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Some Twisted (And Sorta Fun) Musical “Surprises”

I remember walking out of the theater after seeing The Usual Suspects thinking I would never be able to enjoy that movie again knowing who “Keyser Soze” was. There are a handful of films where the secret or “twist” at the end grabs you. The Crying Game, Chinatown, The Sixth Sense, even learning Darth Vader was Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back blew my mind (relax, it’s not a spoiler; even my mother knows who Luke’s father is and she thinks “Jabba” is a whale at Sea World).

The same can be said for rock songs. There are a few you listen to and know exactly where it’s headed. You don’t need to be a detective to know what’s going to happen to the son in Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.” He keeps singing it throughout the song,

I’m gonna be like you, dad/ You know I’m gonna be like you

Then there are those songs that have been completely misunderstood. For example, The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” has been played at countless weddings. But the truth is (and Sting has admitted such) that it’s a song about obsession and jealousy.

Then there are songs with an ending no one saw coming (well, at first. We’re all pretty familiar with these by now, but remember your first listen?). Let’s start with a common one. “Lola” by the Kinks begins as any budding romance might:

She walked up to me and she asked me to dance/ I asked her her name and in a dark brown voice she said, “Lola”

As the romance continues, there are clues that it’s not headed where you think. Lola squeezes him too tight; she walks like a woman but talks like a man. Finally, the singer announces it clearly, in case there’s any confusion:

But I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man/ And so is Lola

The song was written by Ray Davies who claims it was a true incident that happened to their manager. Whether true or not, the song hit #9 on the Billboard 100 in 1970. Some radio stations would fade out the end of the song before it was revealed that Lola was a man, but the bigger problem the Kinks had was that the original recording stated they “drank Coca-Cola.” Since this was considered product placement by the BBC, Ray re-recorded the line as “cherry cola” for the single release.

Related: “The Kinks’ Top Ten Albums”

In 1977, Meat Loaf released “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Written by Jim Steinman, the track clocked in at over 8 minutes and hit #39. It begins as an innocent tale of love, parking by the lake with a beautiful girl. It’s clear the protagonist has sex on his mind.

As he thinks it’s about to happen (done through a genius play-by-play by the great sportscaster Phil Rizzuto), she tells him to stop and asks if he loves her. He begs her to let him “sleep on it.” She insists that if this is going to happen he needs to love her forever and never leave her. He, of course, agrees and swears that he’ll love her ’til the end of time. Up to this point, it’s been standard teenage expectations. And then the twist kicks in. After having sex, instead of living happily ever after, he says:

So now I’m praying for the end of time/ To hurry up and arrive

Cause if I gotta spend another minute with you/ I don’t think that I can really survive.

He won’t break his promise, but so much for true love “ever after.” Steinman had stated that he wanted to write “the ultimate car/sex song in which everything goes horribly wrong in the end.” Mission accomplished.

There were much bigger songs in Led Zeppelin’s catalog, but it was “Fool in the Rain,” the last single they would release before disbanding in 1980, that pulls a twist. Robert Plant sings about being in love as he waits on a rainy street for the girl.

However, she isn’t showing up.

Another ten minutes no longer
And then I’m turning around, ’round

He’s beginning to worry; he has such an intense desire for her, so why won’t she reciprocate? Then it dawns on him:

I’m just a fool waiting on the wrong block

In 2000, Eminem gave us a look at an obsessed fan. On first listen, you don’t know how it will end but you also know it won’t be pretty. “Stan” was the third single off The Marshall Mathers LP and featured Dido singing the chorus. It starts innocently enough as Stan writes a letter to Eminem (Slim Shady) telling him how he’s his biggest fan and how alike they are:

See I’m just like you in a way/ I never knew my father neither

As the song progresses, Stan gets angrier and angrier at Slim for not responding. He begins to spiral out of control, blaming it all on Slim. Eventually, while he’s driving drunk (with his girlfriend in the trunk of the car), he makes a tape to send to Slim.

I love you Slim, we coulda been together, think about it

You ruined it now, I hope you can’t sleep and you dream about it

He ends the tape by saying he’s almost at the bridge. The fourth verse is Eminem responding and apologizing for not getting back to Stan. He tells Stan he probably needs some counseling and he should treat his girlfriend better. Then Eminem reveals the ending. He pleads with Stan not to do some “Crazy shit” like the story he saw on the news about a drunk guy who drove his car off the bridge with his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk. As Eminem is writing this part he says how the guy on the bridge had the same name as Stan, and then it dawns on Eminem what had happened. It’s a twisty, Twilight Zone ending to a great hip hop song.

-Robert Matvan

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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4 comments on “Some Twisted (And Sorta Fun) Musical “Surprises”

  1. Cliff Cherry

    Storytelling twists are fairly common but two songs I can think of offhand where a deeper dive into the lyrics reveals a much different meaning than on the surface are “The One I Love” by R.E.M. and “Saving All My Love For You” by Whitney Houston.

    The R.E.M. song sounds like a happy love song but that’s belied by the line “A simple prop to occupy my time” which is exacerbated by the final verse “Another prop has occupied my time”

    For the the Whitney song, I’m not even sure if it’s intentional but while she’s “saving all my love for you” it’s revealed that “you’ve got your family and they need you there” so obviously he’s not saving all of his, which has the (again, perhaps unintended) effect of making her woefully pathetic.

  2. I certainly understand the intent of and the story in “Lola”, and I happily take Davies at his word. But it’s been my position that the final line is NOT a clencher, and is as ambiguous as the rest of the song. Standing alone, the line could be read as saying, “I’m glad I’m a man, and I’m glad Lola is a man.” But it could also be read as saying, “I’m glad I’m a man, and Lola is glad I’m a man.”

    And I’ve been around women who spoke in a darker, rougher voice than I do, and who could beat the ever-lovin’ crap out of me. If it were not for Davies’ statement, I’d continue to straddle the fence, as the song does.

    • Agreed, Sam. That’s what makes Ray Davies such a clever lyricist. Grammatically “I’m glad I’m a man/ And so is Lola” just means Lola is glad he’s a man, but of course, we all know (wink wink) what this PROBABLY really means.

  3. In a much earlier song, there’s a story that kind of similar to Zep’s. The Rays had a hit in 1957 with “Silhouettes”. The song later went to #5 for Herman’s Hermits, and Cliff Richard charted with it in the UK.

    A man is strolling down the street, walking by his girlfriend’s house in the evening, when he notices the silhouettes of two people on the window shade. They are clearly being quite romantic with each other. He stands and watches and gets more and more angry, until he rushes up and pounds on the front door in rage, where “two strangers who have been two silhouettes on the shade said to my shock, “You’re on the wrong block”.

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