Poster for The Curse of Frankenstein (1957, U.K.)

Songs My Mother Never Taught Me

A swear-laden review of some glorious cursing in pop music.

“Arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts, and pricks!”

With those words, Ian Dury taught me at least half of the essential basic swearing vocabulary I would need in adult life.

He spat them out, right at the start of “Plaistow Patricia.” It was the start of side two of his album New Boots and Panties, released back in the days when albums had sides, and sides were carefully thought out. Track one, side one was the big opener. It had to set the tone. The final track of side one had to tell the listener what was to come, and then track one, side two had to kick things back off, it had to wake people up. It had to kick a bit of arse.

No other song has ever done that better than “Plaistow Patricia.” No singer has done better pop music swearing than Ian Dury. He won, and that was in 1977.

My brother, four-and-a-bit years older than me, had asked for New Boots as a birthday present. Our father let him buy it, but was horrified when he heard Dury’s opening for side two. Dad was adamant: “You can keep the LP,” he said, “But you can’t take it back to your mother’s house.” Our parents were divorced, and brother’s birthday fell during the summer holidays. Dad was imagining his eldest son returning to ex-wife a year older and a whole new vocabulary richer. The horror.

Brother kicked up a fuss. He was a teenager; this was only to be expected. There was, I believe, A Row Of Sorts.

In the end, compromise was reached: Brother could take a tape recording of the LP back home to mum’s, but only if the offending track was not included. Brother gave in, and the tape was made. Modern parents, in these days of online streaming and BitTorrent, wouldn’t stand a chance.

Some time later, when dad wasn’t around, and in response to incessant pestering from me, brother played me the whole album. My eyes popped out through my ears. I may or may not have asked him what all those words meant. Even after he’d told me, I probably still didn’t have much of a clue.


* * *

The English know their swearing. They enjoy it. The funniest comedy on British TV these days is The Thick of It, a political satire in which the primary character, a loathesome spin doctor called Malcolm Tucker, spends more time swearing than he does breathing. Or thinking. Or doing anything else at all. The series has a swearing consultant. The cast is encouraged to improvise and add more swearing if it feels right. The swearing is a funda-fucking-mental part of the show. What makes it even better is the tacit acknowledgement by all concerned that the fiction portrayed in The Thick of It is very thin indeed, and that our nation really is governed by potty-mouthed shits in suits. And nobody minds.

Some years after the Ian Dury business, I become a fan of New Order. Listening to “Your Silent Face” on the Power, Corruption & Lies album, I was caught off-guard by Bernard Sumner’s casual: “You’ve caught me at a bad time / so why don’t you piss off.”

This time it isn’t so much the words that offend, it’s the way he says them. The “piss off” is almost shrugged from his shoulders. He doesn’t just hate you, he hates you so much he can hardly be bothered to express his hatred. That’s spite, that is. That’s the kind of look in someone’s eyes that would make you back away slowly, or simply turn and run.

Bernard hates you and everything about you. Get out of his sight before he kills you in the fucking face.


* * *

Joni Mitchell, on the other hand, is too nice to swear. The folksy wood-spirit who spent the 1970s conjuring up images of hippiedom while strumming elegant melodies in front of a softly cascading waterfall: She wouldn’t bloody swear, would she?

But no: “I can even hear the fucking music playing,” she groans in “The Beat of Black Wings,” a track on her ‘80s MOR-tinged album Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm.

Note the Kennedys’ attention to grammatical detail. Even angry punks know they should stick to the rules of the English language.I’d given this album to my dad as a birthday present. We listened to it in the car. His face didn’t register anything as Saint Joni uttered “fuck.” This was her rock-and-roll period—so-called—and she littered the recording with guest appearances. Peter Gabriel popped in. Don Henley. Tom Petty. And, well, there’s no easy way to say this: Billy Idol.

That explains a lot.

Billy Idol. You can imagine the record company executives reacting to that.

“Joni? What the fuck? Billy Idol? I mean, who are you, and what have you done with the real Joni Mitchell, right? You’re the same girl who did Mingus? The same girl who did Don Juan’s ‘Reckless Daughter?’ And you’ve recorded a duet with Billy fucking Idol?”

Perhaps it occurred to my dad, as it did to me, that even Joni had to lose her temper one day. Sitting on a designer chair in a sprawling music industry executive office, she wouldn’t stand for that sort of reaction to her work. She’d stand up, smash a guitar over the dumb fuck’s head, blow smoke rings into his eyes, and murmur: “Screw you.”

We all feel like that sometimes.


* * *

Wales is the United Kingdom’s greatest asset. Wales has the Pembrokeshire coast. Wales is where Doctor Who is made. Wales is wet and mountainous, and absolutely perfect for climbing and getting wet. Wales gave us Super Furry Animals.

And Super Furry Animals gave us many, many wonderful musical things. Songs like “Ice Hockey Hair” and “Bad Behaviour” and pretty much everything on the Rings Around the World album. And: “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck,” which wins points on the Dury scale simply for its excess of swears:

You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else
You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else
You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else
You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else.

And on, and on, and fucking gloriously on, a one-liner sample from Steely Dan (Steely Dan, of all people) stretched and ad-libbed into something incredible, the perfect show closer. It’s almost the most swear-y song ever, but gets beaten to that prize by some tossers called Insane Clown Posse and their song, “Fuck the world.” My vote still goes to the Welsh. Quality beats quantity every bloody time, kids. Every bloody time.


* * *

I was a latecomer to the Dead Kennedys. No matter; there’s always time to catch up with pop music. A student friend of mine explained everything I needed to know.

“They’ve got this song called ‘Too Drunk to Fuck,’” he told me while we sat in a cheap student bar in Cambridge, swaying from side to side and failing to focus on one another properly. “And it’s very funny, because the chorus goes like this: “Too drunk to fuck / too drunk to fuck / too drunk / to fuck.”

(Note the Kennedys’ attention to grammatical detail: they are too drunk to fuck. Even angry punks know they should stick to the rules of the English language.)

My friend sang it in his very best Jello Biafra voice, which was awful, and nothing like Jello Biafra. If you can do a good Kermit the Frog impression, you can probably sing like Jello Biafra. But this bloke was not known for his Jim Henson-esque nasal tone.

That didn’t stop the two of us singing the “Too Drunk to Fuck” chorus over and over again until we fell off our bicycles. So middle-class. Having been introduced to the Dead Kennedys I explored related branches of the great tree of pop, and found myself at Bob Mould, via Sugar and Hüsker Dü. Lots of screaming and swearing was encountered along the way, but I spent most of that journey admiring and enjoying Mould’s transition, his metamorphosis from punk to folk-punk. There aren’t enough metamorphoses in pop music these days. Not enough artists who want to put a bit of fucking variety into their work.


* * *

You are such a beautiful man
I wish I was
half as perfect as you
she should think herself such a lucky girl
to have you to go out with and fuck her, too.

With these words the singer of Bennet—a band I’m prepared to bet you have never heard of, but if you have heard of them you’d have made the same bet to me—start their jangle-pop classic, “Wanker.”

I saw Bennet do a gig in a tiny pub in Cambridge. They were fantastic. They sang huge pop tunes with harmonies and choruses that made you want to join in and jump up and down at the same time. What’s more, I identified with them. We were all ugly spuds together, fed up with the way the nasty men always won the hearts of the best-looking girls. The shallowness of youth.

So I joined in, I jumped up and down, and I sang along all the way through. All the way to the closing line of the song, which goes:

“You didn’t thank her / You’re a wanker.”

(Another great thing about Bennet was the song “I Like Rock,” which boasted the immortal chorus line: “I like rock / I like rock / I like rock.” Simplicity in lyricism; a great under-valued skill in pop music. And another reason for throwing in plenty of swearing.)


* * *

Here’s another use of “cunt” that comes close to Ian Dury’s masterpiece of pop cursing. It’s in the song “Get Your Hands Off of My Woman” by joke-rock geniuses the Darkness.

They realized that merely calling someone a cunt was no insult at all, not these days. And just letting the word fall out of their mouths, like Dury did, wasn’t going to do it justice.

So the Darkness added insult to profanity by calling the subject of the song an “octoped” as well. There. That’ll show him. Fuckin’ octoped. Ha.

“Octoped, you’ve got six hands too many / And you can’t keep them to yourself.”

Having knocked their quarry down with the word “octoped,” they go in for the kill with this:

I’ve got no right to lay claim to her frame
But you soiled my obsession
You cunt
Get your hands off my woman, motherfucker.

Writing the lyrics like that doesn’t do it justice at all. It’s not “you cunt,” not the way Justin “Darkness” Hawkins sings it. It’s: “YOU CUUUUUUNNNNNT!!” It’s almost choral. These octoped types deserve it. It’s the only language they understand.