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I Bet You Think This Song is About You...

Open letters to lost lovers, dark hints at lust for friends' wives, or selected because they offer opportunites for a rhyme? Ben Walsh delves into the tunes that name names ...

'And when I think of you, Linda/I hope you choke/I hope you're glad with what you've done to me/I want to die/Put a bullet in my heeeeaaaad." On Adam Sandler's incensed "Somebody Kill Me", from his sweetly daft 1998 comedy The Wedding Singer, it's fairly clear his character is singing about his ex, Linda, who dumped him at the altar. On Eminem's thunderous comeback album, Relapse, after a messy five-year hiatus, the rapper is equally livid about a swathe of people – from Mariah Carey to Sarah Palin to Lindsay Lohan. In the past, the volatile 36-year-old American has let off some potty-mouthed vitriol about everyone from his former wife (twice) Kimberley Anne Scott to his mum, Debbie R Mathers-Briggs.

However, the identity of those being sung about is not always so evident. Some, of course, are blindingly obvious, such as John Denver's first wedding dance staple "Annie's Song". You don't have to be a pop quiz whizz-kid to figure out that this is about Denver's then-wife Annie. In other cases the artist has fessed up to their muse. Eric Clapton openly acknowledges "Layla" is about his unrequited (at the time) love for Pattie Boyd, the wife of his old pal George Harrison, and Neil Diamond recently came clean about "Sweet Caroline", a eulogy to President Kennedy's daughter Caroline, after he saw a "wonderful, innocent" picture of her in a magazine. What a ham.

In other cases, who cares who the song's about? Nobody's going to weep about not knowing who is the Mickey who takes Toni Basil "by the heart" and "by the hand" in "Hey Mickey", and the girls – Monica, Erica, Rita, Sandra, Tina, Jessica, Mary – Lou Bega wants to bang in "Mambo #5" are frankly irrelevant.

But then there are those rare, delicious songs in which the person being lamented or celebrated sparks feverish speculation and debate. Who are these mysterious folk being mythologised? Do the artists regret referencing them? Leonard Cohen did with "Chelsea Hotel", which refers to Janis Joplin giving him "head on an unmade bed". The eloquent crooner later apologised for this indiscretion about the wayward singer: "I named Janis Joplin in that song. I don't know when it started, but I connected her name with the song and I've been feeling very bad about that ever since," Cohen admitted. "It's an indiscretion for which I'm very sorry. And if there is some way of apologising to a ghost, I want to apologise now."

Cohen, a serial confessor, has also acknowledged who the lady is in "Suzanne", admitting the beautiful dirge ("And you know that she's half crazy/But that's why you want to be there") was about encountering Suzanne Verdal, the wife of sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, in Montreal.

Other musicians have shown markedly less candour. The identities of Barry Ryan's "Eloise" (written by his brother Paul), Elvis Costello's "Alison", Bruce Springsteen's "Rosalita" and, of course, Marillion's "Kayleigh" are shrouded in mystery. Did these women exist? Were their names changed to protect the innocent?

One of the most hotly-debated tracks is The Rolling Stones' gorgeous 1973 lament "Angie" ("There ain't a woman that comes close to you"). Now, Angela Bowie can lay claim to an awful lot. Lou Reed credited her with creating his Transformer look, David Bowie wrote "The Prettiest Star" ("You will be my rest and peace child") and "Golden Years" about her, and Todd Haynes's Velvet Goldmine was loosely based on her life with Bowie – "her character", Mandy, in the 1998 film was portrayed by Toni Collette. But the biggest claim is that The Rolling Stones' US No 1 hit "Angie" was about her, which just seems plain greedy and has been rigorously denied by Mick Jagger (who allegedly had an affair with Angie while she was married to Bowie) and Keith Richards, who claims: "I'd recently had my daughter born, whose name was Angela, and the name was starting to ring around the house. Angie just fitted," he maintains.

Some artists slip so many names into their songs, it's hard to keep track. The Beatles are fearful name-droppers: Julia, Lucy, Martha (actually Paul McCartney's dog), Michelle, Jude, Maxwell, Robert, Sally, Rita, Prudence and so on. What we (sort of) know is the plaintive ballad "Julia" from The White Album is about Lennon's mother and "Eleanor Rigby" is an amalgamation of Eleanor Bron, who starred with The Beatles in the film Help! and half of the name of a store in Bristol, Rigby & Evens Ltd. Perhaps their most speculated-over tune is "Norwegian Wood", a thinly-veiled reference to Lennon's extramarital affairs. His close boyhood friend Pete Shotton implied it was about an Evening Standard journalist, possibly Maureen Cleave, but Philip Norman's new biography of John Lennon reveals it's about an affair with the wife of photographer Robert Freeman, Sonny, who lived downstairs from Lennon and his wife Cynthia.

Bob Dylan also shamelessly name-checked women, among them Corinna, Isis, Rosemary, Lily, Sarah, Hattie, Ramona, Maggie, Marie and Johanna. It's believed "Visions of Johanna" is for Johanna Gezina van Gogh, sister-in-law of Vincent van Gogh, and allegedly the sour "It Ain't Me, Babe" was a parting gift to Joan Baez. But the most intriguing is "Sara" from Desire, a song to his first wife, Sara, who he had sung about in "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands". The painful and unambiguous lyrics plead for reconciliation: "I can still hear the sound of the Methodist bells/I had taken the cure and had just gotten through/staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel writing 'Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands' for you."

Damon Albarn has also bravely exposed his innermost feelings over a former partner and the person in question is obvious. His lament "Tender", from 13, with its simple exhortation "tender is the touch/of someone that you love too much", is about his break-up with the Elastica singer Justine Frischmann. However, sometimes, the song just isn't about you. Oasis' "Wonderwall", for instance, isn't about Noel Gallagher's former wife, Meg Mathews, as many believed. "The meaning of that song was taken away from me by the media who jumped on it," revealed the bolshie Mancunian. "And how do you tell your missus it's not about her once she's read it is? It's about an imaginary friend who's going to come and save you from yourself." How embarrassing, Meg.

It would be remiss not to mention the grandmother of disputed-subject-matter songs, Carly Simon's "You're So Vain", a barbed ballad aimed at an unnamed, self-obsessed lover ("You had one eye in the mirror/As you watched yourself gavotte"). The candidates include Cat Stevens, William Donaldson, Daffy Duck (Simon was a huge fan), Simon's ex-husband James Taylor, Mick Jagger (who sang on the track), Kris Kristofferson, and the prime suspect, Warren Beatty. Simon has said it's a composite. Beatty's take on it, amusingly, is: "Let's be honest. That song was about me."

Many songs with names in the title, of course, are not about anyone, like Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane", which concerns the surreal life of a rock star. And lots of names are simply used because they're great for rhyming things with, for instance Lola ("cherry cola"), Michelle ("ma belle"), Molly ("good golly") and Lizzy ("dizzy").

Perhaps the whole thorny subject of naming and shaming is best summed up by Paul Heaton's Beautiful South. In Heaton's typically-cynical "Song for Whoever", he shamelessly throws in a legion of female names – "Shirley, Debbie, Julie, Jane, Jennifer, Alison, Philippa, Sue, Deborah, Annabel" and claims "I wrote this song for you". Of course, it's for none of them. Or was it?