I’m a playlist addict. I make playlists for nearly every task that I do. In fact, the making of the playlist often takes longer than whatever task it was meant to accompany. One of my favorite playlist activities is keeping a running tab on new songs I discover. Here is my list for March-April 2019. In most cases these are songs that have been released fairly recently, but the list might also contain an occasional gem from the past!
The idea of a great song with bad lyrics trips a circuit in my brain that makes me want to run in circles chanting “not possible.” When writing custom songs, the lyrics are the most important part of the equation, and I doubt I’d still be in business if I didn’t give them the utmost attention. But what applies to custom songs doesn’t apply to the real world. There have been enormously successful songs that have had horrible lyrics-but successful doesn’t always equal great. Still, there are some amazing songs out there that contain questionable lyrics. They are rare, but I’ve come up with three songs that I would vouch for in a court of music nerds, as being great despite their lyrical shortcomings.
Knocked Down, Made Small (Treated like a Rubber Ball)-Was (Not Was)
My daddy took a look
On the day that I was born
And said he looks like corn
And his feet are made of clay
And then he walked away
And when I began to crawl
He knocked my head against the wall
And said you’re much to small
And you don’t get no ice cream
Not even if you scream
Don’t you know that I was knocked down
Treated like a rubber ball
Goofy. These lyrics are just plain goofy. They don’t fit the vibe of the song at all. I get the part about the rubber ball. Rubber balls get thrown around, it would hurt to be a rubber ball. But you look like corn? That’s just silly, and was probably included because it completed an internal rhyme scheme. Feet of Clay is a little known saying that means there is a defect of character, but it still sounds awkward here, and the part about ice cream is just plain out of place. Were they trying to be funny? Did they just not care? Is there some inside joke or larger concept that I’m not getting?
Was (Not Was) specialize in producing off-kilter but incredibly catchy songs. They’ve done everything from danceable powerhouses like Walk the Dinosaur, to skronky surrealist rants such as Dad I’m in Jail. They cross the line into absurdity with such authority that questioning the result seems more like a fault of the listener than the band. On Knocked Down, vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson delivers the lyrics with absolute conviction, and every other element of the song is spot on. The lyrics to this song are ridiculous, but when you have the talent contained in Was (Not Was), it’s hard to go wrong. This song straight up rocks.
What a Crying Shame-The Mavericks
Wasn’t I good to you
Didn’t I show it
And if I ever hurt you
I didn’t know it
If you think I don’t care
Then you’re mistaken
My love was always there
But now my heart’s breakin’
Oh baby, oh what a crying shame
To let it all slip away
And call it yesterday
Oh baby my life would be so blue
My heart would break in two
Oh what a crying shame
What A Crying Shame is a daisy chain of cookie cutter phrases that look like they were taken from a middle school love note. The phrase crying shame has been used in the titles of at least six other songs, and has been a part of countless choruses and verses. The rest of the lyrics are predictable to say the least. Cliché all the way.
Luckily, lots of other stars are shining down on this song. It has a soaring melody delivered in vocalist Raul Malo‘s signature, heart-rending croon. The music to the song is simple, repetitive, and full of crisp, familiar, beautiful sounds. As a whole, the song is hypnotic. When I hear it, I can close my eyes and see colors that don’t exist in the real world.
I went alone down to the drugstore
I went in back and took a Coke
I stood in line and ate my Twinkies
I stood in line, I had to wait
The verse in Strange is a lamentation of the mundane that doesn’t even rhyme. It is repeated twice, as is the chorus, and that’s all there is to this song.
If you could psychoanalyze rock and roll, you might be able to find some episode in its childhood that brought it to the point in 1989 when the above lyrics appealed to so many people. Or maybe all of us that love this song should be psychoanalyzed? It would be easy to say that Galaxie 500 were successful because their overall sound was so amazing. But part of their appeal were the oddly simple lyrics. As a guy who is not above name dropping, I will tell you that Dean Wareham, who wrote this song, told me that he didn’t like writing lyrics. I would guess that means that he didn’t put a lot of time into them. So why does it work? Lie down on the couch. Tell me about your mother. In other words, I don’t know. But it does work. Really well.
A word about my criteria
Other people have attempted to identify great songs with bad lyrics, but it often collapses into a collection of songs like Da Doo Ron Ron by the Crystals or De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da by The Police, which contain nonsense syllables. In nearly every case, I find these doos and das completely appropriate and effective. Beyond that, there are a number of great songs that contain one bad line, maybe two. I tried to find songs in which a larger portion of the song was infested with cringeworthy words. It wasn’t that easy. That’s why there are only three.
It was 1981, and Doug Treadway fired the serve that would make him our class badminton champion. He strutted with his fist in the air, then began ferociously strumming his racket like a guitar and bellowing out a string of numbers. Even with his puberty-addled voice crackling amidst squeaking tennis shoes, I knew I was hearing something special. It wasn’t long before the radio worked its magic and I fully experienced 8675309/Jenny. I was singing at full volume by the time it had ended.
Even though the subject is creepy (a guy calling a phone number he sees written on a wall in search of a “good time”), Tommy Tutone’s warbling vocals make it seem more like the plot of a teen hanky-panky movie than a song about a lonely man desperate for companionship. It’s a compelling storyline, but the quirky, endearing lyrics are overshadowed by the melody; the mega earworm that twists and turns through the verse, riding on a chunky guitar pattern, then diving straight into the best part of the song. The chorus!
Equal parts brilliant and simple, the chorus consists of “8675309” repeated as a call and response with the 9 stretched out to accommodate a melodic hook. It commands you to sing along. If you ever find yourself at a party with me and this song comes on, I’ll probably loudly proclaim, “this is the best chorus ever, man.” If you wish to disagree, you’d better have an amazing alternative to suggest because I have razor-sharp music nerd skills and I’m not afraid to use them.
The obvious reasons to love this song are many and varied, but I’m further drawn to it because of its ability to function in two unexpected situations.
Exhibit A: the campfire.
We’ve all found ourselves staring into the flames of a bonfire as the sky darkens and the air turns chilly. Acoustic guitar music is as common here as roasting marshmallows. I used to find myself numbly singing along as Kumbaya morphed into Neil Young, wondering what I could bring to the campfire. Enter 8675309. You may not realize it, but you probably know 60% of the words to this song, and if you don’t, the very learnable chorus is always right around the corner. More than once I’ve been elevated from quiet guy no one noticed to life of the party once I managed to get my mitts on the guitar and busted this one out. Even the fireflies like it.
Exhibit B: the music store
Music stores are unofficial showcases for guitar geeks to flaunt their blues licks. Mine are more lavender in color, so when guitar shopping, I’m a little self-conscious. Enter 8675309. The lead line is unusual, simple, and cool. Even with the eyes of the shredders upon me, I can get my brain and hands to cooperate enough to rock it. I’m often met with cheers—usually from a guitarist’s significant other (or mother)—who is elated to hear anything but another squealing Stevie Ray Vaughn riff. It puts the geeks at ease: they know that the blues throne is not being challenged, but it also lets everybody know that this guy (being me) is looking for a new axe.
When 8675309/Jenny was released in 1981, the decade was still feeling its way towards what would become its signature sound. Synth-heavy Euro-pop would soon dominate the airwaves, and it’s great stuff, but it’s always nice to hear some good old American rock and roll, which is exactly what Mr. Tutone gifted the world with this classic power popper. It gives me something that I can hold on to.
In addition to being the principal songwriter for Custom Serenade, I am also an avid music fan. Not only do I like to listen to music, I like to think about it, talk about it, and write about it. In the Songs I Love series of blog posts, I will present some of my favorite songs, and tell you why I love them.
Back in the day, I was a mixtape maniac. I especially liked making tapes for other people, and one of the best additions to any mix would be a great song that the recipient hadn’t heard before; something that would send them scrambling for the hand-scrawled track list to find out who they were listening to. I had a lot of aces up my sleeve in that department, but the king (or queen in this case) had to be Cryin’ Inside by The Heart Beats, a little known all girl garage band from Lubbock, Texas.
I found out about The Heart Beats from a compilation album called Girls in the Garage Volume 3, a collection of 60s bands comprised solely of women. It’s a fantastic record without a bum track on it, but Cryin’ Inside stood out from the very first spin.
One listen to the song and you can understand why. The minor key vocal melody delivered in a whispered voice, paired with the swirling organ sounds are absolute heaven for the ears. Then there’s the rock steady beat accented by crisp rhythm guitar and a very lively tambourine. This song puts the groove in groovy. The lyrics are pure teen-drama bubblegum bliss, delivered with an urgency and innocence that only a teenager could muster (The Heart Beats were aged 12-15 when the record came out.) I can see daylight in your kiss,
I can see sunshine through the mist,
I don’t have your love,
but my tears pile high,
I’m smiling, while I’m crying inside.
When I first heard Cryin’ Inside, all I knew about the song and the band came from a scant paragraph on the back of the album, and a picture of the Heart Beats that made me think the Brady Sisters had formed a band with Gidget.
Now, thanks to the internet, there’s plenty of information about the band via fan pages, wikipedia, and even a radio interview. The song itself was co-written by Ronnie Weiss of Mouse and the Traps (a frequent flyer on garage rock compilations). The band’s claim to fame was winning a nationally televised battle of the bands called Happening ’68.
Cryin’ Inside is a fantastic mixtape song not only because it is a great song, but also because of its versatility. It fits the wholesome image that the Heart Beats projected, but is also perfectly at home in the midst of a garage rock compilation that features bare-breasted women on the cover. It will sound great following anything from Judas Priest to Abba. It is an all around winner, and I hope that you enjoy listening to it.