O P I N I O N
What’s your favorite mondegreen now that you know CCR’s “there’s a bathroom on the right” is really “there’s a bad moon on the rise”? You must have a favorite song you grew up with where the lyrics were misheard, but we all just kept singing along with those incorrect words.
Some musicians even love getting in on the joke of their misunderstood lyrics—during the 1998 “Premonition” concert taping, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival actually sang the incorrect lyric on stage. And during other concerts, he’d point to the closest bathroom whenever he got to the line.( 4)
Perhaps you’re familiar with one of the most recognizable mondegreens: “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” from Jimi Hendrix’ Purple Haze, which, of course, is “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.” Jimi, too, went so far as to occasionally sing the incorrect lyric in concert while nodding or pointing at a male member of his band up on the stage. 4
Now don’t be bashful as you think about the songs you’ve sung in the shower with their incorrect lyrics. Mondegreens often occur when you hear the music but don’t see the singer’s face, like when you are listening to music from Spotify coming from the new bathroom lighting fixture you had installed. The listener, being unable to hear a lyric clearly, substitutes words that sound familiar and make some kind of sense.1 This can include the way a phrase is said. Enunciation, speed, rhythm, and pitch can all alter a listener’s understanding.
And remember learning about cognitive dissonance back in psychology? That comes into play, also. When you can’t understand a phrase but need to make sense of it, your brain makes assumptions and fills in the gap.3
The word, mondegreen, was included in the 2000 edition of the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, the 2002 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the 2008 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. So, what did we call it in the 1960s and 1970s????
Here are some examples:2
The Band’s, “The Weight”
Misheard lyrics: I poop in the ass to death
Original lyrics: I pulled into Nazareth
The Beatles; The Ballad of John and Yoko”
Misheard lyrics: They look just like do-gooders in drag
Original lyrics: They look just like two gurus in drag
Steely Dan, “Reelin’ in the Years”
Misheard: Are you ready in the evening?
Correct: Are you reelin’ in the years?
The Temptations, Papa Was a Rolling Stone”
Misheard: Papa had three-eyed children
And another wife, and that ain’t right
Correct: Papa had three outside children
And another wife, and that ain’t right
And which songs have the most noted mondegreens? Manfred Mann’s “Blinded by the Light” has 670 submissions for incorrect lyrics, including:
Misheard: And adults and the monks and the adolescent punks
Correct: In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps
Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Misheard: Bada-Boosh, Bada Boosh
Correct: Scaramouche, Scaramouche
Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean”
Misheard: Betty Jean is at my door.
Correct: Billie Jean is not my lover
Elton John, “Bennie and The Jets”
Misheard: B-B-B and his guests
Correct: B-B-B and the Jets
Joni Mitchell’s, “Big Yellow Taxi”
Misheard: A pink pair of dice, the hood of a parking lot.
Correct: They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start The Fire”
Misheard: ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, British in Romania
Oldness, John Glenn, Mr. Peeps, Alison
Correct: ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, British Beatlemania,
Ole Miss, John Glenn, Liston beats Patterson
“We Didn’t Start the Fire” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and received heavy airplay after its release in 1989, even though it ranks low on Joel’s list of favorites. The track is a stream-of-consciousness-style song that lists all the events Joel feels defined his generation. The list is so lengthy that Joel has admitted having trouble remembering all the lyrics.4
Jimmy Buffett, “Margaritaville”
Misheard: All of the tunas covered with oil
Correct: All of those tourists covered with oil
Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Misheard: A Mulatto, an Albino have a Skittle, have a Frito
Correct: A Mulatto, an Albino, a Mosquito, My Libido
Boston, “Rock And Roll Band”
Misheard: Dancin’ in the streets, I saw Elvis.
Correct: Dancin’ in the streets of Hyannis.
The Monkees, “I’m a believer”
Misheard: Then I saw her face, now I’m gonna leave her.
Correct: Then I saw her face, now I’m a believer.
Although known by so many through the movie “Shrek,” the song was actually released 35 years prior. It went gold within two days of release and held the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks. It was written by Neil Diamond. 4
Elton John, “Tiny Dancer”
Misheard Lyrics: Hold me closer, Tony Danza (Really?)
Original lyrics: Hold me closer, tiny dancer.
One of the most frequently misheard lyrics, this Elton John blooper has spawned a life of its own. For example, the single, which went three-times platinum in April 2018, spawned a joke on an episode of “Friends.” When discussing the most romantic songs of all time, Phoebe says that, in her opinion, it’s “the one that Elton John wrote for that guy on ‘Who’s the Boss’.”4
Led Zeppelin, “Stairway to Heaven”
– Misheard: “There’s a wino down the road”
– Correct: “And as we wind on down the road”
Although “Stairway to Heaven” has been called “the best rock song of all time,” it actually never charted. The track was never released as a single; instead, radio stations received promotional singles that have become collector’s items.4
ABBA, “Dancing Queen”
– Misheard: “See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen”
– Correct: “See that girl, watch that scene, dig in the dancing queen”
The only one of ABBA’s string of hits to make it to #1 in the U.S., “Dancing Queen” also hit #1 in 13 other countries. It might also be their most misunderstood song. According to a poll conducted by Blinkbox in 2014, 22% of listeners reported hearing the famous lyrics this way.4
Iron Butterfly, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (In the Garden of Eden)”
– Misheard: “In a glob of Velveeta, honey”
– Correct: “In-a-gadda-da-vida, honey”
Arguably the first heavy metal song, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” peaked at #30 on the Billboard charts. The original song is over 17 minutes long but uses only 30 different words. It was this version (not the four-minute radio cut) that Iron Butterfly was set to perform at Woodstock before they got stuck in an airport and couldn’t make it.4
Aerosmith, “Dude (Looks Like A Lady)”
Misheard: Do the lucky lady.
Correct: Dude (looks like a lady.)7
Rolling Stones, “Beast of Burden”
Misheard: I’ll never leave your pizza burning.
Correct: I’ll never be your beast of burden.7
Dire Strait, “Money For Nothing”
Misheard: “Money for nothin’ and chips for free”.
Correct: “Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free6
Bon Jovi, “Livin’ On A Prayer”
Misheard: “It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not”
Correct: “It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not” 6
Fifth Dimension, “Aquarius”
Misheard: “This is the dawning of the Age of Asparagus”
Correct: “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.6
And to end this particular list (there are hundreds of these things out there), let me bring you back to 1963 and the theme song of the television show, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, featuring Bill Bixby:
Misheard: Come and let me tell you ’bout my bedspread
Correct: Come and let me tell you ’bout my best friend.