1. Chubby Checker, “The Twist” (1960), “Let’s Twist Again” (1961)
An energetic cover of Hank Ballard’s “The Twist” propelled 18-year-old Chubby Checker to nationwide fame. The song went to the top of the charts in 1960, and then hit #1 a second time in 1962—the only single ever to have done so. The dance described in the song was a sensation; anyone could do it, and as a result, everyone did. So while Checker had other, mostly dance-related hits, “The Twist” remained his signature song. He quickly returned to the same well a year later with “Let’s Twist Again,” a top 10 hit that basically says “Come on baby, let’s do The Twist... again.” When Checker sings “Do you remember when / Things were really hummin’?” the subtext to this appealing bit of nostalgia is pretty obvious: Remember when I got super-famous and made lots of money? Let’s do that again, okay?
2. Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), “Bye Bye Johnny” (1960)
While Chuck Berry wrote tons of hit songs, his most enduring is “Johnny B. Goode,” a simple, catchy tune with an unforgettable guitar intro that tells of a talented country boy who hopes to see his name in lights. Two years later, Berry revisited the character, as “Bye Bye Johnny” tells the story of Johnny’s mother saying good-bye to her son as he sets off for Hollywood and stardom. Berry would go on to write 30 more songs featuring Johnny B. Goode, who appears to be a stand-in for the singer himself (Berry grew up on Goode Avenue in St. Louis), but only the original was a hit.
3. Royal Guardsmen, “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron” (1966), “The Return Of The Red Baron” (1967), “Snoopy’s Christmas” (1967), “Snoopy For President” (1968), “Snoopy Vs. Osama” (2006)
Novelty and originality are two different things, and the annals of novelty-record hit makers are full of claim jumpers trying to cash in on trends started by others. No bunch of guys were ever more persistent in trying to wring money out of someone else’s inspiration than the Royal Guardsmen, whose “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron,” an unauthorized spinoff of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, took off after its 1966 release. The Guardsmen followed that up with another chart hit, “The Return Of The Red Baron” and a successful holiday song, “Snoopy’s Christmas;” the commercial failure of their fourth beagle-aviator-themed single, “Snoopy For President,” proved that they had fully sapped that tree, and the group disbanded soon after. In 2006, after both Peanuts and its creator were no more, the surviving Guardsmen staged a mini-comeback with the topical “Snoopy Vs. Osama.”
4. Lesley Gore, “It’s My Party” (1963), “Judy’s Turn To Cry” (1963)
Lesley Gore was a 16-year-old 11th grader when her first single went to number one, with its still-familiar chorus, “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to,” and accompanying tale of woe. In a teen indignity for the ages, ex-boyfriend Johnny shows up at her birthday party with his new squeeze, Judy, in tow. While most of the song’s ire is aimed at Johnny, Judy gets her comeuppance in Gore’s second single, “Judy’s Turn To Cry,” released the same year. To our heroine’s delight, “Johnny’s come back (Johnny’s come back, come back) to me,” and Judy’s the one left sobbing. Of course, the early ’60s being what they were, the song doesn’t leave any room to question whether the two-timing jerk was worth winning back again.
5. Ramones, “Judy Is A Punk” (1976), “The Return Of Jackie And Judy” (1980)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a catchier minute-and-a-half of punk rock than the propulsive “Judy Is A Punk” from the Ramones’ debut album. Joey Ramone wrote the song about two overly devoted early fans of the band, and the story he tells about them is an odd one. The song actually starts “Jackie is a punk / Judy is a runt,” and for reasons unexplained, the duo “went down to Berlin / joined the Ice Capades.” Never ones to shy away from recycling lyrical themes, the band returned to Jackie and Judy on End Of The Century’s “The Return Of Jackie And Judy,” in which the two fans “went down to the Mudd Club and they both got drunk,” and “came up to New York just to see the Ramones.” The song is less thrilling musically than the original, but at least the lyrics skew more towards rock and roll and less towards figure skating.
6. The Charlie Daniels Band, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” (1979), “Devil Comes Back To Georgia” (1993)
The Charlie Daniels Band had its biggest hit with “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” telling the epic struggle of good versus evil, light versus dark, good ol’ boy country versus bass-heavy rock ’n’ roll in terms of a boy and his fiddle. Johnny defeats the devil in a fiddling session for the ages. But Beelzebub holds a grudge, and 10-odd years later returns to the Peach State to win his golden violin back. Performed by Daniels and fiddler Mark O’Connor (whose 1993 album Heroes the song appears on), and aided by Johnny Cash, Travis Tritt, and Marty Stuart, the sequel features the song’s Johnny as a new father, with his golden fiddle tossed by the wayside when the devil comes for confrontation number two. It’s a softer, tamer version, with none of the rebellious bite of the original. In fact, Johnny spends most of the song practicing and his triumphant original line of “I done told you once, you son of a bitch, I’m the best that’s ever been,” becomes a considerably less self-assured “‘Cos I beat you once you old dog and I can whip your butt again.”
7. Harry Chapin: “Taxi” (1972), “Sequel” (1980)
These days, Harry Chapin is best known for “Cat’s In The Cradle,” perhaps because it’s one of his few hits with a length and structure that actually resemble a conventional song. Of his story-driven songs, none won him greater acclaim than “Taxi,” which he debuted on a 1972 episode of The Tonight Show; Chapin would later say the audience’s applause lasted nearly as long as the seven-minute song itself, and Johnny Carson reportedly took the unprecedented step of inviting him back the next evening for an encore performance. In “Taxi,” Chapin tells of a chance meeting between former lovers one rainy night in San Francisco, as Harry, a would-be pilot turned aimless cab driver, picks up Sue, an aspiring actress in an unhappy marriage. The song so defined Chapin’s career that taxi-themed imagery would pop up in several later songs, but it wasn’t until 1980, on the aptly titled album Sequel, that he would revisit Harry and Sue, who reunite 10 years later to find their fortunes and outlooks reversed. “Sequel” sometimes strains to recapture the elegant, melancholy poetry of the original, but it’s elevated by the aching sincerity that epitomized Chapin at his best.
8. Belle & Sebastian, “Belle & Sebastian” (1997), “My Wandering Days Are Over” (1996), “Put The Book Back On The Shelf” (1997), “On The Radio” (1997)
For a stretch in the ’90s, Scotland’s Belle & Sebastian was one of the most enticingly mysterious bands in indie rock. Stuart Murdoch’s lyrics stoked fan obsession by evoking a parallel Glasgow with its own recurring characters, including a couple of frustrated musicians named Belle and Sebastian. First appearing in the Murdoch solo recording “Belle & Sebastian,” which was later included on the band’s Dog On Wheels EP, they reappeared on Tigermilk’s “My Wandering Days Are Over” and the 3…6…9 Seconds of Light EP’s “Put the Book Back on the Shelf.” The latter leads into a hidden track, “On The Radio”; Murdoch’s tendency to sing in-character makes it unclear whether the “Belle & Sebastian” in the song are the characters, the band, or both.
9. David Bowie, “Space Oddity” (1969), “Ashes To Ashes” (1980)
David Bowie’s Scary Monsters is as much a career summary as an album, combining the hard rock of his glam years with the chilly soulfulness of his mid-’70s period and the sonic experimentation of his “Berlin Trilogy.” Appropriately, Monsters’ lead single, “Ashes To Ashes,” found Bowie revisiting his first hit, “Space Oddity,” turning the song’s lost astronaut protagonist, Major Tom, into an alter ego for himself.
10. Eminem, “Stan” (2000), “Bad Guy” (2013)
The titular character of “Stan” is obsessed (some might say romantically) with Eminem’s Slim Shady persona, as evidenced by the increasingly agitated and violence-prone letters sent to the rapper’s alter ego. When these messages go unanswered, the drug-addled loon drives off a bridge with his girlfriend tied up in the trunk—even though Slim’s thoughtful reply is en route. Thirteen years later, “Bad Guy” reveals that Stan’s deranged little brother Matthew still blames Slim for the death and is out for revenge: “And don’t think cause he’s been out the picture so long / That I’ve stopped the plottin’ and still ain’t coming to get ya.” He kidnaps Em and disposes of him in the same watery fashion (“Can’t think of a better way to define poetic justice”) and ends the rampage by saying: “Slim, this is for [my brother] and Frank Ocean, hope you can swim good!” Clearly, conflicting romantic desires and irrational fixations are a family affair.
11. Shel Silverstein, “A Boy Named Sue” (1969), “The Father Of A Boy Named Sue” (1978)
While Shel Silverstein wrote and recorded “A Boy Named Sue,” the version most people are familiar with is the Johnny Cash version recorded live the same year at the San Quentin State Prison. Silverstein’s version is decidedly less raucous, though still fittingly off-putting for being a song about a revenge grudge held by a son against his dad for pinning him with a girl’s name. Even more dark-hearted is the fairly unknown sequel, “The Father Of A Boy Named Sue,” which Silverstein released on his 1978 album Songs And Stories. In that song, sung ostensibly by Sue’s father, dear old dad elaborates about the knock-down, drag-out the two had, but not until calling his son “the ugliest queen I’ve ever seen.” As Sue pulls out a gun to kill his dad, Pops “[thinks] fast and [tells] him some stuff / How I named him Sue just to make him tough.” It’s not true, of course, but it gets the sadistic pair back together, with Sue now living with—and maybe pursuing an incestuous relationship with, if the end of the song is to be believed—his old man. Blech.
12. Jimmy Dean, “Big Bad John” (1961), “The Cajun Queen” (1962)
Countrified folk songs were big business in the early ’60s, and “Big Bad John” is no exception. Written by Dean and Roy Acuff and performed by Jimmy Dean, “Big Bad John” tells the story of a mountain of a miner (“He stood six foot six and weighted 245”) who sacrifices himself during a mine collapse, saving the 20 other workers in the shaft. The 1962 sequel, “The Cajun Queen,” flips the script and finds John’s long-lost love, the Cajun Queen, arriving at the mine to both rescue and marry the injured hero. They go on to have “a hundred and ten grandchildren,” which, while technically possible, seems outlandish—but then again, so does the idea that John held up the mine with “a mighty shove” in the first song.
13. Buddy Holly, “Peggy Sue” (1957), “Peggy Sue Got Married” (1959)
One of Buddy Holly’s biggest hits, “Peggy Sue” told the story of the titular gal, who presumably loved then left the song’s narrator. His “heart yearns for” Peggy, who’s not really a fleshed out character, but who is “pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty.” Peggy gets a bit more of a narrative arc in 1959’s “Peggy Sue Got Married,” which, while never released by Holly, was recorded as a demo before his death. In that track, the narrator hears that Peggy Sue has, in fact, gotten married, leading to cries of “no, no, no” and moans about how “now she’s wearing a band of gold.”
14. Ben Folds Five, “Cigarette” (1997), Ben Folds, “Fred Jones Pt. 2” (2001)
“Cigarette” is a curious little interlude on Ben Folds Five’s otherwise exuberant album, Whatever And Ever Amen. While that album also includes the group’s melancholy hit “Brick,” “Cigarette” is a minute and a half of quiet devastation. It leaves everything but Folds and his piano behind to lament the weary life of Fred Jones and his “screaming and crying wife.” It sounds like an exceptionally sad outtake until you recognize it’s at least produced enough to have the faint sound of crickets in the background, echoing the lonely suburb where Fred Jones is sighing himself to sleep. Folds is said to have written “Cigarette” after reading the single line as a lede in a newspaper, which is maybe why he felt the need to follow up on poor Fred (though not his wife) on his first solo album, Rocking The Suburbs. In “Fred Jones Pt. 2,” Folds imagines Fred’s last day at work, the plaintive piano building from resignation to determination when Fred realizes he’s “forgotten, but not yet gone.” In the end, though, Folds says goodbye to his funny friend, saying that he’s, “sorry, Mr. Jones. It’s time.” At least until “Fred Jones Pt 3.”
15. The Marvelettes, “Please Mr. Postman” (1961), “Twistin’ Postman” (1961)
Teenaged quartet The Marvelettes took the Tamla/Motown label to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time with the lovelorn 1961 single “Please Mr. Postman.” The group was quickly commissioned to record a follow-up that capitalized on the success of its signature hit as well as the popularity of the Twist. “Twistin’ Postman” is one of the more mercenary works to roll off of the Motown assembly line, revving up the skeletal R&B of “Please Mr. Postman” and tacking a happy ending onto Gladys Horton’s mailbox lament. “Twistin’ Postman” would reach no higher than No. 34 on the pop chart, stifling any further musical chronicles of the postal system in midcentury Detroit, where bad-news-bearing mail carriers addressed by formal titles battled happy-go-lucky rivals who did the latest dance crazes up and down city blocks. [EA]
16. Bobby “Boris” Pickett, “Monster Mash” (1962), “Monster’s Holiday” (1962), “Monster Swim” (1964), “Monster Rap” (1984)
With their various sons, brides, and curses, the classic creature-feature stars spoofed in Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash” were a natural fit for a sequel. And like any mad scientist worth his salt, the late Pickett never knew the meaning of “too far”: Inspired in part by the perennial spot “Monster Mash” holds on radio playlists (a status that helped the song return to the charts in the 1970s), the actor-turned-novelty-hitmaker applied his Famous Monsters Of Filmland treatment to multiple holidays and musical trends. When Halloween gave way to Christmas in ’62, Pickett released “Monster’s Holiday”; when teenyboppers quit mashing potatoes on the dance floor and took up aquatic-inspired moves, “Monster Swim” followed. “Monster Rap” reflected a seismic shift in popular tastes, if not Pickett’s approach: The majority of the song is delivered in a Boris Karloff falsetto and Igor and Count Dracula each make a cameo, but this time the unearthly creation on the slab rises to receive a hip-hop-influenced lesson on speech and diction. Turns out the monster’s dexterity is focused mainly in the hips and the feet.
17. Elton John, “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters” (1972), “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters (Part Two)” (1988)
Bernie Taupin’s lyrics to “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters” reportedly chronicle the songwriter’s first visit to New York City, a dispatch from a city in decline. An economic upturn had shed a brighter light on some parts of the Big Apple by the time Taupin and longtime creative partner Elton John put together 1988’s Reg Strikes Back, and the upbeat nature of “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters (Part Two)” reflects that shift in fortunes. The first “Mona Lisas” is one of John’s most stirring ballads, an anti-“Walk On The Wild Side” about feeling lost and trapped among the characters and corruption of “Ford To City: Drop Dead”-era New York; its sequel evinces a subsequent discovery of perspective and self-confidence. (And, judging by its quickened heartbeat, cocaine.) It’s a jarring shift, but an apt depiction of the way the excess of the go-go ’80s lured baby boomers away from their dreams and ideals. “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters (Part Two)” might not have to take the subway anymore, but it lost some of its soul along the way.
18. The Hold Steady, “Chips Ahoy”(2006), “The Weekenders” (2010)
The Hold Steady’s albums are filled with references and allusions to the same characters from throughout the group’s works, but for the most part, those allusions stay just murky enough for casual fans to enjoy songs as separate entities and superfans to dig down deep enough to discover the secret connections within the band’s entire discography. But there’s also the case of “The Weekenders,” off the band’s fifth album, Heaven Is Whenever, which seems, at least, to be a direct sequel to “Chips Ahoy,” a track from third album Boys And Girls In America. That earlier song is about a lost week from the proceeds gained after winning $900 from betting on the titular horse at the track. “The Weekenders” brings up the incident again, first referring to it as “that whole weird thing with the horses” before suggesting that the girl who bet on Chips Ahoy did so because she had “a little bit of clairvoyance.” The rest of the song will check in with off-track betting as well, suggesting the “Chips Ahoy” characters are running in parallel to the rest of the Hold Steady’s motley ensemble.