The recent brouhaha over changing lyrics to our national anthem (personally, I like Gail Asper’s suggestion of “in all of us command” over “thou dost”) got me thinking about lyrics. Not just the casually misogynistic ones, but also the ones we hear without really hearing — or more accurately, mishear.
The list of songs with misheard lyrics is gigantic — you can see for yourself at sites like Amiright.com or Kissthisguy.com, where the submissions range from the inane and obvious to the intriguing and downright inspired. Many of these mistakes are the result of quasi-homophony (the “quasi” I added, but “homophony” refers to words that are pronounced the same but differ in meaning) that have come to be known as “mondegreens.” The term was coined by Sylvia Wright in a 1954 Harper’s article on mishearing or misinterpreting a phrase, and was added to Webster’s Dictionary in 2000.
Creedence Clearwater Revival — “Bad Moon Rising”
Is it any surprise that one of my Dad Rock playlist entrants would also be one of the granddaddy’s of mondegreens? It’s amazing how many people hear “there’s a bathroom on the right” instead of “there’s a bad moon on the rise,” considering how the song’s title should make it clear CCR is singing about a bad moon.
Jimi Hendrix — “Purple Haze”
This one is so pervasive that one of the botched lyrics sites I mentioned above takes its name from the mistake. Hendrix is not signing about a same-sex assignation when he sings “ ‘scuse me while I kiss the sky.” Granted, kissing a dude seems more likely than smooching the wild blue yonder.
Ray Parker Jr. — “Ghostbusters”
This one blew me away when I was researching the playlist. As obvious as I thought the bad moon in “Bad Moon Rising” was, it should be even more obvious that the answer to Ray Parker Jr.’s question “who you gonna call?” is Ghostbusters. It’s not like it’s the title of the song and the movie, but apparently some people believed that RPJ was going to call “those bastards!”
Leslie Nielsen — “The Star-Spangled Banner”
Here’s another movie entry for the playlist; this one from the first Naked Gun film. In the scene where Leslie Nielsen is impersonating an opera singer and performs the American anthem prior to a ballgame, he sings “and the rocket’s red glare/lots of bombs in the air.” This one was obviously an intentional butchering of the anthem, unlike that woman at the hockey game who screwed it up twice, gave up and proceeded to slip on the ice while making a hasty exit.
Elton John — “Tiny Dancer”
A.K.A “The One Where Phoebe Gets The Lyrics Wrong.” I don’t know if the writers of Friends invented this mondegreen or if it existed prior to the episode where Phoebe is convinced that Sir Elton is singing “hold me close/young Tony Danza,” but Madman Across The Water (which
included “Tiny Dancer”) was released in 1971and Danza first hit the airwaves in 1978.
The Beatles — Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”
Apart from R.E.M. (and honestly, can anyone tell what exactly Michael Stipe is singing about?) few artists are as misheard as the Beatles. “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” includes several misheard lines. “The girl with colitis goes by” is my favourite.
The Beatles — “I Want To Hold Your Hand”
Apparently Bob Dylan thought the Fab Four were singing “I get high” and not “I can’t hide.” As
Sgt. Pepper would prove, they did, in fact, get high, but maybe not when Meet The Beatles! was released.
Billy Joel — “Piano Man”
Here’s one that makes total sense. The old man asks the pianist “Son, can you play me a memory” as Joel sings it. Asking for a melody may be less poetic, but still likely.
Prince — “Raspberry Beret”
One of my favourite under-appreciated British bands of the ‘90s took their name from a misheard line in “Raspberry Beret”: “thunder drowns out/what the lightning sees.” And thus, we have songs like “Like You Do” and “Change” by the Lightning Seeds.
Billy Idol — “Mony Mony”
This one isn’t a mondegreen because people aren’t mishearing lyrics. Instead they’re adding ones that aren’t there. I remember a junior high dance where I first heard the unofficial chorus to “Mony Mony” and how the song didn’t make it to a second chorus, courtesy of the principal.