There were always misheard lyrics.
Remember Kenny Rogers’ ‘Lucille’? ‘Four hungry children’ mistaken as ‘four hundred children’ and the song being heard not as the plight of a husband and family left by an unfaithful wife and mother, but as something altogether more improbable. I once persuaded someone that the song was the tale of the founder of a children’s orphanage being deserted by his assistant (unfortunately, they took my version seriously).
A BBC Radio 1 DJ once had people tell him of their interpretation of misheard songs; it made strange listening. How could anyone think Aretha Franklin was singing ‘It’s Dennis Smith’ when singing ‘It’s in his kiss’ in the Shoop Shoop Song?
There were lyrics not understood through being misheard, then there were other lyrics not understood because they seemed beyond understanding.
Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ was an eight minute piece of poetry (if you had the seven inch single you had to flip it over at the end of side A to get the second half of the song) but forty years later, there is still no agreed understanding of the lyrics. Procul Harum’s ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ made little sense to a teenage listener, though was captivating listening. Its writer’s suggestion thirty -odd years later that it “deals in metaphorical form with a male/female relationship which after some negotiation ends in a sexual act,” detracted from the mystery it held for those who listened to it in the 1970s.
If there were songs that were misunderstood and others that seemed to be without possible understanding, there were others that seemed designed to be beyond the understanding of teenage record buyers.
‘Here’s Carly Simon’, said the presenter of the Classic Gold programme and, with such a brief introduction, only one song could follow, the opening bars of ‘You’re so vain’ followed. Forty years ago, it was possible to do no more than guess what some of the lines might mean; forty years later, and the thought occurs that it was designed to be thus.
Even when the lyrics were correctly heard, how many buyers of the song on a vinyl record would have understood, ‘As you watched yourself gavotte’? How many teenagers knew what was a gavotte? Would one person in ten have known it was about the way he danced? And then there was the horse racing and the astronomy: ‘Well, I hear you went up to Saratoga/And your horse naturally won/Then you flew your Lear jet up to Nova Scotia/ To see the total eclipse of the sun.’ How many kids in England of 1972 would have known that Saratoga was racecourse frequented by the social elite, or that a Lear jet was the preserve of the incredibly rich?
Perhaps Ms Simon had her tongue in both cheeks; mocking the man about whom she was singing, and mocking those of us who sang along with the words without having a clue about what we were singing.
Perhaps one should not attempt to over-analyse songs.
Now, what about that Beatles song, ‘ I am the Walrus’ . . .