The other day I was singing along to the radio in the kitchen as I scraped the collateral damage from Bigfoot’s latest calcinated culinary catastrophe off the hob. I knew the words of this love song by heart – it had stayed at number one for weeks on end when I was I teenager. Romantic. Heart-breaking. Nostalgic. Sad… or it was, until my out-of-tune rendition ended in peals of hysterical laughter just seconds into the song. I’d crooned that fatal line along with the love-sick Lionel Richie: “I sometimes see your pants outside my door….. Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?”
Meet the Mondegreen, official name for the misheard lyric – a kind of mischievous musical Babel fish that transforms Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello” into something my ear finds more appropriate for my brain. “I sometimes see you pass outside my door” thus becomes a kinky new game in which unknown beauties leave their pants outside strangers’ doors. (As we have already discussed in a previous post, although a pair of pants left outside an American door could appear strange but innocuous, a pair of pants left outside a British door could be seen as either bizarre or an open invitation for a spot of rumpy-pumpy.)
I feel so sorry for lyricists who spend months scratching their heads and searching the depths of their souls for meaningful lyrics, only to discover that the bog-standard citizen mishears the song and transforms it into something ridiculous which prevails throughout musical history.
Lionel Ritchie is far from being the only singer-song writer who has suffered from my selective hearing. I have a few favourites that I systematically massacre, even if I have learned the right words now; in fact, the popular “wrong” versions are sometimes so good that I think the composers should have come around to reality a long time ago and changed the lyrics.
Here are a few of them:
Dancing Queen, by Abba, rocked my youth, and it is a mondegreen classic. I still sing it enthusiastically: “See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen”. I remember thinking as a child that it must be so goddamn satisfying to kick a dancing queen, particularly if you’re a tomboy wallflower who was born with two left feet, like me. Boy, I could just feel that beat on the tangerine (or trampoline, depending on who you listen to). Of course, everyone remembers Abba’s great song about Indian take-aways, right? It starts off with “Chicken tikka, tell me what’s wrong….”
Bob Dylan: Blowing in the Wind. You discover some surprising things in songs. For example, did you know that Bob Dylan isn’t just a singer? He is also a naturalist, on a par with Richard Attenborough. If you don’t believe me, check it out for yourselves in his song “Blowing in the wind”: “The ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind.” See?
Starship: We built this city on rock and roll. Another big favourite that combined cookery, music and urban construction. Come on, hands up… who bopped around school discos singing themselves hoarse with “We built this city…. ta, ta… We built this city on saaaussage rolls, we built this city, we built this city on sauuusssaaaage ro-holls“?
Toto: Africa. I felt very sorry for Toto back in ’82. I couldn’t work out whether he’d left his brains or blessed the drains down in Africa, but neither sound too appealing to me.
Phil Collins. King of the romantico-depressive genre, Phil did manage to come up with some more refreshing lines. We discovered that he is a secret lover of the winter season in his chart-topping “In the Air Tonight” when he declared: “I’ve been waiting for this snowman for all my life, oh yeah….” I do however have a soft spot for his great song, “Every time you go away,” presumably dedicated to the butcher who is desperately in love with his customer: “Every time you go away, you take a piece of meat with you.”
Black Sabbath: Paranoid. Mondegreens have also got some singer-songwriters in trouble – Ozzy Osbourne actually had to put things straight when the group was accused of singing “I tell you to end your life” in the song “Paranoid”, when the text actually said « I tell you to enjoy life ».
The Beatles. Ok, don’t be shy. Hands up if you sang “she has a chicken to ride“. The Beatles’ attempt to get the great British public singing in French also failed dismally, with many of my school friends happily crooning “Sunday monkey play piano song, play piano song” instead of “Sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble, très bien ensemble” in “Michelle”. I was surprised by “Lucy in the sky with diamonds” until I realised that “the girl with colitis goes by” is actually ” the girl with kaleidoscope eyes“.
Soon we’ll be able to sing Christmas songs, and I can’t wait for my favourite festive mondegreens, like “Olive, the other reindeer, used to laugh and call him names”. Those memories will hit me again, like when school assembly sang “sleeep in heeeavenly peasssss,” and I imagined Jesus kipping in a plateful of Christmas vegetable trimmings, covered with bacon blankets. “Later on, we’ll perspire, as we dream by the fire….” Roll on Christmas!
What are your favourite mondegreens? If you’re not asleep already, I’ll leave you with the all-time mondegreen classic by Creedence Clearwater Revival, “There’s a bathroom on the right.” Happy bopping around your office/kitchen/camping car…. and watch out for those pants outside the door.