21 Obscure References in Classic Songs—Explained!

We've all heard these classic pop and rock hits a thousand times. But even if you know all the words, do you know what they were about?

1. "You’re So Vain," Carly Simon

“You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte.”

The gavotte is a French folk dance that was popular in the late 16th century. It was somewhat majestic and pose-y, long before vogueing came into … well, vogue. Simon has stated in interviews that she pictured the character in her song making a dramatic entrance, one hand raised and the other on his hip, much like those elegant pantaloon-wearing Baroque folks did back in the day.

2. "The Joker," The Steve Miller Band

“Some people call me Maurice, ‘cause I speak of the pompatus of love.”

“Pompatus” is, indeed, a made-up word, but Mr. Miller didn’t exactly coin it. He has admitted in the past to have been influenced by a 1954 doo-wop hit by the Medallions called “The Letter.” Written by Vernon Green, the song contains the line “Oh my darling, let me whisper sweet words of pizmotality and discuss the puppetutes of love.” According to Green, he’d made up the word “puppetutes” to describe his fantasy paper-doll, or puppet-like, girl. In a “’scuse me while I kiss this guy” moment, Miller transposed “puppetutes” into “pompatus.”

3, 4, and 5. "Down Under," Men at Work

“Traveling in a fried-out Kombi” ... “He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich” ... “Where beer does flow and men chunder”

This tune is full of Australian slang, which is what made much of it indecipherable to those of us above the Equator. A “Kombi” is what is officially called a Volkswagen Type 2 in Oz, but the nickname comes from its German moniker: Kombinationskraftwagen. Americans know it better as a VW Microbus.

Vegemite is an Aussie favorite—a spreadable paste made from brewer’s yeast, vegetables, wheat, and some assorted spices. They slather it on toast, hide it inside pastries, and layer it between slices of bread to make a delectable sandwich.

Chunder is what a lot of folks do after consuming too much beer, or other alcohol, or spoiled food, or during a bout of the flu. In other words, el barfo.

6. "Surfin’ USA," The Beach Boys

“You'd see 'em wearin' their baggies, Huarache sandals, too”

“Baggies” were the boxer-style bathing suits preferred by surfer dudes over the traditional Speedo-type form-fitting model. The extra fabric helped to prevent surfboard wax from painfully ripping out upper-leg hair when the surfer rose from a sitting to a standing position. Huarache is a type of woven leather sandal, one that’s actually closer to a shoe than a sandal. One that, I cringe to report, my Dad used to wear with socks (“Support plus absorption equals comfort.”)

7. "Jailhouse Rock," Elvis Presley

“The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang”

Thanks to its proximity to Windsor, Ontario, Canada, Detroit was an important stop on the Underground Booze Railroad during Prohibition. Liquor, legal in Canada, was smuggled across the Ambassador Bridge or even driven in Model Ts across the frozen Detroit River during the winter, where it then generally ended up in the hands of the notorious Purple Gang. What Al Capone and his gang were to Chicago, Sammie Cohen, the Bernstein brothers, and the rest of the Purples were to Detroit. The Purple Gang started out as a pipeline for Canadian whiskey to Capone, but eventually a turf war ensued.

8. "Hotel California," The Eagles

“Warm smell of colitas rising up through the air”

According to the Eagles’ then-manager, “colitas” was explained to Don Henley and Glenn Frey as literally meaning “little buds” by their Mexican-American road manager, and further as Spanish slang for “marijuana.”

9 and 10. "Bohemian Rhapsody," Queen

“Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?” ... “Bismillah! No!”

Scaramouche is a traditional clown character featured in Italian commedia dell'arte. He is a stock character in Punch and Judy shows and often gets his head knocked off of his shoulders by Punch. The fandango is a lively couples dance usually accompanied by guitars, hand claps and castanets.

"Bismillah" is an Arabic word that means "in the name of God." It is used at the head of almost every chapter in the Holy Quran.

11. "I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)," The Proclaimers

“And if I haver, yeah I know I'm gonna be, I'm gonna be the man who's havering to you.”

Thanks to the thick Scottish accents of Charlie and Craig Reid, “haver” actually sounds like “heaver,” which makes one think of chundering (see above). However, in Scotland and northern England, to haver is simply to talk nonsense or babble.

12. "We're an American Band," Grand Funk Railroad

“Sweet, sweet Connie, doin' her act, She had the whole show and that's a natural fact.”
“Up all night with Freddie King; I got to tell you, poker's his thing.”

Drummer Don Brewer wrote this tune during Grand Funk’s 1972 tour. “Sweet” Connie Hamzy is one of rock ‘n roll’s most notorious groupies, and by her account she’s enjoyed the company of The Who, Neil Diamond, the Allman Brothers, the Eagles, and Led Zeppelin (to name just a few) when they passed through her hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas. Hamzy stated in a 1992 Penthouse article that she’d also gotten up close and personal with Bill Clinton when he was the Governor of The Natural State.

Blues singer Freddie King was Grand Funk’s opening act on that tour, and his regular post-show ritual included a few high-stakes hands of poker.

13. "Sweet Home Alabama," Lynyrd Skynyrd

“I hope Neil Young will remember a Southern man don't need him around anyhow”… “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers”

Canadian singer/songwriter Neil Young’s song “Southern Man” (from his 1970 album After the Gold Rush) was highly critical of the American South, making reference to things like cross burnings and cracking bullwhips. Skynyrd didn’t cotton to some bacon-loving francophone disrespecting Dixie and took him to task in their 1974 hit. The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama, was founded in 1969 by a group of backing musicians who called themselves the Swampers. The quartet had defected from the nearby FAME Studios to set up their own studio and they eventually became the first rhythm section to own their own studio, production and publication companies.

14. “Brass in Pocket,” The Pretenders

“Got brass in pocket, got bottle, I’m gonna use it”
“Been driving, Detroit leaning”… “Got a new skank, so reet”

Even though lead singer Chrissie Hynde grew up in Akron, Ohio, she picked up some local slang when she moved to London in 1973 to form a new band. “Brass in pocket” is British slang for money (it originally referred to the color of the gold coins), and “bottle” means courage. The “Detroit lean” refers to the Motown habit of driving with one hand on the steering wheel while slouching slightly to the right. “Skanking” is a dance step in which the body moves from side to side, and “reet” means cool, or righteous.

15. "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," Billy Joel

“Maybe I should buy some old tab collars?” … “How about a pair of pink sidewinders and a bright orange pair of pants? You could really be a Beau Brummel, baby”

Joel’s tribute to substance over style hit number one in the summer of 1980. The lyrics mention all sorts of trends, both in fashion and music, beginning with a classic tab-collared shirt. This style of men’s dress shirt has two small fabric tabs in the middle of the collar points that are meant to connect to push the tie knot up and out. Sidewinders are a style of slip-on shoe: Some were sneakers, and others were more dressy leather loafers, but the pink variety more likely referred to the canvas-topped version. George “Beau” Brummell was the arbiter of men’s fashion in Regency England. He is credited with making trousers (as opposed to knee breeches and stockings) standard wear, along with a crisp, ironed shirt, tailored suitcoat and knotted necktie.

16. “Killer Queen,” Queen

“She keeps a Moët et Chandon in her pretty cabinet”

Freddie Mercury has said that this 1974 hit was about a “high-class call girl,” so it makes sense that she would keep a bottle of very expensive champagne in her liquor cabinet. The Moët et Chandon winery was established in 1743 and currently holds a Royal Warrant to supply their bubbly to Queen Elizabeth II.

17. "Down on the Corner," Creedence Clearwater Revival

“Blinky thumps the gut bass and solos for a while. Poorboy twangs the rhythm out on his kalamazoo.”

The gut bass as a musical instrument was simply an overturned metal washtub used as a resonator for a broomstick with one or more strings attached to it to make the sound of a bass violin. The Gibson Guitar Corporation was founded in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1902, and for many years the city’s imprint was stamped on all of their guitars and mandolins.

18. “Sweet Emotion,” Aerosmith

“Tellin' other things, but your girlfriend lied; Can't catch me cause the rabbit done died.”

Until home pregnancy tests became commonplace, a woman had to make an appointment with a doctor to determine whether or not she was with child. The standard method was the so-called “rabbit test,” which involved the doctor injecting the patient’s urine into the ovaries of a female rabbit and then waiting 48 hours or more for the telltale changes which signaled the presence of the hCG hormone. Of course, the phrase “the rabbit died” itself was a misnomer because, regardless of the outcome, the bunny was already deceased prior to its ovaries being removed for testing purposes. But the phrase was commonly used, and it worked lyrically in this case to indicate that just because Girlfriend was in a family way, Boyfriend could not automatically assume that Steven Tyler was the father.

19. "Wrapped Around Your Finger," The Police

“You consider me the young apprentice caught between the Scylla and Charybdis.”

“Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis” is a fancy-schmancy way of saying “between a rock and a hard place” if you’re a student of Greek mythology. According to Homer’s Odyssey, Scylla and Charybdis were two sea monsters who lived within an arrow shot’s distance on opposite sides of a strait that was an important means of passage for sailors of that era.

20. "Jack and Diane," John Cougar Mellencamp

“Let's run off behind a shady tree, dribble off those Bobbie Brooks let me do what I please.”

The “let me do what I please,” added to the stealth of doing so behind a tree, makes it fairly obvious that the singer has less than noble intentions. If any further evidence was needed for his motives, let the record show that Bobbie Brooks was and is the name of a clothing line that was founded in 1939. Their most popular and enduring item, though, is a selection of blue jeans that are now sold exclusively at Dollar General stores.

21. "Werewolves of London," Warren Zevon

“I saw Lon Chaney, Jr. walking with the Queen doing the werewolves of London. I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic's…”

Lon Chaney, born Leonidas Frank Chaney, was a silent film actor who was known for playing “grotesque” characters such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. Thanks to his ability to transform his visage so drastically with makeup, he was known as “The Man of 1000 Faces.” His son carried on the family tradition, playing monsters in many Mummy, Frankenstein, Werewolf and Dracula movies in the 1930s and '40s. Trader Vic’s is a restaurant chain that at one time (during the Tiki craze of the 1950s) had 25 Polynesian-themed upscale eateries worldwide. Founder Victor Bergeron was one of two people who claimed to be the creator of the Mai Tai cocktail.

18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer

iStock/MCCAIG
iStock/MCCAIG

Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. Rosé Wine Glasses; $60 for Two

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon

2. Nerf N-Strike Elite Surgefire; $19

Nerf SurgeFire
Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

Find It: Walmart

3. Bushel & Berry Plants; $34

plant
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

Find It: Amazon

4. Inflatable Donut; $11

An inflatable pool toy shaped like a pink donut with sprinkles
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

Find It: Amazon

5. Star Spangled Spatula; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked … with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon

6. Mlb Hot Dog Branders; $6 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders (which come in a variety of different designs repping teams across the country) from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

Find It: Amazon

7. Una Grill; $145

grill
MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, on your deck, or anywhere in between.

Find It: Una

8. Hamburger Grilling Basket; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

Find It: Amazon or Walmart

9. Copper Fire Pit; $120

metal fire pit
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

Find It: Amazon

10. Bendy Straw Pool Noodle Float; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

Find It: Amazon

11. Griddler Deluxe; $115

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon

12. Vintage Snow Cone Maker; $32

Vintage Snow Cone Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

Find It: Amazon

13. Dachshund Corn On The Cob Holders; $6

Dog Corn Holders
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

Find It: Amazon

14. Ice Cream Sandwich Maker; $20

Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

Find It: Amazon

15. Ue Wonderboom; $62

Bluetooth speaker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable Bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

Find It: Amazon

16. Rollors Game; $50

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

Find It: Amazon

17. Hammock; $177

hammock
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

Find It: Amazon

18. VSSL Survival Essentials; $45

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Moosejaw

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

A version of this story first ran in 2018. It has been updated to reflect current availability.

11 Unusual Cutting and Cheese Boards

Fred & Friends, Amazon
Fred & Friends, Amazon

Planning a wine and cheese party? Make sure what you're using to serve snacks is just as cute as your food is delicious.

1. Mouse Trap; $21

A cheese board shaped like a mouse trap

Fred & Friends, Amazon

At first glance, this item just looks like an oversized mouse trap. Ingeniously, the snapping part of the trap can be removed to reveal it's actually a cheese slicer. A chunk of cheese can be displayed and sliced on the 9-inch-long board—just don't invite any mice to the party.

Find it: Amazon

2. MOUSE BOARD; $30

A board shaped like a mouse hole with a mouse-shaped cheese cutter on top

Fred & Friends, Amazon

If a mouse trap is a little too macabre for your shindig, consider this adorable alternative. Assemble your cheeses on the 8-inch-long board and slice them up with a mouse-shaped knife that can be stored in the Tom and Jerry-esque mouse hole at the bottom.

Find it: Amazon

3. STATE SLATE; $20

Cheese and crackers arrayed on a slate cheese board

Bison Hill Stonecrafts, Amazon

Celebrate cheese from all over the United States with this patriotic slate. You can even grab a piece of chalk and write down the names of all the cheeses for hungry guests. Creator Bison Hill Stonecrafts will even personalize your board with a laser engraving, if you'd like.

Find it: Amazon

4. Log and Axe; $25

A cheese board shaped like a cut tree trunk

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Give your cheese a rustic presentation with this log and axe set-up. The solid beech cutting board is shaped like a log and comes with an axe-shaped knife to help you bring out your inner lumberjack.

Find it: Amazon

5. Mariner Wheel; $35

Invite all your sailor friends over for snacks with this nautical cheese board. When each of the four differently-shaped knives are placed into their respective holes in the board, the board looks like a ship's wheel.

Find it: UncommonGoods

6. Cheese Degrees; $20

A cutting board with a protractor design

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Make sure everyone gets an even amount of cheese with this obsessively precise cutting board. Whether you want perfect cubes or exactly portioned triangles, this cheese board can help ensure that everything is perfectly sliced.

Find it: Amazon

7. The States; $28

A cheese board in the shape of New York state

Amy Stringer-Mowat and Bill Mowat, UncommonGoods

Celebrate your home state with a bamboo cutting board created by New York-based woodworkers Amy Stringer-Mowat and Bill Mowat. You can see all the available state shapes in this PDF.

Find it: UncommonGoods

8. Voodoo Doll; $20

Pull out this voodoo doll-shaped board when you're feeling a little vindictive. You can hack away at meats and cheese and then store the knife appropriately in the wooden doll's back.

Find it: Overstock.com

9. Ampersand; $48

Delight your guests with some knowledge about where the ampersand comes from while using this board, which lets you fill a twisting line of crackers around three different cheeses.

Find it: UncommonGoods

10. Say Cheese; $19

A cheese board shaped like a smiling mouth

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Smile! It's cheese time. This mouth-shaped cheese board looks just as happy about the selection as you do. Underneath all the food, the board says "say cheese" in the center.

Find it: Amazon

11. The Obsessive Chef; $27

A cutting board with measurements on it

Fred & Friends, Amazon

This product comes with a series of lines to guide the cutter, including how to medium dice, small dice, brunoise, fine brunoise, batonnet, allumette, julienne, and fine julienne. The lines are burnished instead of printed, so they'll never get worn away.

Find it: Amazon or at one of the retailers below:

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

A version of this article first ran in 2017. It has been updated to reflect current availability.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER