“Do you know the words to every pop song?”

A car trip in the 1980s, a university friend driving me and another friend of his to a lunch party somewhere outside London. I had met the other chap, Richard, a few times, but didn’t know him well. The car radio was on, playing golden oldies. It might well have been Alan Freeman’s “Pick of the Pops” show. I was singing along to most of the songs, something I still do these days when listening to “Pick of the Pops” (now it’s presented by Tony Blackburn on a Saturday afternoon).

After a while Richard said, “You know all the words. You know all the words to every song they’ve played. Do you know the words to every pop song?” Two possible answers came to mind, first “Don’t be ridiculous”, then “Well, of course, doesn’t everybody?” I went for the latter, light-heartedly.
“So, if I named a song would you know it?”
“Try me.”
“How about “Get Down” by Gilbert O’Sullivan?”
“Told you once before / and I won’t tell you no more / Get down, get down, get down / you’re a bad dog baby / but I still want you around.”

He expressed amazement. It turned out that this was the only pop song he knew the words to, so he knew that I’d spoken them correctly. When he was at school other boys knew the words to songs but he never did, so he made a special effort to learn this one.

In one of his books Douglas Coupland suggests that 90% of people know the words to fewer than 10 songs. My wife doesn’t know the words to any song all the way through. She can sing along, to “Boy named Sue” or “Always on my mind” perhaps, but without Johnny Cash, Elvis or Willie Nelson accompanying her she wouldn’t get through the whole song.

I discussed this with my brother a few years ago, asked him how many songs he knew all the words to, how many he could sing or recite all the way through. We figured we were both well into the hundreds, easily 500 or more, maybe more than 1000. If you learn a song a week for 20 years you’ll get to 1000 songs. This doesn’t seem too daunting to me. We’ve both lived long enough to learn 2000 or more.

This morning, on the “Tracks of my years” segment of Ken Bruce’s Radio 2 show, Noel Gallagher chose “Town called malice” by The Jam and said that when he heard this at school he had no idea what the lyrics were about. He and Ken Bruce agreed that nobody knows the lyrics to “Town called malice”. I was shouting, “I do” at the radio. It’s part of my “UK #1 for every year” project, and it’s the only #1 song from 1982 that I have learnt to sing and play. When I first heard it I thought the opening lines were “Better stop dreaming of the quiet life / sis and mum will never know”. It took a while to work it out: “Better stop dreaming of the quiet life / ’cause it’s the one we’ll never know”. I could go on for hours, and I probably will.


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