Dreams are windows into the subconscious—and sometimes, the subconscious turns out to be a great songwriter.
Dreams have the power to transport us beyond the walls of our limited perception of the world, connecting us to something far beyond our own minds.
Something else that has the ability to do this is music. Historically, collaborative efforts between dreams and musicians have produced some of the most iconic and mysterious songs of all time. Here are just a few of them.
1. Jimi Hendrix — Purple Haze
According to an interview with John King for New Musical Express, the idea for "Purple Haze" came to Jimi Hendrix in a dream. Hendrix said that he once saw himself "walking underneath the sea" before a purple haze surrounded him.
"I dreamt a lot and I put a lot of my dreams down as songs," he said. "I wrote one called 'First Look Around the Corner' and another called 'The Purple Haze,' which was all about a dream I had that I was walking under the sea."
Apparently, the lyric "'scuse me while I kiss the sky" was "said to refer to a drowning man bursting through the water's surface to fill his collapsed lungs with life-sustaining oxygen," writes R. Gary Patterson.
Hendrix often wrote of being underwater, which may have been inspired by his aquatic dreams and visions. In "1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)" Hendrix and his lover Catherina "walk peacefully into the sea, away from the war-torn earth, to be reborn as higher spiritual beings," according to Patterson. "[They] make their way to the undersea colony of Atlantis to live forever in complete spiritual awareness." Eerily, Hendrix died of asphyxiation.
2. Florence and the Machine — Only If for a Night
In 2011, Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine was visited by a specter of her late grandmother, who appeared to her in a dream. "I had a really, really vivid dream about her," said Welch, "and, um, she was giving me advice in this dream. And it was really emotional, and I woke up crying. And [the song] is really inspired by that experience."
3. The Police — Every Breath You Take
This song might be one of the creepiest quasi-love songs of all time, and as expected, it was inspired by embedded paranoia and fear rather than affection. "I woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head," said Sting about the song's truly haunting chorus. "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 realise at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother, surveillance and control. These were the Reagan, Star Wars years."
4. Queen — The Prophet's Song
Brian May's hepatitis fever medication led him to dream about a prophet foretelling the emergence of a Great Flood that would bring about the end times. "In the dream, people were walking on the streets trying to touch each other's hands, desperate to try and make some sign that they were caring about other people," he said to the Melody Maker in 1975, according to songfacts.com. "I felt that the trouble must be - and this is one of my obsessions anyway - that people don't make enough contact with each other. A feeling that runs through a lot of the songs I write is that if there is a direction to mankind, it ought to be a coming together and at the moment, it doesn't seem to be happening very well."
5. The Beatles — Yesterday
The tune of Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" was infamously gifted to him by the gods of the dream world. "I had a piano by my bedside," McCartney said, "and I must have dreamed it, because I tumbled out of bed and put my hands on the piano keys and I had a tune in my head. It was just all there, a complete thing. I couldn't believe it. It came too easy. I went around for weeks playing the chords of the song for people, asking them, 'Is this like something? I think I've written it.' And people would say, 'No, it's not like anything else, but it's good.'"
6. Billy Joel — The River Of Dreams
Billy Joel was sleep-walking—and having a dream within a dream—when the idea for the 1994 classic "River of Dreams" came to him. The song references Psalm 23:4, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil," and Joel grappled with whether or not to write the song as an atheist. "I thought, who the hell am I to try to pull off this gospel song, so I took a shower to wash the song away. But as I sang it in the shower I knew I had to write it down," Joel said on the Howard Stern Show. Luckily, he went ahead with it, and the legendary song emerged.
7. Paul McCartney — Let It Be
"I was going through a really difficult time around the autumn of 1968," said McCartney of the inspiration behind the transcendent and powerful modern hymn "Let It Be." "The Beatles began making the White Album and were starting to have problems. I sensed we were breaking up… and I was staying up too late at night, drinking, doing drugs, clubbing…and in the back of my mind was the thought that it was about time I found someone. It was before I got together with Linda.
"I was exhausted! Then one night, I had the most comforting dream about my mother who died when I was only 14. She was a hard working nurse and a very comforting presence in my life. And it was difficult…that as the years went by, I couldn't recall her face so easily. So in this dream 12 years later, my mother appeared, and there was her face, completely clear, particularly her eyes. And she said to me very gently, very reassuringly, 'Let it be.' It was lovely.
"I woke up with a great feeling. It was really like she had visited me at this very difficult point in my life and gave me this message: Be gentle, don't fight things. Just try and go with the flow and it all will work out. 'The answer will come.' I went to the piano and started writing: 'When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me'-- Mary was my mother's name -- 'Speaking words of wisdom, Let It Be. There will be an answer, Let It Be.'"
8. Carl Perkins – Blue Suede Shoes
"I was playing at a place called the Roadside Inn," said Carl Perkins of the dream that inspired the rockabilly song, which would become one of Elvis Presley's biggest hits. "I heard this boy tell the girl he was dancing with 'Watch out, don't step on mah suedes' and I looked down at his feet, and he had on this pair of blue suede shoes. It kinda stuck to me."
9. R.E.M.— It's the End of the World as We Know It
"The words come from everywhere. I'm extremely aware of everything around me, whether I am in a sleeping state, awake, dream-state or just in day to day life," said R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe. "There's a part in 'It's The End of The World as We Know It' that came from a dream where I was at Lester Bangs' birthday party and I was the only person there whose initials weren't L.B. So there was Lenny Bruce, Leonid Brezhnev, Leonard Bernstein… So that ended up in the song along with a lot of stuff I'd seen when I was flipping TV channels. It's a collection of streams of consciousness."
10. The Rolling Stones — (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Keith Richards stated that many of his ideas come from dreams, and because of this, he keeps a guitar and a tape recorder by his bed. One night, he went to sleep and woke up to see that his tape recorder had advanced to the end. He played it back—and heard the riff to "Satisfaction," which he had no memory of recording. This led him to believe that he had been dreaming when he created it.
In another interview with Jenny Boyd, Gross said, "I don't sit down and try to write songs. Songs just come to me. I wake up in the middle of the night, and I've dreamt half of it. I just need to pick up the guitar next to the bed, push 'record', and put it down. I'm not saying I write them all in my dreams—but that's the ideal way. You don't even have to get out of bed!"
11. Buddy Guy – Boogie Chillin
Blues musician Buddy Guy said he learned his first song in a dream. He was lying down in the sun on a Louisiana afternoon, the story goes, when he dreamed of himself playing John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillin'." He woke up and started playing the song over and over so he wouldn't forget it, and the rest was history.
12. Neko Case — This Tornado Loves You
"I had a dream one night about a tornado," said Neko Case of her weather-worn song "This Tornado Loves You." "It was a really interesting dream, and ever since then I've been thinking about them. I realized that a lot of the songs have tornadoes in them without even realizing that I was doing that." She added: "It's a literal story about a tornado in love with a person. That's what the dream was about. It wasn't me that the tornado was in love with; it was kind of a kid. But yeah, it was a strange story. But I was pretty moved by it." She later wrote an entire album about tornadoes, proving that dream imagery can haunt a person for a long time.
13. Taylor Swift — All You Had to Do Was Stay
Taylor Swift's 1989 was a watershed moment for the pop star, and part of it emerged directly from her subconscious fears. "I was having this dream, that was actually one of those embarrassing dreams, where you're mortified in the dream, you're like humiliated," she told Time. "In the dream, my ex had come to the door to beg for me to talk to him or whatever, and I opened up the door and I went to go say, 'Hi,' or 'What are you doing here?' or something - something normal - but all that came out was this high-pitched singing that said, 'Stay!' It was almost operatic.
"So I wrote this song, and I used that sound in the song. Weird, right?"she added. "I woke up from the dream, saying the weird part into my phone, figuring I had to include it in something because it was just too strange not to. In pop, it's fun to play around with little weird noises like that."
14. Pharrell Williams — Gust of Wind
Pharrell Williams' emotional love ballad sprang right from his subconscious. "That song came to me in a dream. It's the only time it has ever happened to me in my life," he said. "I woke up and sang them to my girl and said: 'Babe, this is about you. It's about the divine force you have which could be compared to a gust of wind.' I told her: 'Like a gust of wind, you remind me there's someone out there who ushers in the air as I need to power in myself. She was also a little teary-eyed."
15. Radiohead — How to Disappear Completely
"I dreamt I was floating down the Liffey and there was nothing I could do," said Thom Yorke of the sensation that inspired this ethereal song. "I was flying around Dublin and I really was in the dream. The whole song is my experiences of really floating."
The song's central lyric was apparently inspired by a conversation with another famous dreamer—R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, who advised Yorke to deal with his problems by pulling his curtains down and saying, "I'm not here, this is not happening."
16. St. Vincent — Huey Newton
Annie Clark's "Huey Newton" was inspired by a variety of drug-influenced dreams. She took some sleeping pills in Helsinki and told The Observer about the experience, stating, "If you take one and go to sleep, you sleep for 12 hours. If you take one and don't fall asleep, you're high. It's bananas. You're in that high state between sleepfulness and wakefulness. I had this hallucination that Huey Newton was in the room with me. We didn't talk about the Black Panther party. We just kind of communicated. We understood each other. I was as high as a kite."
In an interview with Uncut magazine, Clark said, "I wrote the words for in a very furious frenzy, it was just free association. I was trying to be meta with it, and every line is tied to the next in a way that I don't even understand. I did a lot of that. It has the feel of an extended Google search, and is set in the near future, after a long winter."
Parts of the song are also inspired by the Heaven's Gate cult, and given the wide variety of unrelated influences that came together to create the song, the whole thing has definite similarities to dream logic. "I am fascinated by and love, if you can say that you love a cult where they were waiting for the comet to come and committed suicide, all wearing Nikes," Clark told NME.
17. Peter Gabriel — Red Rain
"'Red Rain' was written after a dream I'd had about the sea being parted by two walls," said Peter Gabriel. "There were these glass-like figures that would screw themselves into each wall, fill up with red blood and then be lowered across the sand, as it were to the next wall, where they'd unload the blood on the other side. I used to have these extremely vivid dreams that scared the hell out of me."
18. Noel Gallagher's Flying Birds — Stop the Clocks
This song has achieved cult status among Oasis fans, but it began with some existential questioning and simulation theory from Noel—largely inspired by a dream he had one night. "It's [about] wondering about if you were dead, how would you know you were actually dead, how would you know you were actually alive," he told Tokyo's J-Wave radio station in 2002. When you go to bed and you dream dreams... if you never woke up, how would you know? Maybe we're all just dreaming now."
19. Fleetwood Mac — Green Manalishi
A combination of LSD, dreams, and anti-capitalist revelation inspired Fleetwood Mac's "Green Manalishi." The song was written by Peter Green, and it was one of the final contributions he made to the band.
"I had a dream where I woke up and I couldn't move, literally immobile on the bed," said Green. "I had to fight to get back into my body. I had this message that came to me while I was like this, saying that I was separate from people like shop assistants, and I saw a picture of a female shop assistant and a wad of pound notes, and there was this other message saying, 'You're not what you used to be. You think you're better than them. You used to be an everyday person like a shop assistant, just a regular working person.' I had been separated from it because I had too much money. So I thought, How can I change that?"
The dream inspired Green to write "Green Manalishi"—and ultimately, to change his life. "When I woke up I found I was writing this song," he said. "Next day I went out to the park and the words started coming. The Green Manalishi is the wad of notes, the devil is green and he was after me. Fear, inspiration is what it was, but it was that tribal ancient Hebrew thing I was going for. Ancient music."
Green actually did change everything, leaving the band and eventually giving away most of his money to charity.
20. Patti Smith — Break It Up
Visionary poet and punk godmother Patti Smith often references dreams, but the story behind her song "Break It Up" is a particularly fascinating piece of 60s Americana lore. "I had this dream. I came in on a clearing," she said of the track, which appeared on her first album Horses. "There were natives in a circle bending and gesturing. I saw a man stretched across a marble slab. Jim Morrison. He was alive with wings that merged with the marble. Like Prometheus, he struggled, but freedom was beyond him. I stood over him chanting, break it up break it up break it up… The stone dissolved and he moved away. I brushed the feathers from my hair, adjusted my pillow, and returned to sleep."
She awoke, and the song was born.
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