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I can think of a lot of rock bands who have written some laughably awful lyrics.


So can you.


Part of rock ‘n’ roll’s infectious (and mostly innocuous) appeal is the no-brainer element of its intellectual import. From it’s earliest days when rock lyrics were mostly an unimaginative contest to see who could say I love you without saying the words I love you (of course the Beatles broke the mold here, shamelessly cutting out all pretense and wallowing in the very shallow depths of the literal, from “She Loves You” to “Love Me Do” to “All My Loving” to… you get the picture). Eventually, the pop sensibility evolved to the point where if you substituted “rock” for “fuck” this constituted a secret decoder ring to figure out what 90 percent of the songs were about. Particularly ambitious bands were able to multitask, as the eternally sophomoric KISS epitomized when they crafted their anthem dedicated to the proposition that one could not only rock and roll all night, but party every day.


(Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. And, for the most part, this was a wonderful thing. The aforementioned Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am the Walrus” is a million miles from… anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, the Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend starting crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut. And then, emboldened, or inspired—or both—wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s.


What some of us still refer lovingly to as progressive rock held sway over the sonic landscape: with side-long suites and literary allusions in overdrive, prog rock became an enterprise that launched a million karaoke performances. These songs (these albums) were of their time in every regard and invoke inextricable connotations of the decade itself: bloated, hazy, earnest, misguided, visionary, awkward, awesome. Eventually the four horsemen of the pop culture apocalypse came calling: Punk, Disco, Drug Overdoses and Rehab blew into town and burned down this overgrown forest… only to see it grow back harder and longer in the shape of a mullet less than a decade later. Regardless of how it did or should have played out, it’s impossible to imagine prog rock existing in the ’80s, just like shag rugs and Battle of the Network Stars only really exist—in our minds if not actuality—in the ’70s. And the ’70s is when rock lyric ridiculousness reached its full flowering, pulling up from strong roots in the ’60s and stretching toward the sun, leaving a shadow we exist under even today.


So, when it comes to identifying truly awful lyrics that are the result of neither idiocy nor ambition, it’s best to consider the soft and mushy center between those two poles. It’s not terribly fun, or rewarding, to pick on the pointy headed prog rockers or the boneheaded pop posers, unless stepping on ants is enlightening. Put another way, I’ll defend the bands who tried a little too hard and could care less about the entertainers who are genetically incapable of insight. Put yet another way, as it pertains to the sublimely awful rock lyric, sometimes having a tiny brain is worse than having no brain at all.


When it comes to worst ever, I can think of a lot of lyrics that might compete for the crown.


So can you.


For starters, I can’t bring myself to beat up on the bands who crawled out of the primordial ooze in the early ’70s, hash pipe in one hand and “Lord of the Rings” in the other. I won’t even name names; I’ll simply wave my magic wand and exonerate King Crimson, Rush, ELP, Jethro Tull, Genesis, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues and Santana (for starters) from any alleged sins, real or imagined.


But one group must be singled out (with love and squalor) for elevating ardent yet inane lyrics to a level of…real art. Of course I’m talking about Yes, whose work between 1971 and 1975 is the Rosetta Stone of our prog rock apotheosis. The jester in this court is, of course, Jon Anderson who—depending on one’s perspective -– would be responsible, or guilty, for writing the lyrics. Here’s the thing: he sings them so effectively (so indelibly — yeah I said it), it doesn’t much matter what he is babbling about. And babble he does. Here is but a brief sampling of his ouevre:


Battleships confide in me and tell me where you are,
Shining, flying, purple wolfhound, show me where you are,


Lost in summer, morning, winter, travel very far,
Lost in musing circumstances, that’s just where you are.


Move forward was my friends only cry,
In deeper to somewhere we could lie.
And rest for the the day with cold in the way,
Were we ever colder on that day, a million miles away?


A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace,
And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace,
And achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar,
Then taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour.


Wish the sun to stand still.
Reaching out to touch our own being
Past a mortal as we
Here we can be
We can be here,
be here now.
Here we can be!


(From “Yours Is No Disgrace”, “South Side of the Sky”, “Close to the Edge” and “Awaken“.)


Yes has earned an unrivaled place in the pantheon, but there is no hating, here. Listening to Yes is not unlike listening to opera: the words are—or may as well be –- in a different language; it’s all about the sounds: that voice, those instruments, that composition. This is ecstatic stuff and I’ll hoist my air guitar with clear-eyed pride and wonder.



Enough. Let’s get down to business.


What song contains the worst lyric of all time?


I’ll give it a shot. But again, it’s as important to eliminate the pretenders as it is to celebrate the contenders. Therefore, it’s ridiculous to consider anything filed under Hair Metal because, well, it’s Hair Metal. Ditto the Top 40 status seekers: that claptrap is like bad electronics, it’s designed to fall apart and be discarded after it’s been sold. And we should not confuse atrocious lyrics with unlistenable songs. There are tons and tons of terrible songs that don’t necessarily have bad enough lyrics to merit consideration (and again, bad enough meaning lyrics that weren’t written by an imbecile or someone trying to shoot higher…and that incidentally eliminates would-be prime candidates Oasis and Creed because, again, the songs have to be by bands actually worth listening to).


10. Let’s come out of the gate swinging and take aim at one of the most beloved radio anthems of all time: “Stairway To Heaven”. Remember that time (hopefully before 6th grade) when this song contained all the deep and murky depths of the universe? This song was about nothing less than existence, and who was that dude with the light on the inside cover? God? The Devil? Did it make more sense if you played the nonsensical lyrics backward? In hindsight, maybe.


If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Dont be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the may queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
And it makes me wonder…


It makes me wonder, too. Is that a bustle in your hedgerow or are you just happy to see me? To be a rock and not to roll? I have no idea, to this day, what that means, but it uses the words rock and roll, so it’s got that going for it. Led Zeppelin, despite Robert Plant’s early Tolkien obsessions, did grow in brisk, dramatic leaps like The Beatles post-Rubber Soul. Nevertheless, the ascension of ”Stairway To Heaven” is, come to think of it, not unlike the ’70s: you had to be there to appreciate it but you can’t really explain why it’s so great.


9. Sticking to the ’70s (literally), a rather obscure known tune by a beloved band demands attention. It’s bad (if true) enough to point out that Kiss kept to a strict regimen of sex songs throughout the ’70s (and I would say after, but who listened to Kiss after the ’70s?). It’s worse (and true) to point out that this was all for the better. When they attempted to think outside the box (so to speak), things got ugly in a hurry. Exhibit A is “Goin’ Blind” by noted poet and philosopher Gene Simmons. If taken at face value, the lyrics convey a self-pitying farewell from a 93-year-old man who has been inexplicably banging a 16 year old girl. Creepy? Check. Weird? Check. Improbable? Check! Senior citizen statutory rape, or Simmons envisioning his post-rock, Viagra-rolling golden years?


Little lady, can’t you see
You’re so young and so much different than I
I’m 93, you’re sixteen
Can’t you see I’m goin’ blind…


In fairness, and consistent with the criteria for this list, the song is still quite worthwhile, and features one of Ace Frehley’s better early solos. (The tune was also covered in all its muddy glory by the great King Buzzo on Melvins’ incredible album from 1993, Houdini.)



8. Respect of irony prevents me from quoting any of Alanis Morissette’s signature song. Suffice it to say, yes, it is ironic (if unintentionally so) that a song about irony uses examples that illuminate the songwriter’s inability to understand what irony is. Don’t ya think?


7. Domo. Arigato. Mr. Roboto.  (Enough said.)


6. Artist: Lenny Kravitz. Song: Whichever.


5. Bono and Sting could have a battle royale (with cheese) to see who committed the more greivous sins in the ’80s but since Bono has been more prolific, and more self-righteously insufferable, in the decades since, we may have to give him the Edge (take him, please).


Bono!


I cant believe the news today
Oh, I cant close my eyes and make it go away…


Sting!


Hey, mighty brontosaurus,
Don’t you have a lesson for us
Thought your rule would always last,
There were no lessons in your past
You were built three stories high
They say you would not hurt a fly
If we explode the atom bomb
Would they say that we were dumb?


Bono!


I want to run
I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls
That hold me inside…


Sting!


Don’t think me unkind
Words are hard to find
The only cheques I’ve left unsigned
From the banks of chaos in my mind
And when their eloquence escapes me
Their logic ties me up and rapes me…


4. Poet laureate of semi-retarded rap rock, Anthony Keidis! Everyone knows this clown was known for wearing a sock over his dick. Many people would agree that his dick could probably write better lyrics. Possibilities are endless but the perusal is too painful, so let’s go with what we know:


What I’ve got you’ve got to give it to your mama
What I’ve got you’ve got to give it to your papa
What I’ve got you’ve got to give it to your daughter
You do a little dance and then you drink a little water…


3. Duran Duran. Boy did these guys make some terribly great songs (and videos) in the early ’80s. And like those commercials from the early ’80s say, “It doesn’t get any better than this”:


Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand
Just like that river twisting through a dusty land
And when she shines she really shows you all she can
Oh Rio, Rio dance across the Rio Grande…


2. The list, to this point, has not necessarily been in any particular order, although the final two candidates are, for my money, unassailable representatives of lyrical suck. First up is Steve “Guitar” Miller who is also known as Steve “Lyrics” Miller by exactly no one. And there is ample reason for this. He is a one man tour de force of farcical phraseology. Let’s start with the pompatus of love. Actually, let’s leave that alone: if you are cool enough to make up a word and feature it in a hit song that everyone who listens talks about, you’ve more than maximized your fifteen minutes of fame. And that was only the beginning.


His 1976 classic Fly Like An Eagle is a clinic of lazy lyrics and shoehorned rhyme schemes. It could be the basis of a successful workshop (once again, there is no hatred here: it’s a very good album and the title track captures that ethereal ’70s vibe as well as any other rock tune). On that track the lyrics are facile but his heart is in the right place: I want to fly like an eagle, to the sea/Fly like an eagle, let my spirit carry me. “Rock ‘n Me” is another innocuous FM radio staple, and it is one of the “replace rock with you-know-what” testosterone anthems. No harm, no foul. Where the proceedings really take flight (so to speak) is on the other radio favorite, “Take the Money and Run”. This is one for the ages, where we get “watch the tube” rhymed with “cut loose” and “great big hassle” with “his castle”. Nothing to see here. But then it happens: the sine qua non of rock non sequiturs. Take a deep breath and enjoy the magic:


Billy Mack is a detective down in Texas
You know he knows just exactly what the facts is,
He aint gonna let those two escape justice
He makes his livin off of the peoples taxes…


Texas, facts is, justice, taxes. What more is there to say? (Other than this: “Take the Money and Run” is probably the single song from the ’70s that no fans were tempted to play backwards because there was absolutely no conceivable way it could get any better than it already was; fans were afraid it would make more sense if it was played back in backward gibberish).


Miller was not done with us yet. Honorable mention could go to “Jungle Love” or “Swingtown” (Come on and dance/Let’s make some romance/You know the night is falling/And the music is calling), but special attention must be paid to “Abracadabra”:


Every time you call my name/I heat up like a burnin’ flame/Burnin’ flame full of desire/Kiss me baby let the fire get higher.


That’s nice, but this is where Miller stakes his claim for immortality. Ready or not, here it comes:


Abra-abra-cadabra
I want to reach out and grab ya.


That is miraculous. But it gets better. How could you possibly top rhyming cadabra with grab ya? Easy. Rhyme cadabra with…Abracadabra!


Abra-abra-cadabra
Abracadabra



So, it can’t possibly get better than that, can it? Oh it gets better. For their invaluable contributions to the unintentionally atrocious lyric, I nominate America for a lifetime achievement award. It’s hard (some might say impossible) to knock Steve Miller off this throne but bear with me. America did a lot with just a little and they are the gift that giveth much. (One sentence description: blending folk influences with “socially-conscious” songs, America had a string of indelible—and ubiquitous—hit songs in the first half of the ‘70s.)

Sean Murphy loves music, books, and movies and can't imagine a world without sub-titles. He was born in northern Virginia and has never found a compelling reason to leave. He studied English at George Mason University and has an MA in Literature. One of his thesis papers dealt with the utopian impulse in '70s rock (which, depending upon one's perspective, at least partially explains why he opted not to purse that PhD in Cultural Studies). During his time at PopMatters he has written extensively about music, movies and books, and his column "The Amazing Pudding" appears every other month. His memoir Please Talk about Me When I'm Gone is now available via paperback and Kindle at Amazon. Visit him online at http://seanmurphy.net/.


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