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Chilifest headliner Lynyrd Skynyrd was dissing when dissing wasn't cool

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Lynyrd Skynyrd Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant (right) urges on guitarist Steve Gaines during a performance at Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey, July 20, 1977. 

Few guitar licks are as memorable as the opening plucks of Lynyrd Skynyrd's 1974 hit Sweet Home Alabama. Count on the classic tune to earn a roar of approval from the rowdy Chilifest crowd on Saturday night.

But there's more to it than the catchy melody, the triumphant chorus and the late Ronnie Van Zant's gutsy vocals. Sweet Home Alabama can be considered an early "diss track." It has been highly analyzed, and often misunderstood.

First, the verse about then-Gov. George Wallace, who was a staunch supporter of segregation, has a bit of misdirection to it. A casual listener might consider the song in support of Wallace with the line, "In Birmingham they love the governor." The followup moment -- "Boo, boo, boo!" -- is the band's response to that love, though that may not instantly register.

The bigger discussion might be over the song's Neil Young reference. The story goes that Skynyrd wasn't pleased with two of Young's songs that were critical of the South -- Southern Man and Alabama -- and that led to the response in Sweet Home Alabama:

"Well I heard Mr. Young sing about her / Well I heard ol' Neil put her down / Well I hope Neil Young will remember / A Southern man don't need him around anyhow."

Pretty strong stuff. And yet it appears that it wasn't all that serious. Rolling Stone reported in 2015 that Van Zant said the Young line was more of a joke, and that the two camps were fans of the other. (Van Zant died in the 1977 plane crash that also killed Skynyrd's Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines.) Photos of him wearing a Young T-shirt and Young wearing a Skynyrd shirt would seem to support the camaraderie theory.

The Rolling Stone story also quotes Young acknowledging that he had it coming, from his 2012 book Waging Heavy Peace: "'Alabama richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record. I don't like my words when I listen to it today. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, too easy to misconstrue."

The situation even inspired a 2001 song from Drive By Truckers, called Ronnie and Neil: "Ronnie and Neil became good friends, their feud was just in song / Skynyrd was a bunch of Neil Young fans, and Neil, he loved that song."

Regardless of whether Sweet Home Alabama was confrontational or casual, the Young bit is still a great musical takedown, and it came at a time when those weren't all that frequent.

The art of the diss track took off with rap in the 1980s and '90s. (A few favorites: Kool Moe Dee vs. LL Cool J, 3rd Bass vs. Vanilla Ice and a bunch of brutal disses from N.W.A members that we can't link to here.) It's now a standard part of hip-hop, with disses and responses galore.

But there have been a few interesting diss tracks outside of that genre. Here are a few.

Robert Earl Keen vs. Toby Keith

It might seem a bit unexpected for the laid-back Keen to launch a diss track against another performer, but there's a good reason for it: Keith's 2010 song Bullets in the Gun can easily be considered a copycat of Keen's beloved The Road Goes on Forever. The melody is unmistakably similar, and even the storyline resembles Keen's song.

Keen's responded in 2011 with The Road Goes On and On. A few examples:

"I don't care what you say / I never liked you anyway / Wouldn't give you the time of day /  If I had the time to spend."

"But your horse is drunk and your friends got tired / Your aim grew weak and uninspired / You robbed a train but your gun misfired / Blew a hole right through your shoe."

And my favorite: "You're a regular jack in the box / In your clown suit and your goldilocks / The original liar's paradox / You'll have to Google that."

(Part of that last lyric, by the way, is posted on a sign at Grub Burger Bar on University Drive.)

John Lennon vs. Paul McCartney

The tension between the two Beatles has been well documented. Lennon lashing out at McCartney on record after the band's breakup, however, must have been a bit of a shock in 1971. 

How Do You Sleep? is as brutal a diss track as you'll find, short of rap's more descriptive insults: 

"The only thing you done was yesterday / And since you've gone you're just another day."

"A pretty face may last a year or two / But pretty soon they'll see what you can do / The sound you make is muzak to my ears / You must have learned something in all those years."


For fans of the band -- at least those who resisted choosing Team Lennon or Team McCartney -- this must have been like the biggest mom-and-dad fight ever. And an added bonus/jab: George Harrison played guitar on the song.

The story goes that Lennon was responding to McCartney's Too Many People. Among McCartney's lyrics: "That was your first mistake / You took your lucky break and broke it in two / Now what can be done for you? / You broke it in two."

That seems tame compared to the vitriol in How Do You Sleep? Ben Gershon wrote of the song in his review of Lennon's Imagine album in Rolling Stone: "It begins with the orchestra tuning up, a la Sgt. Pepper, and proceeds to lay waste to Paul's character, family and career. John is still a wicked punster, and lines like 'The only thing you done was yesterday' hit the mark. But beyond the cruelty of it, it is offensive because it is unjust. Paul's music may be muzak to John's ears, but songs like Oh Yoko or Crippled Inside are no more consequential than anything on McCartney or Ram.

Thankfully, the two made up prior to Lennon's death in 1980.

Prince vs. Michael Jackson

Two of the biggest acts of the 1980s were considered musical rivals, both with landmark albums (Thriller and Purple Rain) that leaped over genre borders and attracted huge audiences. They were often pitted against each other in a good guy (Jackson) vs. bad boy (Prince) sort of way.

Add Prince's royal name and Jackson's self-described "King of Pop" title, and disses were inevitable. They took some shots at each other, mostly with Prince taking aim at Jackson. A few examples:

  • A funny reaction in Jackson's Moonwalker movie, when he's told that Bubbles (the chimp) was wearing a Prince T-shirt.
  • A ping-pong match between the two that reportedly didn't go very well for Jackson.
  • A Prince concert in Las Vegas, which was attended by Jackson and Will.i.Am, including some aggressive bass playing. Will.i.Am recalls Jackson complaining, "What's up with Prince playing bass in my face?"
  • A Chris Rock interview with Prince, in which the original Bad concept is discussed -- a duet-battle sort of thing. Prince declined, with a humorous explanation.
  • A press conference in 2000, when Prince is asked who would win in a fistfight between the two. "Michael's not a fighter, he's a lover," Prince replied, a sly reference to The Girl Is Mine.
  • A note that potentially targeted Jackson's plastic surgery on Prince's Life O the Party: "My voice is getting higher and I ain't never had my nose done."
  • The track Fascination (clip above, the diss is at the 3:56 mark), in which Prince appears to refer to Jackson calling his son Prince: "Making more bucks than sense / So-called king gives birth to so-called prince."
With both artists now gone, it's encouraging to know that despite the beef, there was respect between the two. Author and TV host Tavis Smiley confirms this here, describing Prince's reaction to Jackson's death in 2009.

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