Most dreams are confusing, chronologically-daft and steeped in nonsense. Occasionally, however, a seed of inspiration can be extracted. Just ask Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and Richard Wagner. They and other musicians took snippets of sound from their midnight musings and turned them into hit songs. Here are eleven pieces of music that never would've happened were it not for REM sleep.
Richard Wagner, “Tristan und Isolde”
German composer Richard Wagner wrote in a letter that his famed libretto “Tristan und Isolde” was not his work but rather the product of a dream. A devotee of dream-obsessed philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Wagner used the tragic medieval love story to question the nature of reality and dreams.
The Beatles, “Yesterday”
When Paul McCartney stumbled onto the melody to “Yesterday” he didn’t believe his luck and proceeded to play it to everyone he knew to see if they recognized it. Because he dreamed it, Sir Paul reasoned, it couldn’t be his own work. The plagiarism fears jangled his band mates’ nerves, with George Harrison remarking, “Blimey, he’s always talking about ‘Yesterday.’ You’d think he was Beethoven or somebody.”
The Rolling Stones, "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction"
How simple are the dreams of Keith Richards? In his sleep, he dreamed of three notes concisely patterned in a short sequence. He woke up from the dream, grabbed a guitar and a tape recorder, played the riff once, mumbled “I can’t get no satisfaction,” and fell asleep. Richards says the tape captured the sound of him dropping the guitar pick and over an hour of snoring.
Jimi Hendrix, “Purple Haze”
Psychedelic genius bluesman Jimi Hendrix told conflicting stories about the inspiration behind “Purple Haze.” While he sometimes cited Philip José Farmer’s bizarre science fiction tale “Night of Light” as the catalyst, he also credited a dream where he walked under the sea. The dream explanation creates a slight geography issue, as it’s hard to kiss the sky from the bottom of the ocean but we’re sure Jimi surely could have made it work.
The Beatles, “Let it Be”
This late period Beatles ballad, recorded during the disastrous “Get Back” sessions, seems almost hymnal with its tumbling piano chords, churchy organs and implorations from “Mother Mary.” The song’s Mary is not Jesus’s mother, but rather McCartney’s (Mary McCartney died of cancer when Paul was 14). With the Beatles in turmoil from drug abuse, burnout and general discord, Paul dreamt that his beloved, departed mum told him to put his worries aside, as everything would work out and the advice inspired the title track of the last album the Beatles would release.
John Lennon “#9 Dream”
In 1973 and 1974, Lennon spent an 18-month Yoko Ono-free “long weekend” drinking and drugging with mistress May Pang and buddies like Harry Nilsson and Keith Moon. Amidst the shenanigans, Lennon recorded the REM-inspired track “#9 Dream.” The soft rocker features the strange and elusive phrase “Ah! Bowakawa, pousse pousse” in the chorus. According to May Pang it was spoken to Lennon by two women who called to him in a dream.
Sting, “Every Breath You Take”
Despite the title of his first solo album, noted tantric sex enthusiast Sting dreams not of blue turtles, but of stalking and surveillance. In the midst of the break-up of his first marriage, the Police singer woke in the dark of the night with the words “every breath you take; every move you make" rattling through his blond, spiky head. The dream would be the most profitable Sting would ever have, with the song reportedly earning him $2,000 per day.
If we take him at his word that he was dreaming when he wrote this dance-club banger, the Purple One had some pretty dark dreams. The song describes and urges funky carnality by people facing eminent apocalypse. The sinuous electro new wave disco focuses on fun, while the lyrics warn the party’s over, oops, out of time.
Johnny Cash “When the Man Comes Around”
When Johnny Cash dreamed of the Queen of England, she laughed and called him “a thorn tree in a whirlwind.” The words haunted the man in black for years until he came across language in the Book of Job echoing Elizabeth the second’s dream taunt. The phrase became the centerpiece of his late career apocalyptic masterpiece, which is all the more harrowing for the matter-of-fact line reading Cash grants to elusive Biblical imagery of virgins trimming wicks and alpha and omega’s kingdom come.
Cam, “Burning House”
The inspiration of the 2015 country hit came from a dream and a Metallica riff. The night before Cam would be at the same party as her ex boyfriend, she dreamed that she died alongside him in a house fire. As she related the story to her producer, he started picking at an acoustic guitar in a pattern inspired by “Nothing Else Matters” and a fiery ballad was born.
Taylor Swift, “All You Had To Do Was Stay”
When notorious serial dater Taylor Swift dreams about her ex-boyfriends, you could imagine she’s in for a long night. Swift said the track from her 2014 top selling album 1989 was inspired by a dream she had of a visit from a commitment averse ex where she could only respond by saying “stay” in a trembling tone and high pitch, which she replicated for the song’s earworm of a chorus.