Word came down the pipeline today that News of the World, the British tabloid newspaper whose history dates all the way back to the 1840s, would be folding up shop for good after the July 10th issue, largely due to the fallout from a phone-hacking scandal in which the paper had gotten embroiled. While the news obviously has little impact in the US, the announcement means far more overseas, where the newspaper has been something of a cultural institution for a very long time, and still commanded a circulation of over 2.5 million, by far the most of any UK tabloid.
While our British brethren grieve the loss of their beloved rag—or, in the case of George Michael and the many other celebs who have sued the magazine for libel over the years, triumphantly dance on its grave—we look back at the numerous legendary UK rockers who deemed the mag worthy of mentioning, through their lyrics or titles, as an iconic reference point of cultural sensationalism. Let’s just say that none of these groups’ American equivalents ever wasted their breaths or liner notes with mention of the National Enquirer.
THE BEATLES, “POLYTHENE PAM” (1969)
“Polythene Pam,” a 72-second throwaway jam that would be remembered by nobody were it not included as part of the classic second-side medley on The Beatles’ Abbey Road, tells of the outrageous eponymous femme, who John Lennon would later detail as being based on a woman he met in New Jersey that was “perverted sex in a polythene bag.” In the song, Lennon concludes that Pam is “the kind of a girl that makes the News of the World / Yes, you could say she was attractively built.” It was probably meant as a compliment, but only sort of.
QUEEN, NEWS OF THE WORLD (1977)
Their first album in three years not to be named after a Marx Brothers movie, News of the World was Queen’s best-charting and best-selling album in the United States to date upon its release in 1977, thanks to its inclusion of the two stadium rock anthems to end all stadium rock anthems, “We Will Rock You” and “We are the Champions.” The reasoning behind the album’s title is vague, since neither the cover art nor the tracklist appear to have anything to do with the titular tabloid, but likely has something to do with the band’s mid-’70s touring all over the globe, as well as the new musical styles (funk, punk, new wave, disco) that they picked up on along the way, using the newspaper’s name as a pun and common reference point.
THE JAM, “NEWS OF THE WORLD” (1978)
A year after Queen released their album of the same name, punk superstars The Jam released the single “News of the World,” which was much more obviously tied to the newspaper. “Each morning our key to the world comes through the door,” singer Bruce Foxton (the only Jam single he would take lead vocals on over Paul Weller) sarcastically relates. “More than often it’s just a comic, not much more.” Hey, if you’re a UK tabloid and you can’t piss off the punk rockers with your gossip-mongering and ostentatiousness, you’re probably not worth the paper you’re printed on.
THE CLASH, “THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN” (1981)
The Clash’s super-funky indictment of low culture’s sway over the general public (“Plato the Greek / Or Rin Tin Tin / Who’s more famous to the billion millions?”) contains one of popular music’s more obscure references to News of the World in the form of lead singer Joe Strummer’s exhortation of “Vaccuum cleaner sucks up Budgie!”—which, according to Strummer, was actually a NOTW headline in England at the time. Whether the “Budgie” in question would be Adam Faith, who played the eponymous character in early-’70s UK serial Budgie, Peter “Budgie” Clarke of punk peers Siouxsie and the Banshees, or a helicopter (known in certain areas as a “budgie) of some sort, is unknown, but the fact that all are at least slightly plausible is probably a testament to the paper’s storytelling creativity.
THE PRETENDERS, “BACK ON THE CHAIN GANG” (1983)
The biggest earworm of the News of the World lyrical references comes courtesy of the fluttering lilt of lead Pretender Chrissie Hynde on the band’s biggest hit, “Back on the Chain Gang.” Written about Chrissie’s relationship with Kinks lead singer Ray Davies, but also come to be meant as a tribute to the band’s guitarist James Honeyman-Scott after his unexpected drug overdose, the song’s second verse details a media frenzy over Chrissie and her partner: “The phone, TV, and the News of the World / Got in the house like a pigeon from hell / Threw sand in your eyes and descended like flies.” Chrissie may not be mourning the newspaper too much today, but her vocal run up and down the scale on “Newwwws of the Worrrrld” will not be escaping our heads anytime soon.