tdkBefore the internet – do you remember that world? – if you wanted to learn the lyric to a song you would just have to play it over and over again until you worked it out. Unless the artist in question had thoughtfully transcribed the words on a single or LP sleeve. Or it happened to feature in one of those few magazines that occasionally printed lyrics.

And then, you heard more variety on the radio in those days – you got oldies on all the stations as well as the latest material. You were just as likely to hear a classic song from before you were born as a contemporary hit. But in those days you needed good luck, judgement and perseverance if you were ever to understand all the words to your favourite song.

‘Let’s all get up and dance to a song/That was a hit before your mother was born’ – I’ve always loved this Beatles song.

Often it was a case of combining careful listening with an educated and informed guess. Except that an eleven-year-old girl’s guess at a thirty-five-year-old man’s lyric from some forgotten decade couldn’t really be that informed.

Audio cassettes were great (TDK C90s were a favourite)[1] for fathoming out lyrics – you would rewind and relisten to a line umpteen times sometimes before being able to decipher it. Of course you’d probably recorded it off the radio in the first place and were still trying to tune the station in at the start, then grimacing as you witnessed it waver in and out throughout the whole track. Anything you taped off Radio Caroline actually sounded like it was being played on a ship in a choppy North Sea, for instance.

carolineEverything in those days involved a certain investment of time and effort. Not to mention patience. Waiting for a version of a song without some inane DJ blathering on right up to the vocals. Then that might be perfect, only for them to cut it off halfway through the final chorus. Most of the time you couldn’t predict when a song would be played so chart shows on Sunday were a good chance if your favourite had made it into the top forty. Then you had to maintain a constant state of alertness. The track you missed on one station you might still be able to catch on another, cueing frequent rapid retuning and running up and downstairs in the middle of tea.

Lyric interpretations sometimes provoked debate. You’d argue the toss for your transcription over someone else’s. It was something to celebrate when you had a breakthrough. I found the whole process frustrating and rewarding in pretty much equal measure.

st louisBut those lyrics stayed in your head for decades. I have files of hastily scribbled words to songs, from Meet Me in St Louis’s ‘The Trolley Song’ to Grant Hart’s ‘The Main’.[2]

It’s not only Ian Rankin who has a propensity to hear the wrong words. His latest Rebus thriller was titled after a Jackie Leven song that he’d misheard, making it Standing in Another Man’s Grave rather than the song’s ‘Standing in Another Man’s Rain’. He was at least close. My own interpretations often bore only a passing resemblance to the actual words and sometimes made even less sense. Still, I became quite fond of some of them.

In Michael Jackson’s ‘Man in the Mirror’, I didn’t get ‘They follow each other on/The wind ya’ know’ but the rather more true to my life ‘They follow each other on/The whinge and moan.’

And in ‘Dirty Diana’ I kept hearing the chorus ‘Dirty Diana, Nah’ as, inexplicably, ‘I need an answer-phone’.

Go figure. Sometimes it had nothing to do with logic.

In ‘Dreams’ by Fleetwood Mac, I particularly liked my interpretation of ‘When the rain washes you clean you’ll know’ which was the even more Nicksian (in my opinion) ‘When the rainbow shares your dream, you’ll know’.

stevieBet she wishes she’d written that.

Another favourite hails from Al Stewart’s 70s classic ‘Year of the Cat’, in which I clearly discerned the evidently drug-induced ‘I’m a bus, I’m a tourist cigar’ and didn’t blink an eye at the fact that it made little narrative sense, man. [Actually the completely ordinary ‘And the bus and the tourists are gone’.]

Whereas, in the line in the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’, ‘Warm smell of colitas[3] rising up through the air’ I naively imagined ‘politas’ (as I heard it) as some fragrant flower native to the US west coast or some exotic home-cooked Mexican foodstuff yet to make it to my southeast London suburb.[4]

And then there’s that catchy line, now sounding as if it comes from one of the plethora of those tedious do-up-your-home shows that blight the modern-day TV landscape – ‘I’m not talking about the linen’.

If you can work out the actual lyric and the song, I’ll definitely take my hat off to you.

For The Church’s soul-stirring ‘Under the Milky Way’, I made out, no doubt inspired by the ‘If you’re tired of London …’ epigram, the poetic ‘Lower the curtain down on Memphis/Lower the curtain down on life’ rather than the far more prosaic and a little boring ‘Lower the curtain down in Memphis/Lower the curtain down all right’.

Here’s a version with lyrics on screen. And for those of you who don’t like to be spoonfed, here’s the link without

Since I became a Kinks fan in 2011, I started to work out my own lyrics to their numbers, despite the excellent resource of, that carries words not only to Kinks songs but also to the brothers’ solo material. I don’t know, I just can’t help myself. My versions seem to be more X-rated than the original ones, based more on what I’d learnt about the band’s sexual shenanigans than what they actually sang.

So I came up with ‘Sometimes there was some sex on the sand’, ‘Fuck some bird’ and ‘I’m gonna shaft ’em all’.

Which are actually the much more PG ‘Sometimes there were sunsets on the sand’ (‘Animal’), ‘Luxembourg’ (‘Fortis Green’) and ‘I’m gonna shout for more’ (‘Lincoln County’).

More innocently and mysteriously, in ‘The Road’, I thought Ray remembered that he ‘Started playing blues in a cartwheel bar’, of which I’m sure there were dozens in Muswell Hill in the 60s.[5]

Ray Davies has surely penned some of the greatest lyrics ever written, so well observed, often humorous, self-deprecating or scathing. But he also does melancholic, vitriolic, neurotic. How about ‘So the nation built them a utopia/With pebbledash on the outside’ in ‘Million Pound Semi Detached’?[6]

And ‘He sits in the armchair, watching Channel 4/But his brain’s not expected home for an hour or more’ from ‘Yo-yo’?

‘Trojans and some of ’em used’: I had no idea what that was about. Sheltered childhood.

Digressing on to best opening lines, one of the most arresting beginnings ever has got to be from Prince’s ‘Little Red Corvette’ – ‘I guess I shoulda known/By the way you parked your car sideways/That it wouldn’t last.’

That intrigues you and hooks you in, right?

Similarly, you want to hear the rest of the story once Jackie Leven of Doll by Doll sings ‘She lives in a steel comb world/Where sad men in leather will fight over girls’ in ‘Human Face’.

Or when the aforementioned Al Stewart croons so softly ‘On a morning from a Bogart movie/In a country where they turn back time’.

A country where they turn back time. What an amazing stewart

I miss those days and those misheard words. Nowadays those sought after lyrics are available in seconds online. YouTube most probably carries a version of the song featuring onscreen lyrics so you can sing along. No effort. No problem. No fun.

More on lyrics in another blog – the most unlikely and most multisyllabic words, mentions of famous people, words that had to be changed for children’s TV shows, progressive and liberal values promoted by lyrics in the great musicals of the 40s-50s.

No apologies for the gratuitous Stevie Nicks picture because she’s just so gorgeous.

Next lyric blog is here.

[1] If you don’t know what an audio cassette is, see for a beginner’s guide. For more on archaic music equipment, see

[2] ‘I was smack in the middle of alphabet town/There was life on the corners and death all around’.

[3] My version of Word interestingly keeps autocorrecting this to ‘colitis’, inflammatory bowel disease. It actually means marijuana, which you can now smell very strongly all over my suburban residential cul de sac.

[4] I seriously believed there could be no one deeper, cooler or more poetic than Don Henley when it came to lyrics. Come on, ‘Somebody laid the mountains low/While the town got high’.

[6] Let’s make Ray Poet Laureate. More on favourite Kinks lyrics in a later blog.

8 responses »

  1. A very entertaining post as ever. Thanks for the shout out!
    One of my first ever blog posts was about taping of the radio – these things are very evocative of a time and place – and you sum that up very well here.

  2. Dave Quayle says:

    Actually, I think “whinge and moan” is an improvement.

  3. GeorgeJF says:

    I admit today there’s a lots of lyrics on Intrenet. But I still have to do that. I still have to sit down to and work it out. Not because I don’t know how to use the Intrenet, I do I can use it well. But the music I listen to. I say it’s alright if there’s no lyrics for a band who only made one single. But there’s artists who made lots of albums and singles and they’re popular. For Example there’s a group from the ’60s called Them, they made 250 songs but you can find only 50 song lyrics. It’s so hard because my mother toe/language isn’t english, the natives don’t understand why I’m asking always for lyrics. That’s so sad. Take Herman’s Hermits or Kinks they’re very well known bands but you’ll find houndreds of songs by them with no lyrics on Internet or on the sleeve.
    (Now I created a group for this problem you can join if you like Facebook[dot]com/groups/201416353368278/)

  4. Marni says:

    I try to refrain from the trap of looking up lyrics instantaneously because I want to preserve the sacred ceremonies of music. Having everything on demand only serves to dilute its magic. I was born in 1999 so tecnically I shouldn’t be feeling this way, but I actively enjoy struggling to tune the radio in and listening to something I have been waiting all week for through a sea of static, creaks and cacophanous whistles. I can curl up under the duvet tweaking the arial with my foot and pretending I am in World War Two. I do use youtube for music but am eternally grateful for the fact there is no internet connection n my room and I am able to spend many private hours getting to know every detail and nuance of a cd, often over a period of several years. Let’s keep music sacred.

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