It’s a funny thing about song lyrics. Some of them have a way of burrowing their way deep into your memory and staying there forever.
But not everybody can recognize them just from seeing them on the printed page. Some people need to hear the lyrics sung, and even then, sometimes it’s hard to identify the song. “Oh, I know this, but I can’t put my finger on it…”
In today’s post, I’m asking you readers to see if these lyrics from 1970 ring a bell 50 years later in 2020. Can you identify the song and/or the artist? Jot down your answers, and then scroll down to see how your memory has served you. Feel free to let me know how you did via the comment option, or by email (email@example.com). Have fun!
1 “They took all the trees and put ’em in a tree museum…”
2 “Waiting for the break of day, searching for something to say…”
3 “Now if there’s a smile on my face, it’s only there trying to fool the public…”
4 “Hey, have you ever tried really reaching out for the other side, I may be climbing on rainbows, but baby, here goes…”
5 “Trouble ahead, trouble behind, and you know that notion just crossed my mind…”
6 “A fantabulous night to make romance ‘neath the cover of October skies…”
7 “Just got home from Illinois, lock the front door, oh boy, got to sit down, take a rest on the porch…”
8 “I heard screamin’ and bullwhips cracking, how long? how long?…”
9 “We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow…”
10 “Make a joke and I will sigh, and you will laugh and I will cry, happiness I cannot feel, and love to me is so unreal…”
11 “Take to the highway, won’t you lend me your name?…”
12 “Yeah, keep your eyes on the road, your hand upon the wheel…”
13 “Girls will be boys, and boys will be girls, it’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world…”
14 “She said, ‘Love? Lord above! Now you’re tryin’ to trick me in love!’…”
15 “Questions of a thousand dreams, what you do and what you see, lover, can you talk to me?…”
16 “And I’ve got one more silver dollar, but I’m not gonna let ’em catch me, no…”
17 “Baby, I’m a man, maybe I’m a lonely man who’s in the middle of something…”
18 “I raise my head in a touchy situation, I make my bed in the heart of the nation…”
19 “Why do we never get an answer when we’re knocking at the door…”
20 “Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean, yours are the sweetest eyes I’ve ever seen…”
1 “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell
Joni’s first hit as a recording artist came on her third LP, “Ladies of the Canyon.” She wrote it while on tour in Hawaii, when she looked out her hotel window and saw the awesome natural beauty, then looked down to see an enormous parking lot. The lyrics point out how we have spoiled the environment, and our relationships, leaving us to bemoan, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”
2 “25 or 6 to 4,” Chicago
I remember a lot of people were puzzled by the title of this hit single from Chicago’s second album. Some thought it was just nonsense syllables that sounded good, but songwriter Robert Lamm said he was up all night trying to write these lyrics, and at one point, he looked at the digital clock and had trouble making out the numerals. “Was it 3:35 am or was it 3:54 am?” he recalled. “So I thought I’d use that.” It reached #1 in August of 1970.
3 “Tears of a Clown,” Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
The melody of this song was written by Stevie Wonder back in 1966. He brought it to Robinson and asked him for help with the lyrics. “I thought the distinctive calliope motif sounded like a circus,” he said, so he decided to write about a clown who was sad about the breakup of a romantic relationship. “Now there’s some sad things known to man, but ain’t too much sadder than the tears of a clown.” It went to #1 in October of 1970.
4 “Make It With You,” Bread
David Gates, who wrote and sang most of the dozen hit singles that Bread released in the 1970-1977 period, said he wrote this tune about a woman he’d met at a Hollywood party. It turned out to be the group’s breakthrough hit, peaking at #1 in August 1970. Gates recalls his mother telling him she thought it was a fine song, “but she wished I hadn’t called it ‘Naked With You.’ We all got a laugh out of that!”
5 “Casey Jones,” The Grateful Dead
The Dead’s 1970 song, hugely popular in concert, pays tribute to Clarence “Casey” Jones, a locomotive engineer whose expert maneuvering averted a disastrous train wreck in Jackson, Mississippi in 1900. Although he saved the lives of dozens of passengers, Jones died in the incident, blamed on the high rate of speed he’d been traveling. Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter collaborated on the song, which appears on the band’s “Workingman’s Dead” album.
6 “Moondance,” Van Morrison
The combination of piano, guitar, sax, flute and walking bass, set to a soft jazz swing beat, makes “Moondance” one of Morrison’s most celebrated songs. He wrote it while living in Cambridge, Mass., and recorded it in New York City. “I wrote the melody first, playing it on sax, then wrote lyrics about autumn, which is my favorite season,” he said. “I think it’s pretty sophisticated. Frank Sinatra wouldn’t be out of place singing that one.”
7 “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” Creedence Clearwater Revival
All the colorful, dream-like imagery (“tambourines and elephants,” “giants doing cartwheels”) in the lyrics led some folks to presume John Fogerty was writing about an acid trip. In fact, he wrote it as a fun singalong song for his three-year-old son, and was partly inspired by the Dr. Seuss book And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. It was the fifth of five Top Ten singles from Creedence’s fifth LP “Cosmo’s Factory.”
8 “Southern Man,” Neil Young
The vivid, anti-racist lyrics in this Young classic from his “After the Gold Rush” LP touched a raw nerve among rock music fans across the American South. Most people think Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1974 hit “Sweet Home Alabama” was written in angry retaliation, with these words: “I hope Neil Young will remember, Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” Actually, the artists liked and respected each other. “I’m proud to have my name in one of their songs,” Young said.
9 “Immigrant Song,” Led Zeppelin
This slab of hard rock, one of Zeppelin’s biggest commercial hits, is a loving tribute to Iceland, where the band performed for the first time in 1970. Robert Plant’s lyrics make reference to Norse mythology, war-making and Valhalla. “We were invited to play a concert in Reykjavik and the day before we arrived all the civil servants went on strike. The university prepared a concert hall for us, and the response from the kids was phenomenal. ‘Immigrant Song’ was about that trip.”
10 “Paranoid,” Black Sabbath
According to bassist “Geezer” Butler, the song “Paranoid” was written at the last moment during the recording sessions for the band’s second album. “It was written as an afterthought. We basically needed a three-minute filler for the album, and Tony (Iommi) came up with the riff. I quickly wrote some lyrics, and Ozzy (Osbourne) was reading them over my shoulder as he was singing. The whole thing took half an hour from start to finish.”
11 “Country Road,” James Taylor
This warm, folksy follow-up to his breakthrough hit “Fire and Rain” is one of several songs from his “Sweet Baby James” LP that offer insight into Taylor’s past. He had a troubled adolescence marked by severe depression, and “Country Road” was one of several tunes he wrote that, according to guitarist Danny Kortchmar, “captures the restless, anticipatory, vaguely hopeful feeling that plays a large part in his character.” For me, it has always been one of my favorites to sing and play on guitar.
12 “Roadhouse Blues,” The Doors
The Doors weren’t known for blues tunes in their classic rock repertoire, but this is a powerful exception. Robby Krieger’s guitar work on this track is particularly ferocious (egged on by Jim Morrison’s “Do it, Robby, do it!”), and ex-Lovin’ Spoonful frontman John Sebastian chipped in a spirited harmonica part. Alice Cooper, a drinking buddy of Morrison, claims he was the inspiration for the line “Well, I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer…”
13 “Lola,” The Kinks
The band’s drummer and manager had frequented a few drag queen shows and underground clubs where transexuals often met, and one night they brought Ray Davies with them. He thought the scene was perfect fodder for a pop song if he kept the lyrics relatively vague: “she walked like a woman but talked like a man,” “I’m glad I’m a man, and so is Lola.” It turned into a huge hit and one of The Kinks’ signature songs.
14 “All Right Now,” Free
Many of rock’s biggest hits were written quickly, and “All Right Now” is a prime example. Free’s drummer Simon Kirke said, “We had just finished a bad gig, and the audience hadn’t responded at all. It was obvious that we needed a rocker to close our shows. All of a sudden the inspiration struck, and (bassist) Andy Fraser and (singer) Paul Rodgers started bopping around singing ‘All Right Now’. They wrote it right there in the dressing room. It couldn’t have taken more than ten minutes.”
15 “Carry On,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
The sessions for the “Deja Vu” album had been tense and difficult, and CSN&Y struggled to come up with a catchy, spirited song as the opening track. Stephen Stills wrote “Carry On” about the need to buckle down and work together and, in a larger sense, to finish what you start. The song developed from a riff he had been toying with for a while, and then he segued it into “Questions,” a song he’d recorded with Buffalo Springfield. The result was one of the band’s best group efforts.
16 “Midnight Rider,” The Allman Brothers Band
Gregg Allman used traditional blues/folk themes of desperation and determination as he fashioned the lyrics to this classic cut. One of the band’s roadies, who had listened to Allman play the unfinished song relentlessly, came up with the line “I’ve gone by the point of caring, some old bed I’ll soon be sharing…” Allman has referred to “Midnight Rider” as “the song I’m most proud of in my career.” The Allman Brothers’ 1970 version failed to chart as a single, but Allman’s 1973 solo version reached #20.
17 “Maybe I’m Amazed,” Paul McCartney
McCartney took the breakup of The Beatles particularly hard, hiding himself away in his Scotland farm with expectant wife Linda and family. He survived bouts of depression and nights of heavy drinking, thanks to Linda’s love and support. Paul began work on a solo album which was anchored by “Maybe I’m Amazed,” his loving tribute to Linda. He’d actually written it in 1969 as a candidate for The Beatles’ next single, but after the band dissolved, he made it the centerpiece for his “McCartney” LP.
18 “Mr. Skin,” Spirit
There are multiple interpretations of this classic tune by California band Spirit. Some say it’s a reference to the band’s drummer Ed Cassidy, who was bald and “played the skins.” Others insist that “Mr. Skin” is a euphemism for a penis (“I can bring you pain, I can bring you sudden pleasure”). Either way, it’s an infectious track that’s fun to dance to or sing along with, from Spirit’s best LP, “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus.”
19 “Question,” The Moody Blues
Singer-songwriter Justin Hayward said he wrote “Question” about the conversations he was having with American college students who approached him after concerts. “I heard their anti-war sentiments and their fears of being drafted, and I was expressing anger and frustration that after all that peace and love, we hadn’t been able to make a difference. The slower section became more of a quiet reflection about this, and a bit of a love song too.” It reached #21 on the US charts and a regular in their concert set list.
20 “Your Song,” Elton John
Lyricist Bernie Taupin has said the words he wrote for “Your Song” are “one of the most naïve and childish lyrics in the entire repertoire of music, but I think the reason it still stands up is because it was real at the time. That was exactly what I was feeling. I was 17 years old and it was coming from someone whose outlook on love or experience with love was totally new and naïve.” It became Elton’s breakthrough hit single and one of his most beloved songs.