Having said that, however, there are some songs I enjoy where the lyrics make little sense to me. Maybe I'm missing a deeper meaning, maybe they are supposed to be surreal, maybe the writers were insane – I don't know. The songs confuse me when I sing along to them, but I still know all the lyrics and I still like them.
Sometimes, it's not the whole song. It might be a bunch of odd verses around a straight-forward chorus, or it might be a chorus that makes you go, "Huh?" even as you bellow it at the top of your lungs. And I don't mean songs that are misunderstood or misconstrued in some way; these are songs that I simply do not understand large sections of. I would like to point out that some songs that do seem to make no sense are metaphors, and once you understand what the songwriter is talking about, then it becomes clearer; not perfectly clear, but clearer. 'Hotel California' by The Eagles as a metaphor for fame (and that is hugely simplified) comes to mind. Also, if there is one or two lines in a song that don't make sense, but the rest of the song does, that doesn't really count; sometimes meanings get lost when you try to fit your lines into the correct scansion.
These two might be surprising by not making the grade:
'Tutti Frutti' by Little Richard (1955) – sure, the verses are fine, but what on earth does that chorus mean? Well, the story goes it is deliberate nonsense to cover up some not very safe for work (this was the 1950s, and it's still not safe for work) original lyrics about having sex. So, yes, they don't make sense, but it's almost an "up yours" to the censors.
'Ice Ice Baby' by Vanilla Ice (1989) – I don't like the song. Not because it makes no sense, but because it's awful. And yet – and yet – I know all the freakin' lyrics…
Oh, and because I've discussed it recently in another column, Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway To Heaven' is not here. I love the track, know all the words, and yet I'm still really not sure what it's all about. And that's the point of this column – that not understanding a song sometimes does not matter, especially if the song is a good one.
'Loser' by Beck, 1993 (written by: Beck Hansen & Carl Stephenson)
The chorus is straight forward enough – Beck's apparently a loser, baby, so why doesn't somebody kill him? But the verses… Wow. A bunch of strange metaphors that really do make no sense. From the opening line "In the time of chimpanzees, I was a monkey…" you know you're either too thick to understand what's going on or you're fine and maybe the songwriter needs a hand. I mean, it's still a great song, but those verses… Yeah. Sample lyrics:
"You get a parking violation and a maggot on your sleeve So shave your face with some mace in the dark…"
'Hey Soul Sister' by Train, 2009 (written by: Amund Bjorklund, Espen Lind & Pat Monahan)
I admit it – I like Train! 'Play That Song' was catchy as all hell, and 'Drops Of Jupiter' was an ear-worm that was always there. And I do like this song as well. However, I do feel like a random word generator and a rhyming dictionary were all that were used to write the verses to this admittedly catchy song. And it's from 2009; they were name-checking Mr Mister in the lyrics some 20 years after their relevance, well, stopped being relevant? No, that's not the issue with the song (I like Mr Mister); it's the lyrics in the verses. Sample lyrics:
"Your lipstick stains on the front lobe of my left side brains I knew I wouldn't forget you, and so I let you go and blow my mind…"
'Whip It' by Devo, 1980 (written by: Gerald Casale & Mark Mothersbaugh)
What child of the 80s hasn't sung along to this song at a disco of some sort? And that video clip, with women being disrobed by the whip! For the time – wow! And how many of us bothered to sit down and think about what the song was telling us? Was it an endorsement of BDSM? Was it about using dairy products? Was it a throwback to nineteenth-century corporal punishment techniques? Did anyone know? Did any of us care?
"When a problem comes along
You must whip it
Before the cream sits out too long
You must whip it…"
'Jet' by Paul McCartney & Wings, 1974 (written by Linda McCartney & Paul McCartney)
I thought I knew this song until I got the sheet music and lyrics for it in the mid-90s and realised I was singing half the lyrics wrong and the real lyrics make no freakin' sense! I think it's about a couple, who want to get married but they're too young or something. I think. Still doesn't help. And the "Ah, mater..", which is Latin for "Oh, Mother"… Okay. Sure.
"Jet with the wind in your hair of a thousand laces
Climb on the back and we'll go for a ride in the sky…"
'MacArthur Park' by Richard Harris, 1968 (written by: Jimmy Webb)
Sure, some (some, not all) of the sentiments in the verses are fine. But then we get cakes in the rain and runny icing and not having recipes to be able to rebake them and… Okay, is it a metaphor for a love gone bad? I don't know, because even that explanation (which I've read online) makes no sense at all. But I love this song for all that. I keep seeing it in lists of worst songs of all time, but that's garbage – it's great. For what it's worth, though, I dislike Donna Summer's disco version.
"MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain…"
'Bullet With Butterfly Wings' by Smashing Pumpkins, 1995 (written by: Billy Corgan)
I got into this song through TNA wrestling after ignoring it when it first came out. And then I decided I wanted to know what it was all about. Bad move. I think I'll just sing along to it. Look, I like the sentiment behind the chorus, but the verses are too deep for me, I guess. I have the feeling it's about performing and not liking it or the reaction to it or something. I think. Oh well, just have to keep growling that chorus…
"The world is a vampire, sent to drain
Secret destroyers, hold you up to the flames…"
'I Am The Walrus' by The Beatles, 1967 (written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney)
Yeah, like this makes sense on any level. I love the song, have been known to karaoke it in public, and yet… what the hell does it mean? Someone once tried to tell me it's an LSD experience put down in words. Someone else said it's all stream of consciousness stuff. Does that matter? Because the words and phrases might make sense, but not the way they are put together. It's like Max Ernst decided to write a song. But, instead, it's Paul McCartney's second appearance on this list… Hmm…
"Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog's eye
Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess…"
'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' by Procul Harum, 1967 (written by: Gary Brooker, Keith Reid & Matthew Fisher)
Brilliant song, based (probably) on a piece of classical music, and yet… what? I think it's about a boy reminiscing about a girl. By why a Miller's Tale? The reference to Canterbury Tales doesn't make sense. And roofs flying away from ceilings. Look, I guess it's supposed to be deep and all that, but to me, it's just confusing. That has not stopped me from screaming along to it in the car, though.
"She said, 'There is no reason' and the truth is plain to see
But I wandered through my playing cards and would not let her be…"
'Blinded By The Light' by Bruce Springsteen, 1973 (& later, Manfred Mann's Earth Band, 1976) (written by: Bruce Springsteen)
Nope, no idea. I have read an interview where Springsteen said he wrote it using a rhyming dictionary. Clearly, that was all that was used. The song is brilliant, though. In high school, a mate and I argued for hours one night over (a) what the lyrics were (I misheard "Revved up like a deuce…" as "Wrapped up like Medusa…") and (b) what they meant. We listened to Springsteen and Manfred Mann over and over to try to get it, and in the end, gave up and sang whatever the hell we wanted because the song is still really, really good.
"Madman drummers bummers, Indians in the summer
With a teenage diplomat
In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps
His way into his hat…"
'Bohemian Rhapsody' by Queen, 1975 (written by: Freddie Mercury)
But, I hear you cry, this is a classic of the classic rock genre! Fine, I reply, what does it mean? Okay, start with the title. Why Bohemian? Hmm? Let's continue: The lyrics. We start with a guy about to be executed for a crime? Maybe… Then we have Scaramouches and Galileos and opera and something about a boy from the lower classes. Then we shift gear into the hard rock portion where a guy is complaining about how his lover treats him, then we slow down again at the very end. Now, look, the song is brilliant (not one of my very favourite Queen songs, but certainly up there) and all that, and I will scream along to it like an extra out of Wayne's World, but it still doesn't make sense.
"I see a little silhouetto of a man
Scaramouch, Scaramouch will you do the Fandango
Thunderbolt and lightning very very frightening me
Gallileo, Gallileo, Gallileo, Gallileo, Gallileo, figaro, magnifico…"
And there you have it – lyrics that mean something, I'm sure, but who knows what? And, really, when the songs are this good, who actually cares?
Okay, well, I do. But that's my hang-up. And I will still sing/scream along to each of these when I hear them.
And it'll probably look a lot like this…
And, as usual, any comments, questions, mistakes to be corrected, etc. are most welcome!