11 Obscure References in Classic Songs—Explained!

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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.

Any pop culture-y or historical references or odd words in songs you’ve always wondered about? (Other than “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” of course; I’m not here to do your homework!) I am your humble research servant, please inquire away!

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January 11, 2013 - 7:08pm
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