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Last Updated: Monday, 12 May, 2003, 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK
The joy of lyrics
By Paul Rubens

"Pardon?" "What?"
Ever searched for that infuriating song lyric you couldn't quite make out? If the music industry gets its way, you had better sort it out while you still can.

"OK - let's make this the big one, frubmlub."

Trying to figure out that last word, the opening line from John Otway's classic 1975 song Beware of the Flowers (Cos I'm Sure They're Gonna Get You, Yeh) nearly drove me mad for 20 years.

I must have listened to the first few seconds of the record thousands of times but I could never quite make out what "frubmlub" really was.

Then one day in 1996, on a small website set up by Otway himself, I came across his e-mail address.

Sometimes you can be listening to a song and you just can't understand a word being sung, or you can't make out if the guy is singing 'woof woof woof' or 'who? who? who?'
Darryl Ballantyne, Lyricfind
So I sent him a message asking him what the word that sounded like "frubmlub" really was, and, amazingly, a few days later back came an e-mail from the one-hit-wonder himself (his "Cor Baby That's Really Free" reached number 27 in the charts in 1977) with the answer I'd been seeking all these years.

It turns out that I'm not alone in becoming obsessed with hard-to-make-out lyrics - millions of people around the world have wasted thousands of man-hours pondering over the exact wording of songs, probably ever since the invention of the record player.

To the rescue

The good news is that the internet has come to the rescue: over the last few years dozens of websites and discussion groups have sprung up devoted to speculating on what thousands of mysterious song lines, or single words, might be.

Screengrab from mLyrics.com
That song isn't funny anymore
Most also offer lyrics to entire songs, transcribed and contributed by visitors to the sites, and for those driven to distraction by a line from a song buzzing round their heads - with no way of identifying what the name of the tune is - help is at hand in the form of search engines which take the words you know and come up with the song that they are from.

There's no doubt that song lyric angst is a major phenomenon - the most popular lyrics sites reportedly get hundreds of thousands of visitors every day - but people want to get their hands on lyrics for many different reasons, according to Darryl Ballantyne, president and CEO of Toronto, Canada-based web site lyricfind.com inc.

"Sometimes you can be listening to a song and you just can't understand a word being sung, or you can't make out if the guy is singing 'woof woof woof' or 'who? who? who?', which can really drive you nuts," he says.

"Or you might have a song in your head but are driven to distraction because you don't know what it is - if you could only figure it out you could go and buy it. We also get a lot of musicians who just want the complete lyrics to a song so they can perform it."

Different versions

Ballantyne says many visitors want to see the lyrics to controversial songs by artistes such as Eminem.

Just because there is no central licensing body it doesn't make it right to take lyrics and publish them without permission
Sarah Faulder, MPA
"His songs contain such bad language that they play different versions on the radio. With Eminem the radio versions are so different from the album versions that people want to read what the real lyrics are."

People also look for lyrics on the web to avoid embarrassing themselves by singing the wrong words in front of the mirror and being overheard by friends. There are whole sites devoted to misheard lyrics, including kissthisguy.com, inspired by Jimi Hendrix's famous "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky" - often misheard as "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy."

Bad news

Common mistakes include "Street lights - they're the only lights I know" in place of "Streetlife, it's the only life I know" in Randy Crawford's hit Streetlife, and even "Australians all love ostriches" for "Australians all, let us rejoice" in the Australian national anthem.

Jimi Hendrix
Kiss this guy
The bad news for anyone with a troublesome lyric on the brain is that most sites are illegal: Sarah Faulder, chief executive of the Music Publishers Association, says that unless the websites have the permission of the copyright owners to display the lyrics (which most do not), they are breaking the law.

LyricFind's Ballantyne says that getting permission is impractical as there is no central body to approach to license lyrics en masse, but Faulder says this is no excuse for breaching copyright.

"Just because there is no central licensing body it doesn't make it right to take lyrics and publish them without permission. It is as frowned upon as the downloading of music illegally, and when publishers know about these sites they follow them up", she says.

LyricFind has now been forced to remove all lyrics from its site, and others will probably close over the coming months. But with so many people so obviously interested in lyrics, more legitimate sites are bound to emerge - if only because there is money to be made from them by the copyright owners.

And in case you're interested, John Otway had another hit last year with Bunsen Burner, so technically now he's a two-hit wonder. And that "frubmlub" noise? It turned out to be "for Otway". Obvious really.

Add your comments to this story using the form below.

For many years I sang "I love your erection" to the Human League's Love Action......& yet even though I know now what it is, I still hear myself singing my own lyrics!
Sue, Isle of Man

Who can forget Billy Ocean with "...go and get stuffed"?

One of my friends tells me that for years he thought that the Weather Girls were actually singing "Israeli men, Hallelujah!, Israeli men...", he couldn't understand what all the fuss was about.
Barnaby Moffat, UK

At the end of Norwegian Wood by The Beatles, does the song go: "So I lit a fire, isn't it good, Norwegian wood" or: "So I let her fly, isn't it good, Norwegian wood"? It's been the point of an argument I've been having for years. I swear it's a beautiful but nasty wee song about revenge, but some friends disagree.
Kirsten , Scotland

Looks like we'll have to wait for the Karaoke version to find out what the real lyrics are.
Derek, UK

Anyone who has ever used the internet to find lyrics will know that it can be a pretty soul-destroying experience. Even so-called "official" band webpages have "mondegreens" (misheard lyrics) printed in them, or worse still, only a weblink to an amateur site with incorrect lyrics! As for the worst offenders for not pronouncing their words coherently, I reckon that Elton John can make just about any word sound like just about any other word. His CDs should be labelled 'Digitally Remumbled'!
Chris Syme, London, UK

You can't beat Adam and the Ants... Stand on your Liver
Dean, UK

My wife used to sing "Who you gonna call - those bast***s!" believing that to be the correct lyrics to the ghostbusters theme song :)
Nicholas Penney, UK

Derek, UK - Karaoke versions are not reliable! I recall a karaoke version of Radiohead's "Creep" which replaced the lyrics "I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo" with "I'm a creep, I'm a widow"!
Russ, UK

No-one who was seven when Queen released Bohemian Rhapsody can deny thinking that the protaganist was 'sparing his life for his one sausage-eee'.
Peter Stevens, UK

I've just finished reading a biography of Paul McCartney, and the man himself confirms that Norwegian Wood is about setting the place alight in revenge!
Gill Clark, Surrey, UK

My dad had a Kenny Rogers tape (yes it's sad I know) and the lyrics of one of the songs went "You picked a fine time to leave me Lucile, four hungry children and a crop in the field" but because of his Texan accent I thought it went, "four hundred children and a crap in the field"!
Dan, Scotland

And surely I wasn't the only one who thought Sting was singing "Sue Lawley" and not "So Lonely".....
Sam , UK

I think it was Jasper Carrot who mused on Bohemian Rhapsody having the line "...and a devil put a sideboard here..."
Craig Lloyd, Japan

I could never understand why Enya sang "stay away, stay away, stay away" in the chorus of Orinoco Flow. Apparently it was "sail away", but I prefer my version, it has more bite.
Dylan, France

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