Decoding rock lyrics has been a rite-of-passage for every kid who ever stopped and started a vinyl record to transcribe the words. Even the FBI got into the game, spending months investigating “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen in pursuit of nasty language that never turned up.
Misheard passages are always a fun rock topic, from “Blinded by the Light” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band where “revved up like a deuce” really does sound like “wrapped up like a douche”, to more dubious claims by those who say that Jimi Hendrix was singing “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy” in “Purple Haze.” Most intriguing of all are rock lyrics that are clearly and accurately understood as words, but still make no sense as concepts.
Join us now as we ponder: Just what the hell are these eight classic rock songs talking about?
“Werewolves of London” – Warren Zevon
WTF Words: Well, I saw Lon Chaney walking with the Queen/Doing the werewolves of London/I saw Lon Chaney, Jr. walking with the Queen/Doing the werewolves of London/I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic’s/His hair was perfect
Sardonic singer-songwriter Warren Zevon scored his only Top 40 hit with the longtime Halloween perennial “Werewolves of London.” Zevon was not a particular fan of horror films in general, nor, more specifically Werewolf of London (1935) or The Wolf-Man (1941) starring Lon Chaney Jr.
The original notion came instead from Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers, who told Zevon in 1976 that “Werewolves of London” would make a great song title. Guitarist Waddy Wachtel had recently been to the UK capital and noticed a new breed of young, aggressive, sharp-dressed lawyers and businessmen who seemed, indeed, a bit werewolf-like.
During an impromptu writing session, Wachtel immediately came up with the opening lines, then left the rest to Zevon and guitar player Roy Marinelli. They came up with the rest, and “Werewolves of London” has kept us howling ever since.
“Wrapped Around Your Finger” – The Police
WTF Words: You consider me a young apprentice/Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis
Unless you’re up on your Classics 101, listeners who attempt to decrypt “Wrapped Around Your Finger” sans lyric sheet may well deduce that Sting was cooing out nonsense.
In fact, Scylla and Charybdis are sea monsters that appear in Greek mythology. They co-exist side by side one another in stormy waters and create one lethally perilous route for sailors.
As a result, the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” remained popular in earlier centuries as another way of saying “between a rock and a hard place.”
And, as we all know, Sting is really into old stuff.
“Goin’ Blind” – Kiss
WTF Words: Little lady, can’t you see/You’re so young and so much different than I/I’m 93, you’re 16/Can’t you see I’m goin’ blind
Rock-and-role odes to young women of questionable age appropriateness date back to the birth of the form and have generated standards such as “I Saw Her Standing There” by the Beatles, “Stray Cat Blues” by the Rolling Stones, “Seventeen” by Winger, and, indeed, “Christine Sixteen” by Kiss.
To an uninformed ear two odd lyrical forays seem to delve into horrendously taboo territory—“Memphis, Tennessee” by Chuck Berry and “The Ocean” by Led Zeppelin—until one knows that the respective six and three-year-old girls being rhapsodized are the singers’ daughters. Each song then becomes a sweet ode of parental love.
Still, no lyrical age gap is more astonishing than the one sung of in “Goin’ Blind” from Kiss’s 1974 LP, Hotter Than Hell. Gene Simmons sings of being 77 years older than the young lady with whom he’s breaking up.
In fact, Gene says, the essential elements of “Goin’ Blind” date back to 1970, resulting from his love of heavy proto-metal rockers Cream and Mountain.
The line “I’m 93, you’re 16” line came from Paul Stanley, who burst into the recording studio with it as Gene was laying down the vocal.
When comedian and Kiss nut Jim Norton asked Stanley about the lyric on SiriusXM radio, the Star Child confirmed that he just came up with it on the spot and he and Gene both thought it would be memorable and funny.
As usual, they were right.
“The Joker” – Steve Miller
WTF Words: Some people call me the Space Cowboy/Some people me the gangster of love/Some people call me Maurice/’Cause I speak of the pompatus of Love
“The Joker” is a happy lesson in cryptography for Steve Miller fans. To casual listeners, the lines listed above are real head-scratchers. Miller devotees know, however, that the Texas rocker is referring, in order, to his 1969 hit, “Space Cowboy,” his 1968 blues cover “Gangster of Love,” and his 1968 number, “Enter Maurice.”
The real plumb, of course, is “the pompatous of love.” It’s been a favorite of topic of rock discussions since “The Joker” first dropped in 1973.
The fact, though, is that Miller first employed the term in “Enter Maurice,” singing: My dearest darling, come closer to Maurice/so I can whisper sweet words of epistemology/in your ear and speak to you of the pompatus of love.
Although Miller has playfully said, “It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just jive talk,” all that pompatus action is actually his loving nod to the 1954 R&B song, “The Letter” by the Medallions.
Although essentially as baffling as the aforementioned “Louie Louie,” the Medallions sing lines that sound like what Miller reproduced in “Enter Maurice” and “The Joker.”
While starring in a 1996 comedy The Pompatus of Love—yes, titled in reference to “The Joker”—actor Jon Cryer tracked down the Medallions’ Vernon Green, who wrote “The Letter.”
Green revealed that “pompatus” was actually “puppetuetes,” stating that the word was, “a term I coined to mean a secret paper-doll fantasy figure [i.e.-puppet], who would be my everything and bear my children.”
“Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” – Bob Dylan
WTF Words: Mona tried to tell me/To stay away from the train line/She said that all the railroad men/Just drink up your blood like wine/And I said, “Oh I didn’t know that/But then again there’s only one I’ve met/And he just smoked my eyelids/And punched my cigarette
Attempting to ascribe specific meanings to Bob Dylan lyrics is most often a fool’s errand. As with abstract paintings or films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or TV shows such as Twin Peaks, everyone who experiences a Dylan song comes away with his or her own unique understanding of what was being communicated and to what it all might (or might not) add up.
As part of the 1966 landmark Blonde on Blonde, speculation over “Stuck Inside of Mobile” often suggests the sprawling words and Ferris Wheel structure of the song relate to Dylan’s revolutionary “going electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
The idea, it’s been said, is that Mobile, Alabama could represent old-style, acoustic music, while Memphis had forever been transformed by the plugged into rock of Elvis Presley.
All that comes close to being likely is that Dylan makes reference to an age-old mountain ballad titled “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” that contains the words, “I don’t like a railroad man/A railroad man, he’ll kill you when he can/And he’ll drink up your blood like wine.”
As for the smoking of an eyelid and punching of cigarettes: that’s just Bob Dylan for you.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” – Queen
WTF Words: Scaramouch, Scaramouch/Will you do the fandango? … Galileo, Galileo/Galileo, Galileo/Galileo, Figaro/Magnifico-oh-oh-oh… Bishmillah, no! We will not let you go!
Queen’s mini-symphony mega-smash “Bohemian Rhapsody” ranks alongside “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones and “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin as rock’s all-time definitive anthems.
There’s simply no denying Queen’s mesmerizing power on the track, much of which arises from the wildly worded, explosively operatic middle section in which choruses of voices argue about the fate of protagonist Freddie Mercury after he put a gun against a man’s head, pulled the trigger, and, as we all know, “now he’s dead.”
Queen hasn’t offered many explanations of the European names and non-English expressions tossed out in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” They certainly sound great and contribute mightily to the epic song’s Old World feel. Here’s a quick breakdown of what gets referenced:
“Scaramouch” is a musical clown figure, sometimes played by a puppet, in the Italian art form known as commedia dell’arte.
“The Fandango” is a Spanish dance.
“Galileo” refers to the 16th century scientific genius jailed by the Catholic church for daring to suggest (correctly, of course) that Earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa.
“Figaro” is the lead figure in the 1775 Italian opera, The Barber of Seville.
“Bishmillah” is an ancient expression meaning, “In the name of God,” used in Freddie Mercury’s Zoroastrian religion.
After that, you’re on your own.
“I Am the Walrus” – The Beatles
WTF Words: “Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower/Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna/Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe/I am the eggman, they are the eggmen/I am the walrus/goo goo g’ joob goo goo g’ joob”
John Lennon’s masterful surreal musical magnum opus, “I Am the Walrus,” debuted as part of the Beatles’, uh, less-than-masterful attempt at a surreal cinematic magnum opus, Magical Mystery Tour.
Many throughout history have claimed to be “the fifth Beatle.” During this period, it would be safe to award that title to the chemical compound known as LSD.
During a 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon explicitly laid out where his words came from: “The first line was written on one acid trip one weekend. The second line was written on the next acid trip the next weekend, and it was filled in after I met York. I’d seen Allen Ginsberg some other people who liked Dylan and Jesus going on about Hare Krishna. It was Ginsberg, in particular, I was referring to. The words ’Element’ry penguin’ meant that it’s naïve to just go around chanting Hare Krishna or putting all your faith in one idol. In those days I was writing obscurely, à la Dylan.”
However, it is worth saying that the “eggman” in question does have roots in reality. Lennon was apparently referencing the Animals’ lead singer, Eric Burdon. A bit of an animal in the sack, Burdon was known for cracking eggs over his sexual conquests, earning him the nickname “Eggman.”
“Stairway to Heaven” – Led Zeppelin
WTF Words: “If there’s a bustle in your hedge row, don’t be alarmed now/It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen”
“Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin is the most famous and enduring of all classic rock songs and, rightly so, it’s also the most fiercely debated.
Listeners of “Stairway to Heaven” hear everything from a saga of redemption to an anti-capitalist screed to a Christian prayer to, most famously, a backward love letter to “my sweet Satan.” In fact, there are as many explanations of Zep’s masterwork as there are people who have heard it, and that’s a number you can stop counting once you hit upwards of a billion.
One element unites all “Stairway” contemplators, though: just what is “a bustle in your hedgerow”?
Taken at face value, a bustle means a commotion or a shaking-up; a hedgerow is literally a row of hedges—shrubs and bushes cultivated into rows by a gardener. In Catholicism, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is known as “Queen of the May.” The “spring clean” bit remains up for grabs.
Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant has offered the last word on this topic. “Depending on what day it is,” he once said, “I still interpret the song a different way—and I wrote the lyrics!”