Just For Fun: Lyric-Writing Ethics!

I’m writing a new musical legal ethics seminar that I’ll be premiering with my brilliant musician partner Mike Messer at the end of the month. It’s going slow: the trick is to simultaneously make the song parody lyrics funny as satires of the songs and to set out substantive legal ethics problems along the way. And the lyrics have to rhyme and scan.

Writing song lyrics is one of my many pseudo-useless talents that I have never figured out how to monetize significantly, but I am still a perfectionist about it. Competent lyric writing is becoming a lost art, and there were hacks polluting the art decades ago even when the Sondheims, Simons, Berlins, Dylans and Joels roamed the plains like buffalo.

I’ve collected examples of terrible lyric-writing for decades, and my White Whale is the Most Incompetent Recorded And Widely Heard Lyrics Ever. So far, nothing has topped, or rather ducked beneath, the execrable theme song of the popular TV Western “Bat Masterson” (starring Gene Barry), which you can listen to in the YouTube clip above just as TV viewers could hear in 108 episodes from 1958 to 1961.

The lyrics are incredibly bad. Let’s examine them:

Back when the West was very young
There lived a man named Masterson
He wore a cane and derby hat
They called him Bat, Bat Masterson

Ooh, bad start. Right off the “Bat,” the name of the show’s hero doesn’t get a genuine rhyme. That’s an”approximation,” which, as Sondheim explained, is a fake rhyme close enough if the singer finesses it and the audience isn’t paying close attention. And who “wears” a cane?

A man of steel, the stories say
But women’s eyes all glanced his way
A gambler’s game he always won
His name was Bat, Bat Masterson

Even as a kid, I found the “man of steel” reference confusing: “Superman” was on TV in those days, and everyone knew he was the “Man of Steel.” Why does the second line begin with “but”? Wouldn’t being a man of steel be consistent with women glancing? And what gambler always wins? In fact, Bat often lost his poker hands; if he didn’t, he would have been a cheater.

The bridge lyrics, however, are really rotten…


The trail that he blazed is still there
No one has come since, to replace his name
And those with too ready a trigger
Forgot to figure on his lightning cane
.

  1. What “trail”?
  2. The structure of the lyric suggests that “still there” should be rhymed with the next phrase, but we get “come since,” a punt. This strongly hints that the writer wanted a rhyme but couldn’t come up with one.
  3. How would someone “replace his name”? As what?
  4. Now the lyricist tries to rhyme with the end of the line, “ready a trigger,” but the best he can come of with is “figure,” which isn’t a even an approximation, so the singer (Bill Lee, the talented vocalist who dubbed the songs for Christopher Plummer in “The Sound of Music”) has to sing “figger,” which sounds ridiculous.
  5. What the hell is a “lightning cane”?

    Now in the legend of the west
    One name stands out of all the rest
    The man who had the fastest gun
    His name was Bat, Bat Masterson
    !

Wait…the song just told us that Bat used his “lighning cane,” not his gun! Nor was Bat renowned as fast on the draw, even in the TV show.

Summing up, the “Bat Masterson” theme song has the worst lyrics in something professionally written and performed that I have yet encountered: sloppy, self-contradictory, desperate, badly set, badly rhymed, unintentionally hilarious.

I’m sure there are worse out there some place.

I look forward to your submissions.

26 thoughts on “Just For Fun: Lyric-Writing Ethics!

  1. I don’t know!!!, those “Bat Masterson” lyrics are tough to beat. The only theme song that comes to mind for me is the theme song from “Welcome Back, Kotter”. But that’s a sitcom and maybe it’s supposed to be stupid. They played that song a lot because it reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for one week in May 1976 and I couldn’t stand hearing it after a couple of times.

    Welcome back
    Your dreams were your ticket out
    Welcome back
    To that same old place that you laughed about

    If your dreams were your ticket out, why did you come back to that same old place you laughed about? Must be because your dream actually fell short and you couldn’t cut it somewhere else. So, you had to come back.

    Well, the names have all changed
    Since you hung around
    But those dreams have remained
    And they’ve turned around

    Of course the names have all changed, you went away to college I guess and returned some years later. The dreams remained but turned around? If you turn around a dream doesn’t that mean you didn’t achieve your dream?

    Who’d have thought they’d lead you
    (Who’d have thought they’d lead you)
    Back here where we need you?
    (Back here where we need you?)

    It would be bad enough to say it once, do we really need an echo?

    Yeah, we tease him a lot
    ‘Cause we got him on the spot
    Welcome back

    Why is he on the spot? Why do these students know him so well? We never teased any of our teachers back in the 70s.

    There are more stanzas but I’ve had enough. “Bat Masterson” is still probably the clear winner.

    • I agree, but only because A) I’ve somehow missed the “Bat Masterson” theme despite considering myself a connoisseur of TV theme songs and B) I loved the theme to “Welcome Back, Kotter” despite the fact that he clearly wasn’t that great of a teacher.

    • Edward,

      I think the theme for “Kotter” was the Producer’s attempt to give John Sebastian (music, lyrics, & vocals I believe) a chance to recover his ’60s glory days with the Lovin’ Spoonful as a solo act. Given the premise of the show, the lyrics, I think, were the results of Sebastian’s instructions to make the theme a hook for the general story of the SITCOM, where no one really expects Porteresque lyrics (Woody Allen was right in Hannah & Her Sisters with the line—to Bobby Short’s combo in the distance—”You don’t deserve Cole Porter”).

      MB

      • Yeah, I think WBK deserves a break, but Sebastian was better than that. His kind of spacey delivery also makes the vague lyrics seem organic, some how. One of the things that makes Bat’s theme so bad is Bill Lee’s four-square classic heroic baritone performance. It’s MacBeth singing bad limericks.

        • Jack,

          I can’t disagree.

          Given the endless reruns of many of these shows, though, imagine the royalties that must accrue to the artists and their estates, even for those with less than stellar lyrics and performances!

          MB

  2. “The structure of the lyric suggests that “still there” should be rhymed with the next phrase, but we get “come since,” a punt. This strongly hints that the writer wanted a rhyme but couldn’t come up with one.”

    Can’t let this pass by without mentioning the Alice Cooper Group’s solution to this very problem when they were writing School’s Out:

    “Well we got no class
    And we got no principles
    And we got no innocence
    We can’t even think of a word that rhymes”

    The last line is perfect because it exactly the kind of line a C student would come up with. It doesn’t rhyme; it completely abandons the rhythm of the previous lines, and lacks the cleverness of the earlier lines and their double entendres.

    -Jut

  3. There’s the fun but illogical lyrics of Still Alive by Jonathan Coulton. It’s in the end credits of the video game Portal, and the singer is the evil AI antagonist saying she’s still kicking,
    “Even though you broke my heart and killed me
    And tore me to pieces
    And threw every piece into a fire
    As they burned it hurt because
    I was so happy for you!”
    https://genius.com/Jonathan-coulton-still-alive-lyrics

  4. Of course there’s always:
    We chased lady luck, ’til we finally struck
    Bonanza
    With a gun and a rope and a hat full of hope
    We planted our family tree

    We got a hold of a pot full of gold
    Bonanza
    With a horse and a saddle
    And a ring full of cattle
    How rich can a fellow be?

    On this land we put our brand
    Cartwright is the name
    Fortune smiled
    The day we filed the Ponderosa claim
    Here in the west, we’re livin’ in the best
    Bonanza

    If anyone fights any one of us
    He’s got a fight with me
    Bonanza

    Hoss and Joe and Adam know
    Every rock and pine
    No one works, fights or eats
    Like those boys of mine
    Here we stand in the middle of a grand
    Bonanza

    With a gun and a rope and a hatful of hope
    We planted our family tree
    We got a hold of a potful of gold
    Bonanza

    With a houseful of friends where the rainbow ends
    How rich can a fellow be?
    On this land we put our brand
    Cartwright is the name
    Fortune smiled, the day
    We filed the Ponderosa claim
    Here in the west we’re living in the best
    Bonanza

    With the friendliest, fightingist, lovingist band
    That ever set foot in the promised land
    And we’re happier than them all
    That’s why we call it
    Bonanza, bonanza, bonanza

    A hatful of hope?
    Never mind how badly it fits the tune.

    • Where’s “We’ve got a right to fight a little fight—Bonanza!”? Isn’t that the first line in the Lorne Greene rendition?

      I must say, that’s pretty bad–I had forgotten. It’s one of those misbegotten lyrics written to fit an instrumental never meant to be a song. Bob Bain, who played the famous bass line, told me the musicians thought the lyrics were hilarious…

      • Which reminds me of Gene Roddenberry’s disgraceful lyrics, never sung on the air, to the Alexander Courage “Star Trek” theme so Gene could share the royalties on the tune:

        Beyond
        The rim of the star-light
        My love
        Is wand’ring in star-flight
        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
        While he wanders his starry sea
        Remember, remember me.

        • When the theme to the next generation, which was a different arrangement of the theme to the first movie, was written, Roddenberry just added the direction “boldly, through space,” to the score so that he would be entitled to royalties. Change a word, take a third…

        • Clearly Roddenberry was pretty good with overall ideas, but not necessarily the details of them. Those lyrics are wretched. “Star Trek” should never have opening theme lyrics and, yes, that is a slam against the first season of “Enterprise” with that schmaltzy “Faith of the Heart” that just screamed “We want the Trek fans watching but we don’t want to bill this as a Trek show”.

      • Then there was the time that Carroll O’Connor wrote lyrics to the closing theme of “All in the Family” called “Remembering You.” He sang them once on a late night TV show, and the recording is still there on YouTube.

  5. Ah, how soon we forget. The 2011 hit “Friday” has some of the most inane and vapid lyrics I’ve ever heard (and I’m including in that statement Van Halen’s “Why Can’t This Be Love”, which features the Kamala-esque line “Only time will tell if we stand the test of time”). To be fair, the young singer of this drivel, Rebecca Black, didn’t write it, so she probably didn’t deserve quite all of the vitriol directed her way when this song went viral.

    Seven a.m., waking up in the morning
    Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs
    Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal
    Seein’ everything, the time is goin’
    Tickin’ on and on, everybody’s rushin’
    Gotta get down to the bus stop
    Gotta catch my bus, I see my friends

    We’re not off to a great start, Rebecca. I’m not feeling good about where this is going.

    Kickin’ in the front seat
    Sittin’ in the back seat
    Gotta make my mind up
    Which seat can I take?

    Truly a dilemma for the ages. The “Sophie’s Choice” of pre-teen transportation.

    You will note that so far, we have zero rhymes. This theme will continue almost flawlessly throughout. There may be one or two half-rhymes sprinkled in, but I am certain they are purely coincidental. This thing is more like beat poetry than a song.

    It’s Friday, Friday
    Gotta get down on Friday
    Everybody’s lookin’ forward to the weekend, weekend
    Friday, Friday
    Gettin’ down on Friday
    Everybody’s lookin’ forward to the weekend

    Partyin’, partyin’ (Yeah)
    Partyin’, partyin’ (Yeah)
    Fun, fun, fun, fun
    Lookin’ forward to the weekend

    Okay, we’ve established which day of the week it is, quite exhaustively. This chorus, or a reasonable facsimile, will recur several times in this five-minute masterpiece. It’s not tedious at all, I swear.

    7:45, we’re drivin’ on the highway
    Cruisin’ so fast, I want time to fly
    Fun, fun, think about fun
    You know what it is
    I got this, you got this
    My friend is by my right, ay
    I got this, you got this
    Now you know it

    Kickin’ in the front seat
    Sittin’ in the back seat
    Gotta make my mind up
    Which seat can I take?

    Wait, weren’t we just on a bus a few minutes ago? Or is it the school bus that’s “cruisin’ so fast” on the highway with children “kickin’ in the front seat”? And why hasn’t she decided which fucking seat to sit in by now?

    We get a repeat of that delicious chorus reminding us what day it is, then this happens:

    Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday
    Today it is Friday, Friday (Partyin’)
    We-we-we so excited
    We so excited
    We gonna have a ball today

    Tomorrow is Saturday
    And Sunday comes afterwards
    I don’t want this weekend to end

    Holy crap. Can we get a rundown of all the months of the year and the chronological order in which they occur, too? How about a quick review of the alphabet while we’re doing remedial lessons? A short refresher on the multiplication tables might be useful, too.

    R-B, Rebecca Black
    So chillin’ in the front seat (In the front seat)
    In the back seat (In the back seat)
    I’m drivin’, cruisin’ (Yeah, yeah)
    Fast lanes, switchin’ lanes
    With’ a car up on my side (Woo!)
    (C’mon) Passin’ by is a school bus in front of me
    Makes tick tock, tick tock, wanna scream
    Check my time, it’s Friday, it’s a weekend
    We gonna have fun, c’mon, c’mon, y’all

    I’m still confused as to what vehicle she’s in, and it’s STILL unclear which seat she chose. Then suddenly she’s driving?!? Is that bus in front of her the same one from before? Nice to have confirmation in this verse that it’s still Friday, though.

    I’ll spare you the rest, but the remainder of the song is basically a random assortment of the words “Friday”, “weekend”, “party”, and “fun”, in no particular order. This song, although performed by a teenage girl, was written by TWO adult human males. It took two people to craft this mess.

    Yes, it’s an easy target, but…you asked.

  6. I’d nominate Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” just for the fact that, despite hearing it on the radio for over two decades, I still can’t make it what the lyrics are.

  7. I’d argue that the golden days of lyrics writing ended with the demise of G&S. Fortunately, their compositions are tailor-made for recycling:

  8. There’s no defense for Bat Masterson, but I wonder if there may be some songs universally acknowledged as great songs that would falter in the face of this sort of critical analysis.

    A great TV theme song was the intro to All in the Family. Carrol O’Connor had to rerecord it in (or after, I forget) the first season to articulate the “Gee our old La Salle ran great”. The original slurred (well not slurred, what’s a softer word for it? elide? doesn’t quite work) over this line, and the LaSalle was long gone and not in the general public’s mind as a car, so many people didn’t get what the lyric was.

    Another great one was the theme to The Nanny in the nineties. The theme defines the entire plot and characters in one silly song. I expect ridicule for this opinion, so feel free.

    • “The Nanny” is really a callback to the great themes of the ’50s and ’60s which gave the plot of the shows (“Gilligan’s Island”, “Brady Bunch”, “The Patty Duke Show”, “The Beverly Hillbillies”).

      Into the ’70s, television began the aspirational or general feel-goodness songs like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. You might get a general idea of the character or tone of the show, but not much detail about what’s happening. “Diff’rent Strokes” alludes to a “man of means” and “along come two” but doesn’t really tell you what’s going on.

      By the ’80s, does “Family Ties”, “Growing Pains” or any of the We-All-Love-Each-Other themes give us any information about the show?

      So “The Nanny” was quite refreshing in the theme song arena. The show itself I could take or leave.

    • I love the sitcom set-up theme songs. My personal favorite, even surpassing the iconically cheesy Patty Duke Show theme, is “F-Troop,” which I listened to several limes last month to honor the passing of Larry Storch. The lyrics are clean and sharp; the heroic chorus appropriately over-the-top, the link to appropriate clips spot-on. (I can forgive the “accidentally/victory” cheap rhyme, since it goes by quickly and the intent is humor, not art)

      The end of the Civil War was near
      When quite accidentally,
      A hero who sneezed abruptly seized
      Retreat and reversed it to victory.

      His medal of honor pleased and thrilled
      his proud little family group.
      While pinning it on some blood was spilled
      And so it was planned he’d command F Troop.

      Where Indian fights are colorful sights
      and nobody takes a lickin’
      Where pale face and redskin
      Both turn chicken.

      When drilling and fighting get them down,
      They know their morale can’t droop.
      As long as they all relax in town
      Before they resume with a bang and a boom
      F Troop.

      Honorable mention would be “Car 54: Where are you?”

    • On the tangential subject of great sitcom theme songs, how about some love for “WKRP in Cincinnati”? I don’t know whether I like the opening theme better, or the intentional gibberish rock-n-roll pastiche that plays under the closing credits.

  9. The Big Bang Theory’s theme song is pure genius:

    Our whole universe was in a hot, dense state
    Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started, wait
    The earth began to cool, the autotrophs began to drool
    Neanderthals developed tools
    We built a wall (we built the pyramids)
    Math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries
    That all started with the big bang (bang)

    Only the BNLs could write and sing those lyrics and make them work.

    Here are the rest of the lyrics:

    Since the dawn of man is really not that long
    As every galaxy was formed in less time than it takes to sing this song
    A fraction of a second and the elements were made
    The bipeds stood up straight, the dinosaurs all met their fate
    They tried to leap but they were late
    And they all died (they froze their asses off)

    The oceans and Pangea, see ya wouldn’t wanna be ya
    Set in motion by the same big bang
    It all started with the big bang
    It’s expanding ever outward but one day
    It will pause and start to go the other way

    Collapsing ever inward, we won’t be here, it won’t be heard
    Our best and brightest figure that it’ll make an even bigger bang
    Australopithecus would really have been sick of us
    Debating how we’re here, they’re catching deer (we’re catching viruses)

    Religion or astronomy (Descartes or Deuteronomy)
    It all started with the big bang
    Music and mythology, Einstein and astrology
    It all started with the big bang
    It all started with the big bang

    jvb

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