Thursday, 27 September 2012

My favourite mondegreens (misheard lyrics)

It should be a good word for Scrabble except that it doesn’t have any high value letters, but at least it can be a conversation piece to distract your opponent when you add ‘monde’ to their ‘green’ and they say, ‘mondegreen’; what’s that? .


A mondegreen is a misheard, misinterpreted or misremembered lyric or phrase, often to comic effect. As a result of near-homophony, the line takes on an entirely new meaning for the listener. Why ‘mondegreen’? The word was coined by US essayist Sylvia Wright for her 1954 piece in Harper’s Magazine, The death of Lady Mondegreen. She wrote:


‘When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,

Oh, where hae ye been?

They hae slain the Earl o' Moray,

And Lady Mondegreen.


It was not until much later that Ms Wright realised the actual fourth line reads:

And laid him on the green.
There was no existing term for the phenomenon of the misheard line, so ‘mondegreen’ was born.


The expression is usually applied to lines from verse, poetry or lyrics of songs. In this posting I’m going to focus on misheard song lyrics, but I’ll mention in passing one of the most famous examples in literature of a mondegreen that comes from misremembering;  it explains an otherwise weird book title: The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. Well into the novel, the narrator Holden Caulfield hears a little boy wrongly singing the words to Rabbie Burns’ Comin’ Thro’ The Rye as If a body catch a body coming through the rye, instead of Gin a body meet a body. It leads to an optimistic reverie by Caulfield and is memorialised by Salinger in the ‘catchy’ title.


My first memory of mondegreens (though I certainly didn’t know what they were called at the time) comes from my childhood mishearing of Christmas carols, and how we entertained ourselves in school or church services singing the ‘altered’ versions. We kids thought we were being smart, original and funny when we privately sang to each other our versions under cover of the adult voices singing the proper words, not realising that our mothers and fathers, and probably our grandparents, had done the same thing at our age. Who has not sung the first line of While Shepherds Watched  as:


While shepherds washed their socks by night


The full version of the altered first verse is, as I’m sure you’ll recall:


While shepherds washed their socks by night

And hung them on the line,

The angel of the lord came down

And said those socks are mine.  


It’s amazing how many carols and Christmas songs lend themselves to amusing mishearings. Among my early favourites were:


Deck the halls with Buddy Holly

Get dressed ye married gentlemen

We three kings of porridge and tar


The tradition goes on even to modern Christmas songs. My daughter recently pointed out to me that the Christmas single by The Waitresses Christmas Wrapping is in fact a greeting to former snooker world champion Terry Griffiths.  You’ll see what I mean if you click below for a blast of the chorus:




Another British former world champion was famously featured in a sort of visual mondegreen on BBC TV’s flagship music show Top of the Pops in October 1982. Dexy’s Midnight Runners came on to sing their hit version of  the Van Morrison song Jackie Wilson said (I’m in heaven when you smile). However, someone in the production team either mistook the name in the chorus or was having a laugh because the picture projected behind the group throughout the song was not the cool black American r&b singer Jackie Wilson, but the portly, lovable Scottish darts player Jocky Wilson. If you need it, here’s the proof:



Perhaps the most famous pop music mondegreen comes from the Jimi Hendrix classic Purple Haze. Is Jimi singing ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky as the published lyrics suggest, or is it ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy? You be the judge.



Not only can we get confused about pop lyrics, but sometimes convincingly so. For years I thought Dusty Springfield was singing:


You don’t have to say you love me,

Just because you can.


Check out the line below:




Mick Jagger’s vocals in many of the Rolling Stones’ songs lend themselves to plenty of misinterpretation. I defy anyone, without looking up the published lyrics, to make out the full first verse of Get off my cloud. I’ve just this moment had a go, and here’s what I’ve come up with - it all goes wrong for me at the third line:


I live on the apartment of the 99th floor of my block.

I sit at home looking out the window, imagining the world has stopped

And in flies a guy that’s all dressed up like a Union Jack

And I’ve walked by and found that I’ve since turned out a flicker good back

I said, hey you....etc.


Have a listen and see if you can come up with a more intelligible version:



I  know I’m not alone in mishearing lyrics. In your own time you might want to check out some of these I’ve heard reported:


From Abba’s Dancing Queen:

See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen.


From Abba’s Chiquitita:

Take your teeth out, tell me what’s wrong.


From Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog:

You ain’t pornographic and you ain’t no friend of mine.


From Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights:

It’s me, I’m a tree, I’m a wombat

Oh, so cold at the end of your hole.


From Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody:

Sparing his life for his warm sausage tea.


From Robert’s Palmer’s Addicted to Love:

Might as well face it, you’re a dick in a glove.


From the Ghostbusters title track:

Who you gonna call? Those bastards.


This is just a short selection - believe it or not there is a website dedicated to a comprehensive collection of funny misheard pop lyrics. It’s called, appropriately enough, KISSTHISGUY


From those early years in the carol service to today I’ve been entertained by mondegreens, but I don’t think I’ve laughed louder than when I watched comedian Peter Kay’s The Tour That Didn’t Tour on Channel 4 recently. Towards the end of the show, Peter demonstrates some of the misheard pop lyrics he has come across. Here’s the clip for your enjoyment - trust me, it is hilarious.


If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy Mind my malapropisms.

Monday, 17 September 2012

'Sweet Tooth' by Ian McEwan reviewed ***

I always expect so much of an Ian McEwan novel that when one slightly disappoints it really disappoints. In truth, I have given three stars out of respect for the author more than for the novel, which I won't be reading again (though I am currenly listening to the recorded serialisation from the BBC's Book at Bedtime).

Plot-wise there are too many false set-ups, starting with the opening sentences: 'My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn't return safely.' Now, I'm no great fan of the spy story, but having been tempted in with such self-advertised promise it was a real let-down to be served porridge as it might be cooked in a 1970s English seaside B&B; porridge which is anyway removed by the landlord before it's eaten, and replaced by another unexciting course. Or to move the metaphor into more familiar territory for the genre, it's like being offered fantastic sex only to find oneself engaged in an unadventurous affair that 'ends' in coitus interruptus.

Serena's 'mission' - to recruit a first-time novelist who will unwittingly accept funding from MI5 who have some vague hope that he will turn out a story that is a) pro-establishment/anti-communist and b) highly successful and influential - is neither gripping nor credible. That the writer Tom Haley, having been thus recruited, goes on to write a novel at apparently breakneck speed that immediately wins a major literary prize and another book within the short space of this narrative that is meant to upend Serena's (and our) expectations is a device too far for this particular reader.

Yet it is not plot but character and tone that left me most dissatisfied. McEwan is usually pitch-perfect. His characters chime with the times and he provides subtle but revealing psychological insights through and of his protagonists. I don't know whether it has anything to do with his choice of a female voice to deliver a first person narrative, but this time I was not convinced. Serena gives us her history articulately but with all the passion of a cv. She records her emotions but somehow is unable to convey them in more than mere words.

I felt no whirl in any of her relationships - with Jeremy, with Tony, with Max or with Tom - despite her professions and her descriptions of their lovemaking. Consequently, none of these characters lived for me. With the exception of Tony, I found it difficult even to get a handle on how old or young they were, relying on contextual evidence as a reminder of what I was meant to imagine. Max is a cardboard career civil servant - his drunken but apparently sincere declaration of love for Serena (a significant development in the story) left me as cold as he is. Tom, according to what Serena tells us, is attractive, desirable and sensuous, but I could only take her word for it - I did not 'feel' Tom at all, which is a major drawback in appreciating the central relationship, the spindle upon which the story is meant to turn.

Essentially, I didn't care enough either about the plot or the relationships to engage fully with this novel. McEwan blows into life several small flames of action, using some of them as a torch to lead us down wrong tunnels, but that merely frustrates, and the one main flame is too weak to create a real conflagration. Of course the story is competently written and there is some of the old McEwan art to admire, but that ain't enough for a modern author of whom (like Tom Haley in the novel) much is expected. This book, like its central characters, lacks real substance and fails to capture heart or mind.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape London 2012)

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Can words compete with music?

In company with millions of others I have spent much of the late summer indoors despite the warm weather, watching the Olympics and Paralympics unfold in London. I tuned in to the joyful celebrations of the opening and closing ceremonies and felt myself caught up in a swirl of excitement and delight, at one with the happy participants. It struck me how central music is to the spread of fellow-feeling and (yes) love at these times of shared experience. Music is the bond and also the conduit, a channel for expressed emotions and  a carrier of the energy, the electricity that passes between us.


Classical music can stir the passion of a crowd  (witness the Last Night of the Proms for example) but in particular it seems to be certain strains of pop music that carry the special infectious gene. As Noel Coward has Amanda say to Elyot in Private Lives: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”


It’s hard to tease out quite why. I suppose at the most basic level we seem to respond as humans to beat and rhythm in a way that most animals don’t. There is a binding, a unifying quality to the beat, the throb, the ripple and resonance, the call of the drum, and it must have always been so as there is evidence of group dancing in early cave drawings, and many objects have been unearthed to confirm that our prehistoric ancestors made primitive musical instruments which were mainly percussive.


Melody has been with us just about forever too and, being a useful memory aid, has played a huge part in establishing a collective cultural heritage through oral tradition. Songs pass among us more quickly and easily than poems or speeches, and draw us together more effectively. We might gather to watch and listen to plays but we are rarely active participants in purely verbal dramatic performance as we are wherever songs are sung.


How important are the words? How much of the ‘potency’ of popular music is in the lyrics? Difficult to say in isolation. Staying with the Olympic events for my example, Danny Boyle’s wonderful opening ceremony featured Ray Davies of the Kinks singing perhaps my all-time favourite pop song, Waterloo Sunset:  


“Terry meets Julie, Waterloo Station, every Friday night.”


I can never listen to that line without seeing the couple (in a monochrome long shot) moving into a gentle embrace, or without feeling their loving, sad intensity and an indefinable sense of loss that seems to be both theirs and  mine. I know everything and nothing about these lovers. I am haunted and fascinated by them. Yet the words of the song, as in this one line, are plain, unadorned; the narrative a mere sketch. It’s the music and the vocal performance that provide poignancy, a feeling of an experience beyond the words, the sense of a life lived that has some connection with yours. Spare though lyrics, music and voice are separately, they act together to evoke something ‘other’ in the listener, like a great painting that somehow causes you to see beyond the mere representation in the frame.


Not many popular songs can withstand scrutiny as art in the way Waterloo Sunset can, but they still exert a power over us, not least when we are gathered together, whether as a small group of family and friends, or a large crowd in a concert, a festival or an arena. You can see the power working on our bodies, in our expressions, and in the way we engage with each other, smiling and eyes shining as we chorus words that on the page might look banal or even meaningless. What is that about? I think Nick Hornby gets close to explaining it in his novel High Fidelity when he writes: “Sentimental music has this great way of taking you back somewhere at the same time that it takes you forward, so you feel nostalgic and hopeful at the same time.”


I’m sure that is especially true of music enjoyed as a group experience. I must admit that I sometimes feel envious of the songwriter and performer who can go beyond mere words to make that connection. Words alone perhaps work best on an individual - few of even the great songs can make you entirely lose yourself in absorption, never mind provide insight or life-changing revelation as a great book can - but music works supremely well as a public expression.


I occasionally feel I’m a writer as a second-best vocation (and I’m sure I’ve heard Nick Hornby say something similar) because I do not have the talent to be a musician. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy public readings so much. I like to make the connection. I like to see the light shine in people’s eyes. Nevertheless I can’t stop wishing I’d learned to play more than three chords on my old acoustic guitar.