no function”) and Stone Temple Pilots (dismissing the group as “elegant bachelors”). The Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan was reportedly so irritated by the song that he kept Pavement off the Lollapalooza bill in 1994. Malkmus later told Melody Maker that the insults were meant to be “playful.” But there’s definitely a cool-vs.-uncool line being drawn. “Range Life” appeared to declare how right-thinking folks should feel about two of the most popular bands of the early ’90s. [Noel Murray]

2. Sex Pistols, “New York” (1977)

Though punk was still in its nascent stage in 1977, the Sex Pistols were ready to serve a palate cleanser with Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. The band seemed eager to kill its predecessors, including the New York Dolls, who they trashed on the album in “New York.” Johnny Rotten snarks about the N.Y. Dolls’ addiction issues and diminished relevance, bookending the nastiness with the line “sealed with a kiss,” a reference to the NY Dolls’ “Looking For A Kiss.” The N.Y. Dolls were already broken up by 1977, so direct competition probably wasn’t the root of Rotten’s contempt. But since their dissolution sent former manager Malcolm McLaren back to London, where he soon formed the Sex Pistols, maybe “New York” was born of a desire to get out of the Dolls’ shadow. Following the Sex Pistols’ breakup in 1978, former Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders responded with his own diss track, “Little London Boys,” which featured this put-down: “If I hadn’t kissed it, you wouldn’t be around.” [Danette Chavez]

3. David Bowie, “Teenage Wildlife” (1980)

How’s this for an understatement: David Bowie was a complicated guy. The chameleonic musician and all-around cultural icon, who died earlier this year, had a reputation for being disarmingly gracious and supportive, but could also be curt and mean. When Bowie didn’t like somebody, he let them know, though few people seem to have rubbed him the wrong way like Gary Numan did in the late 1970s. The new-wave pioneer owed a lot to Bowie’s experiments with sound and public image, as did many of the synth poppers who were coming up at the time—but instead of a nod of approval from the Thin White Duke, what they inspired was the sprawling, poison-pen “Teenage Wildlife,” which serves as the centerpiece of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). The song’s lyrics are cutting (“Same old thing in brand new drag”), taking aim at Numan and his peers’ obsession with technology and repetition. But as a piece of music, it’s all about Bowie asserting his the scope of his creativity—a gorgeously textured song with the kind of elastic vocal performance that no one else could equal. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

4. Sun Kil Moon, “War On Drugs: Suck My Cock” (2014)

Thanks to singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, the Ottawa Folk Festival is well on its way to becoming The Source Awards of gently strummed acoustic guitars and abiding sorrow. Maybe that’s overstating it, but Kozelek’s bizarre feud with Philadelphia’s The War On Drugs began at the Canadian event, where he performed as Sun Kil Moon and was fighting mad about the sound bleeding from WOD’s set on an adjacent stage. After WOD heard Kozelek had told them to “suck my fucking dick” from the stage, the back-and-forth escalated in the press until Kozelek decided to memorialize it in song. The savage, seven-minute “War On Drugs: Suck My Cock” isn’t among Kozelek’s best work, but it’s an important document to prove a rock rivalry future generations might not otherwise believe took place. The feud has since cooled down, so perhaps Kozelek and WOD have mended fences, presumably without anyone performing fellatio. [Joshua Alston]

5. John Lennon, “How Do You Sleep?” (1971)

There wasn’t much precedent in popular culture for a breakup as big as The Beatles’ back in 1970, so in the years that followed, fans picked through every interview, public appearance, and lyric, looking for clues to what happened and why. The band members stoked that fire. In 1971, Paul McCartney released “Too Many People,” a song that rolls its eyes at self-righteous activists “going underground,” “preaching practices,” and “sharing party lines,” all of which seemed aimed at John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Lennon responded later that year with “How Do You Sleep?”, which contains the lines, “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead,” and, “The only thing you done was yesterday.” Adding insult: George Harrison played guitar on the song, and Ringo Starr dropped by the studio during the recording. These passive-aggressive pokes between Lennon and McCartney were never as pointed again, but they didn’t need to be. After 1971, Beatlemaniacs everywhere knew where the two men stood. [Noel Murray]

6. Sebadoh, “Gimme Indie Rock” (1991)

Given that bands don’t get much more “indie rock” than Sebadoh—either in aesthetic or business model—this roaring anthem could be read as only a little bit sarcastic. But as singer-songwriter Lou Barlow describes his chosen genre as “middle of the road” “electric white boy blues,” he’s at least being self-critical. Plus, he names names, singing about “getting loose with the Pussy Galore” and “pedal-hopping like Dinosaur [Jr.]” (the band he’d split from acrimoniously). The most curious shout-out in “Gimme Indie Rock” is to Thurston Moore and Sonic Youth, a band Barlow hails(?) for getting “what they wanted.” How’s that for faint praise? [Noel Murray]

7. Sebadoh, “The Freed Pig” (1991)

Lou Barlow dove more deeply into his break from Dino Jr. on Sebadoh’s infamously scathing “Freed Pig.” He lays the sarcasm on thick, conceding he was a cancer to Dinosaur Jr. and that he’d been dead set on provoking the group’s J. Mascis out of jealousy over his enormous talent. “Now you will be free,” Barlow sings, choking on his contempt, “With no sick people tugging on your sleeve, your big head has that more room to grow.” Mascis never responded, of course. Like the song itself, their feud was always a one-way conversation, with Barlow firing shots at an indifferent target who never seemed to notice, much less care. More than a decade after the two buried the hatchet in a reunited Dinosaur Jr., “The Freed Pig” remains bitter proof of just how deep Barlow’s scorn ran. [Evan Rytlewski]

8. Menswear, “Stardust” (1995)

The Britpop era produced many press feuds—“Wibbling Rivalry,” Blur vs. Oasis, etc.—but surprisingly few good diss songs. Leave it to glampop purveyors Menswear to provide one of the best ones with “Stardust,” which takes on Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie and his taste for the trappings of rockstardom: career reinventions, pretty girlfriends, and fashionable clothes. The song is cheeky rather than malicious, a fact underscored by light lyrics (e.g., “Bobby Boy’s full of bravado / His girlfriend looks like Brigitte Bardot”) and the obvious musical nods to Primal Scream’s sound circa-Give Out But Don’t Give Up: peppy horns, swaggering Stones riffs, and boogie-blues piano. “Stardust” hit the U.K. top 20, although the diss didn’t carry much weight beyond the chart run. [Annie Zaleski]

9. Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sweet Home Alabama” (1974)

The gold standard for response songs, “Sweet Home Alabama” was reportedly written by the southern men of Lynyrd Skynyrd after they took offense to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” Young was calling out the racist history of the South, referring to the Ku Klux Klan’s “crosses burning,” and chiding, “Don’t forget what the good book said.” A few years later, Lynyrd Skynyrd sauntered into the studio with that now-famous guitar riff, and wrote: “Well, I hope Neil Young will remember / A southern man don’t need him around anyhow,” the straightforward diss song that clearly calls out its intended by name. Ronnie Van Zant said at the time, “We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two,” attempting to point out that the entire South wasn’t racist. The feud is one of rock’s most famous, but it’s not as heated as it appears. Despite the song’s use of the phrase “southern man,” Young and Van Zant both later pointed to Young’s “Alabama” as the real inspiration, which was even more targeted against Southerners. Young later wrote that “My own song ‘Alabama’ richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record.” Van Zant took to wearing a Young T-shirt when the band performed “SHA” in concert, and when members of Skynyrd were involved in a deadly plane crash in 1977, Young segued “Alabama” into “Sweet Home Alabama” onstage to honor the band. [Gwen Ihnat]

10. NOFX, “Kill Rock Stars” (1997)
11. Le Tigre, “Deceptacon” (1999)

Some diss songs land on the wrong side of history; look no further than NOFX’s “Kill Rock Stars,” a song written about feminist icon and Riot Grrrl matriarch Kathleen Hanna, referencing both her and her band’s label by name: “Kill the rockstars? / How ironic, Kathleen / You’ve been crowned the newest queen.” Singer/bassist Fat Mike goes on to mansplain how feminism does or doesn’t work to Hanna (“Kinda like the punk rock Gloria Steinem / You can’t change the world by blaming men / Can’t change the world by hating men”) before closing with the track’s most abhorrent lyric: “I wish I could have seen Courtney / Demonstrate some real misogyny,” a reference to a backstage incident at Lollapalooza 1995 when Courtney Love allegedly punched Hanna. Luckily, a key component of diss songs is the opportunity for rebuttal, and Hanna wasted little time. “Deceptacon”—the first song on her next album, Le Tigre’s eponymous debut—closes with the following verse: “Your lyrics are dumb like a linoleum floor / I’ll walk on it / I’ll walk all over you.” “Linoleum floor” refers to NOFX’s song “Linoleum,” as Hanna chides Fat Mike for his meaningless and uninteresting lyrics (which is to say nothing of how woefully misguided they were). Kathleen Hanna: 1, Fat Mike: 0. [Leonardo Adrian Garcia]

12. Mojo Nixon, “Don Henley Must Die” (1990)

In the 1980s, a sizable segment of the indie music scene was devoted to simply poking holes in anything lionized by the mainstream in Reagan’s America. One of the best and silliest provocateurs was rockabilly singer Mojo Nixon, who took on the larger culture with tunes like “Burn Down The Malls,” and “Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child.” But his most famous target is the Eagles-drummer-turned-solo-artist, who Nixon describes as, “Poet of despair / Pumped up with hot air / He’s serious, pretentious / And I just don’t care,” building up to a chorus of, “Don Henley must die / Put him in the electric chair / Watch him fry!” The song was one of Nixon’s standbys until, at one live performance, the singer was shocked when Don Henley himself jumped onstage and sang the song as a duet. [Mike Vago]

13. Crass, “Punk Is Dead” (1978)

Punk’s death has been a joke as long as the genre has been alive, and the hyper-politicized Crass were one of the first to revel in this gallows humor. The anarchist-punk collective didn’t take kindly to punk bands being in bed with major corporations, and throughout “Punk Is Dead,” vocalist Steve Ignorant is happy to point out why that’s so damaging. Whether he’s calling out The Clash, The Sex Pistol’s guitarist Steve Jones, or even New York City art-punk icon Patti Smith, Ignorant is quick to point out their indiscretions. Crass would make a career of launching attacks on anything that stood in opposition to its ideals, but few were as potent as “Punk Is Dead.” [David Anthony]

14. Special Duties, “Bullshit Crass” (1982)

Opening with the chant of “Fight Crass, not punk,” Special Duties set its sights on the anarchist band that was no stranger to stoking controversy. Taking umbrage with both Crass’ music and its message, Special Duties drew a line in the sand with “Bullshit Crass.” The band doesn’t mince words, calling out Crass for its ideals, its cultish following, and its claim that “punk is dead.” This mudslinging would never amount to more than that, but it did give Special Duties its most memorable song in the process. [David Anthony]

15. Sevendust, “Enemy” (2003)

Schoolyard taunts and gritted-teeth threats are the bread and butter of nu metal. So one could be forgiven for assuming that Sevendust’s “Enemy”—which cracked the top 10 of Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks, back in the dark ages of 2003—is just a general blast of macho grandstanding. But drummer Morgan Rose, who wrote the song and raps its vitriolic verses, had a very specific enemy in mind when he wrote such choice lines as “Clean up my shit / you look like a dick / Step to unemployment”: Dez Fafara, lead singer of fellow Ozzfest undercard act Coal Chamber. Turns out that Rose was married at the time to former Coal Chamber bassist Rayna Foss-Rose, and wrote the song as a hit piece on his wife’s old bandmate, who he contends “fucked [her] over real bad.” There’s nothing so specific about the grievances aired, though, which stick instead to generic attacks on his archrival’s appearance (“Cut your fucking hair now”) and his jealous careerism (“You wanna be like me cause it’s real / So you steal on your way to fame”). The soaring, radio-friendly chorus betrays the real intent of the song: not tearing down an adversary so much as waving as you pass them on the charts. [A.A. Dowd]

16. Morrissey, “Sorrow Will Come In The End” (1997)

Almost a decade after The Smiths’ dissolution, drummer Mike Joyce filed a lawsuit against Morrissey and Johnny Marr, claiming that he’d believed he was being paid 25 percent of the group’s earnings when, in fact, he was only getting 10 percent. In turn, Morrissey described both Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke as “mere session musicians as readily replaceable as the parts in a lawnmower.” When the judge awarded Joyce his 25 percent, a seething Morrissey promptly expressed his feelings on the legal decision with the penultimate track on his 1997 album, Maladjusted. “Sorrow Will Come In The End” features Morrissey bemoaning how “legalized theft leaves me bereft” before assuring the unspecified subject of the song, “As sure as my words are pure / I praise the day that brings you pain,” and as the swirling strings prepare to bring the song to a conclusion, he offers a threatening warning: “Don’t ever close your eyes.” The song was deemed controversial enough by Island Records to be removed from U.K. pressings of Maladjusted, lest Joyce sue for libel, but Joyce only found amusement in the song, telling Q Magazine at the time, “If Lemmy had written it, I might be concerned.” [Will Harris]

17. The Brian Jonestown Massacre, “Not If You Were The Last Dandy On Earth” (1997)

As documented in Ondi Timoner’s cautionary cult classic Dig!, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols never hid their mutual animosity. What began as friendship and creative kinship quickly dissolved into bitterness and open hostility as burgeoning fame, drug abuse, and jealousy turned the bands into rivals. It was inevitable that heads would butt, as both groups were torchbearers for a would-be, psych-rock movement in the late ’90s. The Dandys’ polished sound and less-destructive nature got them more label attention and a modest hit with “Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth.” BJM frontman and very active addict Anton Newcombe didn’t take too kindly to that, viewing it as a direct missive against himself and his junkie ways. In quick succession, Newcombe and company fired back with “Not If You Were The Last Dandy On Earth,” a snarky diss on Dandy frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor’s retro look and his band’s sound as phony pop construct. Who won the war depends on your band preference, but the fact that both artists lived through that drug-addled scene is victory enough. [Drew Fortune]

18. The Dead Milkmen, “Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance To Anything)” (1987)

Philadelphia punks The Dead Milkmen built their reputation on snotty songs that mocked yuppies, hippies, and other punks. But they were at their most vicious on this sneering technopop parody, which savages the kind of arty, black-clad, moussed-up types who back in the mid-’80s favored drum machines and misery over rock ’n’ roll. “Instant Club Hit” ends with a dismissive litany of bands like The Communards, Book Of Love, Public Image Limited, and “Depeche Commode,” who stood accused of being “a bunch of stupid Europeans who come over here with their big hairdos intent on taking our money.” The Dead Milkmen effectively slagged off danceable U.K. acts and their American teenage fans for being trendy—which is still one of the worst insults that any scenester can hurl at another. [Noel Murray]

19. Veruca Salt, “Born Entertainer” (2000)

As a chart-commanding co-ed rock band, Veruca Salt was poised to become the next Fleetwood Mac. Instead, as the band members were derailed by bitter infighting and romantic betrayals, they became the next Fleetwood Mac. Co-frontwomen Louise Post and Nina Gordon traded musical taunts after a rift between them led Gordon to leave the band in 1998 for a solo career. But the most pointed line came from Post, who held onto the Veruca Salt name and relaunched the band with a new lineup following Gordon’s departure. Given the history, there was no confusing the target of “Born Entertainer,” the reformed Veruca Salt’s first single: “This couldn’t get any better / She didn’t get it, so fuck her!” The rancor between them made the original line-up’s recent reunion that much sweeter. The band even re-recorded “Black And Blonde,” a song Gordon originally wrote as a counterattack on Post. Maybe she did get it after all. [Joshua Alston]

20. Jawbreaker, “Unlisted Track” (1995)

The final track on Jawbreaker’s oft-maligned final album (and major label debut), Dear You, “Unlisted Track” is a poppy jaunt through Blake Schwarzenbach’s typically hyper-literate and hyper-obtuse punk prose. The listener could be forgiven for simply taking the line, “Now everyone tells me they’re crazy / Crazy people aren’t so fucking boring” to be another one of the singer’s typically acerbic and witty couplets with no direct inspiration. But the lyric is based on none other than fellow Bay Area punk frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong, whose band Green Day was flying high on the success of Dookie (while simultaneously being ostracized by the 924 Gilman Street community that birthed both bands). Legend has it that Jawbreaker bassist Chris Bauermeister was hanging out with a self-medicated Armstrong when the singer announced, “I’m fucking crazy!” Bauermeister brought the story back to the band, and Schwarzenbach married his disdain for Green Day with this acoustic album closer. Somewhat ironically, Dear You’s major label backing ostracized Jawbreaker in a similar fashion (sans the massive commercial success) and ended up becoming the death knell for the band. [Leonardo Adrian Garcia]

21. Torches To Rome, “This Is Not A Step” (1999)

As a member of countless East Bay punk bands, Sarah Kirsch was a strident defender of the scene she was a part of. She formed Torches To Rome in the mid-’90s, when the East Bay scene was being mined by major labels. Though “This Is Not A Step” was recorded in 1995, it wouldn’t be released until four years later, making its jab at Jawbreaker’s signing to a major label less relevant but no less charged. Referencing lyrics from Jawbreaker’s “Million,” Kirsch takes to task a band that used punk as a springboard for a career instead of as a tool for social change. It’s idealistic, and perhaps a little petty, but that doesn’t diminish the song’s power, as Kirsch always had a knack for making timely concerns feel eternally relevant. [David Anthony]

22. Randy Newman, “My Life Is Good” (1983)

Working-class roots aside, Bruce Springsteen has been an indisputable rock star since the 1970s, his status as a blue-collar superhero more folkloric than authentic at this point. So despite his integrity and general goodness, he’s not immune to some sly ribbing from music’s finest satirist, Randy Newman. In “My Life Is Good,” his first-person sketch of a monstrous Hollywood glad-hander, the protagonist runs into Springsteen at a luxury hotel in Bel-Air. After some small talk about guitars and woodblocks, the rock icon asks Newman if he wouldn’t mind taking his place as The Boss for a while. Rand happily obliges, yelling at saxophonist Clarence Clemons to “Blow, Big Man! Blow!” as he continues to rub his effortless privilege in the face of the lower class. The fake Clemons’ disingenuous sax bluster is the greatest trick of “My Life Is Good,” proof that true satirists know how to embrace the aesthetics of their targets as much as they know how to make fun of them. In real life, Springsteen reportedly likes the song, according to The Huffington Post’s 2011 interview with Newman, who nonetheless still wonders how someone could be that comfortable with being deified. As the discussion (and the song) implies, Springsteen’s probably an extremely nice guy, but there will always be a chasm of fame and fortune between him and the rest of us, working-class roots or not. [Dan Caffrey]

23. Great Plains, “Letter To A Fanzine” (1987)

Before “indie rock” and “modern rock,” alternative music generally fell under the blanket description of “college rock”—an eclectic mix of genres united primarily by the tenuous approval of snobby college radio DJs. Ohio college-rock favorites Great Plains sniped at their own kind in “Letter To A Fanzine,” a shaggy, organ-fueled basher that begins by asking “Why do punk rock guys go out with new wave girls?” and then proceeds to adopt the voice of an annoying opinionated music buff, saying that he likes “everything that comes out on 4AD,” “everything that comes out on SST,” and “everything I get in the mail for free.” Great Plains make the whole college-rock scene sound ridiculous, which makes it less than flattering when the singer earnestly insists, “Isn’t Nick Cave a genius, in a sense?” [Noel Murray]