They say that music hath the power to charm the savage breast. I can’t comment. My own breasts are fairly tame. What I do know is that music has the power to confuse. Time and again, a singer’s muttered delivery has caused me to create a strange alternative to the songwriter’s original lyrics. What I like to call a tunerism.
Many of my tunerisms occurred in childhood. Life is straightforward when you’re five. There are things you understand and things you don’t. The things you don’t understand don’t bother you. They’re for grown-ups. If grown-ups want to sing silly songs that don’t make sense, that’s their look out. Take Boy George for example – plenty of people have. In September 1983, Boy George sang “Karma Karma Karma Karma Karma Chameleon.” But as far as I was concerned, he sang “Become come a come a come a come a comedian”. Given that he has spent time in jail for drugs offences, Boy George would not be everyone’s first choice as a career guidance counsellor, but he was right about me. I think.
Both Boy and I agreed that the next line in his odd little song was “You Come And Go, You Come and Go-ooo.” After that our paths diverged once more. This time, the blame lay squarely with my five-year-old brain. “Loving would be easy if your colours were like my dreams” is not a particularly complicated line. Yet I interpreted it as “Nama Caleezi Canumaca Laakaakiii” which sounds like the name of a Aztec woman who married a man from Estonia.
As time went on, I realised I was not alone. Many people have their own pet tunerisms (or mondegreens, to use the official title) though theirs were not usually as outlandish as mine. Often they made slightly imperfect sense. In 1995, the remaining members of the Beatles released a John Lennon song Free As a Bird. A friend of mine was convinced this was “Free – eeze A Bird”. We tried to persuade him that it was unlikely that John Lennon would have dispensed housekeeping advice during the last days of the Beatles, but he was steadfast. It took two separate karaoke sessions to change his mind.
Of all the bands whose lyrics give rise to misunderstandings, REM reign supreme. This could be because no one knows what the songs are about anyway. You may have your own version of the chorus line: “Call me when you try to wake her” from The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight. A common interpretation is “Calling Jamaica”. Me: “Don’t even chat a baker up”.
I prefer this rendition. It presents a tantalising insight into the insecurity at the heart of human relationships. Picture Michael Stipe, in the hall, watching his wife leave the house. He’s imploring her not to be flirting with pastry-faced men. What has caused his insecurity? Was there previous history with a butcher and a candlestick maker?
Michael Jackson has also given me problems (“Just beat it, beat it/No one needs a streaky beetle”) In fact, the Thriller album as a whole, left a lot of room for misinterpetation. The first track is Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin‘. It’s an upbeat funky tirade against rumourmongers and gossips. As the song fades, it tails off with the repetition of “Mama-se, mama-sa, ma-ma-koo-sa”. This is apparently a snippet from a popular Cameroonian song. My lack of knowledge of West African dance music meant I had to fill in the blanks myself. For me “Wanna Be Starting Something” reaches its conclusion with: “What they say about the sound of Microsoft.” I know, it doesn’t make sense. Michael Jackson – the king of Pop – would never have alienated his fans with a nerdy conjecture about a software company.
That’s the thing about tunerisms – even when you know they don’t make sense, once your lazy brain has latched onto a phrase that has a pleasing sound, you’re stuck with it, no matter what.
Sometimes the tunerism is so ‘sticky’, the band themselves are happy to go along with the new improved version. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising was so often misheard that eventually the band gave in and in subsequent gigs sang “I see we’re in for nasty weather; there’s a bathroom – on the right”. Two apparently unconnected clauses? Or perhaps ‘nasty weather’ is a polite way for a host to draw attention to someone’s audible gastro-intestinal gurglings and hint that a trip to the ‘facilities’ would be best for all concerned.
We may soon see the death of the tunerism. It’s now possible to look up the lyrics of every song online and confusions are resolved before they have a chance to stick. However there is still one song that we resolutely refuse to sing correctly – our national anthem. Take a trip to a GAA, rugby or soccer match and you will hear something like the following:
Sheena fee, naff-all
A toffee yelling earring
Hard thing, the Ronny cooing
Hey avoid Bus Eireann
Shanty, our shins are faster
Knee awful, fin Ciarán, naw feen, troll
A knocked, a hames, a bar, nab ale
Leg Ow Knorr gale.
Con balls. New sale.
Leg-honey’s crake, feel awkward bel-air
Shoving Conny around the field.
I think it sums us up perfectly.