It’s funny, isn’t it, how songs we’ve heard a thousand times, songs we’ve sung along to, songs we’ve heard performed in concert, have lyrics that include words we don’t fully understand, but we sing along with them anyway.
There are plenty of examples of songs with lyrics we “mis-hear” — we think they’re singing A when in fact they’re singing B — but I’m talking about lyrics that include words we simply don’t know. They’re unusual, esoteric, rare, maybe even made-up. But they’re right there in the chorus of a #1 song, so we just go along with them. Not until the late ’60s did artists start including lyrics on the album sleeve, and many bands simply couldn’t be bothered, or wouldn’t pay the fee required to reprint them. So we simply weren’t sure what we were hearing. And there was no Google or Internet to check to find out exactly what the words were.
Today, students, we’re going to delve into the etymology — the origin — of some of the more recognizable examples of words that appear in hugely popular songs, but we have no idea what they mean. Until now.
“You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte…”
From Carly Simon’s iconic “You’re So Vain” in 1972, this line perfectly describes the behavior of the vain egotist who is far more interested in how he (or she) looks than in anyone or anything around him (or her). But what of this term “gavotte”? It’s a French word for a flamboyant folk dance, wherein the dancer holds one hand aloft with the other on the hip in a very showy display that aptly suits the “it’s all about me” attitude of the vainglorious person described in the song. Who is the song about? Well, that’s another subject for another column. And Simon has steadfastly refused to reveal the person’s identity. (I think it’s a composite of several people, but who knows? Only Carly…)
“On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair, warm smell of colitas rising up through the air…”
When Don Henley was fashioning the lyrics to Don Felder’s melody that became their 1977 signature song “Hotel California,” he chose to employ “colitas,” the term he’d heard a couple of Hispanic road crew members using. Not to be confused with the intestinal disorder colitis, the word was at first thought to be some sort of desert flower, and Henley liked the way the word sounded rolling off his tongue. But he liked it even more when he realized it was a Mexican word meaning “little buds” — specifically, small buds from marijuana plants. In a song that summarizes the double-edged sword of the hedonistic sex-and-drugs lifestyle of Los Angeles in the late ’70s, it added a deft touch of intrigue as well as being an inside joke.
“I see a little silhouette of a man, Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Will you do the fandango?…”
Who, or what, is Scaramouche? No one seemed to know when Queen released the amazing “Bohemian Rhapsody” on its “A Night at the Opera” album in 1975. Actually, devotees of Italian opera and comedic theater knew very well, but your average rock ‘n roller didn’t have a clue. Scaramouche, as it turns out, was a fictional clown character often seen in “Punch and Judy” puppet theater, a simple-minded fop who would be socked in the face or beheaded for his idiotic comments. Why did songwriter Freddie Mercury choose to include the name in the song? He said he liked the sound of the name — memorable and appropriately bombastic. (And “fandango,” by the way, is another type of lively Spanish dance involving castanets and tambourine.)
“He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich, and he said, I come from a land down under, where beer does flow and men chunder…”
I always thought “vegemite” was just a word Men At Work songwriter Colin Hay manufactured for a verse of his band’s 1983 #1 hit “Down Under.” But no. Vegemite is a real thing, at least in Australia. It’s a sort of edible paste (think liver pate) made of brewers yeast, vegetables, wheat, and spices. Aussies regularly slather it on toast, hide it in pastries, or make whole sandwiches out of it. Sounds vile to me, but it’s quite popular there. It’s not a term you’re likely to hear in the States anytime soon… “Chunder,” on the other hand, is a fabulous verb you’d think the college fraternity crowd would have adopted by now. It’s a synonym for throwing up.
“Picture yourself on a train in a station with plasticine porters with looking-glass ties…”
“Over men and horses, hoops and garters, lastly through a hogshead of real fire…”
“The man in the crowd with the multi-coloured mirrors on his hobnail boots…”
The Beatles — specifically John Lennon — loved to use arcane, vague vocabulary that added mystique and left his songs open to interpretation. These three examples are but a few of several he used in his most inventive work.
“Plasticine,” invented in England in the 1890s, is a type of modeling clay made of calcium salts, petroleum jelly and aliphatic acids, meant for use by artists who needed their material to stay malleable so they could reshape and reuse it when necessary. It’s known best in the US as the medium used in stop-motion animation (“claymation”) projects. Lennon liked it for use in “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” as an adjective describing what some people might look like to an LSD user.
A “hogshead” is not a hog’s head at all, but a unit of measure, typically for liquids like wine or distilled spirits but also for food commodities like sugar. It’s about the size of a large pickle barrel and equals roughly 80 gallons. In the 1967 “Sgt. Pepper” tune “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” it referred to the size of the barrel ring of fire someone might jump through in a feat of derring-do.
“Hobnail” is a fastener used among cobblers in the design of workboots for the military and farm laborers. It holds the sole firmly to the shoe and provides traction in uneven soil. Why the man in the crowd in the 1968 song “Happiness is a Warm Gun” might attach multicolored mirrors to his hobnail boots is anyone’s guess, because Lennon never explained it…
“Oleanders growing outside her door, soon they’re gonna be in bloom up in Annandale…”
Steely Dan was notorious for obscure lyrical references, and “oleanders” from the 1973 classic “My Old School” is but one example. It’s a pretty but toxic flowering plant often used in median strips of highways in the American Southwest because of its hardiness and vivid colors. Annandale is a community in New Jersey outside New York City where oleanders aren’t likely to grow or flourish, so songwriters Donald Fagen and Walter Becker put them there as a sort of absurd contradiction.
“Draw me ’round your fruitcage, I will be your honeybee, open up your fruitcage, where the fruit is as sweet as can be…”
When art rocker Peter Gabriel hit his commercial peak in 1986 with his “So” album and worldwide #1 hit “Sledgehammer,” his lyrics were full of double entendres with subtle sexual references. This lyric is clearly among his most blatant: “Fruitcage” is, in fact, British slang for female private parts. So now you know. And you’ve probably figured out what he means by “sledgehammer” now as well…
“Some people call me Maurice, ’cause I speak of the pompatus of love…”
Steve Miller has made a career of lifting musical and lyrical passages from other songs, claiming “artistic license” to keep the copyright lawyers at bay. For the #1 hit “The Joker” from 1973, Miller used “pompatus” (also spelled “pompitous”) from an old ’50s tune by Vernon Green called “The Letter” (no relation to the #1 Box Tops/Joe Cocker hit from 1967/1970), which includes these lines: “Oh my darling, let me whisper sweet words of pizmotality and discuss the puppetutes of love.” Let’s ignore “pizmotality” for now, and focus on how Green has said he coined the term “puppetutes,” meaning “a secret paper-doll fantasy girl who would be my everything and bear my children.” Apparently Miller mis-heard “puppetutes” as “pompatus,” and it has since become a minor pop culture reference — there’s even a 1996 Jon Cryer movie called “The Pompatus of Love.”
Are there are other strange terms you’ve come across in hit songs that you’ve never quite understood? Let me know about them, and I’ll see if I can ferret out the hidden meaning behind them. Although some may have no meaning at all: Anyone care to take a stab at “Wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-lop-bam-boom”?