There have been so many incredible rock songs produced over the years and with them, some amazing lyrics that have become ingrained into our consciousness. Here in Canada, we’ve had many amazing lyricists over the years. The likes of Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Gord Downie from the Tragically Hip and Neil Peart of Rush have to be included with some of the best in the world.
While this list represents only a few drops in an ocean’s worth of iconic rock song lyrics, here are some of the great lyrics of our time.
10) The Tragically Hip – It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken
Gord Downie had a way of taking a story or scenario and summing up the situation in a few stirring lines that could give you chills. He gave us so much to ponder through his vast collection of amazing lyrical works over the years. He also gave us some simple insights into everyday life.
For a good life we just have to weaken
And find somewhere to go
Go somewhere we’re needed
Find somewhere to grow
These lyrics ‘It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken‘ remind us that sometimes we need to let go of our pre-existing notions of success. Only then can you find a worthwhile cause and enjoy life.
9) Rush – Subdivisions
Neil Peart was a thinking man’s word-slinger taking us into all sorts of different dimensions. He took us on many journeys as a lyricist and drummer for Rush. He also gave us commentary about our society and how we function in it.
Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth
But the suburbs hold no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth
Subdivisions was a turning point for Peart … it was when he realized what he most wanted to put in a song was human experience.
8) Neil Young – My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)
Neil Young has so many great lyrics to choose from. This iconic lyric has become one of the most famous song lyrics of all time. It’s about perseverance and survival.
It’s better to burn out
Than fade away
My my, hey hey
In an interview, Neil Young explains, “The essence of the rock’n’roll spirit to me, is that it’s better to burn out really bright than to sort of decay off into infinity. Even though if you look at it in a mature way, you’ll think, ‘well, yes … you should decay off into infinity, and keep going along.’ Rock’n’roll doesn’t look that far ahead. Rock’n’roll is right now. What’s happening right this second”
7) Metallica – Enter Sandman
Musicians from around the world have enshrined lyrics into our minds. This one from Metallica is a great place to start.
Take my hand
We’re off to Never—, Neverland
‘Enter Sandman’ was one of the last songs James Hetfield wrote lyrics for. The original lyric was about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Bob Rock and Lars Ulrich convinced him to make the lyrics more accessible, though there are different retellings on how that conversation went. Especially with the band’s rule that “nobody could comment on anybody else’s stuff.”
6) Billy Joel – Piano Man
Real life experiences inspired Billy Joel’s songs and ‘Piano Man’ was no exception. In 1972-73 Joel worked as a piano-lounge singer at the Executive Room bar in LA. He worked at the bar under the name Bill Martin.
In an interview Joel said he was shocked and embarrassed when the song became a hit. But he explained, “My songs are like my kids and I look at that song and think: ‘My kid did pretty well.'”
One of the most iconic lyrics from this song?
Yes they’re sharing a drink called loneliness
But it’s better than drinking alone
5) Guns N’ Roses – November Rain
‘November Rain‘ was based on a short story called ‘Without You’ by Del James. Originally, the song was 25 minutes long but was edited down to just under 9 minutes.
So if you want to love me
Then darlin’ don’t refrain
Or I’ll just end up walkin’
In the cold November rain
Axle Rose says the lyrics in this power-ballad are about “not wanting to be in a state of having to deal with unrequited love.”
4) Kansas – Carry On Wayward Son
Kansas started their career, like many musicians, playing at local bars. When they found out that a recording executive was sending someone to hear them play, they put up posters advertising free beer. Of course that drew in a huge crowd and with such a big crowd the recording company signed them.
‘Carry On Wayward Son’ was their first major hit and featured this iconic lyric …
And if I claim to be a wise man
Well, it surely means that I don’t know
Kerry Livgren has explained that his early songwriting, up until 1980 when he became an evangelical Christian, was about searching. And that was the theme of ‘Carry On Wayward Son’. In an interview, he said, “I felt a profound urge to ‘Carry On’ and continue the search. I saw myself as the ‘Wayward Son,’ alienated from the ultimate reality, and yet striving to know it or him.”
3) Bob Seger – Against the Wind
Bob Seger’s lyrics were inspired by the lives of working class people living in America’s heartland. This is one line, from ‘Against The Wind’, gets listeners thinking and reminds many of their bright-eyed days.
Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then
The interesting thing about this lyric is that Bob Seger was initially bothered by it.
“The line ‘Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then’ bothered me for the longest time, but everyone I knew loved it so I left it in.”
Turns out the reason why was grammar …
“The only thing that bothered me about that phrase was the grammar. It sounded grammatically funny to me. I kept asking myself, ‘Is that correct grammar?’ I liked the line, and everybody I played it for – like Glenn and Don (Henley) – were saying, ‘That’s the best line in the song,’ but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t right. But I slowly came around. You have to understand that songwriters can’t punctuate anything they write. I work in such a narrow medium that I tend to second-guess things like that. As a matter of fact, I’ve seen that line in a few other songs since I came up with it, so I guess it was okay after all.”
2) Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody
There are several memorable rock lyrics from this iconic rock band. One lyric in particular is from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody‘…
Mama, just killed a man
Put a gun against his head
Pulled my trigger, now he’s dead
This was the first lyric Freddie Mercury played for the band when he suggested the song, according to Roger Taylor. It has been said that Mercury claimed the lyrics were nothing more than “Random rhyming nonsense.”
Brian May shared in an interview that, “Freddie was a very complex person: flippant and funny on the surface, but he concealed insecurities and problems in squaring up his life with his childhood. He never explained the lyrics, but I think he put a lot of himself into that song.”
Many believe this specific lyric was a confession that he was gay. The man he killed was the straight Freddie he was trying to be – his former image. This allowed him to be who he truly was. Others believe the lyric is about his fight with HIV.
We may never know the true story behind the lyrics but at the end of the music is all about interpretation. In an interview, Freddie Mercury even said, “[Bohemian Rhapsody is] one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them.”
1) Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven
In first place, is this iconic lyric from Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven‘…
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our souls
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all
to be a rock and not to roll
And she’s buying the stairway to heaven
Robert Plant has said that “she” in the first verse is “a woman getting everything she wanted without giving anything back.” Other than that, Plant never really explained his lyrics in ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
Like Bohemian Rhapsody, the true meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Plant has even said, “Depending on what day it is, I still interpret the song a different way – and I wrote the lyrics.”