A year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post about misunderstood lyrics, offering a couple dozen hilarious examples of how people hear one thing while the vocalist is actually singing something else. Our sense of hearing is, to say the least, imperfect. Depending on how closely we’re listening, and how clearly the speaker or singer is enunciating, we fairly often mishear what’s being said or sung, and we conclude incorrectly what we think we heard.
The official term for this is a mondegreen, coined by American writer Sylvia Wright in 1954. As a young girl, she enjoyed listening to her mother read aloud from a book of 17th Century Scottish poems, one of which included the line, “They had slain the Earl of Moray, and laid him on the green.” Wright misinterpreted this as, “They had slain the Earl of Moray, and Lady Mondegreen.” Even after she learned of her error, she decided she preferred her version, and chose to call this phenomenon a mondegreen.
At the bottom of this column is a Spotify playlist that includes some of the recordings that people have misheard over the years. If you’re a subscriber, you can listen to the whole song and hear the lyric in question. (If not, well, all you get is a random 30-second sample that may not include the relevant line. If you’re a music lover, a Spotify subscription is well worth the modest $10-a-month investment.)
Probably the most famous example of misunderstood rock music lyrics is in Jimi Hendrix’s hit “Purple Haze.” The correct words are: “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky,” but many people insist they hear “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy.” A guy named Gavin Edwards even published a book of mis-heard lyrics in 1995 that uses the above Hendrix mondegreen as its title.
Another amusing one you see mentioned now and then is in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 song “Bad Moon Rising,” where “There’s a bad moon on the rise” is misinterpreted as “There’s a bathroom on the right.”
It’s been brought to my attention that there are many more funny examples of misheard rock lyrics from not only the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, but from the ’90s and up to the present day. Naturally, there’s a website that has compiled an exhaustive list of misheard lyrics as submitted by thousands of readers. It’s called amiright.com, and I heartily recommend you check it out if this subject interests you (and I hope it does). Charles Grosvenor Jr., founder of amiright.com, has also published a book (2007) with the catchy mondegreen title, “Hold Me Closer, Tony Danza,” an intentional mis-reading of the 1971 Elton John-Bernie Taupin lyric, “Hold me closer, tiny dancer.”
It’s important to distinguish between a mondegreen (an honest mis-hearing of a lyric) and a parody (a deliberate creation of satirical lyrics). Purveyors of such parodies — people like Weird Al Yankovic and Bob Rivers — make no bones about the fact that they have come up with a new set of whimsical lyrics to go with the original song’s melody. If some of these seem a bit forced or contrived, well, perhaps that’s the point. It’s all in good fun.
For example, there are coffee mugs, plates, sweatshirts and more that bear these clever words which might make you think The Eurythmics’ 1983 hit “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This” is actually about dairy products: “Sweet dreams are made of cheese, who am I to dis a Brie, I cheddar the world, and a feta cheese, everybody’s looking for Stilton…” (The real words are “Sweet dreams are made of this, who am I to disagree, I travel the world and the seven seas, everybody’s looking for something…“)
Let’s get back to mondegreens. It has happened to everybody at one time or another — you think you know the words that are being sung, and then find out later (sometimes many many years later) that you were mistaken. For nearly four decades, I swear I thought the words to The Monkees’ smash hit “I’m a Believer” included the line, “When I needed sunshine on my brain.” Turns out Micky Dolenz was singing, “When I needed sunshine, I got rain.” Who knew? Not me, apparently…
When Don Henley sings The Eagles’ classic ballad, “Desperado,” it begins with, “Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses, you’ve been out riding fences for so long now…” But some listeners claim they thought the line was, “You’ve been outright offensive for so long now…”
A song like Steve Winwood’s 1986 international #1 hit “Higher Love” got so much exposure that it’s hard to imagine anyone could have misinterpreted the oft-repeated line, “Bring me a higher love” as “Bring me a Tylenol!” But if you listen to the chorus where he sings the line three times in succession, the third time does sound a bit like he’s asking for medicine…
On several songs in U2’s voluminous catalog, Bono doesn’t pronounce the lyrics quite as clearly as he usually does. Some people thought the line in the chorus of their 1991 rocker “Mysterious Ways” that goes, “She moves in mysterious ways,” was instead “Shamu, the mysterious whale.” Hmmm… I seriously doubt Bono would write a song about Sea World’s biggest attraction…
Some radio stations in 1969 frowned on the impropriety of Bob Dylan’s song “Lay Lady Lay,” with its intimations of sex and pleasuring. The lyric heard several times in the song — “Lay across my big brass bed” — was sung by a man to a woman. But some people evidently thought it was from the perspective of a woman singing to a man, because they thought the words were, “Lay across my big breasts, babe.” Now THAT would’ve really freaked out the radio programmers!
In her most famous song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” the great lyricist Joni Mitchell was bemoaning the ruination of Hawaii’s natural beauty when she looked out her hotel window and was chagrined to see acres of blacktop and parked cars, and she sang, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Others seemed to think she was singing, “A gay pair of guys put up a parking lot.” I think they missed the whole message of her song…
The hit theme song to the popular 1984 comedy film about three guys who hunt otherworldly spirits is, of course, Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters.” It’s pretty damn obvious that the opening line of the song is “If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!” Still, some wise guys prefer to think he’s singing, “Who you gonna call? Those bastards!”
Here’s a bizarre interpretation of the lyrics to the chorus of Michael Jackson’s iconic 1983 hit “Beat It,” which go: “Beat it, beat it, no wants to be defeated, showing how funky and strong is your fight…” Perhaps this is questionable as a mondegreen, but someone claims they have always sung along this way: “Heated, heated, no wants a beef fajita, show ’em Hot Pockets, strong is your fight…”
Hard rockers Led Zeppelin have thousands of misheard lyric submissions on Grosvenor’s website, which isn’t surprising, given that vocalist Robert Plant’s wailing delivery is often hard to understand. Here are two of my favorites: From the 1971 single “Black Dog,” the line “A big-legged woman ain’t got no soul” was heard as “A Beatle-headed woman ain’t got no soul…” From the legendary “Stairway to Heaven,” the couplet “And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than our souls…” somehow was re-imagined as “And there’s a wino down the road, I should have stolen what I sold…”
A couple of classic songs by Stevie Nicks on Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” LP made my list of favorites from a lengthy list of the band’s tunes. From her hit “Dreams,” the lyric “Thunder only happens when it’s raining” sounds to some like “Thunder’s only half as wet as rain is.” And from her mesmerizing song that closes the album, some folks heard the line “Rock on, gold dust woman,” as “Back off, cold ass woman…”
David Bowie’s 1971 anthem “Changes” includes the line, “Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it,” which some Brits interpreted as “Don’t tell them to blow up a Parliament…”
Bruce Springsteen isn’t the world’s best enunciator either. Some people claim to hear “Ten devils in the freeze aisle” when he’s really singing “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” Same goes for his 1987 hit, which asks “Is that you, baby, or just a brilliant disguise?“, but some misheard it as “Is that you, baby, or just a bridge in the sky?”
How about Abba’s big disco hit from 1977? “See that girl, watch that scene, diggin’ the dancing queen” or “See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen…”
Steve Miller Band has numerous listings of mondegreens. From his 1976 hit: “I wanna fly like Amigo…” From 1978: Not “Big ol’ jet airliner,” but “Beagle Jedi lineup.”
Motown is not exempt. In the Temptations “My Girl,” some listeners think “When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May” is instead “When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the muffins made...”
Country star Eric Church has a 2015 album, coincidentally titled “Mr. Misunderstood,” and in the single “Record Year,” some fans are missing the line “I’m either gonna get over you, or I’m gonna blow out my ears” and in its place are singing along with “I’m either gonna get over you or I’m gonna grow out my hair.”
Finally, here’s a mondegreen that just might make more sense than the actual lyric. In 1968, Iron Butterfly was recording a song called “In the Garden of Eden” after having polished off a gallon of cheap red wine, and vocalist Doug Ingle slurred the title as he sang, “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Some listeners prefer their own interpretation: “In a glob of Velveeta, baby…”