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Fake Bands, Real Songs: The 50 Best Tunes by Made-Up Musicians

From the Archies to the Wonders to Daisy Jones & the Six

From Left: Busy Philipps as Summer in Girls5Eva, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest of Spinal Tap, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born.


TODAY’S LAUNCH OF Daisy Jones & The Six, Amazon’s 10-episode adaptation of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s bestselling novel about the rise and fall of a fictional Seventies rock band has us wondering where The Six lands in the long and sometimes distinguished history of fake bands and singers in film and television. It’s a strange but often hugely appealing musical subgenre, and this is our attempt to figure out which are the true best songs of the fake best songs.

We set out the following eligibility rules: 1) Original songs only, with apologies to the Blues Brothers, the Commitments, and other great fictional cover artists; 2) No biopics or other films where musicians essentially play themselves (e.g., Prince in Purple Rain or Eminem in 8 Mile); and 3) It has to be some kind of genuine fictional music act, rather than someone just performing an original song in the context of a movie, show, or stage musical. We also had a long debate about what to do with the Monkees, before it was decided that at a certain point, they Pinocchio’ed their way into being a real band, and thus didn’t qualify. (Otherwise, “Daydream Believer” would have been very highly ranked.)

Hear this playlist on Spotify.


‘Earache My Eye,’ Alice Bowie

Around the time Alice Cooper and David Bowie became megastars, comedians Cheech and Chong were also riding high (pun intended). For their 1974 LP, Wedding Album, the duo dreamt up Alice Bowie, a privileged brat of a rock star who knows only three chords — which, incidentally, comprise a guitar riff worthy of both Black Sabbath and King Crimson. “It don’t bother me if people think I’m ‘funny,’” Cheech Marin’s Bowie character sings, “‘Cause I’m a big rock star and I’m makin’ lots of money.” The bit was so hilarious that the duo included it in the 1978 film Up in Smoke, in which Marin wore a pink tutu and Mickey Mouse ears. The tune’s legend has echoed ever since, with Soundgarden, Korn, and Rollins Band covering it and 2 Live Crew and Eminem sampling it. “It was just of the times,” Chong once said. “We wrote it back when rock stars were making lots of money and only knew three chords.” —K.G.


‘Please Mr. Kennedy,’ The John Glenn Singers

Oscar Isaac’s title character of Inside Llewyn Davis asks for an independent-contractor fee for his performance on this novelty song, forgoing potential royalties because he’s desperate for cash. But Llewyn also obviously thinks it’s garbage, derisively asking his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) who wrote it; a hurt Jim admits that he did. (In reality, Timberlake co-wrote it with Ed Rush, George Cromarty, T Bone Burnett, and the Coen brothers.) We thinkLlewyn is giving “Please Mr. Kennedy” short shrift. Yes, it’s gimmicky, particularly with Adam Driver’s Al interjecting throughout in a cartoonishly deep voice. Yes, it could really only exist at this moment when the dawn of the Space Race converged with the height of the folk era. But it’s also catchy as hell. As Burnett said later, “It is a joke song, but here’s the thing … even if a song is supposed to be bad in a film, it still has to be great.” —A.S.


‘Big Bottom,’ Spinal Tap

Decades before “All About that Bass,” the comedians behind 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap mastered the bass-as-ass metaphor on “Big Bottom,” a track off their heavy-metal parody band Spinal Tap’s fictitious 1973 album Brainhammer. The three musicians — David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) — each played “lead bass” on the tune, the title of which doubles as a way of describing bass while singing double-entendres like “The bigger the cushion, the sweeter the pushin’” and “How could I leave this behind?” In a movie with many hilarious tracks, “Big Bottom” has become the gift that keeps on giving: Soundgarden frequently played it live, queercore group Pansy Division changed its genders, and Spinal Tap even got to perform it at Live Earth in 2007 with help from members of Foo Fighters, Metallica, and Beastie Boys, among “every bass player in the known universe.” —K.G.


‘I Think I Love You,’ The Partridge Family

The Partridge Family were meta before it was cool, a fictional family band whose singles landed on pop radio as if they were an actual band. But there was a reason for that: those records were co-written by AM-radio-seasoned pros like Paul Anka, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, and future Bruce Springsteen manager Mike Appel, and recorded with L.A.’s must-hire Wrecking Crew session players. The narrator of “I Think I Love You” doesn’t just think he’s in love; he knows it, even to the point of screaming it into his pillow, and David Cassidy, as lead-singer heartthrob Keith, puts his all into his vocal. It’s also a miniature bubblegum symphony, from its opening bah-bah-bah chant to its drop-down bridge to the moment when Cassidy gets so wrapped up in it that he starts singing “Wha think I love you!” at the end. —D.B.


‘When the Right One Comes Along,’ Gunnar Scott and Scarlett O’Connor

Nashville, the soapy and sorely missed 2012-18 series set in that industry town, got plenty of things right about the music business: shady A&R executives running amok, veterans (especially women) struggling to stay relevant, a male singer wrestling with whether to come out. But the series also nailed the sound of modern country, in large part thanks to actual Music City tunesmiths hired to write songs for the show’s fictional characters. It’s easy to imagine hearing frisky, post-Shania stompers and weepers written for Rayna Janes (Connie Britton) and Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) on country radio. The genre’s incorporation of soft-rock sensitivity couldn’t have been better captured than it was on “When the Right One Comes Along.” A showcase for Gunnar and Scarlett, the obvious couple who keep avoiding each other, it’s featured in several different versions, including an orchestrated one. But it’s Gunnar’s sad-dude solo rendition — set at Nashville’s iconic Bluebird Cafe — that will make you want to cry, or at least get a little misty-eyed, in your beer. —D.B.


‘Nobody Like U,’ 4*TOWN

Set in 2002, Disney/Pixar’s 2022 film Turning Red takes viewers back to an era of spiky-haired boy bands. To tackle the heavy task of making a Max Martinesque pop song, Billie Eilish and brother Finneas were called upon to write the music for fictional boy band 4*Town. The pair went outside of their unique comfort zones to pay homage to the era, hitting all the right notes for what made ‘NSync and Backstreet Boys’ hits so huge in the early aughts: bass-heavy synths, angelic harmonies, and tummy-turning sweet nothings that would have any fan so excited that they, too, would transform into a giant red panda if they could. To become the absolutely adorable 4*Town, Finneas joined forces with Jordan Fisher, Josh Levi, Grayson Villanueva, and Topher Ngo, creating the perfect charm- and hormone-explosion. —B.S.


‘Bashir With the Good Beard,’ We Are Lady Parts

There is a tradition in a lot of the films and movies on this list to show a band improvising what instantly sounds like a fully formed song. Sometimes, it seems silly how easily the lyrics and arrangements come together. But when the song is as sharp and fiery as this kiss-off tune from Peacock’s excellent (but unfortunately little-seen) comedy about an all-female Muslim punk band in London, it’s hard to complain when you just want to hear more of it. —A.S.


‘Sugar Sugar,’ The Archies

If you were growing up in 1969, you knew this song from the cartoon The Archie Show. If you were a kid in 1995, you knew it as the song Christina Ricci and Devon Sawa flirt to in Now and Then. If you didn’t grow up in either era, you probably didn’t know “Sugar Sugar” is by a fictional band, let alone one that released a massive hit. The Archies are the brainchild of Don Kirshner, who created them after his first fake group, the Monkees, ditched him to be a real band. Sung by Ron Dante and Toni Wine, “Sugar Sugar” is quintessential bubblegum pop, and not because the lyrics contain words like “candy,” “sweetness,” and other things pertaining to sugary substances. Let this gem prove how powerful fictional bands can be: on Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1969, it landed at Number One. —A.M.


‘Falling Slowly,’ Guy and Girl

Irish director John Carney seems to love nothing more than structuring films around fictional musical acts. For Once, about an Irish busker (Glen Hansard) and a Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova) who meet and record an album together in a whirlwind week, he brought in something of a ringer in Hansard, frontman for the Frames (and also the lead guitarist in The Commitments). But Hansard wrote the aching “Falling Slowly” specifically for the film —introduced in a lovely scene where he teaches it to Irglova in a music shop, because she can’t afford her own piano —and rightly loved it so much that he worked it into his ongoing act. It’s a gray area that borders on our anti-autobiography rule, but we’ll allow the Oscar winner. —A.S.


‘Cheese And Onions,’ The Rutles

Monty Python’s Eric Idle and Neil Innes came up with the fabbest of all Beatles parodies: the Rutles. In their classic 1978 mockumentary All You Need Is Cash, they chronicle the Pre-Fab Four — “a music legend that will last a lunchtime.” The Rutles got a little help from their friends — the film has star turns from George Harrison, Mick Jagger, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and many more. (Interviewer: “Do you think they’ll ever get back together?” Jagger: “I ‘ope not.”) “I loved the Rutles,” Harrison told Rolling Stone in 1979. “I loved the idea of the Rutles taking that burden off us in a way.” Most of the songs are just goofs, but with “Cheese and Onions,” Innes created a bizarrely gorgeous Lennon ballad, in the mode of “A Day in the Life” or “Across the Universe.” No way this song should be as great as it is — but it even got bootlegged as a lost Beatles outtake. —R.S.


‘You’re So Beautiful,’ Jamal

Hustle & Flow and the Fox blockbuster series Empire don’t exist in the same cinematic universe, but both featured Terrance Howard and Taraji P. Henson, who could be an evolved DJay and Shug, now running an elite record label. Yet, the best version of the best song of the six-season-long musical drama barely features them. Instead, on “You’re So Beautiful,” a chipper ode to women across the aesthetic spectrum, Jussie Smollet and Yazz take the lead as the sons and prodigies of Howard’s musician-turned-mogul Lucious Lyon. The track is a little corny (“Ain’t gotta be a beava’ to get wood from me,” raps Yazz as Hakeem before daring to utter, “Get it?”), but it’s a genuine joy that lives multiple lives across the show, most searingly and importantly when Smollett’s Jamal reworks it and its gender pronoun to come out publicly. —M.C.


‘Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young,’ Ellen Aim and the Attackers

Jim Steinman was the king of pop bombast, the madman behind epics like “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” But he outdid himself in the 1984 teen flick Streets of Fire, starring Diane Lane as an outlaw rock star. Steinman wrote absurdly melodramatic anthems for her band Ellen Aim and the Attackers, a blaze of Eighties hair and shoulder pads. In the final scene, Diane goes onstage with tears in her eyes to belt this lost flaming-youth power-cheese classic. This song has it all — thunder crashes, piano kabooms, Holly Sherwood’s vocal, the crowd chanting, “Let the revels begin! Let the fire be started! We’re dancing for the restless and the broken-hearted!” It’s a top-five Jim Steinman tune — and it complements Lane’s other great Eighties fake band, the Stains, from Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. —R.S.


‘On the Dark Side,’ Eddie and the Cruisers

John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band have spent much of their careers fighting accusations of copycatting Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. But sometimes, that’s not such a bad thing, as their anthem from this melodramatic musical biopic sounds like the best song the Boss never wrote. So what if it’s not remotely what an early-Sixties Jersey Shore act would play? Eddie and the Cruisers would never have become a cable staple without it. —A.S.


‘A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,’ Mitch & Mickey

When Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara’s reunited folk-singing duo begins to perform their most famous song in the climax of Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind, Michael McKean’s character observes, “This is that really pretty one.” The real McKean would know, as he co-wrote it with wife Annette O’Toole. In a film where most of the songs walk a tightrope between parody and sincerity, “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” plays things entirely, perfectly straight. The movie’s other acts all crowd around the wings to see if Mitch & Mickey will share their signature kiss near the song’s end, but we also see several of them moved to tears by one last rendition of what they rightly view as a beautiful number from the days when folk music was still cool. —A.S.


‘Drive It Like You Stole It,’ Sing Street

Another instant fake classic from a John Carney movie. Sing Street follows a group of Irish teens in the Eighties who initially form a band so the lead singer can impress an older girl, but who in time turn out to be shockingly good. The film has them moving through various musical influences of the period, with songs that sound like Depeche Mode or Duran Duran. Their highlight is “Drive It Like You Stole It,” which on the one hand shamelessly rips off the beat of Hall and Oates’ “Maneater,” but on the other hand uses it to fuel a synth-driven crowd-pleaser that feels very much drawn from the lives of these kids. —A.S.


‘Straight Outta Locash,’ CB4

Less than a decade after This Is Spinal Tap lovingly lampooned heavy metal, Chris Rock starred in the mockumentary CB4, a send-up of gangsta rap. In the film, Rock plays a wannabe rapper named Albert who assumes the identity of a gang member called Gusto; when the real Gusto goes to jail, Albert becomes MC Gusto and his buddies take on the aliases Dead Mike and Stab Master Arson to make up CB4 (short for “Cell Block 4”) and record tracks like “Straight Outta LoCash.” On the N.W.A parody, Rock (who sounds a lot like Eazy E) raps, “I fucked ya wife, ’cause the bitch is a big ho/I fucked ya sister, I fucked ya cat/I would have fucked ya mom, but the bitch is too fat!” It’s like Def Comedy Jam set to a break beat. —K.G.


‘Light of Day,’ The Barbusters

Legend has it that director Paul Schrader sent Bruce Springsteen a movie script called Born in the U.S.A. about a Rust Belt bar band, hoping to get him to star. Springsteen instead appropriated the title for his most famous album and, as repayment, donated the roadhouse rocker “Light of Day” to Schrader for the film, which ultimately starred Joan Jett and Michael J. Fox. In a way, “Light of Day” is almost too good —like a lot of Prince’s early songs in Purple Rain, it’s hard to hear it and believe that the group isn’t already successful as a result of it — but both Jett and Springsteen have understandably worked it into their live sets. —A.S.


‘Finest Girl,’ Conner4Real

“Finest Girl,” as a piece of comedy pop rap, is among the Lonely Island’s best. It’s a sexy, guitar-laden slow jam stuffed with Top 40-ready melodies and flows about a woman with an extremely specific request — “Fuck me like we fucked Bin Laden” — and a man down bad enough to oblige (with minimal second guessing: “She said, ‘Invade my cave with your special unit’/I said, ‘He wasn’t in a cave,’ but there was no stopping”). But “Finest Girl” isn’t just a perfect piece of comedy pop rap. It appears in the Lonely Island’s excellent 2016 mockumentary, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, just as the career of the loveably dimwitted, delusional superstar Conner4Real (played by Andy Samberg) starts to tank. It’s not the only outrageous song used to signal Conner’s downfall, nor is it arguably the most pointed parody (see: “Equal Rights,” featuring Pink). But the song’s horny jingoism goes a long way in spoofing the out-of-touch, unchecked egos that reign supreme in the music industry — and like all great Lonely Island songs, it doesn’t sound that far off from a genuine pop smash. —J.B.


‘Best of Both Worlds,’ Hannah Montana

If you’re going to make a theme song about a fictional pop superstar, the song better be of high Top 40 quality. “Best of Both Worlds” set the tone for the phenomenon that was Disney’s Hannah Montana, a show so beloved and talked about that it not only created a megastar out of its lead actress, Miley Cyrus, but also gave her dad Billy Ray Cyrus’ career a second chance. Miley sings the theme, showcasing her massive, pop-rock vocal range while highlighting the double life of the titular teen idol who exists offstage as the seemingly normal Miley Stewart. The song was co-penned by songwriters Matthew Gerard (Kelly Clarkson; Hilary Duff) and Robbie Nevil (The Pointer Sisters; Earth, Wind and Fire) and cracked the Hot 100 soon after the show debuted. —B.S.


‘School of Rock,’ School of Rock

In Richard Linklater and Mike White’s love letter to the power of rock, Jack Black’s Dewey Finn fakes his way into a substitute-teacher gig and realizes the kids in his class have the makings of a great band. For much of the movie, the plan is for them to perform Dewey’s hilariously self-aggrandizing “The Legend of the Rent,” but when it comes time for the big show, he wisely opts to instead have them play the work of one of his students (actually written by Sammy James Jr. from the Mooney Suzuki), a rousing, infectious tribute to all of Dewey’s guitar-shredding influences. —A.S.


‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,’ DJay

After its release in the summer of 2005, Craig Brewer and John Singleton’s Hustle & Flow became an awards-season staple. The street drama centered on the dreams and depth of Terrence Howard’s DJay, a literal pimp trying to breakthrough as a rapper in the trenches of Memphis, featuring laudable performances from Taraji P. Henson, Taryn Manning, Anthony Anderson, and others. The most important statue the film earned, though, was the Oscar for Best Original Song on behalf of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” written by Memphis’ own DJ Paul and Juicy J of Three 6 Mafia, and Frayser Boy of their imprint, Hypnotize Minds. Henson’s character, a sex worker under DJay named Shug, croons the hook that spreads like wildfire, and Henson even performed it onstage with Three 6 Mafia at the Academy Awards that year. Twelve years later, Howard, who lost the Best Actor actor race, was still bitter about missing out on that moment of glory. “I was sitting there trying to play ‘good boy’ at the time, which sometimes we do in this business,” he told Andy Cohen. But Southern rap icons Three 6 Mafia getting all the shine, from their unprecedented performance to their unwieldy acceptance, meant so much more. —M.C.


‘3 Small Words,’ Josie and the Pussycats

Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan’s live-action take on the Archie Comics mainstay was dismissed in 2001, but later reclaimed as a cult classic, for both its cutting satire and a fantastic collection of songs for Josie, Melody, and Valerie to play. Adam Schlesinger’s got another great one here in the very Fountains of Wayne-esque “Pretend to be Nice.” But the movie rightly introduces the Pussycats with the pop-punk banger “3 Small Words,”written by Elfont, Kaplan, Dave Gibbs, and Adam Duritz, with Letters to Cleo’s Kay Hanley as the singing voice of Josie. –A.S.


‘Shallow,’ Jackson Maine and Ally

“Shallow” was a runaway success before A Star Is Born was even out. The song, including the booming note Lady Gaga’s Ally hits on the bridge, became instantly iconic as soon as it was featured in the film’s trailer. The song, like the rest of the soundtrack, made this risky remake by Gaga and director/co-star Bradley Cooper truly shine as bright as its three classic predecessors and gave it a uniquely (and necessary) modern spin. Like her superb acting in the film, Gaga’s own knack for excellent pop and rock songwriting elevates the character beyond just an unknown star with a gorgeous voice. “Shallow” shows Ally’s edge, and rightfully earned Gaga a Best Original Song Oscar and another Top 10 hit. —B.S.


‘Scotty Doesn’t Know,’ Lustra

As crass as it is hilarious, this Blink-182-style nugget — written for the cult-classic 2004 film Eurotrip, in which it’s lip-synced by a punked-out Matt Damon— is catchy enough to have hit the Hot 100 singles chart in real life. It’s all about the lyrics — punched up by the movie’s writing team of Seinfeld veterans (Jeff Schaffer, Alec Berg, and David Mandel) — which present a cartoonish cavalcade of cuckoldry (“I can’t believe he’s so trusting/While I’m right behind you thrusting”). In the film, of course, the main character (Scotty, obviously) only learns that his girlfriend (Smallville‘s Kristin Kreuk) has been cheating on him with Damon’s character when he hears the song for the first time. —B.H.


‘That Thing You Do!,’ The Wonders

What else could the number-one song on this list be other than the irresistible power-pop tune by a band that first called itself the Oneders? Tom Hanks’ directorial debut about an early-Sixties group that has one big hit before disbanding would not work at all if the title song was not wholly convincing. But the late Adam Schlesinger proved his bona fides as the unquestioned master of the fake-pop-song form with the tight harmonies and catchy riffs he wrote for these one-hit wonders. The song plays in full or in part 11 different times in the film, and never gets old. —A.S.