Before there was Google, YouTube or car stereos that displayed song titles it wasn’t always easy to determine the name of the song playing, which made purchasing it (yes, people used to purchase music) that much more difficult. Here are (some of) the greatest songs that demanded a lot of guesswork back in the day:
The Beatles, “A Day in the Life.” Often regarded as The Beatles’ best song—praise that carries a little more heft than, say, saying “Tubthumping” is Chumbawamba’s—is essentially two songs stitched together. The song describes a mostly forgettable day in the life (hell, it’s not called “The Greatest Day in the Life”), but neither John or Paul sing those words.
The Who, “Baby O’Riley.” “Baba O’Riley” is arguably The Who’s most beloved song, but one can only imagine how much more recognized it’d be had guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend simply called it “Teenage Wasteland,” the Summer-of-Love-effacing phrase Roger Daltrey’s bellows five times throughout the song. Instead, he obliquely named it after two muses, Meher Baba and Terry Riley, neither of whom are mentioned in the song or likely share(d) in any of the publishing.
U2, “Bad.” Bono can sing about “this desperation, dislocation, separation, condemnation, revelation in temptation,” but he can’t summon the three-letter title to this Unforgettable Fire song. That’s bad.
Led Zeppelin, “Black Dog.” Few bands in Zeppelin’s strata own as many songs that never mention the song title—and many of them lazily end in, sigh, “song” (e.g., “The Immigrant Song,” “The Rain Song,” “The Custard Song” and “The Lemon Song”). The leadoff track to the 1971 album that features “Stairway to Heaven” is chock full of lyrics, but none of them so much as reference the black dog observed around the music studio they were using to record this song.
Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” One of rock’s most ambitious songs is a rock opera unto itself and also sans chorus, from which a song title often derives. Would you have preferred Queen call this one “Scaramouche” or, say, “Bismallah?” No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
Black Sabbath, “Paranoid.” One might argue Ozzy Osbourne is more neurotic than he is paranoid in this instant classic, though neither neurosis is namechecked in “Paranoid.”
Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The origin of the song title “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has been well documented (Bikini Teen singer Kathleen Hanna once sprayed “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Kurt Cobain’s wall). With all due respect to lady deodorant, a more suitable title for the song, “With the Lights Out,” was eventually used for a posthumous box set.
R.E.M., “So. Central Rain.” Some pressings refer to this R.E.M. tune as “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry),” because the parenthetical phrase—whined nine times by Michael Stipe—seems intuitive. Alas, the nebulous setting for this song about a rain event gone bad gets the nod.
David Bowie, “Space Oddity.” Google “Major Tom” and you’re as likely to find something related to the song that first help inspire Bowie extraterrestrial alter-ego Ziggy Stardust as you will Peter Schilling’s one-hit wonder homage to “Space Oddity,” “Major Tom (Coming Home).” But while Schilling sings the title in his song, Bowie does not.
The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil.” Sure, Mick Jagger requests a little “sympathy” and even invokes one of the devil’s sobriquets, Lucifer, but he never sings the word “devil” throughout this Beggars Banquet classic. An urban legend was even created that bad shit happened to the band or others (the Altamont fatality occurred during “Under My Thumb,” fact-checkers) when they perform it.