We all do it – carry a song in our heads with the wrong words. In fact, it is surprising how many songs we hold in our heads, which are veritable iPods, albeit awash with undigitised junk. There are lyrics to songs I’ve only worked out decades after first hearing them, not always to my edification. One very early mistake I made was the Beach Boys’ ‘Surfin’ USA’, which I assumed began with the (pretty logical) ‘If everybody had a notion, across the USA, then everybody’d be surfing’ – another thing I can’t do, by the way – ‘like Californ-I-A’. Well that’s obvious, isn’t. If everyone had the same idea, they’d be off on their boards, saltwater up their nostrils, pectorals shining. So I was quite surprised when I realised it was ‘If everybody had AN OCEAN across the USA’. Aha. However, even now, I bet people sing this song without knowing that people in possession of a flood outside their front door would also be wearing, not only their ‘baggies’, but also ‘Huarache sandals’. It is easily forgotten that lyrics were rarely provided until the advent of the Sgt Pepper album (and thought quite the new thing, then, too).
I also slipped up with Pink Floyd. Knowing their original penchant for all things astral and cosmic (cf. ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun’ and ‘Astronomy Domine’), I listened to ‘The Wall’, quite their worst album, and to Roger Waters’ onslaught on teachers as ‘We don’t need no education/ We don’t need no thought control/ No dark star chasm in the classroom…’ Not for several years did I realise that this was a creative mispronunciation of ‘dark sarcasm’. (And that always irritates me, too, twisting the natural rhythm of a word so that it fits a line in a lyric.)
And then there are all those lyrics which made no sense, so you just made things up. It’s only very recently that I’ve cottoned on to what Frank Sinatra is singing in ‘High Hopes’ – ‘Whoops there goes a billion kilowatt dam.’ I suppose I was six when that was relentlessly played on Family Favourites, and I certainly had no idea what a kilowatt was. It wasn’t printed on the back of my exercise books like all those ‘useful’ measures like troyweight, and rods, poles and perches. I suppose it helps to know that there are 1760 yards in a mile, and that there are 212 hundredweight in a ton. And to know my 12 times table (I have only just found out why people counted in twelves, by the way – an ancient method of counting which involved the thumb, fingers and palm. So I have the Sumerians to thank for having to learn that 144 was the number in a gross). I am straying from the point here, I know, but it is surprising when these pre-decimal figures come in handy. I was once in Crete when the rate of exchange was 240 drachmas to the pound. That made shopping easy. I just reverted instantly to adding and counting in half-crowns and the like, while everyone five years younger was stumped.
My longest standing misunderstanding, however, was misinterpretation, not mis-hearing as such. My father and my mother regularly used the phrase ‘all together like the folks of Shields’. In fact, you couldn’t and wouldn’t say, in our house ‘all together’ unless you added ‘like the folks of Shields’ (this means North and South Shields, I guess, just north of Sunderland). I took it to mean that the people of these kindly conurbations were community-minded, that they helped each other wash on wash-days, feast on feast-days, and generally rallied round. But no, not a bit of it. It meant – and I was over 40 before I got it, that our just-northerly, non-Sunderland neighbours were tight-fisted, mean types – ‘close’ in the very worst sense of the word.
I have just run some lyrics through my brain to see if anything else is missing sense. After a moment’s thought, I came up with Canned Heat’s ‘Going Up The Country’, which I have certainly sung as ‘I’m going up the country, burble-you-won-ago’ which clearly is Not Right. I have just checked the many lyric sites (and there are some dubious readings in several places, so I suppose I shouldn’t trust them), and my gobbledygook is simply ‘Baby, don’t you wanna go’. But they mangle the lyric, and I mean this in a nice way, because I like the song, so much that I have been reduced to singing garbage.
Maybe nobody really listens to lyrics, which is a pity, because I love writing them. I must get out more.