I don’t dwell too much on misheard lyrics. There are a few examples of memorable misunderstandings, and some of them still amuse me, but if you stretch it too far the idea can become a little tedious. I remember many years ago finding a website that had numerous instances of them and by the time we got through the first ten they all seemed rather strained. One of the less strained examples is from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”. He sings “Excuse me while I kiss the sky”, but it always sounded to me like “Excuse me while I kiss this guy”. It still does, as you can hear on this clip, at 0:42.
The word “mondegreen” is often used to describe this concept, based on the author Sylvia Young mishearing the Scottish ballad “The Bonny Earl of Murray”. The derivation is recorded here, on the fun-with-words website, along with the lyrics to the ballad, where the words “slay the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green” were misheard as “slay the Earl of Murray and Lady Mondegreen”.
I noted an example from my schooldays in this earlier piece about lyrics (“Cigar-chewing Charlies and Femme Fatales”), a school-friend singing along to Pretenders’ song “Brass in Pocket” with the words “Gonna use my style / gonna use my sausage”. That last word should be sung as side-step, not sausage, and that innocent mistake still brings a smile to my face.
I have been thinking about misheard lyrics in recent weeks because of subtitles. There were no subtitles on English TV in the 1970s (apart from foreign language movies) so we had to work out song lyrics for ourselves, or occasionally take a peek at magazines like Disco 45 or Smash Hits. We were grateful for bands like Sparks and 10cc that included lyric sheets with their albums. These days nearly all programmes, including live music shows, feature subtitles. Even broadcasts of festivals like Glastonbury often feature accurate subtitling of live performances, which I find impressive.
I had looked up the words to Malcolm McLaren’s “Double Dutch” on the web long before it appeared in a 1983 edition of “Top of the Pops” on BBC4 earlier this year. I remember the summer it came out, working in a glass shop in my university holidays, Radio 1 playing most of the time, enjoying the song and not having a clue what the backing vocalists were singing. I would have liked to sing along but there was no way I could work out the following, even though McLaren part-sings them in one of the verses: “The five town diamond skippers / The pleasure of rope rippers”. Whoever subtitled that edition of “Top of the Pops” for BBC4 got the words exactly right, unlike whoever subtitled the “Disco at the BBC” compilation last month. We flicked through a recording of it one weekend, a change of tone between our Glam Rock playlists of mid-September and the Liam Gallagher performances of early October. In Odyssey’s “Native New Yorker”, a great song which reached #5 in early 1978, the words “When he dropped you off at East 83rd” were transcribed as “When he dropped you off and he stated firm”. “He stated firm?” I shouted at the TV. “He stated firm? What, even, does that mean?”
In contrast, I was grateful for a more accurate bit of subtitling on the Rod Stewart compilation, also on BBC4 in September. It revealed that I have been singing along to “You Wear it Well” for over 40 years with a minor error. The last verse includes the classic words, “when the sun goes low / and you’re home all alone / think of me and try not to laugh”. I always thought that the verse began, “And when my coffee’s cold / and I’m getting told / that I’ve got to get back to work” but the first word is “Anyway”, which makes more sense: “Anyway, my coffee’s cold / and I’m getting told / that I’ve got to get back to work”. It’s not a big deal but I’m glad to have corrected this very small mistake in my rendition of the song. The word appears at 2:21 in this classic performance from 1972, without subtitles and with Rod reading the words from a sheet of paper. It’s a real treat, and is becoming this month’s earworm. It looks much fresher to my eyes than many other “Top of the Pops” clips from that year, some of which I wrote about here. I missed it at the time (we were on holiday in Ireland, with no access to BBC TV) and it hasn’t been screened anywhere near as often as “Starman”, “School’s Out”, “Mama Weer All Crazee Now”, or indeed this famous 1971 rendition of “Maggie May” with John Peel pretending to play the mandolin. And if you want another 20 examples of misheard lyrics, the fun-with-words link is the place to go.