Great rock lyrics I have known and some pretty awful ones, too…


Rock lyrics are not poetry. And poetry doesn’t usually work as lyrics. There are exceptions to the rule, but damn few.

Even those exceptions (Keith Reid and Bernie Taupin spring to mind) are dismissive of being called real poets. They deny the charge and assert that lyrics are meant to serve certain song functions and much of their impact is irretrievably lost when they aren’t actually sung.

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I am not here to bring you another of my lengthy lists of the “greatest lyrics in…” as I did so forcibly in the “100 Greatest Rockers” or even the “25 Best Rock Riffs” (don’t relax, there’s more to come!). No, there are millions of lyrics, most of them banal and plain and not worth the repeating. Many thousands, though, are fantastic and profound and have been life-altering to many thousands of us attentive listeners. This entire article could have been written simply featuring a Bob Dylan* (channeling Woody Guthrie and the Beat poets) or Bruce Springsteen (channeling Pete Seeger through Jimmy Webb!), a Paul Simon or a Leonard Cohen or even Nick Cave (channeling Jim Morrison, who was channeling Rimbaud).
But lyrics need some attention on their own and here I am, to do just that.

(* The “Are lyrics literature?” argument got juiced up recently when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, to the glee of music fans and to the dismay of literature snobs. Worthy or not, remember that these are the same people that gave the Peace Prize to Obama, so go figure…)

As Keith Reid* intoned, “The words have all been writ by one before me. We’re taking turns in trying to pass them on”; conferring possibly that pedestrian words can sometimes be elevated into great music lyrics. Rock lyrics themselves evolved all of a sudden in the early 1960’s when rock groups evolved themselves to be amongst the first in popular music as musicians that both wrote and performed their own stuff, unlike the Elvis and Sinatra generations. Most of our lyrics started off pretty pedestrian, indeed, and the previous generation wasn’t exactly reminiscent of Rogers and Hammerstein or Noel Coward or the clever stylings of Cole Porter and a bunch of other clever wordsmiths. But OUR bunch eventually did evolve and the “Love me do – I love you” of the early Beatles became something far greater as they grew and we thought about them.

(* Keith Reid and his lyrics are so integral to the concept of Procol Harum that he has always been a “member of the group” and poses on album covers with his instrument being listed as “Words”).

In fact, all things in rock seem to pivot somewhere around the Beatles, so wouldn’t a discussion of rock lyrics? I never cared much for Paul’s stuff as the words always seemed more placeholders and often slightly silly, filling cadence spaces. Even his “greatest song ever”, that of “Yesterday”; think of the words dispassionately: “Yesterday. All my troubles seemed so far away. Now it looks as though they’re here to stay. Oh, I believe in yesterday”. Uh, well. Originally, he had that tune and filled in the words “scrambled eggs” for “yesterday”. He also championed the “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” school of la-la-la fillers that made my teeth ache. Even the long ending refrain in “Hey Jude”; wasn’t there something worth saying there? The music was special but the words? Less so, in my estimation…

But John Lennon? Whoa- that was different! Here was a guy saying “Happiness is a warm gun” or “Everybody’s got something to hide except for me and my monkey”. Try to write a tune around those lines. Or even his epochal “I Am the Walrus”. Finally, then, Beatles playmate George Harrison grew old enough to chime in as well and he went for the easy sale of random rhyming to the point of McCartney pseudo-cleverness: “Weeping, sweeping, sleeping” and “diverted, perverted, inverted, alerted”.

And we were off at that point. Then here comes the Rolling Stones, writing R&B lyrics seasoned with pop sensibilities of the time, and everything seemed to change. A breakthrough to me was the inimitable “Paint It Black” where every note was a mono-syllabic word that punched you in the face:


In fact, a lot of the poetic license lyrics in classical rock music were stripped down to mono-syllables, the master of the form being Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, seeming to look for the most impact for the fewest letters: “How I wish – how I wish you were here”. Or “There’s someone in my head but it’s not me”.

I pause in this rant to point at another example in early rock lyrics that goes back to gut-punch rhythms preceding rap or hip hop. The Zombies added a surprise sophistication with songs like “Time of the Season” or “She’s Not There” but really nailed it with: “Tell her no, no, no, no no no no no, no no…”. Yes, you can do a lot with just a few simple words.

But back to the Stones and their temporary evolution away from R&B when Mick decided it was time then to become consciously and competitively literate. Jagger took us along as he veered off to greater aspirations with more lyrical moments like “Sympathy for the Devil” and specific snippets as in “She comes in colors”. Wow. Evocative, or what?

Then the gears meshed again and we were propulsed by The Who and The Kinks as they picked up the mantle of lyrical adventures and ran with it. Pete Townshend actually wrote operas and although the subject matters were a little odd, the words carried it off.

“Ever since I was a young boy, I played the silver ball”, etc.

Ray Davies with the Kinks took it beyond all that we expected. He started like all the rude boys with rhyme and slang and syncopation (“You really got me girl” and “All day and all of the night”) but then suddenly he was singing songs about trannies (“Lola”) and middle-aged madness (“Well Respected Man”). Queen upped the ante and showed how to take the verbiage back to theatrical extremes with their rock and roll ballet and some of Freddie Mercury’s stuff is under-appreciated because of the over-production and bombast (and, well, their popularity which always offends rock critics). I’m thinking Cole Porter-ish efforts like “Killer Queen”. Led Zeppelin came along, screwed things around for a decade or so with their semi-literate, semi-mystical and semi-vulgar throw-offs that only worked as “cool lyrics” because they ran over you with that same semi! “Whole Lotta Love”, “Livin Lovin Maid”, “The Lemon Song”, and “Black Dog”.

So here we are now, Poetry? Lyrics? Literature favorites?

Since I am using words to discuss words, I am likely better off just plumbing the depths of the first half of rock and roll for some examples that are favorites of mine – both good and bad. I can barely scratch the surface, after all, and feature just a few representative samples.

So, let’s get to cases. Great lyrics – in my mind – have to be profound, fit the song, be uniquely clever or evoke a mood or a scene. Some can do all of that. I will start my round-up of favorite lyric licks with my favorite group, Procol Harum, who had great tunes, great players and – of course – Keith Reid.

Procol Harum

In Held ‘Twas in I (Keith Reid)

First there is a talking part put to building music, describing the arduous journey of a truth seeker:

“After the five years, he was ushered into the Dalai Lama’s presence, who said, ‘Well, my son, what do you wish to know?’ So the pilgrim said, ‘I wish to know the meaning of life, father.’

Then total silence and Gary Brooker intones:

“Life is like a beanstalk.
Isn’t it?”

Nothing That I Didn’t Know (Keith Reid)

An example of a song that paints a picture, evokes a somber mood:

“Did you hear what happened to Jenny Droe?
Couldn’t believe it, but it’s true.
Twenty-six, and now she’s dead
I wish that I could’ve died instead.”

Still There’ll Be More (Keith Reid)

Too much evil is never enough in this rollicking rocker:

“I’ll sing in the forest, tear down the trees
I’ll foul all the fountains and trample the leaves
I’ll blacken your Christmas and piss on your door
You’ll cry out for mercy, but still there’ll be more”

Werewolves of London (Warren Zevon)

So many great and memorable oddball licks from Warren Zevon. Here in an early work, he has a couplet that is both a show-stopper and funny at the same time:

“I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic’s
His hair was perfect.”

School’s Out (Alice Cooper)

Everything works in this tight little tune about hating school. And then Alice gives us a few lines of pun-ishment, followed by the perfect dose of rock irreverence:

“Well we got no class
And we got no principals
And we got no innocence
We can’t even think of a word that rhymes.”


Honey Bee (Tom Petty)

Words that don’t seem to belong together but express a thought coolly, that’s Tom Petty:

“She gave me her monkey hand
And a Rambler sedan
I’m the king of Milwaukee
Her juju beads are so nice
She kissed my third cousin twice.”

Great line…

Live Like a Refugee (Tom Petty)

While we are on this Petty mission, we go to the classic with the now-obvious rhyme of “around some” with “ransom”:

“Somewhere, somehow somebody
Must have kicked you around some
Who knows, maybe you were kidnapped
Tied up, taken away and held for ransom
It don’t really matter to me
Everybody’s had to fight to be free
You see you don’t have to live like a refugee.”

Everybody’s Talkin’ and I’d Rather Be Dead (Harry Nilsson)

One of the true oddball spirits and original songsmiths of rock, Harry Nilsson took Fred Neil’s work and made it famous with “Everybody’s Talkin'”:

“Everybody’s talking at me
I don’t hear a word they’re saying
Only the echoes of my mind”

And then he penned a song (backed by a children’s choir) about seniors that went:

“I’d rather be dead
Than wet my bed.”

Now, that’s versatility…

Finally, a shout out to those that expanded our minds while ruining their own. I am thinking Roky Erickson of “Thirteenth Floor Elevators” or the original “Madcap Laughs”, Syd Barrett of the original Pink Floyd. Mind you, this was a group that had the seminal opus of 1968’s post-Syd Barrett “Careful With That Axe, Eugene”, a long instrumental interrupted in the middle with that one line (“Careful with that axe, Eugene”) and then a few minutes of horrible screaming.

Arnold Layne (Syd Barrett)

This was Pink Floyd’s first single (1967) and probably not destined for mass market success:

“Now he’s caught, a nasty sort of person
They gave him time
Doors bang, chain gang, he hates it
Oh, Arnold Layne
It’s not the same, takes two to know
Two to know, two to know
Why can’t you see?
Arnold Layne, Arnold Layne, Arnold Layne, Arnold Layne
Don’t do it again”

One-line wonders – memorable single line lyrics:

Sometimes one line is all you need to remember:

1) ”My mind has a mind of its own” – Jimmie Dale Gilmore
2) “Can’t get it out of my head”- Jeff Lynne
3) “Only thirteen and she knows how to nasty” – Frank Zappa
4) “Somebody get me a cheeseburger!” – Steve Miller
5) “Too much inconvenient to be alone” – Sonny Boy Williamson
6) “No one here gets out alive” – Jim Morrison
7) “Workin’ on mysteries without any clues” – Bob Seger
8) “Money for nothin’ and the chicks are free” – Mark Knopfler
9) “I’d do anything for love but I won’t do that”. Jim Steinman /Meat Loaf
10) “I gave you eleven children, now you want to give them back – the thrill is gone” – BB King
11) “I’m walking on a wire -and I’m falling” – Richard Thompson
12) “Where am I to go now that I’ve gone too far?” – Golden Earring
13) “If you really care, don’t touch me there” – Ron Nagles and Jane Dornacke (The Tubes)
14) “The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades” – Timbuk3
15) “I hope I die before I get old – Pete Townsend (age 71)
16) “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right – here I am, stuck in the middle with you” – Gerald Rafferty and Joe Egan

And here’s maybe my single-line favorite, for some unfathomable reason. In an otherwise treacly pop song by Jim Croce, he is calling up a pay-phone operator to connect him with his old girlfriend and tells the operator his whole story of their failed relationship. The last verse has him giving up and in the third line of that stanza, he tells her, “You can keep the dime” and then says nothing at all in the fourth line. Nothing more needed to be said.

Then, there are evocative lyrics, words that set a stage or a scene. A prime example is Don Henley in any of his “Desperado”, “Hotel California”, “The Last Worthless Evening”, and “Boys of Summer”. There are the wonderfully warm and witty and finely-drawn song stories of Fountains of Wayne to the discordant and disturbing word puzzles of Ween. There are political songs (Billy Bragg or Rage Against the Machine) and story songs (Todd Snider).

There are, of course, the blues; as intimately related to rock as Bruce is to Kaitlyn (yes, two sides of the same coin). The blues have a stricter musical format and lyrics that seem confined to something of a stereotype. You think not? When I asked infamous blues associate, Lame Mango Washington, about the tight lyric standards of the blues, he lead me through about a brief primer:

1. Most blues begin, “Woke up this morning.”

2. “I got a good woman” is a bad way to begin the blues, unless you stick something nasty in the next line, like “I got a good woman, with the meanest face in town.”

3. Blues lyrics are simple. After you get the first line right, repeat it. Then find something that rhymes …. sort of: “Got a good woman – with the meanest face in town. Got teeth like Margaret Thatcher – and she weigh 500 pound.”

4. The blues are not about choice. You stuck in a ditch, you stuck in a ditch; ain’t no way out.

5. And careful about casual references. A man with male pattern baldness ain’t the blues. A woman with male pattern baldness is. Breaking your leg because you skiing is not the blues.
Breaking your leg because an alligator be chomping on it is.

6. Do you have the right to sing the Blues? Yes, if:
a. you’re older than dirt
b. you’re blind
c. you shot a man in Memphis
d. you can’t be satisfied

No, if:
a. you have all your teeth
b. you were once blind but now can see
c. the man in Memphis lived.
d. you have a retirement plan or trust fund

The blues function as a subset but other lyrical forms are scattered throughout rock and pop. So many examples, so little space. One aspect of lyrics I wanted to mention is the primal musical/literary signatures for rhythmic literate lyrics; a great sampler is Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”:

“They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And they put up a parking lot”

Crunchy. Clever. The song works lyrically on many levels. Much cheaper shots is fatuous wordplay. I’m thinking lousy ’literation like: “Lazy lilting lyrics, losing love lamenting” that sounds like it must mean something but it really doesn’t (it’s the Crosby Crowd again!)

Which leads us inevitably on to:


There are so many examples of really sophomoric or simply putrid lyrics that I kept this low-brow aspect of my feature to songs that were popular hits. Take Journey for one example. This group was originally an idea for a sessions band formed from the remnants of Santana. Santana was a group that annually would have won “Best music/worst lyrics” contests for more than a decade. You didn’t care if they sung in Spanish or English because even when intelligible, the words sounded like something from your 14 year-old cousin just learning to write. So Journey was in perfect position to carry on that banner. And they succeeded.

When they brought in leather-lunged Steve Perry from Los Angeles, Perry brought a beautiful melody with him that described LA. Journey simply shifted “When the Lights Go Down in the City” to a San Fran backdrop and the band never asked Steve to finish up the banal lyrics. So, we got:

“When the lights go down in the city
And the sun shines on the bay
I want to be there in my city
Ooh, ooh

It’s sad, oh there’s been mornings out on the road without you,
Without your charms,
Ooh, my, my, my”

Ever hear a rough cut that sold so well?

You just can’t pick on David Crosby enough (see above) for being pretentious and over-wrought. He had this toxic habit of “Saying something that will change your life if I make it sound important enough”. I still imagine him with eyes closed, butchering harmonies and wincing out words that “appeared” they should have been profound. Nash and Stills (and even Neil Young) tried to pick him up, but are these the worst lyrics to a popular song of all time?

“I almost cut my hair
It happened just the other day
It was getting’ kinda long
I could-a said, it was in my way

But I didn’t and I wonder why
I want to let my freak flag fly
And I feel like I owe it to someone”

A real favorite for the bad lyrics category is when writers don’t care enough to create the words in the right order but just mess them around until they fit.

Here’s a verse from a song that was unfathomably popular in a 1972, by America: “A Horse With No Name”:

“I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain”

There’s no amount of acoustic guitar that can cover up that spasm of moronia.

I will leave this attempt to display some basic bad lyrics with Journey again. Their “Wheel in the Sky” sounds like a song where musicians show up in the studio with some lyrics and couldn’t come up with anymore. The ones that they kept?

“I’ve been trying to make it home
Got to make it before too long
I can’t take this very much longer
I’m stranded in the sleet and rain
Don’t think I’m ever gonna make it home again
The mornin’ sun is risin’
It’s kissin the day
Oh the wheel in the sky keeps on turnin’
I don’t’ know where I’ll be tomorrow
Ooo the wheel in the sky keeps on turnin'”

It’s stuff like that specifically that gives hippies a bad name generally.

Lastly, just to touch lightly on it, there is infinite dreck that passed as soft pop back in the day. Just as dance music is now, no one focused on the actual words, like Captain And Tennille’s “Float like the heavens above – looks like muskrat love”

Ah, standing the test of time…


Finally, we end where we began; and I focus again on Dylan and The Boss. These two rock icons have published nearly 1000 songs in the last 50+ years and 40+ years (respectively). What amazes though is that some of their best work lyrically is their latest work even if it isn’t their most famous.

As to most famous, two songs are the muscle memory to me of these iconic wordsmiths. For Dylan, it is “Like a Rolling Stone”, a song so important and impactful that Dave Marsh, rock’s pre-eminent critic, wrote an entire book about the song. For many, that song bridged the gap between folk and electric rock.

The words? According to legend, Dylan was convinced of our imminent annihilation from nuclear war and he had all these song themes written down and so he put many of them into that one song. That begs the question of who was going to listen in our absence (!), but it sure made for some profound lyrics all in one tune.

“Ahh princess on a steeple and all the pretty people
They’re all drinking, thinking that they’ve got it made
Exchanging all precious gifts
But you better take your diamond ring, you better pawn it babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal

How does it feel, ah how does it feel?
To be on your own, with no direction home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone”

Springsteen, arguably, is defined by “Born to Run”, his magnum opus which he set down at the time to actually write a classic. And succeeded. Bruce is so important and impactful that Dave Marsh (again) wrote his biography years ago; a task recently updated by Bruce’s own autobiography called, well, “Born to Run”. There is an accompanying CD with the better title of “Chapter and Verse”, which neatly sums up his writing of himself with the writing of words for his songs. “Born to Run”? It still evokes memories of a time for him and for us:

“The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody’s out on the run tonight
But there’s no place left to hide
Together Wendy we can live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul
H-Oh, Someday girl I don’t know when
We’re gonna get to that place
Where we really wanna go
And we’ll walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us
Baby we were born to run”

Poetry? Literature? Or just good lyrics in a great song? We all have to decide.

And that, in my traditional slapdash way, brings this exercise mercifully to a close. I wanted to try about 1000 words to describe the millions that make up rock history. Instead, I have almost 4000 here that barely cover the first half of rock. Feels like a school assignment of “Describe the universe and give two examples”. I tried.

Rock lyrics are the words that speak to us. And speak for us. I am encouraging each of our feature writers to give their own (shorter and more literate) recollections of both great and awful lyrics. And I encourage you to do the same.

We are talking lyrics so I want to hear what YOU have to say. Let’s talk rock…

This story is Part 1 in our epic Lyrics series. Photo credit: Apple Records – Billboard 18 September 1971, page 36.

7 comments to “Great rock lyrics I have known and some pretty awful ones, too…”
  1. Chuck Berry’s been in the news lately after turning 90. It keeps reminding me of his ridiculous ding-a-ling song… Can’t believe that was so popular.

    Great lyrics + great music = a very rare combination…

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