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June 5, 2007

Getting to the Bottom of 'Fanny'

There are a handful of ubiquitous classic rock songs from the '70s that always seem to pop up on the radio, in advertisements, and on movie soundtracks. In addition to a catchy chorus and lengthy duration, many of these songs share something else: a muddled meaning. We're not talking about the confusing lyrics that Kiss This Guy has teased out; we mean the near-scholarly debate that has emerged on the web about the significance of certain lyrics. Below, Gelf examines a few of the most contentious and popular songs, and considers the question, is "The Weight" really about getting the clap?

"The Weight"
The Band/Music From Big Pink 1968

As evidenced by this recent skit from Saturday Night Live (YouTube), "The Weight" is one of the most fun songs to belt out loud in the company of friends. It is also one of the most researched songs, if this article written by Peter Vinney is any indication. Vinney scours every song lyric, article, and band interview he can find to uncover the meaning behind the song. The geographical setting (Nazareth) and proper names (Fanny, Anna Lee, Chester) provide ample room for interpretation. A 1970 Time Magazine article reads the beginning of the song as a meeting between an Old Testament character and a rock musician. The man who wrote the lyrics, Robbie Robertson, says it is based on "the impossibility of sainthood" in the work of surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Others say that it's a Western tale set in the aftermath of the Civil War. Martin Scorsese, director of the documentary The Last Waltz which features the Band, reads Catholic overtones in the song.
One eyebrow-raising theory is that the chorus—"Take a load off Fanny/ Take a load for free/ Take a load off Fanny/ and (and) (and) you put the load right on me"—is a metaphor for disseminating the clap, with "load" being a slang term for an STD, and "Fanny" being a British euphemism for the location from which the narrator catches it. Apparently, certain unnamed members of the Band like to share this version as a joke.

"Stairway to Heaven"
Led Zeppelin / Led Zeppelin IV 1971

A perennial contender for "greatest song ever written" on classic rock radio stations, the vague mythology and power chords of "Stairway" strike a chord with teenage boys and their nostalgic middle-aged moms alike. But what does it mean? One of the most popular interpretations is that the song is a sort of satanic hymn. The band's noted affiliation with the occult and Aleister Crowley—not to mention the alleged hidden backwards messages in the song, "Oh here's to my sweet Satan"—support this theory.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is this born-again Christian, who views the song as a Christian parable. Commentaries like "And she's buying a stairway to heaven (she is tithing)," make this one a stretch. Robert Walser, UCLA professor of Musicology and author of Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music offers an academic approach, writing that the lyrics "offer contact with social and metaphysical depth in a world of commodities and mass communication." Be that as it may, it still doesn't explain what is meant by "a bustle in your hedgerow."

"Hotel California"
The Eagles / Hotel California 1977

"Hotel California" could be read as a straightforward account of a man's harrowing stay in a hotel that seemed nice at the outset. However, being an epic rock song from the '70s, it has to be a metaphor for something. While there have been attempts to match the Hotel California with actual hotels, mental institutions and, of course, satanic churches, it is pretty widely believed that the song is about drug abuse. But what kind of drugs? The words "The Hotel California" have the curious initials T.H.C., the psychoactive substance in marijuana, and the mysterious "colitas" in the opening stanza has been translated to mean "little buds." However, it has been noted in unauthorized Eagles biographies like To The Limit that heroin and cocaine were coauthors Don Henley's and Glenn Frey's respective drugs of choice. In interviews, the band has said that the song is about the band's interpretation of the Los Angeles high life. The song has since developed new contemporary associations: A Spanish cover of the song plays over the introduction of a pedophile in The Big Lebowski (YouTube); and a series of 6-by-8-foot cubicles in a Baghdad detainee center was dubbed The Hotel California.

Other classic rock songs whose meanings are a cause for debate:
"A Day in the Life," The Beatles
"Bohemian Rhapsody," Queen
"Wish You Were Here" (or anything else by Pink Floyd)
"Nights in White Satin," The Moody Blues
"All Along the Watchtower," Bob Dylan
"A Whiter Shade of Pale," Procol Harem

Classic rock songs whose meanings are not debated:
"Cocaine," Eric Clapton

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- Arts
- posted on Jun 06, 07
Bobby Mushoda

Stairway to Heaven is the undisputed king of rock songs, or just songs, for that matter. It has by far, logged more airtime on American radio than any song of any genre, in the history of recorded music. Most of the mighty Led Zeppelin's music defies simple categorization and has transcended the era of it's creation.

- Arts
- posted on Jun 06, 07
Michael Gluckstadt

God help us if we measure a song's worth based on its radio airplay. I love Zep as much as the next guy, though I disagree that they defy categorization, have you tried early heavy metal rock? Also greatest song of all time? I think Beethoven, Miles Davis, David Bowie or Radiohead might have something to say about that, but that's just me. The great thing about music is everyone's entitled to their tastes, and your opinion is certainly a popular one. You wouldn't happen to know what the "bustle in your hedgerow" refers to, would you? The closest thing to an explanation I found online said that it's about menstruation.

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