It’s often been said that songs are largely driven by emotion rather than meaning or complexity of the music. This certainly would explain why a scant three chords and a groovy haircut goes a long way and can help to sell a ton of records. Conversely, sometimes the lyrics can evoke equally powerful feelings — even when a song’s meaning is completely misunderstood.
From The Clash to The Kingsmen, here’s just a fraction of classic tunes that people continue to love, despite completely missing the point of what the songwriters were trying to say.
10. “Train In Vain” (The Clash)
Ever since its release from the seminal London Calling double album, “Train In Vain” arrived at the station shrouded in mystery — largely in part to the track not being listed on the sleeve or back cover. The song name would also become muddled after fans began calling it by its chorus, “Stand By Me,” as well as the actual title never being mentioned in the lyrics; furthermore, the toe-tapping tune has absolutely nothing to do with transportation or working out. Now 40 years later, the heart of the controversy lies in a simple printing snafu and a stubborn girlfriend.
Written by Mick Jones, “Train In Vain” was originally intended to be used as a flexi-disk promotion for the British music magazine, NME. But when the deal fell through at the last minute, the band decided to tack it onto the master of their recently completed album. This, however, resulted in one small problem: the artwork, lyrics, liner notes, etc. had already gone to the printer. As a result, it landed on Side Four as Track 5 with the title crudely scratched on the original vinyl in the needle run-off area. Subsequent pressings would later include the proper title on the album — although in the U.S., it contained the variation, “Train In Vain (Stand By Me).”
The story behind the meaning is rooted in Jones’ ex-girlfriend, Slits guitarist Viv Albertine. Although Jones has remained somewhat tight-lipped about the doomed relationship, the feminist rock icon has been more candid: “I’m really proud to have inspired that but often he won’t admit to it. He used to get the train to my place in Shepherds Bush and I would not let him in. He was bleating on the doorstep. That was cruel.”
The all-female Slits supported The Clash on their White Riot tour — and the alluring Albertine enjoyed a well-earned reputation of breaking many punk hearts, including Sid Vicious, Johnny Thunders, and Joe Strummer.
9. “There She Goes” (The La’s)
An undeniably catchy, jangly ballad, “There She Goes” appears to be a simple tale of unrequited love. However, the lyrics ”Racing through my brain… pulsing through my vein” reveal a not-so-innocent side. Additionally, frontman Lee Mavers’ eccentric and reclusive behavior only furthered drug-fueled speculation that the popular track drew inspiration from poppies. Yep, it’s about heroin.
Released as a single in 1988, the track earned the proto Britpop band from Liverpool earned critical praise before typical band infighting and chaos ensued. Although the song would be re-released two years later on their debut album under the Go! Disc label, The La’s had already been relegated to one-hit wonder status.
Later, the alt Christian-rock outfit Sixpence None The Richer covered the tune and enjoyed a major hit stateside — proving Jesus has a place in his heart for all saints and sinners.
8. “Fire and Rain” (James Taylor)
This one’s also about smack. Sorry. Taylor wrote “Fire and Rain” as a deeply personal reflection of life’s bumpy road, capturing all of its twists and turns and pains and joys. A remarkable feat considering he was only 20 years old at the time. From his second album, Sweet Baby James, the song’s structure unfolds like a three-act play with a beginning, middle, and end. Taylor explains in a 1972 interview with Rolling Stone:
“‘Fire and Rain’ has three verses. The first verse is about my reactions to the death of a friend. The second verse is about my arrival in this country with a monkey on my back, and there Jesus is an expression of my desperation in trying to get through the time when my body was aching and the time was at hand when I had to do it… And the third verse of that song refers to my recuperation in Austin Riggs (psychiatric facility) which lasted about five months.”
The end result earned the young singer/songwriter a multi-platinum record and a career that remains strong today over five decades later. But the “monkey on his back” would become a recurring affliction. Taylor first began using heroin after arriving in New York City in 1966 — a habit that escalated in London while briefly signed to The Beatles’ Apple Records label. Despite his personal and professional setbacks, Taylor has sold over 100 million records, and in 2000 became enshrined in the Rock Roll Hall of Fame.
7. “Dancing With Myself” (Billy Idol)
In his tell-all memoir, Dancing With Myself, the title is both metaphor and the name of one of his biggest hits. It’s also a cheeky double entendre for spanking the monkey. You know, the five knuckle shuffle. Jackin’ the beanstalk. Badgering the witness. Jerkin’ the gherkin. Okay, enough already — it’s about masturbation.
The song was first recorded in 1979 by Idol’s previous band, Gen X, and then re-released as a single in 1981 for the singer’s solo launch. Written by Idol and Gen X bassist, Tony James, the song was inspired in part during a Gen X tour of Japan in 1979. According to Idol, he and James visited a Tokyo disco, where they were surprised to find most of the crowd there dancing alone in front of a wall of mirrors instead of with each other.
However, when pressed on the subject, Idol later conceded there’s more than one layer: “There’s a masturbatory element to it, too. There’s a masturbatory element in those kids dancing with their own reflections. It’s not too much further to sexual masturbation. The song really is about these people being in a disenfranchised world where they’re left bereft dancing with their own reflections.”
Umm, sure, Billy, whatever you say. The song’s music video (which saw heavy rotation in MTV’s halcyon days) features a half-naked Idol thrusting and grinding with post-apocalyptic zombies. Oddly, there’s no mention of social anxiety, disillusionment or the despair of ennui. But then what do you expect from someone who kicks off his autobiography prologue with sordid tales of “never-ending booze, broads, and bikes, plus a steady diet of pot, cocaine, ecstasy, smack, opium, quaaludes, and reds.”
Long live rock roll!
6. “Imagine” (John Lennon)
On the surface, this simple piano-driven ballad is a dreamy elixir for the soul, calling for an end to war, borders, religion, greed and hunger. The song would not only become a modern hymn of sorts for world peace and unity, but also helped solidify Lennon’s enduring legacy as a stand-alone rock and roll deity. But the ex-Beatle, who clearly understood the power of celebrity, was also a bit cryptic with the hidden message — one which he later characterized as his way of delivering a “sugarcoated” communist manifesto.
Masterfully arranged and co-produced by pre-felon, Phil Spector, in 1971, “Imagine” remains as relevant today as ever and ranks #3 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs Of All-Time. But the main takeaway that’s often overlooked isn’t just some hippie ode to all love one another — but rather encourages people to use revolutionary methods and ideas to make the world a better place. Does this mean John Lennon spent his free time puffing on cigars with Fidel Castro in Havana or riding on the back of Che Guevara’s motorcycle through Bolivian jungles? Hardly.
Lennon much preferred the company of his wife and co-collaborator, Yoko Ono, at their spectacular estate in Ascot (and location for the song’s music video). Furthermore, Lennon set the record straight regarding party affiliations, stating “I am not particularly a communist and I do not belong to any movement.”
5. “Poker Face” (Lady Gaga)
Anyone who saw Gaga on Season 5 of American Horror Story knows this lady can get down. In fact, her convincing performance even won her a Golden Globe — which shouldn’t have been terribly surprising given her impressive real-life talent for switch-hitting. And no, we’re not talking baseball. As for that little ditty that launched Gaga’s career into another galaxy, “Poker Face” has little to do with playing cards. It’s all about bi-sexuality.
Co-written by Gaga with her longtime collaborator, Red One, the track is said to be a tribute to past conquests in Gaga’s wild ride to fame and fortune. It was first released in 2008 off her debut album (and prophetically named), Fame, and went on to become one of the best selling singles of all time. Featuring more hooks than a Bass Pro Shop, the song also benefits from that over-the-top accompanying music video, a wildly sexy romp that has since been viewed more times than every Kardashian sex tape combined. Well, maybe.
Unlike other songs on this list, the lyrics are fairly transparent and only get lost in the blinding glare cast by the singer’s hyper-radiant star. Nonetheless, it’s doesn’t take much imagination to decipher what she means when she playfully teases, “I’m just bluffin’ with my muffin.” Got it, Gaga. Message received, no distortion.
4. “Every Breath You Take” (The Police)
Ironically, the cops should’ve locked up these guys a long time ago for allowing this unofficial Stalker Anthem to become such a massive hit. Actually, it’s not their fault — but you’d think that someone as smart as Sting (only his name is stupid) would have anticipated that his lyrics would become so widely misinterpreted as both a sappy love song and a license to creep. Unfortunately, the subtext about a possessive lover with an Orwellian zeal for spying never quite registered with fans. Perhaps the band should’ve named the album something other than Synchronicity.
Sting wrote “Every Breath You Take” during a critical juncture in his life — both personally and professionally. Although The Police had enjoyed a mercurial run with sold-out arenas and multiple-platinum records, Sting felt cornered and wanted out. He had also become embroiled in an affair with his future wife,Trudie Styler, while inconveniently still married to her best friend, Frances Tomelty. Awkward. So, like any rock star with lots of money and access to private jets, he took off for the Caribbean, where he found refuge on Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye estate. There, he penned the song that became the band’s biggest hit and won the 1983 Grammy for Song Of The Year.
In a 1993 interview, Sting explains the inspiration: “I woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head, sat down at the piano and had written it in half an hour. The tune itself is generic an aggregate of hundreds of others, but the words are interesting. It sounds like a comforting love song. I didn’t realize at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother, surveillance and control.”
3. “Death Or Glory” (The Clash)
The London-based rockers return with another entry on the list, which shouldn’t be a surprise from the group simply known as “the only band that matters.” Also from their London Calling album, “Death or Glory” is a parody about those who talk a big game but fail to back it up or wind up selling out to the man.
An upbeat tempo and satisfying melody accompanies possibly the greatest lyric in rock roll history: “He who f**** nuns, will later join the church.” The amusing metaphor hammers home the point that those who fight hardest against conformity will eventually become what they vowed to avoid. It was apparently one of the band’s favorite songs on the album, recorded at Wessex Studios in Highbury, London for CBS records. According to legend, their eccentric producer, Guy Stevens, ran around the studio like a madman, throwing chairs and ladders during the session and even dumped a bottle of wine on Joe Strummer’s piano.
Interestingly, the song also reflects the band’s acceptance of change in terms of dealing with their own success while trying to stay loyal to their working class roots. Sadly, Strummer passed away in 2002, but unlike previous generations of rockers who pledged to die before they got old, this frontman actually did it.
2. “Born In The U.S.A.” (Bruce Springsteen)
Although many still believe this 1984 mega-hit reflects America’s ass-kicking greatness, the true meaning tells a much different story. But the confusion is understandable. The easy-to-remember chorus coupled with Springsteen’s trademark gravelly, blue-collar vocals practically screams baseball, hot dogs and apple pie. The Boss, however, wrote it as a scathing indictment of the U.S. military-industrial complex and the debacle of the Vietnam War.
Nonetheless, beginning with Ronald Reagan, politicians continue to misuse the song as a propaganda tool on the campaign trail. Perhaps taking time to actually listen to the lyrics, or better yet, having the words explained to them by the man himself would help to clarify the matter: “when you think about all the young men and women that died in Vietnam, and how many died since they’ve been back — surviving the war and coming back and not surviving — you have to think that, at the time, the country took advantage of their selflessness. There was a moment when they were just really generous with their lives.”
In “Born in the USA,” Springsteen pays a specific homage to the Hell experienced at Khe Sanh, where in 1968, a U.S. Marine garrison bravely withstood 77 days of relentless bombing in one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war.
Fittingly for our purpose, Springsteen once called “Born in the USA” the “most misunderstood song since ‘Louie, Louie.’”
1. “Louie Louie” (The Kingsmen)
No list about misunderstood songs would be complete without including that 1963 golden oldie, “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen. Featuring mostly indecipherable lyrics, it would eventually become the most recorded song in history with well over 1,000 versions, ranging from Barry White to Motorhead. But the bizarre, serpentine path that led to the rock n roll pantheon is as murky as the garbled vocals laid down in one take by an obscure, teen-aged garage band from Portland, Oregon.
In an equally strange, ironic twist, golden-voiced Harry Belafonte deserves some credit for the song’s wild odyssey. After all, his 1956 chart-topping album “Calypso” would inspire a doo-wop singer in L.A. named Richard Berry to hastily write down the original “Louie Louie” lyrics on a roll of toilet paper (yes, really) in hopes of cashing in on the popular island sound craze. In 1957, Berry and his band, The Pharaohs, recorded the track about a Jamaican sailor yearning for a girl as he laments to a bartender named Louie.
Although the song enjoyed decent regional airplay, Berry sold the rights a few years later for $750 to help pay for his wedding (he would be justly compensated years later). Then in 1961, a singer in the Pacific Northwest named Rockin’ Robin Roberts covered the tune with his band, The Wailers — and that’s when The Kingsmen finally enter the picture.
Childhood school friends and bandmates Lynn Easton and Jack Fry had heard Roberts’ version playing on local jukeboxes around town and decided to try a recording of their own. And so on April 6, 1963, after coughing up 50 bucks to pay for a quickie studio session, the boys walked into Northwest Inc. Recording and a date with infamy.
The small studio had been set up for an instrumental arrangement only, forcing Ely to get up on his toes to be heard on a microphone dangling from the ceiling. Adding to the difficulty, he also wore braces at the time, producing his soon-to-be-legendary mumbled words. By October that year, the single had raced up the charts, fueled largely by the raw sound and its perceived obscene message.
The single was banned by several radio stations and declared indecent by the Governor of Indiana — and later investigated by the FBI. Eventually, the boys from Bridgetown would only be found guilty of poor enunciation (as well as Fry botching the third verse two bars too soon) but no charges were ever filed. It should be noted, however, Easton can be heard yelling “f***” at the fifty-four second mark after dropping his drumstick.