Poor grammar runs through song titles and lyrics with as much frequency as strained metaphors and clunky similes. It's a pretty common phenomenon, but musicians get cut a lot of slack on this front, especially if the sounds surrounding the blunders are sublime. Sometimes the wrong construction is the most right construction... and even if it isn't, such linguistic missteps can often enhance a song's emotional resonance. And in some cases, classic songs simply are equipped with solecisms that neither mar nor improve the work. With all this in mind, I've compiled the 10 best songs with ungrammatical titles. I ain't too proud to admit that whittling this survey to a mere 10 was not easy. (As soon as I send this post to my editor, I'll think of 50 other examples. That's how this sort of thing always works. Oh well...)
Kleenex, "Ain't You"
The women in Kleenex (later known as LiLiPUT) were Swiss, so their use of "Ain't" shows a precocious grasp of English vernacular and deserves extra credit. The song itself is a brilliant slab of splenetic post-punk. I described it in an obit about group member Marlene Marder: "[I]ts odd combo of contrasting vocal deliveries, bulging glam-punk guitar riffs, and weirdly surging dynamics cohered into a righteous anthem. The song is at once as serious as injustice and as whimsical as a Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch." All of that is still true.
Jimi Hendrix Experience, "If 6 Was 9"
Mr. Hendrix's command of the subjunctive mood left something to be desired, but all is forgiven when the result is my favorite left-handed guitarist's scariest, starkest song. "If 6 Was 9"'s deployment in Easy Rider really exposed the remorseless blues-funk power of the Experience at their most severe.
The Rolling Stones, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"
Always a hoot when a university-educated Brit drops double negatives all over the shop. But, you know, in the case of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," this crude formulation helps listeners to believe that one of the most famous, most lusted-after, and biggest-lipped rock stars of the mid '60s had trouble finding carnal fulfillment. It doesn't hurt that the song boasts one of the most empowering guitar riffs and crucial tambourine shakes of all time.
Bill Withers, "Ain't No Sunshine"
When your heart's shattered from loneliness, you're not all that concerned about proper English. Bill Withers's minimalist, orchestral-soul masterpiece has eradicated double-negative ignominy by consoling longing romantics worldwide for decades. The song still works, even upon your 971st listen. I speak from experience.
Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band, "There Ain't No Santa Claus on the Evening Stage"
Howlin' Wolf acolyte Don Van Vliet really plunged himself into bluesman mode on 1971's The Spotlight Kid, and where there's blues, there comes liberties with the King's English. "There Ain't No Santa Claus on the Evening Stage" finds the Captain and his crew scrounging up some very menacing and filthy bluesmongering. Those early Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds records were striving for this sort of terminal-dread effect, but they had the disadvantage of not being American.
Stevie Wonder, "You Haven't Done Nothing"
Stevland Hardaway Morris's toughest funk workout coupled with his most righteous political messaging—talk about a double positive cancelling out a double negative. The song's target, President Richard Nixon, resigned from office two days after this tune was released. Coincidence? Probably. But still, Stevie deserves some credit for that happy turn of events.
Gang Starr, "Speak Ya Clout"
DJ Premier's lean, mean funk production sets the table for Guru, Jeru the Damaja, and Lil' Dap to wax braggadocious with élan, irrespective of the title's wonky slang. I have never heard the expression "speak ya clout" uttered outside of this formidable track—but maybe I've been hanging out with the wrong people.
Bob Dylan, "Lay Lady Lay"
Even winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature can botch the language. What is the correct usage, class? "Lie, Lady, Lie"? Right you are. Surely Dylan chose "Lay Lady Lay" for the assonance (I'm an assonance man, too), but would it have killed him to add commas? Anyway, this 1969 single tingled my neck hairs when I'd hear it on the radio as a lad, and it remains in my mind as one of Mr. Zimmerman's most beautiful, haunting melodies.
Love, "You I'll Be Following"
First-album Love is so full of garage-rockin' joy, as exemplified by "You I'll Be Following." The odd syntax of that phrase, which hardly anybody in the history of English has deployed except for Love mainman/genius Arthur Lee, is actually a big part of the song's charm—its weird formality at odds with the tune's youthful exuberance.
Mudhoney, "Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More"
When you're creating rock as brutal and ruthless as "Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More," the niceties of grammar fly out the smashed window. And in any case, educated cats like Mudhoney—like most Rhodes Scholars—enjoy letting off steam in the studio by besmirching the English language. If I may let you in on an industry secret...