All of us experience certain rites of passage as we make the often arduous journey from adolescence to adulthood: pimples, that first crush, getting a driver’s license, disco-dancing naked on a neighbor’s front doorstep, wearing a German spiked helmet. Okay, maybe not everyone gets pimples. But if there’s one experience we all share, it’s mishearing pop song lyrics.
Over the years I must have inadvertently rewritten more lyrics than Weird Al Yankovic. When I began to take an interest in pop music in the early 1970s, singers such as Robert Plant and Paul McCartney had to compete with gales of static and hiss from the tinny low-fi speakers of my five-dollar AM radio. Sometimes it was like trying to listen to somebody whispering to me with my head stuck down a flushing toilet. How could I not mangle the occasional song line beyond all hope of recognition?The first song lyrics I remember stuffing up were those to Creedence Clearwater’s “Better Run Through the Jungle.” I could’ve sworn John Fogharty was singing Bellarongoo the chong. Then there was the Kinks’ “Picture Book.” When lead singer Ray Davies was belting out Picture book! Picture book! I was belting out Big shot boy! Big shot boy! And nobody could tell me that Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” wasn’t a touching tribute to Odie Cologne, the sage skunk in the sixties TV cartoon series King Leonardo and His Short Subjects.
While it could be argued, probably very successfully, that my revisionary spin on certain song lyrics is no improvement on the originals, occasionally I did manage to come up with something better. Case in point, the Rolling Stones’ “Get off of My Cloud.” The line Don’t mess around, three is a crowd was interpreted by my musical ear as Don’t hang around no union clown. In view of all the public transport strikes we had to cop here in Melbourne, Oz at the time, my version was far more socially relevant.
If there was any one musical artist who caused me to mishear more lyrics than anybody else, it was the person formerly known as Reginald Dwight. As far as I was concerned, Elton wasn’t shouting Saturday! Saturday! in “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” He was pleading for Sanity! Sanity! Zap me, right between the eyes in “Philadelphia Freedom” sounded way too much like Zap me, ride the dreamy tide for me to think it was anything else. Even today, despite poring over the lyrics to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” I’m still positive that Your breakfast shoots down the drain is You better shoot down the plane.
I’m not the only one who’s had trouble with Mr. John’s vocal hijinks. A friend of mine was convinced that the line It kills me to think of you with another man in “Love Lies Bleeding” was in fact The things I could do with another man. I’m sure Elton and hubby would get a big kick out of that one.
The Hits Keep on Coming
The way I heard it, “Mind Games” by John Lennon was My Gorilla, “Beach Baby” by First Class was Bitch Baby, “Metal Guru” by T. Rex was Mittagaroo, “Once Bitten Twice Shy” by Ian Hunter was Once Bitten Twice Sharpie, and “Show Business” and “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” by AC/DC were Show Me There and Dirty Deeds and the Dunder Chief respectively.
The ’80s and Beyond
While the 1980s have much to answer for, Duran Duran and paisley sport coats for starters, they did give us crystalline sound quality via digitally reproduced music on CD and FM radio, which meant I could no longer blame cheap transistor radios for my lyrical misinterpretations. That left only pop singers’ dodgy diction because I knew that stupidity and a lack of attentiveness on my part had absolutely nothing at all to do with it.
Better watch out for the skin deep, as sung by the Stranglers in their song “Skin Deep,” sounded so close to Better watch out for the scoobies for me not to regard scoobies with a great deal of caution. By the time I was through with it, Les yeux sans visage, the French chorus in Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face,” had turned into Pleasure’s all used up. Why Prince wasted valuable studio time bemoaning When ducks cry was a mystery to me, and Billy Ocean had a damned cheek telling me to Go and get stuffed in “When the Going Gets Tough”.
Fast forwarding to the present day, I still mishear song lyrics. As a matter of fact, it was only recently I learned that Paul McCartney wasn’t singing You’ve got to give the other fella a hand in “Live and Let Die” but rather You’ve got to give the other fella hell. I’m so grateful for that clarification because I’d always thought it somewhat counter-productive that James Bond would be keen to help the villains he was licensed to dispatch.