The Most Misunderstood Songs in Rock ‘N’ Roll History

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Most erudite and music-savvy Flavorpill readers are no doubt familiar with the concept of a mondegreen — it’s a song lyric that’s frequently misunderstood, often with hilarious results (like the all time classic, “Excuse me while I kiss this guy,” from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”). But what about entire songs that are misunderstood? These can be even more amusing and/or squirm-inducing, so we thought we’d round up a few classics of the genre for a bit of Friday afternoon comic relief. If you’ve ever had the mildly embarrassing feeling of having to explain a joke to someone who just doesn’t quite get it, then imagine how the songwriters after the jump feel.

REM — “The One I Love”

Michael Stipe has spoken various times over the years of his bemusement at the sight of fans waving lighters and/or necking frantically to this song. And with good reason — despite the fact that pretty much everyone beyond clued-in REM fans has somehow interpreted this as a love song, it’s actually a pretty vicious kiss-off to a dumped paramour. “This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind/ A simple prop to occupy my time”: it’s pretty clear if you actually listen to the lyrics, people…

Babybird — “You’re Gorgeous”

Also on the misinterpreted “love” song front, Stephen “Babybird” Jones was as astonished as anyone else when this song ended up as a surprise radio hit in the mid-’90s. The chorus — “Because you’re gorgeous, I’d do anything for you” — is clearly what sucked listeners in, but again, if people had bothered to actually listen to the verses too, they’d have been rewarded with the tale of a predatory photographer luring young girls into doing things they’ll no doubt regret. Now, that doesn’t sound like anyone we know, does it?

Bruce Springsteen — “Born in the USA”

No, Rush Limbaugh/Ronald Reagan/homebrew patriotic YouTube video makers, this is not a flag-waving anthem proclaiming Bruce’s love of the US of A. It’s the tale of an embittered Vietnam veteran who was “sent off to fight the yellow man” and returned in a hell of mess, only to be forgotten by the country that sent him off to fight and die. Which lends a particularly bitter lashing of irony to the fact that continues to be co-opted as some sort of right-wing rallying song, doesn’t it?

Lou Reed — “Perfect Day”

The fact that this keeps turning up in commercials is conclusive proof of one of the following: a) Lou Reed’s perverse sense of humor remains undiminished by advancing years or b) he just doesn’t give a shit any more. Either way, a deeply disconcerting love song that may or may not be about shooting up smack in a park is not the sort of thing we’d be using to try to sell our cars, if we were in charge of such decisions.

The Shamen — “Ebeneezer Goode”

One day we might do a feature on “Songs that we can’t believe they got away with,” in which case this will occupy pride of place at the top of the list. For now, though, we’ll merely point out that Ebeneezer Goode isn’t a lovably roguish character who was big on the party circuit back in the early 1990s — he’s a not-so-subtle nudge-nudge-wink-wink metaphor for ecstasy. Sorry, mum.

Percy Sledge — “When a Man Loves A Woman”

When a man loves a woman, he will… um, basically act like a doormat, even if she doesn’t love him and treats him like shit? Yeah, we’re not really feeling the classic love song angle here.

The Clash — “Rock the Casbah”

Sadly, Combat Rock marked the point where the Clash saddled up their collective motorbikes and took a flying leap over the shark. That’s not to say that it didn’t have its moments — “Straight to Hell” certainly deserves its place in the pantheon of great Clash songs — but there’s something depressing about the fact that this and “Should I Stay or Should I Go” are the two songs that the man on the street thinks of when he thinks of The Clash. Especially when basically no one understands that it was probably the band’s least serious political song, a silly piece of Bernie Rhodes-inspired fluff about how rock ‘n’ roll (and culture in general) can’t be suppressed by overbearing regimes. No wonder Strummer was aghast at how it got adopted as a kind of de facto Desert Storm anthem ten years later.

The Kingsmen — “Louie Louie”

As we discussed in our feature on garage rock a few weeks back, the FBI took an instant dislike to “Louie Louie” when The Kingsmen’s version was released in the early ’60s, attempting unsuccessfully to prosecute the band for obscenity. Ever since, there’s always been a kinda tacit assumption that this song was somehow about something dirty, and while several interpretations over the years really have been pretty filthy — most notably Iggy Pop’s cover — there’s nothing inherently dirty about Richard Berry’s original lyric.

The Verve — “The Drugs Don’t Work”

Verve singer Richard Ashcroft was renowned throughout the UK music industry for his Herculean drug intake, so the instant assumption about this song was that it dealt with reaching a point where drugs simply don’t work any more. Unfortunately, this was wrong – the lyric actually deals with the slow, painstaking death of Ashcroft’s father from cancer.

Ohio Express — “Yummy Yummy Yummy”

So, um, is this song actually about oral sex? Only the band know for sure, and they’re not telling.

The Police — “Every Breath You Take”

The all-time classic in the field of misunderstood songs, Sting’s hugely creepy stalker anthem (“Every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you”… eeeeek) has been misinterpreted as some sort of sappy love song by generations of suburban wedding DJs — and hip-hop übertwat Diddy, who reworked it for his insufferably saccharine “tribute” to the Notorious BIG.