20 Huge Hits We Never Realized Were Based On Sad True Stories

Ashley Hunte
A person leaning back with one foot on an old cassette player.
Unsplash | Eric Nopanen

Songs tell stories. That's kind of their whole deal. While there are plenty of hits about going to a party or falling in love, there are also a bunch about some pretty sad, and even downright tragic stuff.

One thing that's never really expected, though, is when a sad song tells a story that actually happened. Here are some chart toppers that are based on true events.

"Love Will Tear Us Apart" - Joy Division

From the title name alone, you know that it's going to be about a relationship that just wasn't meant to last. But the lyrics of the song actually tell the story of Ian Curtis and his relationship with his wife, Deborah Woodruff.

The song captures a lot of Curtis's anguish, which unfortunately cumulated with his suicide in 1980, a month before the song was released.

"The Needle and the Damage Done" - Neil Young

The song was written about Danny Whitten, drummer for Young's backing band who suffered from substance abuse problems. Young had given Whitten $50 and a plane ticket to LA to get help, but the drummer spent the money on drugs and died of an overdose that same night.

"One Way or Another" - Blondie

It's easy to let the upbeat energy of this song wash over you, but listen closely and the lyrics are... definitely creepy. That's because it tells the story of an ex-boyfriend of Debbie Harry, who had begun stalking her.

"99 Luftballons/99 Red Balloons" - Nena

Despite the name, the song isn't actually about balloons. The original German version is a Cold War protest song, talking about East and West Germany. The English version of the song doesn't quite capture the original's meaning, though.

"I Wish it Would Rain" - The Temptations

This Motown song was written by Roger Penzabene, and is sung from the perspective of a heartbroken man who wants it to rain so no one would see him crying. Whether it was based on Penzabene's actual experiences or not is unclear, but the writer did take his own life just 10 days after the single was released.

"Shine on You Crazy Diamond" - Pink Floyd

This nine-part song clocks in at 26 minutes, and is all about the band's founding member, Syd Barrett. Barrett was made to leave Pink Floyd because of his drug issues, but the band eventually decided to make a tribute song to him.

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" - Gordon Lightfoot

The title says it all. This song is about the wreck of a real-life ship called the Edmond Fitzgerald, that carried iron across the great lakes. Its last voyage was in 1975, when a storm took it down, killing its entire crew.

"Circus" - Eric Clapton.

Clapton wrote this song about the last day he spent with his son, Connor, who passed away tragically in 1991. The two of them had gone to the circus the day before Connor's death.

"Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" - Rupert Holmes

Listening to the song, it's pretty clear that it's about a man trying to respond to an ad in the paper so that he can have an affair on his wife. When he goes to meet the woman, though, he learns that it's actually his wife, who was trying to cheat on him.

Holmes later revealed that it was based on a true story.

"Jump" - Van Halen

David Lee Roth watched a news story about a man threatening to jump off the top of Acro Tower in Los Angeles. Thinking about how there's always someone in the crowd ready to goad a suicidal individual, he came up with the lyric "Go ahead and jump." That definitely makes this uplifting song a lot darker.

"My Semi-Charmed Life" - Third Eye Blind

There's nothing quite like a song with upbeat instrumentals and depressing vocals. This song, while catchy and happy-sounding, is about doing drugs and chasing that high, just to get through each day.

"The Way" - Fastball

The band's bassist, Tony Scalzo, read about the real-life tragedy of Raymond and Lela Howard, who drove off to a music festival and never returned. He thought of the idea to turn the tragedy into a song, and "The Way" was born.

"Listen to Her Heart" - Tom Petty

The song talks about a man who doesn't pay attention to a woman's feelings, but is based off a story Petty's wife, Jane, had told him about a party she'd gone to hosted by Ike Turner. Apparently, Turner locked the doors to his house at one point, so no one could leave.

"Detroit Rock City" - KISS

The song may be a real head-banger, but its lyrics also tell the story of a KISS fan who'd died in a car crash on his way to see the band in concert. Though, the identity of this fan is unknown.

"Born in the U.S.A." - Bruce Springsteen

Despite the song's title making it seem like a patriotic anthem, it's a critique of how the U.S. handled veterans of the Vietnam War. It's sung from the perspective of a veteran who'd come home, only to be left with very little.

"Sara" - Bob Dylan

Dylan wrote a lot of songs about his then-wife, Sara. The song he named after her is incredibly personal, and is basically written in an attempt by Dylan to repair their marriage, which was on the brink of collapse at the time.

"Shiny Happy People" - REM

The song may be about "Shiny Happy People," but it's a lot darker than that. It's a satirical song based on translated Chinese propaganda following the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Not so shiny or happy after all.

"Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space" - Sprirtualized

Jason Peirce, frontman of Spiritualized, was in a relationship with the band's keyboardist, Kate Radley. But she abruptly ended things and got married to Richard Ashcroft of The Verve. This song is about Peirce's very real heartbreak from that event.

"Maps" - The Yeah Yeah Yeahs

This somber indie song is about lead vocalist Karen O's relationship with then-boyfriend Angus Andrew. "Maps" is actually an acronym for "My Angus, Please Stay." That makes her singing "maps" between "Wait, they don't love you like I love you," make a lot more sense.

"You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" - Bachman Turner Overdrive

This unintentional hit features a pretty memorable chorus with a bit of stuttering in it. This was written intentionally by Randy Bachman, who was inspired by the actual stutter of his brother, Gary. It was never even meant to be released at first.