Before 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) 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.
Everything 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.
But 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’.
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’.
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 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.
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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Q6nKP10j4s.
Since I became a Kinks fan in 2011, I started to work out my own lyrics to their numbers, despite the excellent resource of kindakinks.net, 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.
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.
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’?
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’.
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.
 If you don’t know what an audio cassette is, see http://everyrecordtellsastory.com/2013/08/21/cassettes-a-newbies-guide-for-cassette-store-day/ for a beginner’s guide. For more on archaic music equipment, see http://sshh-sshh.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/music-centre-nostalgia.html.
 ‘I was smack in the middle of alphabet town/There was life on the corners and death all around’.
 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.
 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’.
 More on misheard Kinks lyrics at https://bashfulbadgersblog.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/more-on-my-weird-and-wonderful-weekend-with-dave-davies-of-the-kinks/.
 Let’s make Ray Poet Laureate. More on favourite Kinks lyrics in a later blog.