- "She's got a chicken to ride, and she don't care": The Beatles are the top mondegreen band in history.
Everyone has done it: We've rocked out in front of our family and friends, sung our little hearts out, emoted with eyes closed. And then, when we opened them, we've seen a roomful or carload of people laughing their asses off because we got the words wrong. Totally whiffed on 'em. Made complete and utter morons of ourselves.
There's even a word for it -- if you hear and learn the wrong words, you have just given birth to your very own mondegreen. Incidentally, "mondegreen" is itself a mondegreen -- a mishearing of a Scots ballad that contained the lines "They had slain the Earl of Moray/And laid him on the green." The coiner of the word heard them as "They had slain the Earl of Moray/And Lady Mondegreen."
Some mondegreens are famous. There's Jimi Hendrix's "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy"; Elton John's "Hold me closer, Tony Danza" and "Don't let your son go down on me"; Kenny Rogers' "You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille/400 children and a crop in the field"; and Bob Dylan's "Dead ants are my friends; they're blowin' in the wind." Then there's Manfred Mann's Earth Band's "Blinded by the Light," which everybody seems to think is about a douche, loofahs, or an ovary. (The correct words: "Blinded by the light/Revved up like a deuce/Another runner in the night.")
Some have even made it onto recordings: John Prine tells the story of his most famous mondegreen on his album Live on Tour. Seems a fan once requested that he do that "happy enchilada" song. Prine replied that he had never written a song about an enchilada, happy or otherwise. Turns out the fan wanted to hear "That's the Way That the World Goes Round," which has this line: "It's a half an inch o' water, and you think you're gonna drown."
San Francisco Chronicle scribe Jon Carroll has made mondegreens a staple of his column for decades, and the internet teems with misheard-lyrics sites, such as kissthisguy.com, amiright.com, and iusedtobelieve.com. Though amiright.com is the most exhaustive, kissthisguy.com is probably the easiest to navigate. It's not as repetitive as the others, and songs are archived by title and artist. Best of all, most of the submissions, which come from the site's readers, are accompanied by painfully embarrassing little tales of when and how listeners' misconceptions were exposed.
After spending an entire Sunday afternoon on the site a month or so ago, we can say that our favorite was the guy who sang the "If I was a sculptor, but then again, no" lines from Elton John's "Your Song" to his girlfriend like this: "If I was a skeleton, or then again, a gnome." "I thought it was some sort of medieval-fantasy thing, knights on horseback and all," writes submitter and likely Dungeons & Dragons aficionado Mike Z.
But even with thousands upon thousands of mondegreens out there already, you can always find more. We asked around and dug up some good ones, and hell, we've got a few of our own, which we'll get out of the way first. Until we finally looked up the words the other week, we just knew that Van Halen's "Runnin' With the Devil" had this line in it: "I had no love/No love in Koo-reaaa." In actual fact, Diamond Dave was not singing some war vet's lament; what he sang was that he "had no love you could call real." We were also convinced that ELO's "Evil Woman" was a song about transvestism or a sex-change operation, and that the title was "He Is a Woman," and it took a pretty heated argument with some of our friends back in high school to convince us otherwise.
Children -- who hear a song and then adapt it as best they can manage with their limited vocabulary -- churn out mondegreens the most efficiently. And partly because the Beatles are so popular with kids, they are the top mondegreen band in history. We had a few of them -- we misheard the French-language section of "Michelle" -- "Michelle, ma belle/Sont les mots qui vont très bien ensemble/Très bien ensemble" -- as "Michelle, my belle, Sunday monkey go play piano song, pi-a-no song," and we see from numerous internet sites that we were far from alone. How are American five-year-olds supposed to know French? Also, a woman at kissthisguy.com reports having sung "Paperback Writer" as "Piggyback Rider" as a child, while another rats out her young daughter, who was singing "She's got a chicken to ride, and she don't care" in the backseat.
Then there are obscure geographical references. Take the Pretenders' "Middle of the Road," in which Chrissie Hynde comes to grips with the fact that she is in her 30s and has children and can't throw down the way she used to do. At one point she snarls, "I don't mean a Hampstead nursery," which I thought for years was "I don't need a hamster -- no siree!" And of course, Chrissie Hynde was never the hamster type, so that kinda made sense, but on the other hand, we can't imagine her saying "no siree" under any circumstances.
And at other times, the fault lies with the singers and songwriters. Sometimes the words don't make much sense until we rearrange them into something a little more logical, and at other times we just can't understand the mush-mouthed singers, and in yet other cases, both slurring singer and cryptic writer combine to give you a real titan of a mondegreen.
Space does not permit a discussion of the true royals in this field -- people like Kurt Cobain, Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan, and Eddie Vedder. We'll save those for another article, and we'd like your help. Send your best mondegreens to us, along with your excruciating, toe-curlingly humiliating tales of singing them in front of people.