Something tells me it’s all happening at the zoo

As Simon and Garfunkel sang in their 1967 ditty, there’s a lot we can learn from studying the behaviors of zoo animals and their brethren in the wild.  Paul Simon was mostly being whimsical in his observations:  “The monkeys stand for honesty, giraffes are _73232303_marius-topinsincere, and the elephants are kindly but they’re dumb, orangutans are skeptical of changes in their cages, and the zookeeper is very fond of rum, zebras are reactionaries, antelopes are missionaries, pigeons plot in secrecy and hamsters turn on frequently…”

The Beatles sang nearly a dozen songs about animals, from “Octopus’s Garden” and “Rocky Raccoon” to “Piggies” and “I Dig a Pony.”  Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson is a famous animal lover who has written often about members of the animal kingdom, from “Moths” and “Salamander” to “Heavy Horses” and “Steel Monkey,” not to mention the silly hit single “Bungle in the Jungle.”

I found nearly 100 songs from the classic rock era that mention animals in the titles (and another 100 or so in more recent times), and it seemed like a fun playlist to compile.  Enjoy!


Hejira_cover“Coyote,” Joni Mitchell, 1976

In less than cryptic terms, Mitchell described a strange encounter she had with a restless loner type she called Coyote.  Mitchell was the city girl working all night on songs in the studio while Coyote was up early working on his ranch, and because “we just come from such different sets of circumstance,” there are no regrets that their time together was doomed to be brief.  “Coyote” was the leadoff song on Joni’s brilliant 1976 LP “Hejira,” and she also performed it in The Band’s farewell film/concert “The Last Waltz.”

1*a7pgXoHdbf0mlB2qNK5GEw“Wild Horses,” The Rolling Stones, 1971

Keith Richards recalls coming up with the riff and chorus line as he was preparing to say goodbye to his newborn son Marlon as he was heading out on tour.  “It’s the usual thing of not wanting to be on the road, having to be a billion miles from where you want to be.”  Mick Jagger remembers, “Everyone always says this was written about Marianne Faithful but I don’t think it was; that was all well over by then.  But I was definitely very inside this piece emotionally.”  “Wild, wild horses couldn’t drag me away

220px-Elton_John_-_Goodbye_Yellow_Brick_Road“Grey Seal,” Elton John, 1973

Elton’s lyricist Bernie Taupin has said he really hadn’t a clue what he was writing about (“just random images and thoughts”) in this great track from the 1973 “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album.  Others say the grey seal is a metaphor for wisdom, and how education comes from life experiences more than traditional schooling.  Still others speculate that the title is not about a sea mammal but the Great Seal of the US, and how the country isn’t as wise as it claims.  “And tell me grey seal, how does it feel to be so wise, to see through eyes that only see what’s real, tell me, grey seal …” 

Al_Stewart-Year_of_the_Cat_(album_cover)“Year of the Cat,” Al Stewart, 1976

This song’s roots come from a piece Stewart wrote in 1966 called “Foot of the Stage,” but in late 1975, during what the Vietnamese zodiac identifies as the Year of the Cat, he used the same music but entirely re-wrote the lyrics to spin a tale about a tourist who meets an exotic woman in a foreign land and loses his ticket home.  The song became the title track to Stewart’s 1976 LP, and a #8 hit single in early 1977.

91V5ngYSvnL._SL1500_“I Am the Walrus,” The Beatles, 1967

In writing this monumental piece of word salad to confound the pundits, John Lennon drew from the 1871 Lewis Carroll poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” Later, he realized the walrus was the villain.  “Oh shit, I picked the wrong guy,” he said.  “I should have said ‘I am the carpenter,’ but that wouldn’t have been the same, would it?”  It appears in The Beatles’ 1967 film and album “Magical Mystery Tour.”

cover_4839141762017_r“White Rabbit,” Jefferson Airplane, 1967

Grace Slick was also a fan of Lewis Carroll’s work, and her Jefferson Airplane hit “White Rabbit” uses imagery from “Alice in Wonderland” in which she takes various pills and potions to grow or shrink, much as her ’60s peers in the counterculture were doing with their mind-expanding experiments.  Slick said the song represented a not-so-subtle dig at parents (including her own) who read their children such novels and then wondered why their children later used drugs.  “The White Rabbit symbolized curiosity,” she said, “and while it’s okay to be curious, in can sometimes get you into trouble.”

220px-AmericaHatTrick“Muskrat Love,” America, 1973

Written and first recorded by singer/songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey in 1972, the song (originally titled “Muskrat Candlelight”) depicts a romantic liaison between two anthropomorphic muskrats named Susie and Sam.  Soft rock band America decided to cover it on their third LP, 1973’s “Hat Trick,” which did nothing for their credibility as hipsters.  Said Dewey Bunnell years later, “It’s a polarizing little number. After concerts, some people told us they can’t believe we didn’t play it, while others went out of their way to thank us for not performing it.”  Finally in 1976, the pop duo The Captain and Tennille made it into a #4 hit, complete with sound effects approximating the sound of muskrats doin’ it.

220px-Little_Feat_-_Dixie_Chicken“Dixie Chicken,” Little Feat, 1973

Lowell George’s California band took on a decidedly more New Orleans R&B/funk style beginning with this album and song.  The tune’s lyrics explore a once promising romantic relationship (“If you be my Dixie Chicken, I’ll be your Tennessee lamb”) that eventually fails.  Here’s a fantastic band that absolutely should be in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

73258a46725fb9bd6f97a20777ab2122bdb4f609“See You Later, Alligator,” Bill Haley and His Comets, 1956

Bill Haley’s recording of “See You Later, Alligator” popularized a hip catchphrase already in use at the time among the beatnik crowd, complete with “After a while, crocodile.”  Following the game-changing hit “Rock Around the Clock” and his cover of “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” Haley had his final top 10 hit with this song, originally titled “Later, Alligator” and written by Louisiana bluesman Robert Guidry.

640x640“The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” The Tokens, 1961

Written in 1920 as “Mbube” (Zulu for “lion”) by South African composer/singer Solomon Linda, it was brought to the US in the late 1940s, where it was made into a folk hit by The Weavers, who misheard the chorus “Uyimbube” as “Wimoweh.”  By 1961, lyricist/arranger George Weiss conceived the doo-wop arrangement and sax solo, and added the English words, and the result was a huge #1 hit for The Tokens:  “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight, hush my darling, don’t fear, my darling the lion sleeps tonight…”

walsh02-1“Wolf,” Joe Walsh, 1973

Walsh’s signature LP ‘The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get,” one of the great guitar album of all time, includes this rather spooky album track that perpetuates the stereotype of the wolf as predator who sneaks in to feast on the sheep when there’s no one looking:  “It’s raining in the meadow, shepherd’s gone to town, wolf has finished breakfast, no one else around…”

Traveling-Wilburys-Vol-1-album-cover-web-optimised-820“Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” Traveling Wilburys, 1988

This Wilburys tune, written largely by Bob Dylan, is regarded as a playful homage to Bruce Springsteen, with lyrics that refer to specific Springsteen songs (“Thunder Road,” “Factory,” “The River,” “Mansion on the Hill,” “Stolen Car,” “State Trooper”) and New Jersey locales.  Is the Monkey Man meant to be The Boss?  Dylan, of course, isn’t saying for sure.

61HYrCLz0ZL._SX466_“Sheep,” Pink Floyd, 1977

Pink Floyd’s hugely successful “Animals” album is loosely based on George Orwell’s iconic political fable Animal Farm, in which the dogs are combative, the pigs are despotic and the sheep are the mindless, unquestioning herd.  In the “Sheeps” track, Roger Waters takes Psalm 23 a grisly step further:  “He maketh me to hang on hooks in high places and converteth me to lamb cutlets…”

220px-Us_(Original)_-_Peter_Gabriel“Kiss That Frog,” Peter Gabriel, 1992

In the wake of the playful sexual entendres Gabriel used in his big 1986 hit “Sledgehammer,” it wasn’t all that surprising he would continue that approach on the 1992 album track “Kiss That Frog,” which is perhaps more obvious in its allusions to oral intimacies:  “Sweet little princess, let me introduce his frogness, you alone can get him singing, he’s all puffed up, wanna be your king, oh you can do it, c’mon lady, kiss that frog…  He’s gonna dive down in the deep end, he’s gonna be just like your best friend…”

753908-1546733009792767_origin“Dead Skunk,” Loudon Wainwright, 1972

Wainwright, part of the singer-songwriter movement of the early ’70s, wrote and recorded this amusing little novelty track one day after having an unfortunate encounter with a skunk.  “The car in front of me killed it, but I drove over it too, and I think I got the brunt of the odor,” he said.  “He didn’t see the station wagon car, the skunk got squashed, and there you are, you got your dead skunk in the middle of the road, stinkin’ to high heaven…”


Honorable mention:

Chestnut Mare,” The Byrds, 1970;  “Peace Frog,” The Doors, 1970;  “Barracuda,” Heart, 1978;  “Seagull,” Bad Company, 1974;  “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” U2, 1991;  “Mama Lion,” Crosby and Nash, 1975;  “War Pigs,” Black Sabbath, 1971;  “Cat Scratch Fever,” Ted Nugent, 1976;  “Flight of the Rat,” Deep Purple, 1970;  “Genocide (The Killing of the Buffalo),” Thin Lizzy, 1980;  “The Fox,” Elton John, 1981;  “Eye of the Tiger,” Survivor, 1982;  “Karma Chameleon,” Culture Club, 1983;  “Hungry Like the Wolf,” Duran Duran, 1982;  “Cat’s in the Cradle,” Harry Chapin, 1974;  “A Horse With No Name,” America, 1971;  “Crocodile Rock,” Elton John, 1972;  “Penguin in Bondage,” Frank Zappa, 1974.



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.


“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.)


“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.


“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.


“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.


“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.)


“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.”


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.


“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…


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.


“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.”


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“?