Top 10 Songs With Titles That Don’t Appear in the Lyrics
By Pauline France
The meaning behind song titles can be obvious, but it can also be entirely cryptic, leaving listeners puzzled and intrigued.
We dug through hundreds of songs looking for titles found nowhere in the lyrics and looking for the back-story on how these unsung titles came to be. There are quite a lot of them, actually, and you’ll be surprised to learn where some of the names came from.
1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana). This instantly recognizable early-’90s grunge-rock juggernaut got its title when one of Kurt Cobain’s friends, Bikini Kill vocalist Kathleen Hanna, spray-painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on a wall. Cobain, unaware at the time that Teen Spirit was actually an underarm deodorant, interpreted Hanna’s artwork as having a deeper meaning than it actually did. You can easily be forgiven for not realizing this title isn’t in the lyric, because, frankly, who could decipher the lyrics to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the first place anyway?
2. “Black Dog” (Led Zeppelin). Sure, it’s a classic rock gem with surely one of the most killer, instantly recognizable and tortuously rhythmic riffs ever, but good luck finding an ebony canine mentioned anywhere between Jimmy Page’s guitar-warmup intro and the wailing outro solo. There are lyrics about an alluring woman, but no dogs anywhere in sight. The title is said to refer to a stray black Labrador retriever seen wandering around the Headley Grange studios where Zep recorded their fourth album in 1970. Go figure.
3. “Baba O’Riley” (the Who). Get this: The first part of the title refers to Pete Townshend’s spiritual mentor at the time (early 1970s), Meher Baba, and the second part pays homage to experimental composer Terry Riley. Neither is mentioned by name in the lyric, however. In “Baba O’Riley” Townshend fused the inspiration he found in both of these influential figures, making unusual use of the synthesizer and writing bigger-than-life riffs and lyrics (but the Irish-stomp violin solo at the end was Moon’s idea). Most of the rest of us, however, simply know this epic Who bash-fest as that “teenage wasteland” song.
4. “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen). This classic 1975 operatic-rock masterpiece has no trace of the song title in its lyrics, although it technically is a sort of rhapsody and many rock stars of the era certainly did seem to have definite bohemian elements in their lives. Never mind all that though—“Bohemian Rhapsody” achieved staggering worldwide success, and then did it again in 1992 when Wayne’s World put it back in the spotlight. It remains an epic groundbreaking work universally hailed as one of the greatest rock songs ever.
5. “For What It’s Worth” (Buffalo Springfield). You might be hard-pressed to find a better example of a song with a lyric phrase more recognizable than the actual title. This is one of the giants, widely recognized for its dual refrains of “Stop, children, what’s that sound?” and “Stop, hey, what’s that sound?” by a great many who have utterly no idea what its actual title is, which, for what it’s worth, happens to be “For What It’s Worth.” Everybody also seems to think it’s a Viet Nam-era anti-war song. It isn’t. Guitarist/vocalist Stephen Stills wrote the song about mid-’60s unrest between law enforcement and youthful club-goers on the Sunset Strip demonstrating against local curfews. As for the never-sung title, it’s said by Stills himself to be purely business-related—having come about when he presented the song to Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun and said, “I have this song here, for what it’s worth, if you want it.”
6. “The Trooper” (Iron Maiden). This fast-paced classic metal hit from 1983 Maiden album Piece of Mind takes its inspiration from the famous 1854 Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War, as previously immortalized in the even-more-famous Lord Tennyson poem. We think the title goes well with the galloping rhythm and killer harmonized riffs; just don’t look for it in the lyrics.
7. “Lovesong” (the Cure). While this title is a little more descriptive and there’s a great story behind it, you won’t find it on a lyric sheet. No matter, though—listeners were drawn to it like Goths to a flame, and it became the Cure’s biggest U.S. hit. Constantly on the road and far, far away from bride Mary Poole, whom he wed in summer 1988, Cure-master Robert Smith wrote sweetly sparkling 1989 hit “Lovesong” to remind her that no matter how far the distance and no matter how long the parting and no matter what anybody says, he will always love her.
8. “Interstate Love Song” (Stone Temple Pilots). A rousing rocker with a can’t-miss riff, this 1994 STP hit laments the lies and broken promises along the lonely and winding road (well, interstate in this case) of failed relationships. Scott Weiland sings of problems he had with his girlfriend because of his troubling drug addiction, but there’s nary a mention of interstate travel here, except maybe for a couple references to a “leavin’ on a southern train.”
9. “Viva la Vida” (Coldplay). “Viva la Vida”—a Spanish phrase meaning “long live life”—takes its name from a painting by acclaimed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Coldplay’s Chris Martin appreciated the painting’s bold spirit and the endurance of the artist, who suffered from serious medical problems. Don’t look for the phrase in the lyrics, though—it’s not there.
10. “Brain Stew” (Green Day). The kings of title-less lyrics appear to be Green Day, who to date have at least 30 such tracks in their repertoire. This one is from 1995 album Insomniac, so named for Billie Joe Armstrong’s own inability to sleep. That’s precisely what the haltingly staccato “Brain Stew” is about, too. Check out the lyrics here.