I speak of the pompatus of love

It’s a funny thing, 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 probably don’t understand, but we sing along with them anyway.

confused-2681507_960_720There 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 recognize.  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.

Artists didn’t start including lyrics on the album sleeve until the late ’60s/early ’70s, 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 Internet to check to find out exactly what the words were.

Today, readers, we’re going to solve some age-old questions.  We’re going to provide definitions for words you’ve been singing since you were 12 but never really wrapped your head around.  Until now.

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“You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte…”

Carly_Simon_-_ElektraFrom Carly Simon’s huge hit “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.  (And by the way, who is the song about?  For many years, Simon steadfastly refused to say, but recently admitted that the second verse is about her dalliance with actor Warren Beatty.  The rest, she says, is a composite of several other egotists she knew.)

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“On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair, warm smell of colitas rising up through the air…”

Don-earlyWhen Don Henley was fashioning the lyrics to Don Felder’s melody that became their 1977 signature song “Hotel California,” he chose to employ “colitas,” a term he’d heard a couple of Latino 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 summarized the hedonistic sex-and-drugs lifestyle of Los Angeles in the late ’70s, it was a clever inside joke.

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“You consider me a young apprentice, caught between the Scylla and Charybdis…”

10197359_1_xThese terms are found in Greek mythology to describe two infamous sea monsters that lurked on either side of a stormy channel, creating a perilous route for ships.  Sting, The Police’s chief songwriter, is a big fan of The Classics, and he thought himself rather clever to insert a little ancient terminology into his modern rock lyrics, in this case “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” from the band’s “Synchronicity” album.  To be caught between Scylla and Charybdis was, essentially, like being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

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“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…”

cache_2472978042I always thought “vegemite” was just a word manufactured by Men At Work songwriter Colin Hay 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 paté) 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.

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“I see a little silhouette of a man!  Scaramouche!  Scaramouche! Will you do the fandango?…”

4-1Who, 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.  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.  Songwriter Freddie Mercury said he chose to include the name in the song because he liked the way it sounded — memorable and bombastic.  (And “fandango,” by the way, is a lively Spanish dance involving castanets and tambourine.)

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“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now…”

led-zeppelin-1971-acoustic-chris-walterAmericans were puzzled by this phrase in Led Zeppelin’s 1971 anthem “Stairway to Heaven,” but Brits caught on quickly enough.  Hedgerows are, literally, rows of hedges that were planted intentionally across the English countryside as property borders and, in times of war, as natural barricades to deter advancing armies.  Therefore, if there’s a bustle (a commotion) in your hedgerow, well, you’d best be careful, for it might be an enemy soldier or some sort of angry animal.  On the other hand, perhaps it’s just what lyricist Robert Plant said — a servant doing a “spring clean for the May Queen.”

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Oleanders growing outside her door, soon they’re gonna be in bloom up in Annandale…”

0dc9506da7ed9193f295b65f2bbe73a5--steely-dan-donald-fagenSteely 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.

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“Draw me ’round your fruitcage, I will be your honeybee, open up your fruitcage, where the fruit is as sweet as can be…”

Peter Gabriel (1986)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…

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The Beatles — specifically John Lennon — loved to use arcane, vague vocabulary that d5a619345d8ceda4725c5529fbcbeac4added mystique and left his songs open to interpretation.  Here are four examples of several he used in his most inventive work.

Semolina pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower…”

“Semolina” are the hard grains left over after the milling of flour.  “Pilchard” is a small, oily herring fish.  In his mostly nonsensical “I Am the Walrus,” Lennon was deliberately writing lyrics that would baffle all the pundits who were trying to find hidden meanings in Beatles songs.  He paired “semolina” and “pilchard” together for no reason other than they sounded interesting to him — although he added years later that “pilchard” is close to “Pilcher,” or Det. Sgt. Normal Pilcher, the London drug cop who zealously slapped drug possession charges on rock stars (including Lennon) in the ’60s.

“Picture yourself on a train in a station with plasticine porters with looking-glass ties…”

“Plasticine,” invented in England in the 1890s, is a type of modeling clay made of calcium salts, petroleum jelly and 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 U.S. 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.

“Over men and horses, hoops and garters, lastly through a hogshead of real fire…”

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.

“The man in the crowd with the multi-coloured mirrors on his hobnail boots…”

“Hobnail” is a fastener that was 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 another matter.  Lennon said he and his schoolmates would sometimes put mirrors on their shoes so they could look up the skirts of unsuspecting females.

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“Some people call me Maurice, ’cause I speak of the pompatus of love…”

steve-miller-1973-billboard-650Steve 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.”

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Do you recall any other strange terms used 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“?

 

 

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Still brilliant after all these years

Ah yes, 1969 — a pivotal year for me, and a pivotal year for the record business.

I was turning 14, starting to pay more attention to the world outside my safe neighborhood surroundings.  I was suddenly more interested in the opposite sex, and I 1969was being introduced to the intriguing, horizon-stretching music of bands with peculiar names I’d never heard of before.

At the same time, the record-buying public at large was starting to pay attention to complete albums instead of just hit singles.  By year’s end, for the first time, the total number of albums sold eclipsed the number of singles sold.  My generation was no longer willing to settle for what the Top 40 stations were willing to broadcast.  We started going on deep dives through the record stores of America — at Woolworth’s and other major chains, but more often at independent hippie-type stores — to discover much, much more.

There’s no question that 1969 brought a stunning breadth of albums that, even fifty years after their release, are among the finest rock LPs ever produced.  Readers might take exception with the obviousness of my 12 selections here; there are at least a dozen others, listed as “honorable mentions” at the end, that might easily make your own personal Top Dozen list.  But that’s my point:  1969 offered an embarrassment of riches.  As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of these records, let us relive the thrill that the music within them still brings us.

Enjoy!

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“Santana,” Santana

44085-santana-1969When San Francisco area concert promoter Bill Graham was asked to become involved with the not-yet-legendary Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, he did so on the condition that Santana, an unknown Latin-infused rock band he had been championing, be added to the bill, even though their debut LP hadn’t come out yet.  Santana’s high-energy instrumental music, most notably “Soul Sacrifice,” was a revelation to the festival crowd, and their performance played a big part in the 1970 film.  “Santana” was released a few weeks later and, thanks to radio play for the instrumental track “Jingo” and even more for the #9 hit “Evil Ways,” climbed to #4 on the album charts.  Six of the album’s nine tracks are instrumentals, a rarity for a Top Ten LP.  Santana’s winning formula was a bubbling mix of white-hot percussion, Gregg Rolie’s Hammond organ and vocals, and, interlaced throughout, Carlos Santana’s biting, soaring guitar playing.

“Led Zeppelin (I),” Led Zeppelin

5ba3db1f638a5You’d be hard pressed to find a debut album more game-changing than this one.  Rising from the ashes of the great blues group The Yardbirds, “Led Zeppelin” is a combination of heavy and light, by turns thunderous and delicate.  “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” beautifully demonstrated this dichotomy, with gentle acoustic and fiery electric passages in the same track.  The explosive “Good Times Bad Times” and “Communication Breakdown” set new standards in condensed hard rock, and eclectic pieces like the acoustic instrumental “Black Mountain Side” and the organ-dominated “Your Time is Gonna Come” offered something different.  But it’s the blues covers like “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quite You Babe,” and the lengthier album side closers “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times,” that really dominate the proceedings.  Guitarist Jimmy Page wrote, arranged and produced most of the album’s nine tracks, with help from keyboardist/bassist John Paul Jones, while singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham cemented reputations as among the best at their respective positions.

“Stand Up,” Jethro Tull

96830fb240e5aa15c2d9be9f44388c7dAlthough this band began as a ragtag blues outfit in 1968 with guitarist Mick Abrahams sharing leadership with flutist-singer Ian Anderson, it wasn’t long before Abrahams split to form Blodwyn Pig, and Anderson took over the Tull reins for good.  By adding superb guitarist Martin Barre and writing ten wonderfully eclectic tunes, Anderson steered Tull to the top of the British charts with “Stand Up,” an album that remains a favorite of mine and millions of others.  Witness the cornucopia of styles:  blues (“A New Day Yesterday,”), folk (“Fat Man”), hard rock (“We Used to Know,” “For a Thousand Mothers,” “Nothing is Easy”), acoustic balladry (“Reasons for Waiting,” “Look Into the Sun”), even light jazz (the instrumental “Bourée”).  Tull went on to great achievements over the next three decades, but this LP continues to delight, and was a high point of 1969 album releases.

“Chicago Transit Authority,” Chicago

220px-CTA_albumThere had been horns used in rock music before (Blood, Sweat, and Tears, The Buckinghams), but not quite like what Chicago attempted with this brazenly ambitious double-album debut.  With three talented singer-songwriters in the lineup (keyboardist Robert Lamm, guitarist Terry Kath and bassist Peter Cetera), plus a meaty horn section of trumpet, trombone and sax, Chicago had the goods to deliver well over an hour of catchy, energetic music right out of the gate.  So much great material:  the effervescent “Beginnings” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” the bluesy “South California Purples,” the riff-laden “Introduction” and “Questions 67 and 68,” and a politically timely medley (“Prologue/Someday”) and a 15-minute jam (“Liberation”).  The group’s original lineup kept things interesting for another five or six years before succumbing to a more puerile commercial style that wore thin.

“Blind Faith,” Blind Faith

61cLZhu5npL._SX355_Eric Clapton was looking for some new musical chemistry following the demise of Cream, and he found it with Steve Winwood, the amazing singer/songwriter/keyboardist on hiatus from his own band Traffic.  Cream drummer Ginger Baker showed up at their informal rehearsals, hoping to get involved, and despite Clapton’s apprehensions, joined the recording sessions, along with Ric Grech on bass and violin.  Sadly, the group was hyped beyond belief as a “supergroup” that was almost the antithesis of what Clapton and Winwood had originally conceived, and the group disbanded in a matter of R-391938-1394741346-1051_jpeg_896d3227-53aa-4a3e-aef6-75de64548006months.  Although the resulting album features only six tracks (one of which was a 16-minute jam on Baker’s “Do What You Like”), the musicianship is exemplary, particularly on the Winwood tunes, “Can’t Find My Way Home,” “Sea of Joy” and “Had to Cry Today.”  Clapton also contributed his first top-shelf song, the lovely “Presence of the Lord.”  The album reached #1 on the UK and US album charts, but it turned out to be the only record they’d make (although it had two covers!).

“Yer Album,” The James Gang

JamesyerCleveland had been the city where legendary DJ Alan Freed got his start, hosting what is considered the world’s first rock concert back in 1952.  But there hadn’t been much else on the city’s music scene to gain national attention until The James Gang — fortified by the addition of newcomer Joe Walsh taking over for the departing Glenn Schwartz — burst out with the eye-opening “Yer Album” debut LP in April 1969.  It wasn’t until the following year’s “James Gang Rides Again” and its hit single “Funk #49” that the group became commercial successful, but guitar legends like Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page all sang the praises of Walsh as a talent to reckon with, based on the tracks on “Yer Album.”  On original songs like “Take a Look Around,” “Collage,” “I Don’t Have the Time” and “Fred,” Walsh showed a flair for melody and vocal arrangement, and on excellent covers such as “Bluebird,” “Stop” and “Lost Woman,” he demonstrated his considerable guitar prowess.

“Abbey Road,” The Beatles

abbey-roadBy mid-1969, the best band of them all concluded it was time to call it quits, but the album they recorded in January, “Let It Be,” had left a bad taste in their mouths (and it sat unreleased for another 15 months).  Instead, they decided to regroup in July and record “a proper swan song,” as Paul McCartney put it.  And what a farewell it was.  George Harrison weighed in with “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” two of his finest songs yet; John Lennon had already checked out mentally, but brought “Come Together,” “Because” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” to the party.  McCartney did the lion’s share of the writing, and arranged the spectacular medley (“You Never Give Me Your Money,” “Sun King,” “Mean Mister Mustard,” “Polythene Pam,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight” and “The End”) that comprises most of Side Two and is, in my opinion, the best-ever 15 minutes of Beatles music.

“Tommy,” The Who

The+Who+Tommy-1From 1965 onward, Pete Townshend and The Who had enjoyed plenty of chart success in England with a string of brash yet melodic singles, but their penchant for destroying their instruments in live performances kept them in debt and in danger of losing their record contract.  In late 1968, Townshend put his songwriting talents into overdrive and came up with a sprawling “rock opera” about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who becomes a pinball god with a fawning audience who eventually turn on him.  The exceptional music he built around these story-lyrics is the real attention-getter here, with amazing melodies and arrangements that singer Roger Daltrey, drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle (and guitarist Townshend himself) could really sink their teeth into.  “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “The Acid Queen,” “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” “Amazing Journey,” “Go to the Mirror,” “Christmas,” “Underture” — just a marvelous spread to feast upon.

“Crosby, Stills and Nash,” Crosby, Stills and Nash

220px-CrosbystillsandnashThis pretty much perfect LP is largely the work of Stills, who had been biding his time since the imploding of Buffalo Springfield a year before.  “Captain Manyhands,” as he was nicknamed, played most of the instruments and produced all the tracks, and wrote the amazing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Helplessly Hoping” and “You Don’t Have to Cry.”  He also had the wisdom to recruit superb harmonizer David Crosby from the Byrds, who brought “Guinnevere,” “Long Time Gone” and “Wooden Ships” to the project.  The icing on the cake was the addition of the high harmonies of ex-Hollie Graham Nash and his great tunes “Marrakesh Express,” “Lady of the Island” and “Pre-Road Downs.”  The summer and fall of 1969 were far more pleasant because of these wondrous songs floating out of radios and home stereos across the country.

“Bayou Country,” Creedence Clearwater Revival

ba4fbc91b8b39aea2458d15021dcb8c8Although singer-songwriter John Fogerty hailed from El Cerrito, California, he conjured up a type of rock music that seemed steeped in Louisiana humidity.  His band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, offered a mesmerizing brand of “swamp rock” that showed influences of roots rockers like Little Richard, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and The Big Bopper.  Fogerty ran the group with an iron hand, which eventually alienated his bandmates, but it was his musical vision that led Creedence to great commercial success with five hugely popular LPs in 1969 and 1970, beginning with “Bayou Country” in January ’69.  “Proud Mary” was the flagship tune, but for me, “Born on the Bayou” is the band’s finest moment, followed closely by “Bootleg,” a scintillating cover of “Good Golly Miss Molly” and a relentless jam-boogie, “Keep on Chooglin’.”

“Led Zeppelin II,” Led Zeppelin

5ba3ddc04249dExcitement and momentum had been building all year long in the wake of Led Zeppelin’s incredible debut LP (see above), and the band toured relentlessly in support of it.  It is to Jimmy Page’s everlasting credit that he was somehow able to write, arrange, record and produce the band’s sensational follow-up album, “Led Zeppelin II,” released only nine months after the first one.  Written on the fly in hotel rooms and recorded/mixed in five different cities along the way, the nine songs remain lasting, much-loved prototypes of heavy metal (“Heartbreaker,” “Whole Lotta Love”), blues-based rock (“Lemon Song,” “Bring It On Home”) and the occasional lighter moments (“Ramble On,” “Thank You,” “What Is and What Shall Never Be”) that represent the “zeppelin” to go with the “led.”  The album pushed “Abbey Road” out of the top spot by year’s end and ushered in a new era where Zeppelin was the band everyone else was trying to top.

“Let It Bleed,” The Rolling Stones

t45849630-b656479919_s400Any album that kicks off with a song as seismic as “Gimme Shelter” and concludes with a song as anthemic as “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is clearly a shoo-in for any “Best Of” list.  Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were firing on all their songwriting cylinders in the spring and summer of ’69, in the wake of the accidental death of Brian Jones, who appears only nominally on the finished LP.  New Stones guitarist Mick Taylor joined too late to contribute much, but session virtuoso Nicky Hopkins adds superb piano to “Midnight Rambler,” “Monkey Man” and “Live With Me.”  Just as previous LP “Beggar’s Banquet” had included several acoustic-based tracks, “Let It Bleed” featured “Love in Vain,” “You Got the Silver,” the title track and a country arrangement of concurrent hit single “Honky Tony Woman” called “Country Honk.”

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Honorable mention:

“Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” Neil Young;  “Stand!,” Sly and the Family Stone;  “Happy Sad,” Tim Buckley;  “Free,” Free;  “In the Court of Crimson King,” King Crimson;  “Volunteers,” Jefferson Airplane;  “Clouds,” Joni Mitchell;  “A Salty Dog,” Procol Harum;  “Nashville Skyline,” Bob Dylan;  “Arthur,” The Kinks;  “A Little Help From My Friends,” Joe Cocker;  Moby Grape ’69,” Moby Grape;  “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again, Mama!,” Janis Joplin;  “Green River,” Creedence Clearwater Revival;  “Songs for a Tailor,” Jack Bruce;  “Then Play On,” Fleetwood Mac.

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There are two Spotify playlists here.  The first includes three or four selections from each of the featured LPs; the second offered one or two tracks from each of the honorable mentions.  Happy listening!