Friday, December 07, 2007

Good Tune, Bad Lyric

In a previous post I mentioned the poor lyrics written for the M*A*S*H theme song by Robert Altman's son, Mike Altman. It's not Mike Altman's fault -- he was only 14 at the time. But it must have been hard on the composer, Johnny Mandel, to come up with such a good tune and have it matched to incomprehensible lyrics and a song title that guaranteed that no one would ever sing it ("and now, our number-one feel-good hit, 'Suicide is Painless!'"). At least the TV show separated the tune from the lyric and made it a popular instrumental.

Does anybody have any other examples of really good tunes, tunes that had what it took to become hits, that were ruined by terrible lyric writing? I'll update this post when I think of a few more, but feel free to offer your own choices.

Update: Great responses. One example I thought of was a tune called "The Pussy Foot" from the musical Goldilocks, about which I wrote previously. Leroy Anderson's tune is one of the best of his long career, so irresistibly catchy that he used it to begin and end the overture. But the song could never become a hit, because the lyrics -- by Walter and Jean Kerr -- are like so:

It don't behoove a lady to lie,
There is no other pussy like I,
Strutting down the alley.
Debonair, nose in air,
I am rather a wow.
Such a dish, so delish,
You may wish to meow.

In defence of the Kerrs, this isn't so much a garden-variety bad lyric as a deliberately bad or at least goofy lyric, a parody of dance-sensation songs. Still, it killed a potential hit tune.


J Lee said...

Ever see the lyrics Gene Roddenberry penned for Alexander Courage's Star Trek theme, just so he could share in the royalty rights? Pretty awful, and Gene wasn't some 14-year-old nepotism hire, but was already collecting cash off the rest of the production.

Anonymous said...

How about:

My own true love
My own true love
At last I've found you
My own true love

No lips but yours
No arms but yours
Will ever lead me
Through Heaven's doors

I roamed the Earth
In search of this
I knew I'd know you
Know you by your kiss

And by your kiss
You've shown true love
I'm yours forever
My own true love

My own true love

Anonymous said...

Alright Jeff, I had to do a quick Google search to see what you were talking about and....ods my bodkins. I can't believe those were the words given to Tara's Theme.

For years, I've had my own words, and I like them better:

Gone With the Wind
Gone With the Wind
Gone With the Wi-ind
Gone With the Wind

Jon88 said...

We got a right to pick a little fight, Bonanza....

Larry Levine said...

Batman..Batman..Batman, Batman, Batman..

Confound it, I forgot the rest of the lyrics..oh wait, now I remember--


Anonymous said...


Are you kidding? Those lyrics made that song LEGENDARY. Even The Who covered it!

Anonymous said...


I've always had a theory that good (well, popular) movie theme music has a phrase against which the title fits well. Maybe this comes from seeing the Bill Murray lounge singer sketch too early in my youth:

Star Wars, Nothing But Star Wars
Give Me those Star Wars
Don't let them end

Oh Star Wars
If they should bar wars
Please let these Star wars stay

And hey!
How bout that nutty star wars bar
Can you forget all the creatures in there

And Hey!
Darth Vader in that black and evil mask
Did he scare you as much as he scared me

Star Wars those here in Bar wars
My 7th Winter up here!!
Star Wars!

I wish I cold think of a legitimate example.

Unknown said...

This Land Is Mine, the lyric Pat Boone stuck on to the theme from Exodus, has always stuck in my craw for various reasons.

Some years ago, I wrote a lyric to Hawaii 5-0. If I can find it, I'll post it

Jon88 said...

Noel Katz? "The" Noel Katz? Whose wife appears in "Wordplay"?

Anonymous said...

j lee said: "Ever see the lyrics Gene Roddenberry penned for Alexander Courage's Star Trek theme, just so he could share in the royalty rights? Pretty awful, and Gene wasn't some 14-year-old nepotism hire, but was already collecting cash off the rest of the production."

That's not quite right. Generally you don't make a profit off a TV show until years later, in syndicated reruns (and these days in home-video sales). Making a TV series is always a gamble, a hope that it'll do well enough in the long term to recoup its losses in the present. Roddenberry had no idea whether Star Trek would succeed or flop, so he figured the only sure way he could make a cent off of it was by writing lyrics for the theme and thereby getting half of the royalties for sheet-music sales.

Now, Courage has said he had no problem with that in and of itself. He would've been happy to help Roddenberry write good, viable lyrics so it could actually work as a song. What bothered him was the fact that GR made no attempt to make them viable lyrics, but just slapped something together so he could get the money.

For the record, the lyrics are:

Beyond the rim of the starlight
My love is wand'ring in starflight.
I know he'll find in star-clustered reaches
Love, strange love a star-woman teaches.

I know his journey ends never.
His star trek will go on forever.
But tell him, as he wanders his starry sea,
Remember, remember me.

There are some clear rookie mistakes there, like forcing double syllables to go with single notes in the melody (starlight, starflight, never, forever, tell him) and having sustained final notes end in a Z sound (reachezzz, teachezzz).

Anonymous said...

I don't know if these count because they both sound like spoofs to me but how about Sammy Davis Jr.'s "You can count on me" and this attempt to add lyrics to the Quincy opening titles

Anonymous said...

How about "every hit Elton John ever had"? My favorite Bernie Taupin nightmare to end all Bernie Taupin nightmares: the second stanza of "Rocket Man" ...

"Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids
In fact, it's cold as hell
And there's no one there to raise them if you did
And all this science I don't understand
It's just my job five days a week
A Rocket Man, Rocket Man."

Where do I begin ...

1) Nice rhyme scheme, Bernie.

2) Nice scansion, too.


4) I think you have to have gotten at least a C-plus in science in order to be an astronaut.

5) If it's "just your job five days a week," then why have you spent the previous three minutes of the song whining about how you "think it's gonna be a long long time" before you get home?

6) Famous Lyricist School, Lesson 31: "If you're so out of ideas that you're talking about the lack of babysitters on Mars, just repeat the title of the song twice to close out the stanza."

"Thru early morning fog I see" is sounding a lot better now, isn't it? :)

Michael Jones said...

If you could convince Shatner to sing the theme then it would be platinum selling!

Michael Sporn said...

The excellent actor, Ken Prymus, sang "Suicide Is Painless" and played the character "Private Seidman" with a couple of small screen appearances in the film. His voice was also heard making announcements on the loud speaker.
A lot of Ken's work has been on stage in "The Wiz" "Cats" and a number of other musicals.
Somehow I think the lyrics worked well enough for the film, though obviously wouldn't have gone far beyond it. Was that Altman's point?

Canzler Tree Services said...

Ladies and gentlemen, "The Beat Goes On" by the late Honorable Sonny Bono (R-California):

"And men still keep on marching off to war;
'Lectrically they keep a baseball score!"

Anonymous said...


7) Since when is Hell supposed to be cold?