How Do You Sleep?: 23 Highly Specific Rock and Roll Diss Tracks

  1. Pavement, “Range Life” (1994)
    Stephen Malkmus wrote the country shuffle “Range Life,” which for most of its five minutes is an earnest meditation on how the desire to live freely conflicts with a yearning for security. Then in the final, semi-improvised verse, Malkmus laconically lashes out at Smashing Pumpkins (singing “they don’t have no function”) and Stone Temple Pilots (dismissing the group as “elegant bachelors”).
  2. Sex Pistols, “New York” (1977)
    Though punk was still in its nascent stage in 1977, the Sex Pistols were ready to serve a palate cleanser with Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. The band seemed eager to kill its predecessors, including the New York Dolls, who they trashed on the album in “New York.” Johnny Rotten snarks about the N.Y. Dolls’ addiction issues and diminished relevance, bookending the nastiness with the line “sealed with a kiss."
  3. David Bowie, “Teenage Wildlife” (1980)
    When Bowie didn’t like somebody, he let them know, though few people seem to have rubbed him the wrong way like Gary Numan did in the late 1970s. The new-wave pioneer owed a lot to Bowie’s experiments with sound and public image, as did many of the synth poppers who were coming up at the time—but instead of a nod of approval from the Thin White Duke, what they inspired was the sprawling, poison-pen “Teenage Wildlife,” which serves as the centerpiece of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).
  4. Sun Kil Moon, “War On Drugs: Suck My Cock” (2014)
    The savage, seven-minute “War On Drugs: Suck My Cock” isn’t among Kozelek’s best work, but it’s an important document to prove a rock rivalry future generations might not otherwise believe took place. The feud has since cooled down, so perhaps Kozelek and WOD have mended fences, presumably without anyone performing fellatio.
  5. John Lennon, “How Do You Sleep?” (1971)
    The song contains the lines, “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead,” and, “The only thing you done was yesterday.” Adding insult: George Harrison played guitar on the song, and Ringo Starr dropped by the studio during the recording. These passive-aggressive pokes between Lennon and McCartney were never as pointed again, but they didn’t need to be.
  6. Sebadoh, “Gimme Indie Rock” (1991)
    Given that bands don’t get much more “indie rock” than Sebadoh—either in aesthetic or business model—this roaring anthem could be read as only a little bit sarcastic. But as singer-songwriter Lou Barlow describes his chosen genre as “middle of the road” “electric white boy blues,” he’s at least being self-critical. Plus, he names names, singing about “getting loose with the Pussy Galore” and “pedal-hopping like Dinosaur [Jr.]”
  7. Sebadoh, “The Freed Pig” (1991)
    Lou Barlow dove more deeply into his break from Dino Jr. on Sebadoh’s infamously scathing “Freed Pig.” He lays the sarcasm on thick, conceding he was a cancer to Dinosaur Jr. and that he’d been dead set on provoking the group’s J. Mascis out of jealousy over his enormous talent. “Now you will be free,” Barlow sings, choking on his contempt, “With no sick people tugging on your sleeve, your big head has that more room to grow.”
  8. Menswear, “Stardust” (1995)
    The Britpop era produced many press feuds—“Wibbling Rivalry,” Blur vs. Oasis, etc.—but surprisingly few good diss songs. Leave it to glampop purveyors Menswear to provide one of the best ones with “Stardust,” which takes on Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie and his taste for the trappings of rockstardom: career reinventions, pretty girlfriends, and fashionable clothes.
  9. Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sweet Home Alabama” (1974)
    The gold standard for response songs, “Sweet Home Alabama” was reportedly written by the southern men of Lynyrd Skynyrd after they took offense to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” Young was calling out the racist history of the South, referring to the Ku Klux Klan’s “crosses burning." A few years later, Lynyrd Skynyrd sauntered into the studio with that now-famous guitar riff, and wrote: “Well, I hope Neil Young will remember / A southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”
  10. NOFX, “Kill Rock Stars” (1997)
    Some diss songs land on the wrong side of history; look no further than NOFX’s “Kill Rock Stars,” a song written about feminist icon and Riot Grrrl matriarch Kathleen Hanna, referencing both her and her band’s label by name: “Kill the rockstars? / How ironic, Kathleen / You’ve been crowned the newest queen.” Singer/bassist Fat Mike goes on to mansplain how feminism does or doesn’t work to Hanna.
  11. Le Tigre, “Deceptacon” (1999)
    Luckily, a key component of diss songs is the opportunity for rebuttal, and Hanna wasted little time. “Deceptacon”—the first song on her next album, Le Tigre’s eponymous debut—closes with the following verse: “Your lyrics are dumb like a linoleum floor / I’ll walk on it / I’ll walk all over you.” “Linoleum floor” refers to NOFX’s song “Linoleum,” as Hanna chides Fat Mike for his meaningless and uninteresting lyrics.
  12. Mojo Nixon, “Don Henley Must Die” (1990)
    In the 1980s, a sizable segment of the indie music scene was devoted to simply poking holes in anything lionized by the mainstream in Reagan’s America. One of the best and silliest provocateurs was rockabilly singer Mojo Nixon. is most famous target is the Eagles-drummer-turned-solo-artist, who Nixon describes as, “Poet of despair / Pumped up with hot air / He’s serious, pretentious / And I just don’t care.”
  13. Crass, “Punk Is Dead” (1978)
    Punk’s death has been a joke as long as the genre has been alive, and the hyper-politicized Crass were one of the first to revel in this gallows humor. The anarchist-punk collective didn’t take kindly to punk bands being in bed with major corporations, and throughout “Punk Is Dead,” vocalist Steve Ignorant is happy to point out why that’s so damaging.
  14. Special Duties, “Bullshit Crass” (1982)
    Opening with the chant of “Fight Crass, not punk,” Special Duties set its sights on the anarchist band that was no stranger to stoking controversy. Taking umbrage with both Crass’ music and its message, Special Duties drew a line in the sand with “Bullshit Crass.” The band doesn’t mince words, calling out Crass for its ideals, its cultish following, and its claim that “punk is dead.”
  15. Sevendust, “Enemy” (2003)
    Schoolyard taunts and gritted-teeth threats are the bread and butter of nu metal. So one could be forgiven for assuming that Sevendust’s “Enemy” is just a general blast of macho grandstanding. But drummer Morgan Rose, who wrote the song and raps its vitriolic verses, had a very specific enemy in mind when he wrote such choice lines as “Clean up my shit / you look like a dick / Step to unemployment”: Dez Fafara, lead singer of fellow Ozzfest undercard act Coal Chamber.
  16. Morrissey, “Sorrow Will Come In The End” (1997)
    Almost a decade after The Smiths’ dissolution, drummer Mike Joyce filed a lawsuit against Morrissey and Johnny Marr, claiming that he’d believed he was being paid 25 percent of the group’s earnings when, in fact, he was only getting 10 percent. When the judge awarded Joyce his 25 percent, a seething Morrissey promptly expressed his feelings on the legal decision with the penultimate track on his 1997 album, Maladjusted.
  17. The Brian Jonestown Massacre, “Not If You Were The Last Dandy On Earth” (1997)
    s documented in Ondi Timoner’s cautionary cult classic Dig!, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols never hid their mutual animosity. What began as friendship and creative kinship quickly dissolved into bitterness and open hostility as burgeoning fame, drug abuse, and jealousy turned the bands into rivals. It was inevitable that heads would butt, as both groups were torchbearers for a would-be, psych-rock movement in the late ’90s.
  18. The Dead Milkmen, “Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance To Anything)” (1987)
    “Instant Club Hit” ends with a dismissive litany of bands like The Communards, Book Of Love, Public Image Limited, and “Depeche Commode,” who stood accused of being “a bunch of stupid Europeans who come over here with their big hairdos intent on taking our money.” The Dead Milkmen effectively slagged off danceable U.K. acts and their American teenage fans for being trendy—which is still one of the worst insults that any scenester can hurl at another.
  19. Veruca Salt, “Born Entertainer” (2000)
    Co-frontwomen Louise Post and Nina Gordon traded musical taunts after a rift between them led Gordon to leave the band in 1998 for a solo career. But the most pointed line came from Post, who held onto the Veruca Salt name and relaunched the band with a new lineup following Gordon’s departure. Given the history, there was no confusing the target of “Born Entertainer,” the reformed Veruca Salt’s first single: “This couldn’t get any better / She didn’t get it, so fuck her!”
  20. Jawbreaker, “Unlisted Track” (1995)
    The listener could be forgiven for simply taking the line, “Now everyone tells me they’re crazy / Crazy people aren’t so fucking boring” to be another one of the singer’s typically acerbic and witty couplets with no direct inspiration. But the lyric is based on none other than fellow Bay Area punk frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong.
  21. Torches To Rome, “This Is Not A Step” (1999)
    hough “This Is Not A Step” was recorded in 1995, it wouldn’t be released until four years later, making its jab at Jawbreaker’s signing to a major label less relevant but no less charged. Referencing lyrics from Jawbreaker’s “Million,” singer Sarah Kirsch takes to task a band that used punk as a springboard for a career instead of as a tool for social change.
  22. Randy Newman, “My Life Is Good” (1983)
    n “My Life Is Good,” his first-person sketch of a monstrous Hollywood glad-hander, the protagonist runs into Springsteen at a luxury hotel in Bel-Air. After some small talk about guitars and woodblocks, the rock icon asks Newman if he wouldn’t mind taking his place as The Boss for a while. Rand happily obliges, yelling at saxophonist Clarence Clemons to “Blow, Big Man! Blow!” as he continues to rub his effortless privilege in the face of the lower class.
  23. Great Plains, “Letter To A Fanzine” (1987)
    Ohio college-rock favorites Great Plains sniped at their own kind in “Letter To A Fanzine,” a shaggy, organ-fueled basher that begins by asking “Why do punk rock guys go out with new wave girls?” and then proceeds to adopt the voice of an annoying opinionated music buff, saying that he likes “everything that comes out on 4AD,” “everything that comes out on SST,” and “everything I get in the mail for free.”