When I was eleven years old, my parents presented me with an awesome music rig for Christmas. Within minutes of opening the box, after installing the batteries and internal storage, I was listening to popular tunes. With the press of a button I could download songs and play them back at my leisure. And download I did.

But there were drawbacks to this particular rig. It possessed only one speaker. Its wireless connection was actually an AM/FM radio, and the internal storage was a finite supply of Certron Normal Bias 90 minute cassettes. Also, whenever I recorded songs to tape, the first ten or fifteen seconds were invariably marred by some jackass DJ talking over the top of the music. And the batteries ran out too quickly.

Nevertheless, I spent much of my free time listening to that rig, so much that I eventually wore it out. But not before I fell in love with popular music. The first song I ever recorded was Olivia Newton John’s “Physical,” and other Top 40 radio hits of the time included such favorites as “Celebration” and “Centerfold” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.” I obsessed over them all.

What frustrated me to no end, however, was I couldn’t understand the lyrics very well. Like I had trouble making out the actual words. And on the rare occasions when I could decode the syntax, I usually didn’t know what the singer was talking about or completely mistook her meaning.

Let’s take “Physical,” for instance. Olivia Newton-John was an early adopter of music videos and was arguably the hottest woman in the world at the time. I was in love with her. But I had no idea she was, in this case, singing about sex.

Let me hear your body talk. Clearly she’s talking about lifting weights, right? Just look at the video. It’s shot in a gym! Of course, I completely misunderstood the surprise ending, where the muscular men turn out to be homosexual. And how was I supposed to know that at the 2:32 mark, Ms. Newton-John was declaring herself a spitter and not a swallower? And even if I had figured all this out, the lyrics still wouldn’t have made sense. A woman takes a man to a suggestive dinner and tries to keep her hands on the table? She’s tired of talking and just wants to get horizontal? What sort of alternate reality is this?

How about “Whip It,” another popular song of the time? Anybody got a clue what that one means? I sure as hell didn’t. In fact I just looked it up on Google and read where Jerry Casale wrote the lyrics as an homage to Thomas Pynchon’s parodies in Gravity’s Rainbow. Whatever, Jerry. Missed that one, too.

On the other hand, the lyrics for some songs were much more obvious. Like Blondie’s “Rapture.” I loved the rap about the man from Mars who ate up cars, like Cadillacs, Lincolns, and Subarus. When you’re eleven years old, this sort of logic makes sense. But the rest of the lyrics were delivered in a surreal voice that made them difficult to comprehend. Which is probably why I missed the line about finger fucking that occurs right before the rap. What a shame.

I could cite examples all day.

“Angel of the Morning” – I loved this track, but had no idea it was a remake, and certainly I was clueless that Juice Newton was greenlighting a one-night stand.

“Bette Davis Eyes” – Bette Davis? Jean Harlow? Maybe I should have asked my Grandmother for clarification, because I sure as hell didn’t know who they were. And Greta Garbo standoff sighs? Are you kidding me? Why not just sing the song in German?

“99 Luftballons” – This one was sung in German. Whoop de doo. Something about Captain Kirk and floating balloons that symbolized Cold War fears. Or whatever. Next.

“I Want Candy” – Bow Wow Wow remade this 1965 hit and convinced a fifteen-year old girl to sing about sex. I honestly thought it was about candy. The girl was fifteen, for Christ’s sake!

“Abracadabra” – What the hell did black panties have to do with illusion? Doug Henning never said anything about women’s underwear. And what was all the talk about fire? Some kind of new magic trick? Oh yeah, it was a special trick where Steve Miller burned up his career.

“Blister in the Sun” – High as a kite? Strung out? Straight over my innocent little head. And how about, Body and beat/I stain my sheets/I don’t even know why/My girlfriend/She’s at the end/She is starting to cry Really? Eleven-year old Richard is supposed to make sense of that? Fuck you, Violent Femmes.

“Who Can It Be Now?” – Maybe it’s about a crazy guy holed up in his house, but when I was a kid I just wanted Colin Hay to get up and answer the goddamned door.

Of course, as the years progressed I gradually began to understand some of the abstract phrasing and innuendo embedded in most popular songs. I wasn’t eleven forever. Still, there were a few songs that confused me, like:

“Relax.” Don’t do it/When you want to come. By fourteen I was well acquainted with masturbation, but why on earth should I relax and not do it? I most definitely wanted to do it at every opportunity. And then Shoot it in the right direction/Making it your intention. So, Frankie: You don’t want me to do it, but if I do, make sure I point it somewhere important? Shine on, you crazy diamond!

And finally, “She Bop.” I could barely make out Ms. Lauper’s sexy-squeaky delivery, but what I could understand sounded suspiciously like dancing. Or so I believed until one day I somehow discovered the line They say I better stop or I’ll go blind. This is something I could relate to, since for years I’d worried about a similar fate befalling me. But more importantly, I was thrilled to know there were girls out there who enjoyed “bopping” as much as men. Who just wanted to have fun. This knowledge thrilled me so much that my own bopping became new all over again. Thank you kindly, Cyndi Lauper.

So, yeah. I struggled to understand song lyrics in my formative years. And because of this, I quickly learned to ignore lyrics altogether. Instead, I found enjoyment and inspiration in melodies and instrumentation and arrangements. And besides, I was reading plenty of books by then. They brimmed with all the word-based art I could ever need.

In my later teens I was drawn to bands like Boston and Def Leppard and their complex recording techniques. Their meaningless lyrics were, well, meaningless to me. And even today I gravitate toward post rock outfits like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a nine-piece collective that writes complex, orchestral rock pieces almost completely devoid of lyrics. Anymore, I barely listen to popular music at all.

But back in the day I did. In fact, I made it all the way from Olivia Newton-John to Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

And people say evolution isn’t real.

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RICHARD COX is the author of The Boys of Summer, Thomas World, The God Particle, and Rift. He can be reached on Facebook or at his personal web site, www.richardcox.net.

95 responses to “Let’s Get Lyrical”

  1. dwoz says:

    It gets worse.

    “Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll” is about being true to yourself, rising to your utmost potential, and never compromising your beliefs, and fighting for what is right.

    how’s that for a mindfuck?

  2. Mandy says:

    “What sort of alternate reality is this?”

    Ha. That sounds like such an eleven-year-old Richard thing to say.

  3. gloria says:

    “Oh yeah, it was a special trick where Steve Miller burned up his career.” bwahahhahaahahahaa

    Man, I totally get it.

    There was a time there where songs with my name in it topped the charts. The first (and most famous) of course is “Gloria” by Them. Even though this song was popular a generation before me, I was still accosted by it every time I was introduced to another of my parents’ friends, or any older adult. Every one of them thought they were being unique and funny when, after hearing my name, their eyes would light up and they would sing, “Glooooooooooooooooooo-ria. G-L-O-R-I-A.” I thought it was fun for a while, but it grew old long before I did. Years later, I realized the song is about a hooker. And now, I’m sort of like, “For years grown ups would delightedly shout a song about a hooker at me.”

    • Richard Cox says:

      I was thisclose to using Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” for this piece. But I’m still not sure what she meant by that song, even though I read like four different explanations. That was too complicated to be funny.

      I have a friend who was named Alf before the show came out. He had a similar experience to you. 🙂

      • I think we can all agree that I have the name difficulty angle covered, but I probably deserve it due to the karmic payback for how many times I sang The Association’s “Windy” to my little friend Wendy in the sandbox at the age of 6.

        I totally relate to this, Richard, especially the early rig and trying to tape tunes off the radio. How many times did I have to listen to “Gearjammer” or “Who’s Behind The Door?” with some moron talking about how it’s a threefer thursday?

        • Richard Cox says:

          Those guys were so behind the times. Not to mention the freaking commercials. I’m glad satellite radio came along and showed them the way.

          I could barely understand the words to “Voices Carry,” but I had a crush on a girl in school who spelled her name “Keri,” so I just assumed that was how the song was spelled. Didn’t occur to me for weeks that “carry” was a verb.

  4. Joe Daly says:

    This is fucking brilliant. I related closely and uncomfortably to the experience of passionately grooving to music whose meaning was entirely foreign to my naive ears.

    Loved this:
    certainly I was clueless that Juice Newton was greenlighting a one-night stand.

    And this was my favorite:
    And Greta Garbo standoff sighs? Are you kidding me? Why not just sing the song in German?

    The first song I recorded on my own similar device was Tom Petty’s “Refugee,” and just as you described, it was forever besmirched by some yammering DJ crapping all over my pristine recording with his verbal diarrhea. Although at the time, I did think DJ’s were uber-hip tastemakers like Johnny Fever. It was years before the Beard-and-Hawaiian-Shirt DJ culture was revealed to me.

    Good stuff, Coxy.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Thank you kindly, Mr. Daly.

      Love Tom Petty. Great choice. The DJ babbling was highly irritating to me, and I eventually figured out which of them were less likely to ramble over the music and waited around to get better recordings. I was continually trying to improve and get the “best” and cleanest version of my favorite radio tunes. Hahaha.

      I have an old recording of Ray Parker Jr.’s “The Other Woman” where, after he says he wants to play with his guitar all night long, the DJ pipes up and says “Play with it.” I heard that stupid guy every time I listened to that song, with or without the actual recording of him. I can still hear it.

      You know what song I totally meant to include in this and forgot? Laid Back’s “White Horse.” If you want a ride/Don’t ride the white horse. Talk about having no clue.

  5. Lorna says:

    I think that Olivia Newton John video could have possibly inspired that Save a Horse Ride a Cowboy song.

    I love, love, love this (in a non-physical way, of course). 🙂

    Now, can someone explain the meaning behind that Muskrat Love song????

    • Richard Cox says:

      Thanks, Lorna.

      And I found this on the Interwebz:

      “This song really is about 2 muskrats making love. It’s not to be taken seriously, and even contains synthesized sound effect to simulate the muskrat copulation. This sound was played at the end of the song and included in the end groove of the 45 single, so when the record ended, it played the muskrats on a loop until the record player was attended.”

      • Lorna says:

        Can’t see why we took Captain and Tennille seriously in the first place. But they sure got a lot of play time by the DJ’s.

        • Richard Cox says:

          There are many musical acts we shouldn’t have taken seriously. But that’s the kind of thing that makes life interesting and makes this subject worth writing about, right?

  6. Matt says:

    Wait just a damn minute here: “I Want Candy” isn’t about having a massive sweet tooth?!

    FUCK.

    I’ve been getting that one wrong for years.

    I almost compulsively made mixtapes off of the radio. I found one of them while going through a box of my old things that had somehow fallen into my sister’s possession and gave it a listen, eventually being forced to conclude that I had terrible taste in music circa 1989 – 1990.

    I don’t remember any lyrical flubs at the moment, but seeing the word premier of the Thriller video when I was five or so had me convinced for years that Michael Jackson was a werewolf.

    • Richard Cox says:

      I’m not proud of my childhood music taste, either, but I’ve finally learned to embrace it. Last year I downloaded some oldies from iTunes to complete my collection and made a 501-song, 37 hour and 16 minute-long playlist of all the 80s songs I enjoyed as a kid. I didn’t leave anything out, no matter how embarrassing. I even used a Top 40 reference manual to put them in chronological order by release date.

      Of course, I don’t share the list with anyone. Some things are best kept private.

      • Dana says:

        Now that is dedication! I’d kill to see that list.

        • Richard Cox says:

          I really don’t get when people refuse to listen to music they once enjoyed because it’s now uncool or beneath them. Listening to old favorites infuses me with nostalgia and makes me remember a time when I could enjoy simple or even cheesy music without a whiff of irony.

          Today I can’t even listen to the radio because I feel like it’s mostly worthless, and that’s a shame, really.

          So the list contains many songs that would embarrass me in a public forum. I was barely able to admit my Def Leppard fascination here, and there are songs which are far, far less artistic than that. Haha.

        • Dana says:

          I was OBSESSED with lyrics and remain so. I may even have been the family transcriber when I was a kid who would sit with her ear pressed to the speaker in order to be able to explain to mom and dad what the hell Peter Frampton was saying when he put that thing in his mouth. I can’t imagine not pondering over the words, or lingering and repeating clever turns of a phrase. These days especially, I like my music literate.

          I have a recollection of “Let It Be” being removed from our record collection when it became common knowledge* that “Dig A Pony” was about heroin. Hello? I was like 8.

          Because I was born in ’62, I can only imagine that my list would be longer and more horrifying than yours RC, and would undoubtedly include some Bay City Rollers tunage.

          Oh, and speaking clueless? I was in my 30’s before I realized that The Village People were gay. HA!

          *wildly speculative rumor

  7. gloria says:

    Poor Alf – continually having grown ups imply that he’s a ho’. 🙁

  8. Hooray! Something by Richard!

    What a shame my daughters will never know the agony of waiting by the radio ALL FRIGGIN DAY just to record Kajagoogoo from the beginning of the track.

    • Richard Cox says:

      One time a local station got a CD copy of Pyromania and played the album in its entirety with no interruptions or DJ talk. I recorded the whole event and thought it was the best thing in the history of the world.

      Hi Cynthia!

      • Oh! Is that how it all began with you and DL? I love that album. Still.

        • Richard Cox says:

          No, my friend, Jeff Crowe, introduced me to them. He probably has no idea how he changed the course of my life.

          The problem was I didn’t have a clean recording of it. The way I copied his tape was to stand my jam box in front of his and record it live. So this radio special was a godsend.

  9. Yes, I did this same thing with “Physical,” the sexual connotation was entirely lost on me. I thought she sold workout tapes like Jane Fonda. I don’t think I even considered that people would talk about sex in music until I saw a Samantha Fox video.

    It makes me wonder what my kids are hearing where Lady Gaga is blasted in a department store singing “when it’s love if it’s not rough it isn’t fun.” Maybe it’s best not to think about it. I’m going to go listen to Angel of the Morning now.

    • Richard Cox says:

      I was talking to my sister about this over the weekend. There are so many songs you hear kids singing at the top of their lungs, totally saturated with innuendo, or just plain sexytime talk. It’s funny and odd at the same time.

      A few years ago I went to a school play, and one of the performances was a bunch of girls, maybe 10 or 11, dancing a routine to “Hollaback Girl.” They ain’t no Hollaback Girls! Hahahaha.

  10. Tsar Clef Hue John says:

    Ha! I had the same experience with ‘Physical’. I assumed it was what really lame people listened to when working out in the gym.

    • Richard Cox says:

      I liked the song, but what the hell is wrong with her hair in the video? What a hack job.

      Also, on the Internet there are plenty of stills of her bent over and singing between her legs at the camera. I bet she didn’t consider Google images when she did that.

  11. Greg Olear says:

    Thank you for putting “Angel of the Morning” in my head. I always thought it was about the events Erika Rae informs us will befall the earth in a few short weeks…

  12. jmblaine says:

    Somewhere I have
    a half abandoned post
    about riding my bicycle
    and trying to balance
    a one speaker jam box
    like this between the handlebars
    and knocking it with my knee
    and D-cell batteries spilling
    onto the street

    Certron cassettes.
    3 for 99 cents at TG&Y.

    We can’t forget that at age eight
    everything is surreal & absurd.
    All that Seuss.

    Here’s one I used to cluelessly
    sing out loud in front of my parents
    put your hand in my pocket
    grab on to my rocket

    • Richard Cox says:

      That sucks about your jam box. D-cell batteries. Haha. I remember I got a new one a couple of years later, and it had two detachable speakers. It was like a stereo system and a jam box.

      Your Kiss quote reminds me of Role Models when Wheeler is explaining to the kid what the lyrics mean. “See, Ronnie? His dick is the gun!”

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      I haven’t thought about TG&Y and yeeeeaarrrrs. Whoa. You kinda just blew my mind.

  13. Zara Potts says:

    Dearest Richrob,
    The stupidest lyric ever has to be:
    “As sure as Kilimanjaro rises about the Seeeeerengeti.”
    Stupid Toto.

    Followed closely by: A Flock of Seagulls:
    “Aurora Borealis comes in view.. Aurora comes in view.”

    It took me ages to figure out what the hell they were saying.
    This is an awesome post. I love your work. And I love the fact that you recorded the songs you liked from the radio – I think everyone over thirty five did that and we can all empathise with the frustration of listening to a stupid DJ ruin the intros and outro’s of our favourite songs!

    I’m going to be thinking about these songs all day!
    Love,
    ZaraPotts

    • Richard Cox says:

      Way to bring the discussion full circle, ZaraPotts! Did you know Toto’s guitarist, Steve Lukather, performed the guitar solo on “Physical?” Neither did I until I read it on Wikipedia last night.

      There are so many stupid lyrics in 80s songs that it’s difficult to keep track of them. Those are some doozys for sure. Doozies? DooZs?

      Thanks for your kind words, lovely ZaraPotts!

  14. Sarah says:

    The best was New Year’s Eve when the radio would play the top 100 songs of the year. I’d get a bunch of blank cassettes, pop one in, flip it 45 minutes later, put a new one in 45 minutes later, etc. Then spend the next week re-recording, editing out commercials and as much DJ blah-blah as possible.

    Ah, good times. I finally threw the box of mix tapes away about 5 years ago. I had my husband do it, I couldn’t bear to watch.

    I too was blissfully innocently ignorant of the innuendos in lyrics. Little Red Corvette I loved as a kid. It was a fun song about a cool car. “Pocket full of horses, Trojan (and some of them used)*… where your horses run free… all the jockeys who were there before me.” It just made me wonder why a song about a car talked about horses so much.

    *I never knew these lyrics in parentheses were the real lyrics, I always sang, “Trojans somn hmmmnnhoo” not knowing what the hell he was saying.

    • Richard Cox says:

      I know, right? I loved the yearly recaps. But I never was able to re-record them the way you did, at least not until I was a senior in high school. That’s when I got my first DUAL CASSETTE RECORDER! With Dolby Noise Reduction. Oh boy, was that a momentous occasion. That’s also when I started buying albums on LP and using the anti-static gun to get crystal clear audio as I recorded them to Type IV “metal bias” tapes. Baahahaha.

      Did you know there’s a Prince song where he sings Let’s look 4 the purple banana till they put us in the truck? Yeah, me either. In fact I had to Google almost all the lyrics I used here because I still don’t know what they’re saying.

      I haven’t thrown away my mix tapes. They were too much work. I’d rather cart them around for another forty years until they completely deteriorate on their own.

    • Amber says:

      I still can’t believe my parents let me listen to Prince. “Darling Nikki”? Come on. That one wasn’t even trying to be coy.

      And for my money, Prince is still the sexiest little so-and-so this side of anywhere. Not that I would buy the Purple Rain soundtrack for my 8 year old, but whatever.

      • Richard Cox says:

        My parents had no clue what I was listening to. It’s a credit to them that, as conservative as they are, they never monitored my listening or reading habits. My dad said he assumed if he was doing his job as a parent, a piece of art wasn’t going to send me over to the dark side. Probably one of his best feats of parenting ever.

  15. pixy says:

    richard cox, i very much like that the 11 year-old you was a crochety old man.

    pixy.

  16. Becky Palapala says:

    *gasp*

    Bette Davis Eyes.

    I loved that song. I nearly forgot about it.

    Of course, I was, like, 5 and it was already a couple years old when I loved it, but still.

    I loved it because my dad loved it and we’d drive around listening to it, and he’d tell me how Bette Davis was a super famous, beautiful lady and how he had a crush on Kim Carnes.

    I think I had it mostly memorized at one point, no idea what I was singing, of course.

    • Richard Cox says:

      I loved it, too. Just no clue what it meant. But she can make a pro blush, apparently.

      Was Kim Carnes hot? I suppose she was. Also, I just realized I misspelled her name in the tags. Thanks for that.

  17. Shawn Hicks says:

    Thanks, Richard, for making me feel old…and vulnerable! I’ll have to go back through the attic and see if I can’t find some of those recordings we did. Something about recording a news cast interview with the Mayor of Corpus and asking her how she felt…”Like a Virgin”

    • Richard Cox says:

      Sinton, Taft, and Corpus Christi’s ROCK AND ROLL LEGEND! C-101!

      I just wanted to say that. Haha.

      Didn’t we also make some kind of extended version of “Danger Zone” using sound effects from Top Gun? Or something? I still have some of those recordings. I should go back and see what I can dig up.

      Ah, the good ol’ days.

  18. James D. Irwin says:

    The German version of 99 Red Balloons is less political. When it was translated they deliberately made it more political for reasons I can’t remember.

    I genuinely love it though. I like the harsh German on the word ‘bugs’.

    • Richard Cox says:

      I didn’t know there was a difference in the translation. I’ll have to check that out more. Thanks, JDI.

      • James D. Irwin says:

        I can’t remember where I read that, but I think it is true. The differences aren’t huge or anything, but it stands to reason that direct translations wouldn’t fit the music.

        • Richard Cox says:

          It’s on Wikipedia, for one:

          “Having achieved widespread success in Germanic Europe and Japan, plans were made for the band to take the song international with an English version by Kevin McAlea, titled ’99 Red Balloons,’ which has a more satirical tone than the original.”

        • James D. Irwin says:

          Turned on the radio this morning.

          99 Red Balloons.

          This has been a good day…

        • Richard Cox says:

          I heard the German version yesterday. Ha!

          (Plus the whole time I imagined how much less satirical it was.)

  19. Art Edwards says:

    Once, someone approach me after a gig and said, “Hey, that song you wrote, ‘Carefree’? That’s about a blow job, isn’t it.”

    How could I say anything but yes?

    Excellent examination of what makes pop lyrics so incomprehensibly wonderful and stupid at the same time.

    Long live sexual innuendo!

    • Richard Cox says:

      Hahaha. That’s funny about the fan. Probably a lot of people project whatever they want onto lyrics, eh?

      I’ve never understood or cared about lyrics in songs, or at least very rarely. Even those that seem to have deeper meaning. They just don’t appeal to me the way prose does. Of course I’m not much on poetry, either.

  20. Jessica Blau says:

    Wow, you have just clarified so many songs for me! I had no idea what any of those songs mean! I need you by my side now. Was listening to music this morning, some Bruno Mars song, and I could swear on line was ‘say hello to my nose’ or something like that. Translation?

  21. D.R. Haney says:

    You know, it’s weird, but, as a kid, I almost never pondered the meanings of songs. I either took lyrics at face value, or I dismissed them as gibberish, or I assumed I was incapable of cracking the metaphor anyway, so why try? Adding to this mentality, I suppose, were the D&D types I knew, who saw, like, a ton of meaning in lyrics, dewd. Like, what are those dewds saying? Like, whoa, that’s blowing my mind, dewd. So, to contrast them, I took an attitude of: Who gives a rat’s scrotum? As long as I like the sound, that’s all that matters.

    Yes, of course, I taped songs off the radio, and damn those deejays for ruining the intro, etc. I seem to remember a previous exchange at TNB about that. I’m not sure if I participated, however, or just observed.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Basically I was the same way. In the end I didn’t really pay attention to them. I tried at first, but once I realized it was a lost cause, I pretty much gave up.

      I’ve always loved music, but I never really had one of those life changing moments until I heard the opening movements on Lift Your Skinny Fists. Which obviously has no lyrics. So when someone says his life was changed by, say, punk, is it the music? Or can he really understand what’s being sung?

      • D.R. Haney says:

        Well, there is one mention in BFL about the narrator being unable to make out the lyrics of a particular song, only to realize to his horror, after many listenings, what’s being sung. But with punk overall, I think it’s the discovery of the subculture that people usually mean when they speak of punk having changed their lives — the discovery of like-minded people, of not having to conform to a respectable standard, of creativity that the discoverer didn’t know he had (“Here’s three chords; now start a band”).

        By the time punk was heard by most, its reputation preceded it; but it would never have caught on had the music not delivered on its promise of ferocity, and the Sex Pistols, punk’s first international avatars, were certainly ferocious, both in sound and sense. You can make out just enough of the below to understand that something apocalyptic and daring (for its day) is being said, and even if you can’t, the message, to my ears, is still delivered by the music:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeP220xx7Bs

        • dwoz says:

          what’s kind of funny about this is that early punk rock was probably as much a manufactured contrivance if not even more so than, say, Menudo or Backstreet Boyz or Spice Girls.

          Those bands were thought up, assembled, and managed to essentially sell us clothes.

          With the possible notable exception of The Clash.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          The Sex Pistols weren’t started by Malcolm McLaren, contrary to myth. They were started by Steve Jones, who was caught shoplifting by McLaren, who decided to manage the band, in part, yes, to advertise the store he co-owned with Vivenne Westwood. However, McLaren could never completely dominate the band, as much as he tried; John Lydon especially was too fractious, so that even when Lydon was given the assignment of writing a song for the Queen’s silver jubilee, McLaren was disgusted with the result. Lydon also had the band’s first bass player fired, and arranged to bring in his former flatmate, Sid, as a replacement. In general, McLaren took a lot of credit for many things regarding the Pistols that weren’t his to take, and many people accepted him at his word, eager to believe that punk was just as contrived as everything else. But the original punk scene wasn’t the one in London, it was the one in New York, and all of those people in the CBGB scene — the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith, the Dead Boys, Suicide, and so on — were operating way below the radar; and McLaren, who was often in New York at the time on business, stole many of his ideas from CBGB, and Richard Hell in particular (as McLaren has admitted on many occasions). I personally think that punk would’ve happened with or without McLaren, once the Ramones toured the UK — and California, I should add — in 1976. The Ramones galvanized an awful lot of kids who felt excluded from the arena-rock mentality of the seventies, thinking they could never be in a band; but when they saw the Ramones, they thought, “Hey, if those guys can do it, so can I.”

          Also, while the first wave of punk, the one “started” by McLaren, quickly died — that is, the mainstream media, mopping its brow, pronounced it dead because of its seeming implosion in 1978 — it’s the second wave, spearheaded by the likes of Ian MacKaye and Black Flag and X, that really caught on, though it took the mainstream a long, long time to realize and acknowledge it; and that’s the wave — or anyway its progeny — that I was referring to in my comment.

        • He was a brilliant marketer, no doubt, but has anyone ever gotten more credit for having done less musically than Malcom McLaren? Sure, he foresaw a way to cash in on early punk fashion, opening a store and charging exorbitant sums from lames too lazy to paint an anarchy symbol on their own leather jacket, or put bobby pins in their own ripped jeans. And he dressed the New York Dolls. But aside from sharing a certain All Is Vacant commodity/worldview with John Lydon, what did he have to do with the music? It’s easily forgotten that after the Pistols, McLaren had a disastrous turn as the manager of Johnny Thunders/The Heartbreakers, one of the unsung pillars of punk before it was called such, and who long predated McLaren’s “genius.” Remember Sigue Sigue Sputnik? It’s true that Bow Wow Wow was a total sales vehicle, but were they really punk? How about that Buffalo Gals (go round the outside) single that haunted me in every bar I went to for a year? The dude was a tiny walking ego whose greatest contribution may have been as a monument to the amount of cash that can be made by unapologetic self-promotion.

          I don’t know what other bands besides the Sex Pistols you’re referring to, Dwoz, but I have to disagree that what I would consider the foundation of early NY punk, English punk, or hardcore was “manufactured.” Maybe Generation X was the Punk Monkees, if only because they both came from and spawned so many other bands, but I think of them more of a White Wedding petrie dish anyway.

        • Richard Cox says:

          Duke, I like the line “You can make out just enough of the below to understand that something apocalyptic and daring…” because that’s probably more accurate than to say I never hear lyrics. I do hear and decipher enough to combine that with the music to get an idea of what emotion the artist wants to convey. Great point.

          Dwoz, likening punk to boy bands is a pretty ballsy statement. I don’t know enough about punk to have that conversation, but I’m following Sean and Duke’s responses with interest.

  22. ZaraPotts says:

    Ha ha! I like the tag: “I really do like all these songs” – you are awesome, Richrob!

  23. Man, I freaking love a good pop song. It just hits the marks. Notable favourites:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvn6eYJh-0c
    (Robbie’s just the man. I don’t care what anyone says. My favourite anecdote is how Courtney Love came up to him at a party and said ‘All my friends think I should sleep with you, but I don’t think I can, because of the whole ‘pop’ thing.’ Robbie said ‘Yeah, I don’t think I can either. Because of the whole ‘ugly’ thing.’

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvcohzJvviQ
    Laugh now, but can anyone remember how freaking huge this song was? And how goddamn fun?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OpC_hz-Gxc8
    From Scotland, of all places.

    I loved the rumour that the Backstreet Boys’s I Want it That Way was about anal sex.

    Which I believe may have inspired this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwykvrwvWW4

    • Richard Cox says:

      Now that’s an interesting collection of links. Ha. Couldn’t watch the first one, though, because there’s some kind of U.S. restriction on it. I find it funny that Courtney Love is giving someone a hard time about being pop. I think if your songs are on top 40-ish stations, you’re considered pop to some degree. Is “Malibu” not a pop song, for instance? If you’re going to make fun of pop music you need to be a little more distant from it, I think.

      Like if you’re a founding member of Slint, then you can make fun of pop. Haha.

  24. As I started reading this, I was thinking, “I believe Richard is almost exactly my age, like within months… so where the hell did he get something with internal storage that could download songs as a kid, when all I ever had was a stupid radio boombox/cassette player?” And then I read on. Nicely played, sir. I tip my hat to you.

    I think about how far we’ve come all of the time, especially because I have a five-year-old who has no idea how easy he has it technologically. For example: the way you were able to simply look up the lyrics and meanings behind all of the songs you listed in this piece. Today’s kids will never know the frustration of wondering what someone is singing about for more than five minutes spent on Google. They get to immediately have all of the answers we could only dream of as pre-internet kids. (I’d imagine it’s nearly impossible for a celebrity to maintain an air of mystery nowadays.) I wonder if you’d be more into the lyrical aspect of music today if you had not found song meanings so frustrating as a curious-minded, smart kid. Or would awareness and validation of the inanity of many song lyrics still frustrate and disappoint you to the point of no return?

    I had no idea Juice was greenlighting a one-night stand in that song until I read this today. I always thought it was about someone dying. Is that morbid? It has angels and people touching cheeks and leaving forever, for goodness sakes. Seems pretty death-y to me. But I guess it was more about the little death, then, eh? Interesting.

    I didn’t know “She Bop” was about masturbation until I was in my twenties. When I sang it in an eighties cover band, we grouped it together on the set list with “Turning Japanese” and “I Touch Myself” for a masturbation trifecta. Heh.

    I will always hate the Violent Femmes for the “big hands, I know you’re the one” line. What the hell does that mean? What a barbed compliment. Oh, you’re the one for me… you there, with your weirdly gigantic hands. I love you, you beautiful freak.

    We seem to have shared a very similar young musical experience, right down the the ONJ fascination. Did you also live for Casey Kasem and Rick Dees Top 40 countdown time? That was the stuff of which legendary cassette mix tapes were made.

    I just read the rumor (rumour) Simon writes about above, about the anal sex Backstreet Boys song, and now I can’t stop giggling. Damn it. (:

    • Richard Cox says:

      I was hoping someone would have that reaction to the wireless/download/storage joke! Ha. It stands to reason it would be the person with whom I share a brain. 🙂

      It’s funny you mention the technology gap because I saw something yesterday on FB about “This will make you feel old…” and one of the examples was the button to save a document in Word or Excel is a graphic of a floppy disk, and most kids today don’t even know what it is. It’s like when my nine year-old niece looked at my FIFTH GENERATION iPod and asked “What’s this?” Then she tried to navigate it by dragging her fingers across the display, which is not a touch-based display. Hahahaha.

      The interesting thing in our family is my dad is a tech wizard, too, so even he has an iPhone. We marvel at the changes in technology but we also fully embrace them. I’m not going to be one of these obsolete fossils who doesn’t have his pulse on the evolving tech culture. I’m not going down without a fight, Tawni!

      Look at these lyrics for Angel of the Morning:

      Maybe the sun’s light will be dim
      and it won’t matter anyhow.
      If morning’s echo says we’ve sinned,
      well, it was what I wanted now.
      And if we’re the victims of the night,
      I won’t be blinded by light.

      Sounds like she wants to get jiggy. Also, the opening lines are “There’ll be no strings to bind your hands.” So she’s absolving him of any blame if he never calls her back. Or maybe I’m just projecting. Hahahaha.

      I absolutely waited for and listened to Kasem and Dees every week. Being a literal fellow I preferred Kasem because his list was built from Billboard, which was the official ranking of songs, and not some impostor Cashbox or whatever Dees used. But Dees was funnier. I still have some recordings of stupid pranks they used to play on that show.

      To your question about being curious about lyrics, I’m not sure why I didn’t gravitate toward more meaningful music back then, since clearly I was looking for that. The only answer I have is that in Corpus Christi and Midland, which are two places I lived in this time period, there was no alternative. Well, there was an AOR station in Corpus but I didn’t know anyone my age who listened to it. I would say probably 75% of the music I listen to now is experimental and instrumental. Most post-rock bands don’t use much lyrics. And even Radiohead, as an example, I just ignore what Thom Yorke is saying. I hear the voice but it passes into my brain as an instrument. Even when I can clearly understand the words, like in the opening stanzas of Fake Plastic Trees, I just don’t see the point. The melody is melancholy and beautiful. That’s what I enjoy. It’s strange to think that songwriters are putting thought into their words and singing them so emotionally, and I just hear “hmmm hmmm hmmmmmmmmm.” It’s difficult to explain. But nevertheless, that’s how it is for me.

  25. Erika Rae says:

    Oh this is awesome. I kindly recall “Father Figure”, which I never quite understood why I had such strange, ahem, feelings during. Sure, George, I’ll put my tiny hand in yours. Anything you have in mind. (You know, like go get mint chip ice cream?)

    You threw me for a loop in the first paragraph. I was all, what? He’s younger than I am? So confused. Apparently, I really do need a father figure.

    Also, I’ll take your incomprehension of lyrics and raise you one miscomprehension. I have chronic lyricosis the likes of which few have ever witnessed. I only recently realized the lyrics to “No Woman No Cry” were not “No Woman No Pride.”

    sigh

    • Richard Cox says:

      ZaraPotts posted on FB today that she also recalls “Father Figure.” Did you see that, or is there something amiss in the Matrix again?

      I love mint chocolate chip ice cream. I had some last week, a rare treat these days since I’m trying to get back into shape.

      Thanks for not skipping this post. I almost skipped your “Return of the Sexy” post since it was on the first version where I originally believed you to be ignoring me. Hahahahaha.

  26. Irene Zion says:

    Ricardo,

    I don’t know why, but I never notice the lyrics. I just hear the music and the words seem to be part of the music. Except about a week ago in Brussels we were in a supermarket buying cream rinse because they don’t provide that in hotels and the music playing was “I want to make you wet.” Victor and I both heard that one. I hope it doesn’t come to America. I don’t want my grandchildren to hear it. ( They would probably think that someone wants to play in the sprinkler with them, I suppose.)

    • Richard Cox says:

      Yes, that’s the thing with innuendo in lyrics. If you’re not old enough to get it, then is it really a problem for the little ones to hear it?

      In an earlier comment I wrote about 10 year old girls dancing to and singing along with Hollaback Girl, a song which essentially means “Don’t call me for just for sex.” Plus she says “shit” like a thousand times and they have to delete it so frequently the song sounds sort of goofy without it. Who in the heck chose THAT for their routine?

  27. Brian Eckert says:

    Good stuff, Richard. Actually, the timing of this is quite strange. I was considering a post wherein I describe my inadequacy of deciphering not the meaning of song lyrics, but the lyrics themselves. Like, when I was maybe 10 or so years old, that Whitney Houston Song when she sings, “I want to feel the heat with somebody,” I really thought she said, “I want to eat some poop with somebody.” Then there was that song from Hot Hot Heat…”Bandages,” which I was utterly convinced was actually “Bag of Jews.” (listen carefully…I have confidence you’ll see where I’m coming from…) It was only until I was singing out “Bag of Jews dum dum dee dum” that somebody said, “Dude, what the fuck are you singing?” The list goes on, but the bottom line is I am absolutely horrible about picking out what singers are saying. At least you have that part figured out, so it seems.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Thanks, Brian. I’d like to say I know those lyrics, but in fact I had to Google them all for this piece. I used to sit down and try to transcribe the lyrics to my favorite songs, and that’s when I discovered that even when I had it figured out, I didn’t know what the fuck they meant. So I just gave up.

      But in retrospect, it’s funny to think about the Violent Femmes ejaculating prematurely and me being blissfully unaware.

      You should post that. TNB needs more posts about how song lyrics are silly and incomprehensible, and then maybe we finally put this debate to rest, that lyricists really have anything meaningful to say. 😉

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