Since we first heard songs on the radio as kids, we would enjoy them without knowing what the lyrics were about. Sometimes we’d even sing along but be clueless as to what the words really meant.
Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes, pop music used nonsense words that meant nothing (“Whomp bomp a loo bomp, a -whomp bam boom!” “Sham-a-lang-a ding dong,” “Be-bop-a-lula”). Sometimes you couldn’t really make out the words because of deliberate slurring of words or muddled production/mixing, but that didn’t stop us from just making up words based on what we thought we heard.
But then there were times we heard every word they were singing but still weren’t sure what the lyrics were about.
Some of these were songs that have become such an integral part of the pop culture that we might want to finally learn what the author (lyricist) intended. Whereas many songwriters preferred to stay tight-lipped and let the songs speak for themselves, others have no qualms about discussing the words, particularly many years after the fact.
Here are eight songs you always wondered about — songs that were huge hits on the US Top 40 charts which had lyrics that are, at the very least, open to interpretation. Through interviews, biographies and magazine articles, I have researched the meaning behind these songs. I hope you find my findings enlightening.
“The House of the Rising Sun,” The Animals, 1964
Historians have studied this classic for nearly a hundred years. Its melody is a traditional English ballad that morphed into an African-American folk song recorded as early as the 1920s by a guy named Texas Alexander. It was later recorded by other greats like Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan (on his debut LP) and Nina Simone in 1962 before it became the #1 hit with a rock arrangement by The Animals in 1964. Ah, but what is “the House of the Rising Sun”? While there is no definitive answer, there are two prominent theories. The first says it was a brothel in New Orleans in the 1860-70s, run by Madame Marianne LeSoleil Levant (French for “rising sun”). The second maintains it was the Orleans Parish Prison, which had an entrance gate adorned with rising-sun artwork. The line about “wearing that ball and chain” could be literal, in a prison, or metaphorical, in which the narrator has become a prisoner to the lifestyle of prostitution, gambling and alcoholism. In either case, the song is clearly a cautionary tale in which the narrator advises the listener not to “spend your life in sin and misery” as he has done.
“Hotel California,” The Eagles, 1976
The most popular, most overplayed, most brilliant song in The Eagles’ catalog has been the subject of speculation from the day it was released in December 1976. “Is it a real place?” “Whose mind was ‘Tiffany-twisted’?” Guitarist Joe Walsh, who had just joined the band before the album’s release, had this to say: “The funny thing was, nobody in The Eagles was from California. Everyone was from Ohio, or Michigan, or Texas. California at the time was like this big hotel, a big melting pot of musicians with talent, trying to fit in. That’s what we meant by Hotel California.'” Musically, the song was born from chord changes conceived by guitarist Don Felder, who submitted them to chief songwriters Don Henley and Glenn Frey, whose reaction was, “I like it. It’s kind of a Mexican reggae vibe.” Lyrically, it’s one of Henley’s finest moments, writing cryptically about the hedonistic life that California offered, and how it ended up being a trap for a lot of people: “We are all just prisoners here of our own device… Last thing I remember, I was running for the door… You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave..“
“Brown Sugar,” The Rolling Stones, 1971
It was classic rock and roll, and it was radio-friendly accessible pop as well. Mick Jagger was singing and strutting at his very best at this point, and Keith Richards laid the foundation with another of his uncannily catchy riffs. With a killer sax solo by the great session man Bobby Keys, it all adds up to a big #1 single for The Stones. Ah, but have you ever listened, really listened, to the lyrics? Good Lord, it’s amazing that this song got anywhere near Top 40 playlists, but because Jagger mumbles the words just enough, you’re not entirely sure what he’s singing about. Well, here’s the scoop: They’re singing about a grab bag of scandalous topics, including slavery, rape, interracial sex, sadomasochism, oral sex and hard drug use, all pretty much taboo on pop radio in 1971. Consider the opening stanza: “Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, sold in a market down in New Orleans, scarred old slaver knows he’s doing all right, hear him whip the women just around midnight…” And then there’s the title, which some thought meant heroin but instead refers to a black woman’s private parts and how good they taste. Wow. Just wow.
“Deacon Blues,” Steely Dan, 1977
By 1976, after five solid albums had brought fame and fortune to Steely Dan, the songwriting duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were chilling at a Malibu beach house writing songs for their next LP. Fagen had been amused when he heard the nickname “Crimson Tide” for the University of Alabama football team, which he thought very flamboyant and arrogant, and he came up with “Deacon Blues” as the flip-side of that coin (“They got a name for the winners in the world, I want a name when I lose…”). Fagen told Rolling Stone, “Walter heard that and said, ”You mean it’s like, ‘They call these cracker assholes this grandiose name like the Crimson Tide, and I’m this broken man living a broken life with broken dreams, so they call me this other grandiose name, Deacon Blues? Cool!’ So we made the protagonist a wanna-be musician who hopes to play the sax but is just a hopeless drunk.” He’s full of “crazy schemes” that go nowhere: “My back to the wall, a victim of laughing chance, /This is for me, the essence of true romance, /Sharing the things we know and love with those of my kind, /Libations, sensations that stagger the mind…”
“Free Man in Paris,” Joni Mitchell, 1974
I remember when I first heard this tune from Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” album, I assumed it was an autobiographical look at the consequences of her fame, in which she describes herself (using the masculine gender) as wanting to escape “and wander down the Champs-Élysées, going café to cabaret.” Turns out I was only partially right. Mitchell did indeed feel uncomfortable with the scrutiny and stress of fame, but that served to put her in a position to accurately understand what her friend and manager David Geffen was feeling. The two of them rose up the ranks simultaneously, she as a songwriter and performing artist and he as an agent, businessman, manager and label founder. Geffen had confided in her that he felt most comfortable as “a free man in Paris,” unencumbered by the pressure of people hounding him with demands. Mitchell implies, though, that maybe he needs to bring his ego down a few notches because what he does isn’t really all that important (“the work I’ve taken on, stoking the starmaker machinery behind the popular song…”).
“Heroes,” David Bowie, 1977
Bowie was living in a one-room apartment in Berlin in the late ’70s when he came up with this hopeful piece about a German couple who would meet on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall every day to share a moment together. “We’re lovers, and that is a fact, /Yes, we’re lovers, and that is that, /Though nothing will keep us together, we could steal time just for one day, /We can be heroes forever and ever, what d’you say?…” In truth, Bowie was alluding to a specific couple: his producer Tony Visconti, who was in a disintegrating marriage at the time, and singer Antonia Maass, with whom he had fallen in love. He would see them from the studio window when they would secretly kiss by the Berlin Wall. “I didn’t discuss it publicly at the time,” he said in 2003, “but I can now. It was so sweet, this desperate love they had.” Thanks to Visconti, co-songwriter Brian Eno, and guitarist Robert Fripp of King Crimson, “Heroes” has established itself as one of Bowie’s most iconic tracks, a glorious celebration of “love conquers all,” sung by Bowie with almost overwhelming emotion.
“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Crosby, Stills and Nash, 1969
The song that kicked off this supergroup trio’s career is in fact a tour de force showcasing the musical genius of Stephen Stills on multiple guitars, keyboards, bass and lead vocals. David Crosby and Graham Nash provide the other voices that formed the thrilling three-part harmonies which were their signature sound, but Stills deserves about 85% of the credit for how this track turned out. Most important, he found a way to merge three musical song fragments into a cohesive whole, which explains why the song’s title is “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” not “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes,” as many incorrectly assume. Judy is, of course, songstress Judy Collins, who was Stills’ paramour during the previous year, and the lyrics explore his feelings about the end of that relationship. Alternately heartbreaking and philosophical, Stills admits his shortcomings and tells her how he feels, and how he thinks he’s going to feel going forward: “It’s getting to the point where I’m no fun anymore, I am sorry…” “Will you come see me Thursdays and Saturdays? What have you got to lose?”
“A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Procol Harum, 1967
Keith Reid, a poet friend of Procol Harum founder/keyboardist/singer Gary Brooker, was enlisted to write lyrics for the new band’s music, and he got off to a memorable start with “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” their debut single and one of the most enduring songs of its era. Reid recalls, “I was at a party and I overheard someone to say to a woman, ‘You’ve turned a whiter shade of pale.’ The phrase stuck in my mind.” He went on to write four very literary verses that tell the evocative story of a man who pursues a young woman for a sexual encounter. The limitations of pop music in 1967 meant the song was edited down to just two verses, but if you read all four, “the truth is plain to see” — the couple danced, talked, had drinks, and “crash-dived straightaway quickly and attacked the ocean bed.” The hit single version, which includes verses 1 and 3, is more enigmatic and open to interpretation. Is the line “The room was humming harder as the ceiling flew away” a reference to psychedelic drugs? Maybe…but Reid has said, “It’s really just a song influenced by literature. It’s about a relationship. There’s characters, there’s a location, and there’s a journey.”
The accompanying Spotify playlist includes, where applicable, additional demo versions, alternate takes or live tracks of the song in question. Interesting to compare them…