Top 10 most misunderstood songs and lyrics of all time


sir-rocknuts-500In our lifetimes, we’re bombarded with thoughts and words. Much of our distress comes from mis-hearing and misunderstanding them. Rock music is no different – perhaps even worse – because of deliberately opaque songs and deliveries. Think of Kurt Cobain or Tom Waits or The Kingsmen with “Louie Louie”, as easy examples.

Lyrics don’t even have to make sense in rock and we are often better at inferring a more clever thought for a song than the author was attempting to imply something truly meaningful. Sometimes listeners have to make up their own words, maybe to customize their own thoughts. Could we call that “bespoken”? Actually, some “bespoken” words change the lives of the listeners. And certainly we’ve changed songs and intentions of songs by mishearing or misunderstanding them. The history of rock is littered with such examples.

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I played in a band that unintentionally revised a cool song (at the time) by Free when our lead singer heard it as “It’s a long ride home”, which was likely more mystical than the actual version of “It’s all right now”. My wife insisted for years that John Fogerty sang “There’s a bathroom on the right” whereas the opaque Mr. Fogerty insists that it’s supposed to be “There’s a bad moon on the rise”. Either version works for me.

But entire songs are also misunderstood. Bruce Springsteen was either infamous or famous for his simple masterpiece of 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.” He intended it to be a chastisement of militarism, exploitation and the suffering of many Vietnam vets. Yet, the handlers for Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign made “Born in the U.S.A.” the GOP’s unofficial campaign song, much to the derision of a few rock fans in the know. That misconstruction actually inspired The Boss to perform the song in an acoustic version so that its intent was better communicated. Bruce might be a patriot but the song was not about patriotism.

Sooner or later, the lyrics will be outed. Earlier this year, one of the mysteries in rock and roll lyrics was put to rest when the unnamed “king” and “jester on the sidelines” in Don McLean’s iconic 1971 song “American Pie” were revealed to be Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, respectively. When pushed on other symbolism in his song, McLean said that clarifying the exact meaning of “American Pie” ran against the grain of the song’s spirit; that understanding the lyrics “was not a parlor game”. He then went on to declare that the song was indeed a lament—“an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music.” Sounds good…

I always liked songs which the artists later tried to cover up their meaning, perhaps in a tongue-in-cheek way. A great example was “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” which was obviously about LSD and an acid trip that John Lennon was describing. After he was castigated for glorifying hallucinogenics, Lennon insisted that the lyrics were really about a picture that his son Julian painted at school. People only believed that misdirection because it bespoke to them, I suppose.

Lou Reed wrote a terrific song called “Perfect Day” which was his perverse paean to heroin, which he later declaimed as actually an innocuous love ballad. Probably the best “walking it back” song might have been Peter Paul and Mary’s very obvious “Puff the Magic Dragon” (yes, it is about smoking pot, kids…) with its hero Jackie Paper and other non-nuanced reefer references. PP&M vehemently protested that a song that got millions of school choruses to sing was really not about puffing pot. Right.

On less serious notes, I’ve enjoyed friends who sing along words that are either misheard or “misbespoken”. My favorite misheard lyrics includes “Jo Jo was a man who thought she was a woman, that was until he looked down”, from Paul McCartney’s “Get Back”; and then there’s Mick Jagger’s famous slurring that made “I’ll never be your beast of burden” to be construed as “I’ll never pee… your pizza’s burnin”.

But I think the all-time standard for a misheard lyric is Jimi Hendrix with “S’cuse me while I 1) kiss the sky or 2) kiss this guy”. Either one makes the song work.

There is actually a site that devotes itself to “misheard lyrics”. From their long and often frivolous list, these are my top ten (with the correct lyrics below the list):

1. Robert Palmer: Addicted To Love
“Might as well face it, you’re a dick with a glove.”

2. Madonna: Like a Virgin
“Like a virgin touched for the thirty-first time.”

3. Journey: Don’t Stop Believing
“Don’t stop believing. Hold on to that sweet derriere.”

4. National Anthems: Oh Canada
“Oh Canada, we stand on cars and freeze…”

5. R.E.M.: Losing My Religion
“Let’s pee in the corner. Let’s pee in the spotlight.”

6. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band: Blinded by the Light
“You look like Medusa with hair-rollers in the night.”

7. Eddie Money: Two Tickets To Paradise
“I’ve got two chicks and a pair of dice”

8. J. Geils Band: Centerfold
“My anus is the center hole”

9. Bryan Adams: Summer Of ’69
“Got my first real sex dream. I was 5 at the time.”

10. Bon Jovi: Living On A Prayer
“It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not.”

The actual lyrics

1) “You’re addicted to love” (of course)
2) “…for the very first time”
3) “Hold on to that feeling” – made into nine syllables by Steve Perry
4) “We stand in guard for thee” (people, how disrespectful!)
5) “That’s me in the corner. That’s me in the spotlight”
6) (see below for a further dissertation)
7) Yes, just two tickets to paradise
8) “my angel is the centerfold”
9) “I got my first real six string; bought it at the five and dime”
10) “It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not”

We started this reminiscence with Springsteen being misunderstood and we end with one of his songs being, uh, mis-sung? When Manfred Mann’s Earth Band made a #1 hit out of “Blinded By the Light”, I kept hearing “Ripped up like a douche” and just didn’t get where Manfred was going with that. The actual verse (yeah, I looked it up years ago…) was:

“Blinded by the light,
revved up like a deuce,
another runner in the night”

It’s the second mention of that song that makes it so special. It’s easy to be misunderstood in rock. Just check out my Top 100 essay if you don’t think so! Then again, as Eric Burdon of The Animals so carefully enunciated way back in 1965, “But I’m just a boy whose intentions are good; Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”

You know what I’m saying? And what is the deeper meaning of “Rocknuts”, anyway?

Like most of these bespoken and mis-spoken versus, maybe there really isn’t one…

2 comments to “Top 10 most misunderstood songs and lyrics of all time”
  1. Pingback: More Funky Lyrics and “Louie Louie” — A Little Song That Became a Big Deal | Rocknuts

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