Do albums really need lyric sheets? Half the fun of singing along to your favorite songs is making up your own words, says Tom Sinclair
Elvis Costello
Credit: Elvis Costello: Barry Shultz/Sunshine/Retna

Do albums really need lyric sheets?

I was recently playing Elvis Costello’s excellent new album ”When I Was Cruel.” Since Costello is a verbose, clever, and slippery lyricist, I was reading the lyrics printed in the CD booklet as I listened. I got to thinking about Costello, remembering the sheer amazement I felt when I first heard his phenomenal second album, ”This Year’s Model,” back in ’78. Man, what a record! I wore out the grooves (this was back in the vinyl age). The fact that the album didn’t come with a lyric sheet never bothered me one whit.

Upon giving the matter some thought, I realized that what does bug me is Rhino Records rereleasing a beefed-up two-CD version of ”TYM” with all the lyrics printed out. Reading the words to these familiar songs I discovered that I’d been hearing many of them wrong for years. For instance, in ”The Beat,” the lyric I’d always thought was ”I’ve been a bad boy with no sense of reason/My neighbor said, ‘Enough, here’s a box of saltpeter”’ is actually ”I’ve been a bad boy with the standard leader/My neighbor’s revving up his Vauxhall Viva.”

Aside from the question of just what a Vauxhall Viva is, I firmly believe my misheard lyric to be superior to Costello’s actual one. If half the fun of rock & roll is trying to figure out just what the singer is saying, then lyric sheets can ruin the whole game. Of course, like most anyone else, I’ll read the lyrics if they’re provided. But I realize I’m risking the disillusionment of having words I’d heard as poetry revealed as mere doggerel. And with labels reissuing catalog albums with newly added transcripts of the lyrics right and left — not to mention the availability of lyrics on the Web — it’s only gonna get worse.

Disillusionment struck again in the case of the Replacements song ”Left of the Dial,” from their album ”Tim.” The lyric I’d been sure was ”Heavy rock was San Francisco/Definitely not L.A.,” is shown to be ”Headed out to San Francisco/Definitely not L.A.” on the band’s fan site. Again, I’m convinced that my version is better (and historically accurate, too).

Playing devil’s advocate against myself for a minute, I can think of at least one case in which a website confirmed my hearing of a lyric that I’d always thought was too good to be true. The song is Bob Dylan’s ”Tiny Montgomery,” from ”The Basement Tapes,” and according to, it includes the words, ”Now he’s the king of the drunks/An’ he squeezes, too/Watch out, Lester/Take it, Lou” — which is just what I always thought the words were.

Why is this significant? Well, I used to get a kick thinking that Dylan had somehow predicted — back in ’67 — those great interviews/verbal jousting matches that the late rock critic (and world class drunk) Lester Bangs had with Lou Reed in the pages of CREEM magazine in the ’70s (they’re collected in Bangs’ collection ”Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung”). But I always thought, no, that’s too crazy, he can’t really be singing that. But he was! Ain’t that a kick in the head?

What do you think? Is it more fun trying to figure out lyrics on your own, or having a lyric sheet hand to decipher them? And what’s your favorite misheard lyric?

When I Was Cruel
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