Is that what it’s called?

When a pop songwriter finishes a song, he or she must decide on a title. Sometimes, it actually precedes the writing of the song; sometimes it’s an obvious choice, based on the phrase that’s repeated multiple times in the lyrics; other times it’s mentioned only once, but the composer thinks it sums up the song’s meaning.

On rare occasions, the song’s title is never mentioned at all in the lyrics. It might be alluded to, but the word or words themselves don’t appear in the verses nor the chorus. It certainly makes it more challenging for listeners to find the song on an album or on search platforms.

As an aside, I’ve always wondered how writers of instrumental pieces come up with titles for their work. They could almost pick any word or words from the dictionary and slap them on, since there no lyrics which might inspire a title. It would be interesting to hear how jazz artists from Miles Davis to George Benson decide on titles like “So What” or “Breezin'” for their compositions…

Here, for your enjoyment and/or edification, are a dozen pop songs that, for various reasons, have titles that don’t appear as part of the lyrics. There’s a Spotify playlist at the end so you can finally match the song with its title.

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“Badge,” Cream, 1969

Before Cream disbanded, they elected to do one last album called “Goodbye,” which would have three live tracks and three new studio recordings, with each member writing a song. Eric Clapton had been hanging around a lot with George Harrison at the time, so they collaborated, and Harrison wrote down the lyrics as they worked. When they came to the middle section, also called the “bridge,” Harrison wrote “Bridge.” Sitting across from him, Clapton looked at it and misread it, saying, “What is ‘badge’?” The inside joke stuck. The word “badge,” of course, was never in the lyrics…nor was “bridge,” for that matter.

“Baba O’Riley,” The Who, 1971

The opening track from The Who’s spectacular “Who’s Next” LP is, in fact, one of several songs from the album meant to be part of Pete Townshend’s rock opera “Lifehouse,” which he chose to abort. Many fans have taken to mistakenly referring to the song as “Teenage Wasteland,” an oft-repeated refrain from the middle section. Its actual title refers to two of Townshend’s mentors at the time. Meher Baba was an Indian spiritual guru whose teachings made a big impression on him, and Terry Riley was an America avant-garde musician keen on minimalism and electronic experimentation. The synthesizer in the intro is an example of Riley’s inspiration.

“A Day in the Life,” The Beatles, 1967

The final track from the “Sgt. Pepper” album, considered by many to be The Beatles’ very best song, is a John Lennon idea come to life, in which he took snatches of newspaper stories from an average day in fall 1966 and used them as lyrics. The middle bit (“Woke up, fell out of bed…”) was contributed by Paul McCartney as a kind of dream sequence before the band returned to Lennon’s theme (“I read the news today, oh boy…”) for the dramatic orchestral ending. There had been some talk of it being titled “A Day in the Life Of…”, encouraging listeners to fill in the name based on their interpretation, but they ended up dropping the “Of” as unnecessary.

“The Weight,” The Band, 1968

Guitarist Robbie Robertson’s marvelous Biblical parable about a traveler who arrives, visits and departs a town called Nazareth has taken its rightful place as a classic in the universal songbook. As Robertson said, “It’s about a guy who’s going somewhere, and he’s asked to say ‘hello’ to someone, and when he gets there, he’s asked to do someone a favor, and then he’s asked a bigger favor, and he feels put upon just for being a good guy. He’s taken on a burden he hadn’t bargained for.” So, although the words “The Weight” are never sung, instead there are multiple references to “taking a load off” and “putting the load on me.”

Original British cover

“Space Oddity,” David Bowie, 1969

During a time of keen interest in space flight, Bowie wrote this fascinating track about the fictional astronaut Major Tom and his musings of what it was like to be “sitting a tin can far above the world.” The lyrics take a sympathetic rather than heroic view of an astronaut’s profession. The record’s release in July 1969, which coincided closely with the Apollo 11 launch and the moon landing five days later, made him appear to be a novelty act. Bowie gave the song a title that plays on the title of Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but the lyrics don’t include any reference to Tom’s mission being an “oddity,” nor do they specifically mention outer space.

“Black Dog,” Led Zeppelin, 1971

More than any other rock band of the era, Led Zeppelin had a tendency to slap titles on their songs that not only weren’t mentioned in the lyrics but seemed to have no apparent connection to them. “Over The Hills and Far Away,” “The Battle of Evermore,” and “D’yer Mak’er” are just three of about a dozen Led Zep tracks with titles that don’t appear in the lyrics. “Black Dog,” a Top 20 hit in the US, has lyrics with overt sexual phrases about what the narrator would like to do with the woman to whom he’s singing. As it turns out, when the song was being written and recorded at an old stone building in Hampshire, a stray black dog would show up nearly every day, so they honored him by naming this song after him.

“After The Gold Rush,” Neil Young, 1970

Young’s previous album had been packed with hard-edged electric guitar and the full-band accompaniment of his erstwhile group Crazy Horse, so it was a surprise to critics and fans that his third solo release was largely acoustic and simply structured. One of the most intriguing tracks was “After the Gold Rush,” generally regarded as an environmental tune because of the line, “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s.” It’s actually a cryptic time-travel tune about past, present and future. The lyrics make no mention of a gold rush (neither before it or after it), and yet Young still liked the phrase enough to use it as the song title and the album title.

“Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen, 1975

According to the late Freddie Mercury, who wrote the song, “Bohemian Rhapsody” means “artist’s fantasy.” That was about all Mercury would say about the song over the years. The lyrics tell the tale of a man who killed someone and has sold his soul to the devil to escape the consequences. The track was a #9 hit in the US upon initial release, then reached #2 in 1992 after it was used in the film “Wayne’s World,” and then had another round of success in 2018 after the release of the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody.” For a song that has received as much airplay as this one, it’s highly unusual for the title not to be mentioned somewhere in the lyrics.

“For What It’s Worth,” Buffalo Springfield, 1966

The reason this title wasn’t in the lyrics is an amusing one. As a witness to violent disturbances on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood related to young people protesting a new curfew law, Stephen Stills wrote the song and his group, Buffalo Springfield, recorded it. When he presented it to the guys at their record label, he said, “We have this new song here, for what it’s worth, if you want it.” Stills hadn’t given the song a title yet, but the label thought he meant “For What It’s Worth” was the title. They later added “Stop! Hey What’s That Sound” as the subtitle on the 45 so it would be more easily recognized by record buyers.

“Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” Bob Dylan, 1966

Is this a drug song? Many people thought so at the time of its release as the lead single from Dylan’s 1966 double LP “Blonde on Blonde.” The oft-repeated line “Everybody must get stoned” seems straightforward, but the rest of the lyrics make it clear he was referring to the physical stoning from Biblical times. In his case, Dylan spoke of being criticized (metaphorically stoned) for doing new things people found offensive, like when he quit folk music and started playing rock. When the producer asked Dylan for the song’s title, he quipped, “A Long-Haired Mule and a Porcupine.” Nonsense, of course, but no more so than “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35.”

“Unchained Melody,” The Righteous Brothers, 1965

In 1955, the songwriting team of Alex North and Hy Zaret were asked to write a song for a little-known film called “Unchained,” about life in prison and the longing for freedom. The duo refused the moviemaker’s request to include the word “unchained” into the lyrics, instead focusing on a someone who is pining for a lover he hasn’t seen for “a long, lonely time.” By keeping the words more general, it could be interpreted as any couple separated by distance or breakup. It went on to become one of the most recorded songs of all time, over 1,500 versions in numerous languages, with the best known being the #1 hit by The Righteous Brothers in 1965.

“Valotte,” Julian Lennon, 1984

I was one of probably millions who got a huge chill up my spine the first time I heard this song, the first single from Julian Lennon’s debut LP in 1984. “Oh my God, his voice sounds so much like his Dad, and the song sounds like one John might’ve written!” As for the song’s title, which doubled as the album title as well, it comes from the name of the French chateau (Chateau de Valotte) where young Lennon had been sent by Atlantic Records to hone his songwriting skills. The lyrics mourn the breakdown of a relationship, the drifting apart of two lovers, but the word “Valotte” is not part of the lyric.

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4 comments

  1. Rod MacDonald · October 23

    Funny….badge was the first song that came into my mind.

    Like

  2. brucehhackett · October 23

    Ha, me too, which is why it’s the first one presented here…

    Like

  3. Glen Koshurba · October 24

    Baba O’Riley came to mind immediately. I too had to be corrected on the title by my own daughter. And we think we know all about our own gggeneration’s music!

    Like

    • brucehhackett · October 24

      I remember thinking what a strange title, made even more strange by its absence from the lyrics. Such an iconic tune!

      Like

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