8½ song lyrics that are factually incorrect

A lion: distinct lack of jungle/sleeping interface. <em>Picture: Drew Avery</em>
A lion: Note lack of jungle/sleeping interface. Picture: Drew Avery

Since the turn of the last century, there are three types of lyrics in music:

Witty, wordy and waspish: (this is something of a lost art, best exemplified by Noel Coward, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Gilbert and Sullivan, Stephen Sondheim with current practitioners thin on the ground – perhaps Neils Hannon and Tennant, Jarvis Cocker, Leonard Cohen, Dylan (on a good day), Morrissey, Joni Mitchell and, at a pinch, Alex Turner.

Nonsensical: Doo-Wah Diddy Diddy Dum-Diddy Dooh. Obla-di-Obla-dah. Who put the bomp Iin the bomp bah bomp bah bomp? Who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong?

Nonsensical masquerading as deep and meaningful: John Lennon’s Imagine, Robbie Williams’ Angels, most current bands who are best epitomised by Sting’s couplet from Don’t Stand So Close To Me: “He starts to shake and cough. Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov.”

The second category is infinitely preferable to the third. The collective members of Keane, Snow Patrol and Coldplay, for instance, have never crafted a line in pop history as perfectly formed as “Stop. Hammertime”, “Whoo Hoo, well, I feel heavy metal” or “Who let the dogs out?”

There is another type of lyric, which is almost unclassifiable, unless you’re that tiny band of muso who listens to lyrics in their entirety. These are the songwords which do not stand up to scrutiny because they are factually inaccurate.

You may have your own suggestions – do add them below – but some artistic licence must be allowed. No-one of any note called Freddie Mercury “Mr Fahrenheit” and clearly he was limited by the laws of physics from “travelling at the speed of light”, but listeners went with it. Young MC in 1988’s Know How says “I make no errors, mistakes or blunders”. Young MC in 2005 took part in Celebrity Fit Club 3 with Chastity Bono and Kenickie from Grease, which suggests the opposite. Jay Z’s claims that “I’m the new Sinatra…yeah, they love me everywhere” are so far unverifiable.

What are verifiable are the lyrical errors, mistakes and blunders contained on the next ten records. In this age of the internet, every pop pedant can feel free to tut under their breath at the following:

1 The Lion Sleeps Tonight

The Tokens/Tight Fit sang: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle/the lion sleeps tonight.” Tigers sleep in jungles. Lions don’t.

2 Crystal

New Order said: “Here comes love/It’s like honey/You can’t buy it with money.” £1.72, 454g of ASDA Clear honey = New Order fail.

3 Smooth Operator

Sade: “Coast to coast, LA to Chicago.” Someone needs a new Rough Guide to the US, pronto. The “windy city” is 700 miles inland, luv.

4. Strong

“And that’s a good line“ Robbie v sings, “to take it to the bridge.” It’s not.

5. Ironic

Alanis Morissette: “It’s like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife.” This is not ironic (as comic Ed Byrne has pointed out). It is, like this lyric, just unfortunate.

6 Fireflies

Owl City:
“You would not believe your eyes/
If ten million fireflies/
Lit up the world as I fell asleep/
‘Cause I’d get a thousand hugs/
From ten thousand lightning bugs/
As they tried to teach me how to dance.”

You wouldn’t believe your eyes … while asleep? Fireflies lighting up world? Insects giving hugs … and dance classes? Suppose they don’t make songs No 1 on account of logic. If they did, no Ernie The Fastest Milkman in the West.

7. Year 3,000

Busted: “And your great, great, great granddaughter is pretty fine.” Based on Busted’s 2003 hit, only if she’s been cryogenically frozen.

8. Nine million bicycles

Katie Melua: “We are 12 billion light-years from the edge.”
Scientist Simon Singh has taken care of this one – insisting on 14 bilion. He was last seen counting individual bicycles in Beijing to further his argument.

8 ½. Jailbreak

Thin Lizzy: “Tonight there’s going to be a jailbreak/ Somewhere in this town.” Not strictly a factual error but there are craftier ways of fooling the local sheriff.

  • Rick

    Re:Witty, wordy and waspish – Unless you know something I don’t – I think we can still classify Stephen Sondheim one of the “current practitioners” 😉

  • JT

    Well, pardon a Yank for horning in here, but at least for No. 6 ya’ gotta’ get out more. Or read a better book.

    Both the Blue Ridge (not rich) mountains and the Shenandoah River are present in the state of West Virginia. The Shenandoah flows into the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry, and various spurs of the mountain range are in the eastern and central parts of the state.

    JT

    • Stewart Kirkpatrick

      Thanks JT. We’ve amended the article accordingly. And bought an atlas.

      Stewart Kirkpatrick
      Editor, The Caledonian Mercury

  • BM

    “You would not believe your eyes/
    If ten million fireflies/
    Lit up the world as I fell asleep/”

    “You wouldn’t believe your eyes … while asleep?”

    Let’s re-write this lyric, replacing the first person pronoun with a third person pronoun:

    You would not believe your eyes/
    If ten million fireflies/
    Lit up the world as he fell asleep/

    It’s the singer who is falling asleep, and it is the listener who would not believe their eyes. “You” and “I” refer to two different people.

    We can do the rest, too, if you’d like.

  • Holebender

    As far as not believing your eyes while asleep goes, the lyrics say you would not believe your eyes… as I fell asleep. It is perfectly possible for you to observe something while I’m asleep!

  • Holebender

    I fail to understand what could possibly trigger a moderation filter in the comment I have just made!

    • Stewart Kirkpatrick

      Me neither, Holebender.

      Cheers,

      Stewart Kirkpatrick
      Editor, The Caledonian Mercury

  • @Rick As a big Sondheim fan (admittedly not as big as some), I am very much aware he is alive but he has only written one new song in six years.

    @JT In my defence (or defense if you prefer), there is debate about whether the mountains and river are in western Virginia rather than West Virginia from several Americans who understand the importance of this difference better than I.

    This from a biography on Denver:

    “The references to West Virginia are all wrong.
    The “Shennandoah River” and “Blue Ridge Mountains” may fit lyrically into the song but are NOT in West Virginia at all.
    A good substitute for “Shennandoah River” would be “Appalachian Mountains”, and for “Blue Ridge Mountains”, “Potomac River”…..:

    “And Bill and Taffy [writers of Take Me Home]? “Someday,” they said, “we’ll have to visit West Virginia.”

    Or if you really want official verification, look at this blog post from someone called ‘old hippie’ – “And John Denver also put the Shenandoah River and Blue Ridge Mountains in West Virginia- they most assuredly aren’t!!!!”

    So this is a contentious issue among your countrymen, but I am happy to bow to your superior knowledge.

    All I can add is that West Virginia on my Times Atlas is on p108 F5 and the Shenandoah River and Blue Ridge Mountains are on separate squares (G5 and F6).

    Obviously on an article about pedantry, I feel sheepish to have made any mistake, and am probably being stubborn. You are bound to know the place better than I, so apologies to any offended West Virginians,

    John

    PS @Holebender Sticking to my guns on Fireflies…if he’s asleep, why does Adam Young sing about feeling like “such an insomniac” later in the song? I defend artistic licence earlier in the piece, so looking forward to my second helping of humble pie if wrong again.

  • Jimmy the One

    “Newspaper taxis appear on the shore, waiting to take you away”

    I don’t think so, John. Sure that was an aspirin?

  • “Here comes love/It’s like honey/You can’t buy it with money.” You actually can buy love off my sister for between £10 and £40 depending on durationn and specification.

    • Jimmy the One

      Send contact details!

  • GreumMor

    Maybe “If” recorded by Bread was too obvious and well known to include:

    “If a man could be in two places at one time
    I’d be with you, tomorrow and today,
    beside you all the way”

    In fact this would being in one place at two times

  • @christheneck

    Re 8.

    After reading Simon Singh’s piece, Katie Melua rerecorded. Here’s a clip.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXhxDDY1GYI

  • Dave Hewitt

    “Thunder only happens when it’s raining” – Fleetwood Mac, Dreams.
    That “happens” is a clunky piece of writing – thunder thunders – plus it’s demonstrably untrue. Thunder can often be heard (and lightning seen) in dry weather. Stevie Nicks – who seemingly wrote the lyric in “about ten minutes” – really should get out more.

  • Grant Barclay

    Love Dave’s comment. That’s going to make me laugh every time I hear the song now.

    I’m throwing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Beleving” into the Mix.

    “Just a city boy…born and raised in South Detroit.”
    It’s not called South Detroit. It’s called Downriver.

    Same thing with Kim Wilde’s epic and geographically ignorant “Kids in America”.

    “New York to East California.”
    Northern California – yes. Southern California – yes. East California – no.

    She was right about Cambodia though.

  • Fresh news from the front: someone has been in touch (not via this medium) to point out that, contrary to Paul Hardcastle’s argument in 1985 the average age of combat troops in Vietnam was 22.

    Another lyric has been troubling me, the line in Destiny’s Child 2001 No 1, Survivor.

    Beyonce sings: “I’m not gonna diss you on the Internet/ cos my momma taught me better than that.” Those who regard Beyonce’s life lessons from her mum as an evolving adult phenomenon, or Mrs Knowles as a very early adopter at the turn of the 1990s, can dismiss this objection.