By the Landlord
"I'm Terry Wogan," sang Chaka Khan. Was she aspiring to take over BBC's Radio 2 breakfast show?
"Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Steak and a knife, steak and a knife," cried out three hungry Bee Gees. Was the food piping hot, and so therefore a little painful? Not if Mick Jagger has anything to do with it. "I'll never keep your pizza burnin'," he crooned. Still peckish? Dire Straits had a huge hit by offering us money for nothing and you chips for free. So it's not just a takeaway, but a total giveaway. Duffy told us repeatedly how she was begging for birdseed. Across the pond Iggy Azalea showed an obsession with English high tea - in particular scones. Rihanna is however, clearly vegetarian - she doesn't want you to stay, she simply "won't chew the steak".
Most of all, Nirvana could not help going on about food: “Here we are now, hot potatoes” and later: “I’ve got soup, it’s in containers," comes the refrain. Smells like food to me. And when everybody has had their fill, then REM let themselves go completely. Micheal, couldn't you wait? "Let's pee in the corner, let's pee in the spotlight ..."
So, elsewhere I have previously talked about whether the misheard lyric is under threat, because easily accessed online reference tools to check on the correct lyrics might have a tendency to kill the imagination. But checking after the fact can also be part of the fun, as long as you somehow preserve your imaginative error. So this week's topic is first of all about odd earslips, mishearings and creative misunderstandings in songs that seem to be hard to make out and that you thought was something else. Share them. Reveal your embarrassment. There's simply no shame here at the Song Bar. You are amongst friends. What? You thought they sang that?
But why so many eating references? What is going on here is less a food-based rock'n'roll movement, but an expression of what is on the our minds - frequently sex, drugs, but more often something to eat. How basic. How revealing. And sometimes more appealingly pets. "I wanna be a dog", sang Ian Brown of the Stone Roses, according to a friend of mine believed this was the true lyric for 10 years. When lyrics are hard to hear clearly, then our imagination takes over, and this week brings us many tasty courses on that very subject. But on many songs we simply cannot hear the lyrics at all. It might be just as well because they contain terrible rhymes or are drowning with cliche. Or it might be because they are delivered with such speed, or fitted in as another instrument under layers of guitars. So sometimes they are tantalisingly almost audible as in this great track by My Bloody Valentine:
From slow to quick, try and take dictation from this track by Busdriver, possibly the fastest rapper in the world. Le'ts make friends .... but ... hang on I can't keep up with you, B, slow down, will you?
Either way, if lyrics are inaudible or semi-audible, how does that affect the overall enjoyment of the song? Do words act as another form of melodic/rhythmic instrument? Is it good that some lyrics can't be quite heard? Does it add to their appeal? Do the sounds of the words have a meaning of their own in their sound and rhythm, even if you do not catch them, or they are not in your native language? Or they just have the same level of appeal as the gruntings of Mr Bean? Or do they work on a subliminal level, or a profound level, as when in Huxley's Brave New World, John the Savage discovers Shakespeare in an otherwise soulless environment, and while he struggles to understand it, he feels the language in other ways. In its sounds and rhythms there is something that speaks to deep within us. Is that why British pop is often enjoyed internationally, even if the words aren't always understood? And what about lyrics from other languages. To me, German and Japanese in pop always sound great when I don't know their meaning.
Stuff and nonsense
So next we enter the world of nonsense lyrics. Sometimes there is wonderful straight-up nonsense, such as that offered by Edward Lear, or Lewis Carroll: Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:/ All mimsy were the borogoves,/ And the mome raths outgrabe" or the great Spike Milligan:
Now then, here are a few examples from the Beatles show how lyrics mean something, at least to our senses, without actually making any sense: "He wear no shoeshine, he got toe-jam football / He got monkey finger, he shoot coca-cola /He's got feet down below his knees..." Can anyone explain?
Or indeed: "Friday night arrives without a suitcase Sunday morning creeping like a nun /Monday's child has learned to tie his bootlegs/ See how they run." And in the suggestion: "Why don't we do it in the road? Nobody will be watching us. Why don't we do it in the road?" the logically answer is of course, the road is precisely where people will be watching us.
The Killers' had a huge hit with the lyric: "I've got soul but I'm not a soldier." What does that mean? The standup comedian Bill Bailey brilliantly pointed out that this was as meaningless as saying "I've got ham but I'm not a hamster." But it's still catchy.
And so lyrics or phrases might indeed mean something but especially in the the world of song, they are sung endlessly without thought. As a child I sang in a church choir for years. I much enjoyed the music, the banter with fellow choir members, and the sense of collaboration, but confess to singing and speaking words for most of that time without really thinking what they meant at all. They had their own poetry that was something else other than the literal meaning. In a parallel but very different way the character played by Samuel L Jackson in 1994's Pulp Fiction repeatedly quotes Ezekiel 25:17 just for effect, as some "scary shit" before he blasts someone with his pistol. But later in the movie, in "a transitional period" he reveals how has begun to think about the words' meaning:
And so then please suggest your songs where the lyrics are either misheard, unclear, inaudible or nonsense. Your revelations, and confessions will make for a rich heritage. This week's lyrical leader is the superb swawilg, who will sift through your suggestions and his playlists will appear next Wednesday. Your deadline at the bar. This coming Monday 7 March (time to be called TBC).
So does this make sense? If it doesn't that might even help. Perhaps like the band Toto: "We left our brains in Africa." But I'll leave you with some lines from a poem by Tony Harrison - On Not Being Milton, which might sum up the beautiful confusion of misunderstood words:
Articulation is the tongue-tied's fighting.
In the silence round all poetry we quote
Tidd the Cato Street conspirator who wrote:
Sir, I Ham a very Bad Hand at Righting.
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