So what was a lad to do if he heard a song on the radio and couldn't quite make out the words?
As late as college, I sent a dollar and a SASE to a band asking for a lyrics sheet, as per their advice printed in the liner notes. I still have that lyrics sheet in a file upstairs, next to the "abacuses & sundials" bin.
Most artists didn't offer the SASE option, so one could only hope that the lyrics might be printed in the liner notes of the cassette tape packaging. Not wanting to buy a copy of, say, "Too-Rye-Ay" by Dexy's Midnight Runners in the HOPE that it MIGHT have the lyrics printed to the one song I cared about, I had a couple of options at my disposal.
One option was taking a road trip to the used record store located on the mean streets of St. Louis city. There, I could look for used (re: non-cellophane wrapped) copies of albums with mysterious lyrics. All I needed was the Yellow Pages and a St. Louis City street map. Soon enough, I learned of a store called "The Record Exchange".
Would I have to drive for almost 30 minutes from my west county, suburban home to get there? Yes. Was I likely to be the victim of a drive-by shooting while visiting this business? Absolutely--I mean, the address was on Hampton for goodness' sake, a street we'd pass on the way to Busch Stadium in downtown, which is where I once saw someone peeing in a park! Was it a school night? Yes. But sacrifices had to be made.
I made several of these trips, and was never once shot. I'd walk in with a list of songs the lyrics to which I hoped to discover. I soon learned that vinyl records were often more likely to have the lyrics printed on their sleeves than cassette tapes were. Folding was probably expensive.
Some trips were more successful than others. One notable failure came when I spied a "Dexy's Midnight Runner's" album, excitedly pulled it open, only to discover that it was NOT the album with "Come on Eileen" on it. "Are you freaking kidding me? Why do they have ANOTHER album, and why did anyone in St. Louis ever buy it?"
Oh well. In the absence of definitive, objective lyrical clarification, an awkward high schooler with few friends and no known access to drugs, booze, or sex had another option: Buy or record a copy of the song in question, and listen to the lyrics over and over and over. Play. Pause. Rewind. Play. Pause. Rewind. Move the sliding volume things on the stereo to try to isolate the lyrics. Hypothesize. Test. Re-hypothesize. Discuss.
Oh, yeah: discuss. I actually sometimes had a partner in these investigations, my friend Keith. Keith, like me, has very little musical talent but writes lyrics and poems. Together, we're like a couple of Bernie Taupins, perhaps shaping ourselves to be such in the hours we spent discerning and dissecting lyrics to some of our favorite 80's songs.
Below are some brief clips to some of the songs that I/we tried to figure out. Feel free to try your hand--ur, ear--at lyrical discernment. Below each one, I'll share what was once my best guess, followed by the actual line, so you should be able to scroll down without giving the answer away.
Enjoy, and good luck.
1. "Down Under," Men at Work
My Best Guess: "He just smiled and gave me a bit-of-my sandwich."
The Problem with my Best Guess: Why would the the guy give the singer of bite of the singer's own sandwich?
The Actual Line: "He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich."
Looking Back: Hard to blame a guy for having no idea what "Vegemite" was. I didn't learn until after my sophomore year of college when a bunch of us went to Australia for a short term missions trip, which is where we all first learned about the existence of Vegemite, which was immediately followed by one of us saying, "THAT'S what he's saying in the song 'Down Under'!" and everyone else saying, "Ooooohhhhhhhh--THAT makes sense!" What makes less sense is why anyone would ever, ever in a million, billion years choose to eat Vegemite, but that's for another post.
2. "Pink Houses," John Mellencamp
My Best Guess: "And he looks at her and says, 'Hey, darlin', I can remember when you could starve a plow."
The Problem with My Best Guess: In my defense, I was pretty sure "starve a plow" didn't make any sense. I also STILL think it sounds like "starve a plow," even knowing what the actual line is.
The Actual Line: "And he looks at her and says, 'Hey, darlin', I can remember when you could stop a clock."
Looking Back: Had I heard "stop a clock" instead of "starve a plow", I would have had the same nagging "that can't be right" feeling. Turns out, "she has a face that could stop a clock" is an actual phrase. Wiki Answers tell us "This means that she was so beautiful, that she even made the clock stop." Wiki continues: "It is also used by some mean so ugly, that she could stop a clock." I would guess the speaker is going with the first definition, but methinks many ladies are a little ambivalent about being told that they "used to be pretty enough to stop a clock--you know, in the past."
3. "New Moon on Monday," Duran Duran
My Best Guess: "Shea, could you picture a Liz or mixture with your decks on the evening tide?"
The Problem with My Best Guess: A bit cryptic.
The Actual Line: "Shake up the picture the lizard mixture with your dance on the eventide."
Looking Back: Oh, OK.
4. "Think I'm in Love," Eddie Money
My Best Guess: "Think I'm in love, and my life shook it off."
The Problem with My Best Guess: I actually like it. His mind THINKS he's in love, but his day-to-day life would not allow for love, so his life "shook off" the thoughts of his mind.
The Actual Line: "Think I'm in love, and my life's lookin' up."
Looking Back: Seriously? Your "life is looking up"? I see how you play: Save the really vivid images for the chorus. You sweet talker, you. "Hey, baby, I just wanted to let you know that things are, you know, good and such. And you're really, really neat. I'm just sayin' what I think."
5. "And We Danced," The Hooters
My Best Guess: (it's a 2 parter) "As the band began to play our tune and we danced" / "The others speak, she's walkin' my way"
The Problem with My Best Guess: None, really.
The Actual Line: "As the band began to play out of tune and we danced" / "The endless beat, she's walkin' my way"
Looking Back: Keith and I debated this one a lot. The chorus had yet another hard-to-discern line: "we were liars in love". All in all, still love this song.
6. "Come on Eileen," Dexy's Midnight Runners
My Best Guess: "These people 'round here blah-blah-blah blah-blah blah blah blah-blah blah-blah-blah blah-blah blah blah bla-AH / But not us (no never!) / No, not us (no never!) / We are far too young and clever."
The Problem with My Best Guess: It feels incomplete.
The Actual Line: "These people 'round here wear beaten down eyes sunk in smoke dried faces so resigned to what their fate is / But not us (no never!) / No, not us (no never!) / We are far too young and clever."
Looking Back: It's actually a great line and a great lyric all around. As one who tries to cram a lot of syllables into a short amount of space, Dexy's Midnight Runners will always shine as a beacon of hope that such a technique CAN be effective--even if it fully comprehended without the use of sound equipment available to the intelligence agencies of only 3 or 4 countries in the world.