The surprise ending is a rich tradition in popular pop and rock songs. Just check out our original Twisted Tunes article for a selection of ten smashes that sock it to listeners with a sudden turnabout in the lyrics.
From the heartbreaking father-son dynamics of “Cat’s Cradle” by Harry Chapin to the adulterous couple that cheats with each other in “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes to the big gender reveal of the titular temptress in “Lola” by the Kinks, it’s amazing to think that there are even more classic smashes out there launch similar sneak attacks on their back end.
Here are ten such tuneful table-turners.
“The Ocean” – Led Zeppelin (1973)
The Song Set-Up: “The Ocean” continues to endure in endless rock radio rotation. It boasts one of Zeppelin’s most instantly iconic riffs (which is saying something) and its push and pull emulates the motion of its titular evocation with irresistible might. The song was written about the view of the crowd from the stage, where the mass of bodies rolls like waves coming in and the roar of the crowd can sound like a tsunami. Led Zeppelin has always pointed out that “The Ocean” is dedicated to their fans.
The Rocking Reveal: “The Ocean” pulls off its big trick in a simple two-line couplet: “Now I’m singing all my songs to the girl that won my heart/she is only three years old, and it’s a real fine way to start.” Vocalist Robert Plant sets us up to expect him to reveal the name of some mystic mama with whom he’s having an affair; then he sweetly reveals that the little miss who so captivates his love is his own daughter, Carmen, who was three when “The Ocean” came out.
“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” – Beatles (1965)Embedded from player.vimeo.com.
The Song Set-Up: John Lennon’s pop masterwork “Norwegian Wood” stands out even on the Beatles’ landmark 1965 leap forward Rubber Soul due to its exquisite songwriting, gorgeous vocals, cynical lyrics, and use of Indian instrumentation, with George Harrison weaving a hypnotic spell on sitar.
The Rocking Reveal: John spins the story a girl who brings him home and boasts about her room (which doesn’t even contain a chair), saying, “Isn’t it good/Norwegian wood.” After striking out and sleeping in the tub, John sings, “And when I awoke I was alone, this bird had flown/So I lit a fire, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?” In other words: He burns down her house!
“Paradise by the Dashboard Light”– Meat Loaf (1977)
The Song Set-Up: “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” is the focal point of Bat Out of Hell, the louder-and-way-larger-than-life over-the-top classic LP collaboration between mightily sizable vocalist Meat Loaf and songwriter Jim “Everything More Insanely Over-the-Top than Everything Else” Steinman.
On an entire album dedicated to maniacally whipping up “The Ultimate” rock-and-roll anthem, “Paradise” is Bat’s loaded ode to teenage romance. Meat sings in the guise of his horny high school self, frantically trying to convince his sexy-and-17 sweetheart to go all the way in the backseat of his car.
“Paradise” is an entire rock opera unto itself, pulling out all manner of sonic stops, including a back-and-forth between Meat and Ellen Foley in the role of his intended conquest, and New York Yankees short-stop-turned-sportscaster Phil Rizzuto calling Meat’s progress in the manner of a baseball runner trying to turn a single into a home run.
When Ellen demands repeatedly that Meat swear he’ll love her forever before she concedes to seal the deal, the song screeches to a halt, and then leaps years forward.
The Rocking Reveal: Teen Meat howls about how he took Ellen’s offer in the heat of the moment and that they’ve been stuck together ever since—and he regrets every moment of it.
“I couldn’t take it any longer/Lord, I was crazed/and when the feeling came upon me/Like a tidal wave/I started swearing to my God/and on my mother’s grave/that I would love you to the end of time… So now I’m praying for the end of time/to hurry up and arrive… I’m praying for the end of time/it’s all I can do (ooh, ooh)/I’m praying for the end of time/So I can end my time with you!”
“Taxi” – Harry Chapin (1972)
The Song Set-Up: Folk-rocker Harry Chapin, whose barbed “Cat’s Cradle” payoff we highlighted last time, boasts and even more brazenly unexpected ending in his ’72 rock radio smash, “Taxi.”
It’s a classic “story song” in the popular singer-songwriter tradition, with Harry singing the part of a cab driver who picks up his ex-girlfriend. She’s become a fancy lady who lives in a stately manor with a husband she doesn’t love, and she doesn’t recognize Harry at first. Of their prior relationship, Harry belts out, “See, she was gonna be an actress, and I was gonna learn to fly.” Before slipping out of the cab, she slips Harry an insultingly large tip, indicating that she feels bad for how his life turned out. Harry takes the money and runs.
The Rocking Reveal: The song’s parting shot lays out, ironically, how “we’d both/gotten what we’d asked for, such a long, long time ago/See, she was gonna be an actress, and I was gonna learn to fly… And here, she’s acting happy/inside her handsome home/and me, I’m flying in my taxi/Taking tips, and getting stoned/I go flying so high, when I’m stoned.”
“Silhouettes” – The Rays (1957)
The Song Set-Up: With lush doo-wop harmonies, the Rays paint a picture of a jilted Lothario boiling into a jealous rage as he watches two lovers get romantic in shadow form behind a pulled-down window shade—in his own girlfriend’s house.
The Rocking Reveal: It’s all a case of mistaken identity. “Lost control and rang your bell, I was sore/Let me in or else I’ll beat down your door/When two strangers who have been two silhouettes on the shade/Said to my shock, ‘You’re on the wrong block!’
Decades later, Led Zeppelin paid homage to rock-and-roll’s very first great twist ending here by ending “Fool in the Rain” with the same hilarious realization.
“He Stopped Loving Her Today”- George Jones (1980)
The Song Set-Up: Honored by many as the finest male country vocal ever recorded, George Jones (aka The Possum) broke through to pop and rock audiences with a heart-shattering tale of one man’s endless unrequited passion for a woman that, after a lifetime, comes to a sudden halt.
The Rocking Reveal: The pining Romeo’s love only dies because he dies. “He stopped loving her today/They placed a wreath upon his door/And soon they’ll carry him away/He stopped loving her today…”
“Christmas Wrapping” – The Waitresses (1981)
The Song Set-Up: One of rock’s most infectious holiday perennials, “Christmas Wrapping” by fun and funny new wave ironists the Waitresses features frontwoman Patty Donahue at her deadpan best. She raps (get it?) about her romantic woes of the previous year, all of which seemed to be capped when she’s doomed to spend Christmas Eve by her lonesome.
The Rocking Reveal: After realizing she forgot some trimmings for her single-serving turkey, Patty unveils fate’s big gift for her. “When what to my wondering eyes should appear/in the line is that guy I’ve been chasing all year/’Spending this one alone,’ he said. ’Give me a break, this year’s been crazy.’ I said ’Me too, but why are you…/You mean, you forgot cranberries too?’/Then suddenly we laughed and laughed/caught on to what was happening/that Christmas magic’s brought this tale/to a very happy ending.”
“Diary” – Bread (1972)
The Song Set-Up: Bread may well still stand as the absolute softest rock band of all time, but their 1972 hit “Diary” packs one severely harsh parting shot. The lyrics are sung from the point of view of a guy who comes across his girlfriend’s journal, cracks it open, and reads about how she’s finally delighted to have met the man of her dreams. The dude gets so excited, he rushes to tell his lady how he pried into all her private thoughts about their grand romance.
The Rocking Reveal: The snoop gets maybe more than even what was coming to him for spying. “I found her diary underneath a tree/and started reading about me/The words began to stick and tears to flow/Her meaning now was clear to see/The love she’d waited for/was someone else—not me.” Burn!
“The Green, Green Grass of Home” – Tom Jones
The Song Set-Up: Country legend Porter Wagoner composed “The Green, Green Grass of Home” in 1965. A year later, Welsh sexbomb belter Tom Jones hit #1 worldwide with the song’s vividly painted picture of a man revisiting his beloved boyhood surroundings, where all seems as idyllic as it was when he first left. His parents welcome him with open arms, and even Mary, his first love, is overjoyed upon his arrival.
The Rocking Reveal: The guy was just dream-tripping to his past. His present is bleak, and destined to be short, as it’s his last day in prison—specifically on death row. “Then I awake and look around me, at the four grey walls that surround me/and I realize, yes, I was only dreaming/for there’s a guard and there’s a sad old padre – arm in arm we’ll walk at daybreak/Again, I touch the green, green grass of home/Yes, they’ll all come to see me in the shade of that old oak tree/as they lay me ’neath the green, green grass of home.”
“Running Scared” – Roy Orbison (1962)
The Song Set-Up: Roy Orbison’s angelic voice pulls off an incredible evocation of desperate love and sheer terror at the same time on “Running Scared.” Roy sings of constantly looking over his shoulder for his newly beloved’s psychotically jealous ex, who poses a threat so huge it threatens to capsize the freshly burgeoning relationship.
The Rocking Reveal: At long last, the seething gorilla shows up, and Roy learns he never had anything to fear. The lady loves him every bit as much as he loves her. “Then all at once he was standing there/So sure of himself, his head in the air/My heart was breaking, which one would it be/You turned around and walked away with me.”