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.