To bastardise a Trainspotting quote: take the worst quality mp3 you’ve ever heard, multiply it by a thousand and you’re still nowhere near it.
Of all the cultural aspects of a 1970s or 1980s childhood I have to patiently explain to the younger generation – and believe me, the list is long – perhaps the most challenging is medium-wave radio, or as it’s generally termed nowadays, AM (amplitude modulation). The notion of having to enjoy music via such a lo-fi format – and I’m not talking “cool” lo-fi – is as baffling to anyone born after 1995 as the concept of missing your favourite television programme. It is also, unlike mixtapes and visiting the video rental shop, not something looked back on with fondness even by those who experienced it. In fact, having to suffer AM radio at all seems to have been largely forgotten.
Until about 1990, most popular music radio stations in the UK were flung out to the public on AM. Consequently, almost every pop song I heard until I was 16 first reached my ears sounding like someone had wrapped the speakers in a 12 tog duvet. I’m sure this is why I’ve never been remotely moved to debate the sound quality of an mp3, because next to AM radio, listening to even the most compressed of streaming services is like having Nick Drake perform a private concert while Vashti Bunyan gives you a foot massage. But despite its crapness, AM radio had two slightly dubious advantages.
One: when you eventually managed to buy that single you’d heard for weeks on Radio 1, it sounded much more awesome than you’d anticipated, even if your hi-fi was the cheapest Saisho model in the Dixons catalogue. It’s a little remarked-upon fact that after the superior FM (frequency modulation) took over the airwaves in the 90s, your records, cassettes and CDs ceased to sound dramatically better than the versions you’d heard on the wireless, and I’m pretty sure this is one of the reasons music’s physical sales began to decline.
Two: the ridiculously muffled sound rendered many of the songs’ words indecipherable, thus giving birth to the great Twisted Lyric game.
Oh, consider the fun we had! Scratchy radios around the country burbled out the hits of the era, and we wandered around haplessly singing the completely wrong lyrics to everything. BBC Radio 1 DJ Bruno Brookes dedicated an entire, nightly, ten-minute feature to the concept, and even had a weekly Twisted Lyric chart. Let us pause briefly to remind ourselves of some corkers:
⁃ The title line in Billy Idol’s Eyes Without A Face sounded like “how’s about a date”
⁃ The Pointer Sisters’ Jump featured the rather saucy line “if you wanna feel my kisses in the night, dear” – but in my school playground we were definitely singing “if you wannit mate, I’ll give you ’til the 19th”
⁃ “You can feel it all over” from Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke inexplicably became “Mick and Phyllis were lovers”
⁃ Lipps Inc. kicked off their classic Funky Town with the line “gotta make a move to atomic rice pudding”
⁃ In the chorus of Whitney’s How Will I Know, she confusingly told her confidante “I’m asking you ‘cos you know about bee stings”
⁃ The grand double champion was Mr Mister’s 1985 smash Broken Wings, on which not only did the verse feature the line “Baby, I don’t understand why we can’t just hop along into each other’s pants”, but the chorus – “Take these broken wings” – was an absolute dead ringer for “Jake has broken wind”.
But these days, the fun is all over. Download or stream any of the above (playlist below), and the woefully pristine sound quality will reveal the perfectly annunciated, infinitely more boring real lyrics. However, all is not lost. I’m happy to report that some twisters do stand the test of time, and there are even some new entries from beyond the AM radio era. Here are some of my personal favourites:
⁃ Robert Plant continues to open the final section of Stairway To Heaven by telling us “and there’s a wino down the road”
⁃ Desmond Dekker is certainly singing “me Israelites” on his 1969 hit, but I can’t hear anything other than “me ears are alight”
⁃ Olivia Newton-John, making one of her rare technological predictions, sings “I took you to an internet restaurant” halfway through the first verse of Physical
⁃ As pointed out by Lauren Laverne, rapper Ivy distinguishes her guest appearance on Tricky’s 2015 track Beijing To Berlin with the line “knock knock knock on me Chalfonts”, in an unlikely nod to the clutch of Buckinghamshire villages
⁃ Seek out the closing track on Eurythmics’ 1983 album Touch, and hear Annie Lennox sing “Paint a rumour… pass the colours, Fred”
⁃ Bryan Ferry wraps up the final verse of his John Lennon tribute Jealous Guy by singing “I was swallowing my pen”
⁃ Three-time Mercury nominees Everything Everything claim that the lyrics of their debut single Suffragette Suffragette are “cos you’re gonna sit on the fence when I’m gone”, but I’m almost certain they’re really singing “who’s a-gonna sit on your face when I’m gone”.
Hearing the genuine lyrics? Overrated. May those heroically mumbling singers continue to be gloriously misunderstood.