COLM O'REGAN: Mondegreen: The problem of misheard lyrics

THEY say that music hath the power to soothe the savage breast. 

I can’t comment. My own breasts haven’t been savage in years. Everything goes south with age I guess. 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. It’s called a mondegreen. A mondegreen is itself a mondegreen. It was coined in 1954 by American writer Sylvia Wright who heard “and Lady Mondegreen”, instead of the line “...and laid him on the green” from the Scottish ballad ‘The Bonnie Earl O’ Moray’.

Many of my mondegreens started as a youngster and they’re very hard to shake off. Life is straightforward when you are 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 pop-star and soon-to-be judge on the The Voice UK, Boy George, for example (although be careful). In September 1983, Boy 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 and imprisoning a male escort, Boy George would not be everyone’s first choice as a career guidance counsellor, but he was oddly prescient about me.

Others have their own mondegreens. 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 a friend was convinced this was “Free - eeze A Bird”. Maybe John Lennon was an advocate of buying now, and roasting in a few weeks’ time? We’ll never know.

Michael Jackson’s Thriller album has also given me problems (“Just beat it, beat it/No one needs a streaky beetle”). The first track is ‘Wanna Be Startin Somethin’ is very problematic. 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. I know that now. For me ‘Wanna Be Starting Something’ reaches its conclusion with: “What they say about the sound of Microsoft.

”The mondegreen has a much shorter lifespan now as it is possible to look up the lyrics of every song online.

But like Bertie Ahern’s smoke-and-daggers, mondegreens momentarily at least give us an alternative reality that is semi-plausible.

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. Apparently ‘The SideWinder Sleeps tonight’ is the most misheard of their songs. You may have your own version of the chorus line: “Call me when you try to wake her”. Mine is “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 a man, 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? It’s enough to start off a Booker Prize winning novel.

As the old saying goes, ‘Mighty oaks from little eggcorns grow’.

Wanna Be Starting Something reaches its conclusion with: ‘What they say about the sound of Microsoft’


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