Picasso was an icon in his own lifetime. That he celebrated his 90th birthday by becoming the first living artist to have a retrospective at the Louvre proves the point, but so does the fact that he had already become a reference point in music. A quarter of a century before the artist’s death, 50 years ago this April, Coleman Hawkins had named his unaccompanied saxophone solo of 1948 – the first recording of its kind and a testament to unbridled creativity – simply Picasso.
Just a year prior to the diminutive Spaniard’s demise, New York proto-punks Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers commented on his legendary yet perplexing success with women in their sparse and sardonic Pablo Picasso (“Well some people try to pick up girls/ And get called assholes/ This never happened to Pablo Picasso”).
Even by 1973, Picasso’s possible cultural meanings were running the gamut from the earnest to the absurd, and this continued as his status intensified over the following decade.
Paul McCartney was quick off the mark with Wings’ Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me) appearing on Band on the Run just the December after the artist’s death. Written on a dare from Dustin Hoffman to use those alleged last words as lyrics (“Drink to me, drink to my health. You know I can’t drink any more”, Picasso supposedly said before breathing his last at his Mougins villa), the song jarringly interpolated a bit of future hit single Jet – a song about McCartney’s pet puppy – and a clip from a BBC French Language Service programme about tourism to Britain.
McCartney later claimed that Picasso’s Last Words used “the idea of [Picasso’s] different periods” and he had decided to “keep messing it up until it sounds good, like Picasso did”. This explanation isn’t wholly convincing, and neither is the song as a tribute to a genius.
Soon musicians became less interested in Picasso the man, and instead focused on his artworks as symbols of wealth or status, sometimes with the underlying implication of the true value of creativity being overlooked. Neil Diamond opened the bidding with his typically melodramatic offering The Last Picasso (1974) (“The last Picasso/ Was just acquired by some old museum”), but British artists would also later take up the theme.
Adam and the Ants’ 1981 album track Picasso Visita El Planeta De Los Simios was characteristically frenetic sonically, but despite inherently absurdist lyrics, it also made comment on taste-making and monetary value in art: “They bowed and they scraped/ As opinions he shaped/ Now every little sketch/ A fortune will fetch”.
Ex-Marillion singer Fish used “A Dalí or a Picasso” as markers of the capitalist greed critiqued in his pleasingly titled Big Wedge (1990). Providing a bookend to Diamond’s offering from the US, Jay-Z’s Picasso Baby of 2013 opened “I just want a Picasso in my casa/ No, my castle”.
But “Picasso” is a name of such potency – soaked in his Spanish heritage and embodying the French creative spirit, he can be conjured up to connote eccentricity, romance, glamour, and many other concepts in-between – some musical artists have namedropped him in songs with very little lyrical connection to him. The German four-piece Rikas, with their breezy indie pop, called their funk-tinged 2018 single Picasso with little relevance to the standardly romantic lyrics, although the video showed each band member in a four-way split screen painting their own recreation of his 1946 work, Joie de vivre.
Dutch one-man project Spinvis, who found success in his 40s with his beguiling lo-fi pop vignettes recorded in his attic, sang of a cat called Picasso on the quirky track of the same name from his 2020 LP 220.127.116.11., a No 1 album in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, Moldovan pop trio O-Zone’s Romanian language Eurodance megahit Dragostea Din Tei (2003) chucked “Alo? Alo!/ Sunt eu, Picasso” (“Hello? Hello!/ It’s me, Picasso”) into the mix of its nonsense lyrics as mere seasoning.
It is apparent that Picasso’s name comes to the lips of singers with the same ease as “Jesus” or “Elvis”. And that is not just because it has an appealing cadence that rolls off the tongue, but because he is such a multivalent figure, a European icon who can simultaneously represent the greatest artistic achievements of mankind and the ultimate in self-realisation, but also high living and our baser instincts.
PABLO PICASSO in five songs
The Modern Lovers, Pablo Picasso (1972)
Produced by John Cale and influenced by his Velvet Underground, this track reflects on how Picasso “was only 5’3”/ But girls could not resist his stare”.
Adam and the Ants, Picasso Visita El Planeta De Los Simios (1981)
This track was full of surreal imagery: “As the masters rot on walls/ And the angels eat their grapes/ I watched Picasso visit The Planet of the Apes.”
Peter Bjorn and John, Blue Period Picasso (2009)
The indie pop Swedes made an artwork “stuck on a wall/ In a middle of a hall in Barcelona/ Trying to figure out how to get down” the protagonist of this retro, synthy track.
Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band, Picasso (2017)
Michael Head’s opening track on the LP Adiós Señor Pussycat refers to Picasso’s association with the French capital: “I’m going back to Paris/ Visit my second home”.
Rikas, Picasso (2018)
The sun-drenched feel of this song is more evocative of the climes of Spain and France Picasso is so associated with than the band’s own Stuttgart.