In 1958, Frank Sinatra famously described rock’n’roll lyrics as “imbecilic reiteration… written for the most part by cretinous goons.” He didn’t name names, but you can bet that he was thinking about the rash of nonsensical hits that year, from Yakety Yak to Splish Splash to Bimbombey.
Though nonsense songs had been around for centuries — from rum dum diddles in Renaissance ballads to scoodly-wops in the Swing Era — they really started sh-booming in the ’50s and ’60s. Even Sinatra gave in with his Rat Pack hit Ring-A-Ding-Ding.
Sometimes the nonsense was code for sexual antics. Other times it described a new dance step. But more often it was just a way to convey the inarticulate yawp of “I’m alive, dammit!”
While there has been a steady decline in nonsense songs over the past forty years, the occasional Izzo or Boom Boom Pow pops up to remind us of their powerful charms.
For your listening and viewing pleasure, here is a soup of our favorite musical non-sense:
Tutti Frutti – Little Richard
Italian for “all fruits,” tutti-frutti was an ice cream flavor long before Little Richard’s 1955 hit turned it into slang for sex. And in the original lyric, a specific kind of sex: “Tutti frutti, good booty / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy.” The lyric was cleaned up for the recording, but that couldn’t keep the red hot libido out of Richard’s voice. And is he singing “a-lop-bam-boom” or “a-lop-bum-bum?”
Da Doo Ron Ron – The Crystals
Asked where this title came from, songwriter Jeff Barry said, “It’s not brain surgery. You’re writing a song for young minds.” There’s no denying the connection between nonsense songs and childhood rhymes. But when Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector surrounded the phrase with a story of love at first sight, “Da doo ron ron” filled in for the tongue-tied rush of the heart in the most articulate way.
Ooh La La – Goldfrapp
The spirit of Marc Bolan, the wizard of lyrical gobbledygook, runs through the dirty, sweet tendrils of this single. When Alison Goldfrapp says she needs “Ooh la la la la la,” it’s understood that she’ll return the favor, and then some.
Ke-Mo Ki-Mo (The Magic Song) – The King Cole Trio
A magic love spell masquerading as a nursery rhyme, this tune exerts its incantatory power with hip phrases like “Soupbang nipcat pollymitch-a-cameo.” Written in 1949 by Roy Alfred and Bob Hilliard and based on a 19th Century slave song, it was a hit for Nat King Cole. Recently, American Idol judge Steven Tyler broke into an impromptu version on TV, causing renewed interest in the song.
La La (Means I Love You) – The Delfonics
As phonetic sounds go, “La la” is one that’s equipped with wings and a sunny disposition. And though it’s been employed in pop music for decades, no one has ever used it quite as well as Thom Bell and William Hart in their 1968 paean to earnestness. Todd Rundgren, Laura Nyro and many others agreed.
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da – The Beatles
Though the title was borrowed from Nigerian drummer Jimmy Scott and the Yoruba language expression for “Life goes on,” it met western ears as delightful jabberwocky. But like other foreign expressions that bounce on a phonetic fulcrum – comme ci, comme ça; mezza mezza, etc. – it conveys the ups and downs of existence in an eloquent way that goes beyond language.
Mmmbop – Hanson
The monster hit from the Biebers of 1997 has held up surprisingly well. And what a curious song it is. Why are teens singing about losing their hair and being abandoned when they’re old? Before you can answer, that chorus kicks in, matched perfectly with ’50s soda shop nonsense, and knocks you flat.
Barabajagal – Donovan
The rest of the lyric is cryptic hippy stuff about angels and incense, but it hardly matters. The title phrase is awesome. Goo-goo, goo-goo barabajagal. Coupled with the funky groove and Donovan’s syncopated singing, it sounds like some kind of ancient Indian mantra for erotic pleasure.
Fopp – The Ohio Players
“‘Foppin’ is the brand new thing to do.” This 1975 hit was about a dance craze that couldn’t be contained by a mere discothèque. Never before has a word sounded so sweatily suggestive and whimsical at the same time. Like Al Green meets Dr. Seuss.
Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo – Everly Brothers
Originally sung by Leslie Caron to some scary puppets in the 1952 film Lili, this song found its truest, bluest expression when Phil and Don slowed it down into a heartbreaker. As a kind of Greek chorus, the title phrase speaks volumes about love’s fickle nature.
Rubber Biscuit – The Chips
The closest rock ‘n’ roll has ever come to speaking in tongues. Just what is being said is anybody’s guess, but it’s giddy ecstasy.