Signature songs of famous bands – and their stories

What makes a song a “signature song” for a band or artist? It’s a hit that the band/artist is best known for – to the point where it’s the first song you think of when you hear their name! Even if the artist has many other hits under their belt, they’ll always be expected to perform their signature song. 

Here are some notable signature songs – and the stories behind them. 

“Dancing Queen” – ABBA

“Dancing Queen” became a worldwide hit for Swedish band ABBA, and they wanted it to be the follow-up single to “Mamma Mia” – but their manager insisted that the more mellow “Fernando” should be next instead.

“House of the Rising Sun” – The Animals

Although AC/DC found success with songs like “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be”, “The Jack”, and “Highway to Hell”, and “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap)” before 1980, their 1980 hit “Back in Black” was a milestone moment for the band. With an unmistakable opening riff, “Back in Black” was written in honor of AC/DC’s former singer Bon Scott who died in 1980.

“What a Wonderful World” – Louis Armstrong

American jazz great Louis Armstrong recorded his iconic 1967 single  overnight following a midnight show in Las Vegas, wrapping around 6 a.m. 

“Back in Black” – AC/DC

Although AC/DC found success with songs like “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be”, “The Jack”, and “Highway to Hell”, and “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap)” before 1980, their 1980 hit “Back in Black” was a milestone moment for the band. With an unmistakable opening riff, “Back in Black” was written in honor of AC/DC’s former singer Bon Scott who died in 1980.


“I Want It That Way” –  The Backstreet Boys 

The 1999 ballad “I Want It That Way” is the signature song for American boy band Backstreet Boys. However, the song’s memorable arpeggiated riff was inspired by a completely different group. The song’s co-writer, Swedish music producer Andreas Carlsson, said the riff was written at the end of the song’s recording session and was inspired by “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica. 

 “Livin’ on a Prayer” Bon Jovi

Bon Jovi frontman Jon Bon Jovi actually didn’t like the original recording of the band’s smash hit – it can be found as a hidden track on their album 100,000,000 Bon Jovi Fans Can’t Be Wrong. Guitarist Richie Sambora convinced Bon Jovi that the song was good, and they reworked it with a new bassline and different drum fills, as well as a talk box to include it on Slippery When Wet. 

“Layla” – Eric Clapton

“Layla” was inspired both by a 12th century Persian poem and Eric Clapton’s  secret love for Pattie Boyd, who was married to his friend George Harrison at the time. 


“School’s Out” – Alice Cooper

Alice Cooper’s signature song was inspired by the feeling of the last day of school. Cooper said he was asked “What’s the greatest three minutes of your life?” and his thoughts were Christmas morning and the last three minutes of the last day of school. The song became the band’s first hit single, but it was banned from some radio stations whose management thought the song would incite rebelliousness in kids toward their education. 

“Pour Some Sugar on Me” – Def Leppard

English band Def Leppard’s signature song was created toward the end of the recording of their 1987 album Hysteria. The band had already been working on the album for two and a half years when lead singer Joe Elliot said he showed their producer a hook he had been playing around with. Within two weeks, the song was completed and added on as the 12th track of the album. 

“Smoke on the Water” – Deep Purple

Deep Purple was in Switzerland to record an album in 1971 in a casino. The casino was holding its last concert of the season before Deep Purple would be able to play there. Unfortunately, a member of the audience shot off a flare gun, causing a fire that destroyed the entire casino and left Deep Purple without a place to record. The title of the song refers to the smoke over Lake Geneva resulting from the fire, which the band watched from their hotel room window. 

“Take Me Home, Country Roads” – John Denver  

Songwriting team Taffy Nivert and Bill Danoff were driving through Maryland when the inspiration for “Country Roads, Take Me Home” struck. They were originally going to sell the song to Johnny Cash, but John Denver “flipped” when he heard that news, and had to have the song for himself. The song is one of West Virginia’s four official state anthems. It was selected to go in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2023. 


Hotel California” – The Eagles 

Hotel California Fret Zealot

The original working title for the instrumental demo of “Hotel California” was “Mexican Reggae”. The band decided to theme it “Hotel California” as a nod to The Beverly Hills Hotel, which was symbolic of Beverly Hills’ mystique to them at that time. 

Imagine” – John Lennon

John Lennon was inspired to write “Imagine” by several poems from Yoko Ono’s 1964 book “Grapefruit” – so much that he later was quoted in a 2007 biography saying the song should be “credited as a Lennon/Ono song. A lot of it—the lyric and the concept—came from Yoko, but in those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted her contribution, but it was right out of Grapefruit.”

Free Bird” – Lynyrd Skynyrd

The first line for “Free Bird” came from Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Allen Collins’s girlfriend, Kathy, who asked Collins “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” The question became the first line of the band’s signature song and the band performed it for the first time during the reception at Collins and Kathy’s wedding. 

Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana 

The title for Nirvana’s 1991 grunge anthem came from a graffiti scrawl that Kurt Cobain’s friend and Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna put on his wall, “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit”. Hanna meant to make fun of Cobain for wearing his girlfriend’s Teen Spirit deodorant, but Cobain didn’t know what “Teen Spirit” meant and took it as a compliment. 

Wagon Wheel” – Old Crow Medicine Show

This song, popularized by Darius Rucker, is made up of a simple four-chord progression. The chorus and melody were written by Bob Dylan in the 1970s, and Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show wrote the verses 25 years later. 

Crazy Train” – Ozzy Osbourne

Guitarist Greg Leon (Motley Crue/Quiet Riot) said he helped Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist, Randy Rhoads, come up with the riff for “Crazy Train” after showing him the riff for “Swington” by Steve Miller.  “I said: ‘Look what happens when you speed this riff up.’ We messed around, and the next thing I know he took it to a whole other level and end up writing the ‘Crazy Train’ riff”, Leon said in a 2012 biography on Rhoads. 

Every Breath You Take” – The Police

The Police and Sting’s signature song, “Every Breath You Take” swept the summer of 1983, sitting on top of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for eight weeks. Sting penned the track in the Caribbean at James Bond author Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye estate. 

He told The Independent in 1993, “I woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head, sat down at the piano and had written it in half an hour. The tune itself is generic, an aggregate of hundreds of others, but the words are interesting. It sounds like a comforting love song. I didn’t realize at the time how sinister it was. I think I was thinking of Big Brother, surveillance and control.”

In May 2019, Broadcast Music, Inc. recognized the song for being the most-played song in radio history.

Bohemian Rhapsody” – Queen

Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury began working on what would become “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the late 1960s. Mercury called the song a “mock opera” – it resulted from three separate songs he had written. 

Black Hole Sun – Soundgarden

“Black Hole Sun” originated during a car ride. Released in 1994, it’s considered to be Seattle-based grunge rock band Soundgarden’s signature song. Lead singer Chris Cornell wrote the song – he said in 2014 that he came up with the concept and the melody while driving home from the studio after he thought he heard a radio news anchor say “Black hole sun”.


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