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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.


‘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.