Song Lyrics: The Struggle Back in the Day

By Kay Whatley

Oh, what it used to take for people of my generation — growing up in the 1970s and 1980s — to get the lyrics to a song that we loved. It was a struggle to discern the lyrics, and before that a struggle to find the song’s title and band’s name, depending entirely on the thoroughness of a radio station’s DJ (Disc Jockey).

Let’s say it’s 1980. A teenager is sitting in front of their radio, listening to something new to them. They want to know what it is, and are waiting for the DJ to come on at the end of the song and identify it. Well back in the day, the radio DJ might announce the title of the song just played and the band’s name, followed by the upcoming song/band. Or, the DJ might just make snarky remarks in between songs and say “here comes one that’s climbing the charts today” and start playing the next song without identifying anything!

But, if we thought a song was cool, we wanted to listen to it again. Hearing a song again meant sitting in front of the radio in hope of catching that song, and finding out what it was. If we were lucky, the new song and was being played frequently. By the end of the day, or the end of the week, we could know the band and the song title and be take our allowance or part of a paycheck to the record store and buy a 45 (a small vinyl record with two songs) or a 33-1/3 (bigger vinyl record with more songs) and be able to listen to that song whenever we wanted. That was the first step in learning the lyrics so that we could sing along.

(By the way, the “disc” in DJ refers to the flat, circular shape of vinyl records.)

There were alternatives, of course. If we had a friend who was good with music, then we could pick their brain by reciting some of the lyrics we thought we heard that one time we heard that song on the radio. A knowledgeable friend could tell us the band/song from the lyrics; perhaps even sharing info about the band and record producer who made that song happen. (I was lucky to have such a friend, and Candace could identify just about anything from a few lyrics.)

No friend able to identify the lyrics? Then we’d have to go to the music store and hope an employee there could identify the song by what we remembered. (There wasn’t much current music at the library‘s in those days. And we were more likely to find Bach than The Beatles in the library’s catalog.)

No money to go to the record store? That was pretty normal. That left us with the radio DJ and tapes.

Tapes? Yep. Tapes could be inserted into a a tape recorder and the recorder could capture the song as we were listening to it on the radio. There was quite a technique to this, since DJs didn’t always announce the song/band. We’d sit and wait to capture a song on tape, and might not know until several seconds into the song that it was playing. At which point, we’d hit the Play and Record button simultaneously with two fingers — hopefully getting them both down on the first try — and then sit extremely quietly — shushing all our siblings — while that song recorded.

Now with the magic of tape, we had songs captured to listen to whenever we wanted. (Because DJs talked into the beginning of a song and again during the ending, having 95% of the song was super exciting.)

Then came the work of deciphering the lyrics. Most albums did not come with lyric sheets. That meant bending our ears close and writing down the lyrics as we thought we heard them.

As we thought we heard them? Yes, because there was no Internet on which to verify lyrics.

(misheard lyric = mondegreen)

Today, hear a song on the radio, or wherever music is played, and going online and typing a few lyrics will yield the full info in an instant. Or ask a smart phone, “What is this song?” and Siri listens and gives the name of the song and the band, and maybe even a link to the lyrics. Done! The Internet has made it possible to sing along and actually know the words. Heck, surfing will even provide photos of the band and links to live videos.

(Back in the 1980s that required a trip to the music store or magazine rack, where we might find photos to see what the singers and the guitarist and the drummer actually looked like. Because, you know, radio was where music was… This was before MTV existed. Brief MTV info at the bottom of this article.)

So, this holiday season when a song is playing, if a parent or grandparent starts leaning towards the radio and listening intently for the lyrics, you may think them silly or roll your eyes. The truth is that they’re using a technique they learned many years ago, when they listened to the same song over and over, painstakingly deciphering the lyrics.

(Send them online for the lyrics and stop them struggling.)

Evidence: Who would sit by a radio for hours? This brief “history lesson” is real; let me tell ya, and the struggle is documented. Check out a movie called Jumpin’ Jack Flash. The main character is portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg. Watch that movie and at one point the main character struggles to get lyrics.

(FYI, the Jumpin’ Jack Flash movie title came from the title of a song by The Rolling Stones which, believe it or not, are still performing even though they started giving concerts in the 1960s.)

Anyway watch Jumpin’ Jack Flash the movie, or here’s the scene that’s relevant. (Curse words warning.)

(Oh, and in the aforementioned movie, Whoopi’s character eventually goes to a music store to get the Jumpin’ Jack Flash sheet music to determine the lyrics. The singer, Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones, mumbled the lyrics a bit too much for her character.)

Over time — through our teens and into adulthood — we reached a point where we recognized our favorite singers’ voices, and for the musicians we most enjoyed we could recognize their guitar riffs, and learned to interpret what they were singing based on our prior experience. That didn’t mean we didn’t mishear the lyrics, though, and sing the wrong words for years — or teach the misheard lyrics to our kids and grandkids. (Fact-check grandma and grandpa on those blast-from-the-past songs that they’ve sung with you.)

Also, if you want to understand the whole tape thing better, bet you can find such tapes at a relative’s house. (With permission please. Don’t go rummaging through grandma’s keepsakes without it.)

The struggle was real. Enjoy finding lyrics that the web serves up as a part of every music listener’s tool kit.


Side Note: MTV

Briefly, MTV… though it doesn’t fit in the context of the Lyrics Struggle that is the focus of this editorial.

MTV (Music TV channel), born on Saturday, August 1, 1981, at 12:01am Eastern Time gave us the ability to see the singers/bands we had been hearing, possibly for years, without ever seeing more than the photos on their record jackets. (Those were the paper containers that the vinyl albums came in.) 

See “pictures came and broke your heart” lyrics included with this video of Video killed the radio star*.

With MTV videos, we could see guitarists and drummers playing and refine our technique of mimicking them. I think our generation was the first to play air guitar. (Though yours might have been first at pretending to strum a guitar attached to a video game.)


With the rise of MTV we could now see the drummer‘s face and watch how he flopped his hair; or how the guitarist strutted across the stage, or how the singer’s face contorted as they sang. What we saw might not always be flattering, but if we were a fan of the band, MTV provided enough information to mimic faves.

(Okay, maybe faves wasn’t a term back then, but you get the gist.)



* Video Killed the Radio Star by UK band The Buggles was ironically the first music video broadcast on MTV.


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About Kay Whatley 2309 Articles
Kay Whatley serves as Editor and Reporter with The Grey Area News. Kay is a published author with over 20 years of experience in the publishing industry. Kay Whatley is wife to Frank Whatley, founder of The Grey Area™ newspaper and The Grey Area News online news website.