We’ve all had the experience of mishearing song lyrics, sometimes spending years or decades with our strange, faulty interpretations. The best examples are well-known, and sometimes humorous, like Jimi Hendrix singing “‘Scuse me, while I kiss this guy”. Occasionally, the meaning of an entire song can be misconstrued; according to Bryan Adams, the title of the song “Summer of ’69” is a reference to the sexual position, information which, given the overall innocent and nostalgic vibe of the song, I choose to regard as disingenuous.
The song I’ve been most wrong about, though, also happens to be one of my all-time favorites—it earned that position even when I had a fuzzy idea (at best) of its content, and has maintained its rank even after the true nature of that content was made clear. Or at least, clearer.
One of the casualties of the digital revolution in music was a little thing called liner notes, and where a freshly pressed 1996 store-bought CD of Sing to God by the band Cardiacs might have provided song lyrics to puzzle over during those first exploratory listens, I discovered the band about 10 years later, via internet download— if I recall correctly, the album in question wasn’t even in print at the time. Listening to music mostly via iPod while walking or driving made finding a copy of the lyrics less of a priority; the thought only occurred to me in inconvenient places, and any mental note—”I really should look up these lyrics one of these days”—was promptly forgotten upon arrival at whatever destination.
“Cardiacs” sounds like the name of a punk band, and they were—but they were also much more. The group is credited with inventing a style later dubbed “pronk”—progressive punk—which had a lot of the anything-goes spirit of punk, but also great attention to composition and instrumental dexterity, attributes that weren’t typical of that genre. The band was utterly unique, with songs that rewarded the listener viscerally on a first listen, and intellectually on a hundredth.
“Dirty Boy” stood out immediately. The opening guitar commands attention, and it’s the kind of stirring, slow-building, steadily chord-changing song that gradually raises the emotional stakes, finally rising to a frenzied wail (made more otherworldly by the use of a repeating loop). Lead singer Tim Smith’s heavy British accent (“Estuary English”, I’ve heard it called) and obtuse songwriting style (having once written a song composed entirely of words from the inside lid of a Scrabble game, for example) made catching meaning from bits of lyrics tricky at best, but one phrase kept repeating clearly: “We will praise him”.
Given the band’s punk mentality, the line reminded me of Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar—faint praise at best; bitterly sarcastic, more likely. So who was it directed to? Who does one praise? A father, headmaster, boss? God? This latter interpretation resonated and, given the grand musical ambition of the song, also seemed to fit.
There were other clues amid the few discernible vocals: the phrase “Clear him of all sins”, for example, which certainly had a religious connotation. And then there were the other bits that I either couldn’t make out clearly or that just didn’t seem to make much sense: What, for example, was a “craggy dress”?
The music, meanwhile, escalated.
This was my interpretation of the song, then, developed through dozens, if not hundreds of listens over the following months: an anti-religious anthem that swelled with the kind of soaring music once reserved for relgiious hymns played on massive organs in cathedrals. It was all very ironic—the title of the album, remember, is Sing to God—and it was also very satisfying.
And then one day, that interpretation was thrown for a loop.
Browsing the internet in search of news regarding the band, I saw a comment referring to “Dirty Boy”. I don’t recall the exact quote, but it was something like, “pretty good for a song about wanking off”.
Again, we’re talking about a band whose primary songwriter often created lyrics by rearranging words and phrases from various sources, drawing from John Milton, poet George Darley, and a hilariously awful 19th century Portuguese-to-English phrase book, among many others. So there was no need to rethink things just yet; it was very possible, and perhaps probable, that the commenter was either joking or just misinterpreting. But the song title was “Dirty Boy”, wasn’t it? What first seemed like a general criticism of religious supplication might instead be a targeted defense of one particular sexual act. It threatened to dramatically diminish what I had created in my own mind; jokes about “massive organs” began to threaten at the fringes.
For a while, I tried to block it out of my mind; I was curious, sure, but why ruin a good thing? The next few weeks of nagging doubts proved too much, however, and I decided to delve into the tangled mess of meaning and nonsense that was the ultimate Cardiacs song.
Looking up the lyrics—finally—shed some light on the matter. But not much. I have Steve Eaton, a musician and fellow Cardiacs fan, to thank for a detailed analysis,which I’ve incorporated into the series of short summaries below:
We cut all his eyes we did
Squeezed the lids and down the grog into hole
He skip with cow eyed smile to the blissful
Into craggy dress and WE WILL WE PRAISE HIM
WE WILL PRAISE HIM off his pins
Clear him of all sins
Seems to support the force-feeding of religion as much as any other interpretation…
Oh my! We sang with strength to carry on
Encouraged him to sing along
We sang of all the world and praised him HOORAY!
Stay alive to live or without
And he is down all over and out
Parents with a son, doing their best to raise him properly, i.e. religiously..?
Watch us hang on shoulders as tall as gold as
Feely hand and finger around all we
And look to see if we care if he is heaven sent or
Hell bent but WE WILL PRAISE HIM
WE WILL PRAISE HIM ALL AWAY
Praise him all away
My arms chancing and you will no way
Live long enough to repay me
I praise you anyway always
Wipes last with brown and pale
Dirty Boy he gone all stale
Hmm. “Feely hand and finger around”? Seems the lad has fallen out of grace as he’s gotten older, but they still love him anyway.
And down the stair and hallway crawling
And pig and toast and kitchen brawling
Night-time days are all weekless
Alarm charm, he’s all up and dressed
He dirty boy, he bathroom dances
And check his jam and breathe on glasses
Spiny grip brings all off ‘Mr.Regal jelly’ in hand
Warm feel and suck regal man suck bland
Suck bland away and he a sleepy cow-eyed dog
He treading soft sand
Um. (Ahem.) OK. This is clearly a song about wanking. Among other things.
Kiss and stroke and praise him
STROKE AND PRAISE HIM
All is worth a kiss
Not how to cleanse
And fowl preserver of sick somehow don’t worry now
Hold his mouth and stop him breathing
Over and out
The parents, having had quite enough of their little serial offender, have decided that the best way to handle this situation is… to kill him.
How had I never noticed any of this? Mr. Eaton’s interpretation seemed to hold up under scrutiny.
On the one hand, I wished I’d never plucked this particular apple from the Tree of Knowledge. And yet, on the other, did it matter at all? Yes, the song had gone from a grand-scale lament of the human condition to a much smaller-in-scope tale of three fictional people; but it was never really just about the lyrics, was it?
A guy named David Minnick did a nearly a cappella version of the song, which makes it easier to discern vocals, but while it’s a very cool and creative cover, it definitely falls short of the original. By way of comparison, I used an online tool to (mostly) scrub the vocals and create an instrumental version, with similar results.
“Dirty Boy”, to a large extent, defies analysis. In the strange and magical mathematics of song, human voice plus music yields something much greater than the sum of its parts. Would it be the same if the lyrics were just random words from the dictionary, sung identically?
It didn’t matter if I’d been off in my interpretation, the same way it didn’t matter if the majority of people chose to interpret Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a patriotic song, instead of a bitter account of the country’s shortcomings. They like the song, and it has meaning for them. The artist gives it to the world, and the world does what it will with it; the artist can instruct or direct that interpretation till the cows come home, but the meaning is flexible, different for every person, in an endless array of combinations.
So is it a song about wanking? “Dirty Boy” lasts nearly nine minutes start to finish, enough time to raise a listener’s level of excitement, build to a near-frenzy, reach the climax, and then collapse, spent, into quiet bliss. Make of it what you will.