Transcript 126–Kyrie

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and I could go for a good gyro right now, how about you?

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A few people have been wondering why the show has been kind of spotty in recent weeks, and while I could write that off to my usual summer doldrums, the real reason is that I’ve been working on getting a second podcast project off the ground, and I’m still figuring out the new workflow. Here’s a bit about the new show:




OK, I think today’s trivia question is going to be a stumper for ye. What do the following performers have in common? We have:


Joe Cocker

Joan Osborne

Bill Haley and the Comets

And the Rolling Stones. All five of those artists have something musically in common. What could it be? I’ll have that answer at the end of the show.

You know, when I listened back to the “Psycho Killer” episode, it occurred to me that some people might think I was mocking them for not realizing that the words they were mis-singing were, in fact, foreign words. But that’s not the case at all! We’ve all had those moments when we realize that our favorite song doesn’t have the lyrics we think it does. Think about the jokes involving Creedence singing about a bathroom on the right, or Jimi Hendrix asking us to excuse him while he kisses this guy. And don’t even get me started on Manfred Mann’s version of “Blinded By the Light.” So yeah: we have that kind of trouble with ENGLISH lyrics; of course it’s going to get worse when they’re foreign words. And especially so when we don’t even know off the bat that they’re foreign. Our brains look for patterns and try to plug in some meaning. You want to hear a great example from history? In the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, we sing about “four calling birds,” among other things. And while that’s the standard lyric nowadays, the song was originally written as “four colly”—C O L L Y—“birds”, “colly” meaning “black.” Over the course of a hundred years, the word “colly” dropped out of common use—it wasn’t even an especially common word in the 1800s—so people started singing “calling birds” and in 1909 it finally made it into a printed piece of sheet music. In fact, that printing was also the first time the melody was standardized.

And lest you think I’ve gotten way off track with this show before it’s even begun, let me tell you, my friend, that you are sorely mistaken because this is pretty much the central facet of today’s program.

While “Blinded by the Light” certainly has one of the most misunderstood lines of the 1970s, Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie” has to hold some kind of record as being one of the more misunderstood SONGS of the 1980s. But there’s a definite divide here between the people who got the song right away and those who didn’t. Those who didn’t, thought that Kyrie might be the name of a person, possibly a girl. And I kind of get that, given that that’s pretty much where my head went. The ones that confuse me—and there are a lot of these people—are the ones who think they’re singing “Carry a laser down the road that I must travel.” “Kyrie” is the name of the song! You can at least start there! But for those who did get it, they realized that it was part of a religious passage.


So, where to begin. The entire phrase, which he sings at the opening of the song and in the chorus, is “Kyrie Eleison,” which is Greek for “Lord, have mercy.” The Kyrie eleison appears in the Catholic rite, a song or ritual in which the faithful both praise the lord and ask for his mercy. The phrase goes all the way back to the fourth century.

In 390 A.D. the Gallic pilgrim lady Aetheria tells a story about how, at the end of evening prayers, one of the deacons would read a list of petitions and “as he spoke each of the names, a crowd of boys stood there and answered him each time, ‘Kyrie eleison’ Aetheria said, “… their cry is without end.” Over the next couple of hundred years it made it into three different parts of the Catholic prayer day.

Why is it in Greek? I’m glad you asked. Greek was the language of worship in the earliest days of the Church, and for whatever reason even as the Church moved over to Latin for masses, the prayer remained in Greek. Then came the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, and a bunch of things changed, not the least of which was that masses didn’t have to be held in Latin anymore. So for the last fifty-something years, depending on the church you attended, the Kyrie Eleison is spoken in English as part of the Rite of the Penitent. That’s the part where everyone says everything twice. The presider says “Lord have mercy” and the congregants repeat “Lord have mercy” back to him. Then the presider says “Christ have mercy” and the congregants repeat that back. You know that part? That’s the Kyrie eleison. Now, if you want to go a little bit deeper into the Greek, we can also note that the phrase is in the active imperative tense, first person singular, and that we’re dealing with Koine Greek, which is a common Greek, as opposed to Attic Greek, which is very complicated and has all kinds of weird syntax. But I’m not going to do that here for a bunch of reasons including the fact that I’m already way over my head with this.

So if you’re an old-school Catholic, or if you’ve got good familiarity with Classical music or Gregorian Chant, you were probably way ahead of the curve on the meaning of the song.


But also, knowing all that, the lyrics should finally make a lot more sense to you, right?

…Mr. Mister was composed of Richard Page, Steve George, Pat Mastelotto and Steve Farris. Page’s cousin John Lang wasn’t a performing part of the band, but he co-wrote nearly all of the band’s songs during their heyday. And it was while the band was touring with Adam Ant that he wrote the lyrics for the song. Page and George wrote the music, but because they were on tour, it was about a year before they were able to record it.

One of the stories surrounding the song is that Page wrote it as a reaction to a brutal attack he suffered. Well, obviously we know that’s not true, since Page didn’t write the words. However, it was Lang, along with his wife, who were attacked about three years before the song was written, and Lang has long said that it had nothing to do with that. In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times in 2004, Lang said that when he was a kid in Phoenix, Arizona, he heard the phrase a lot in church and it was just something he was playing around with. But here’s the interesting part: Page was interviewed in 2010 by Smashing Interviews Magazine and he was asked directly about the incident. And while he basically backed up Lang’s story, he also admitted that he didn’t know for sure. In the interview, he said (quote):

He had a horrible thing where he and his wife were attacked. It was terrible. I don’t know if that directly led to those lyrics or not.

I never really talked to him about it, to be honest with you. Maybe he said in an interview somewhere that the attack had something to do with it, but he definitely wrote it after that thing happened. It’s funny you should mention that. I need to ask him. (unquote)

Later in the interview, though, he brings up Lang’s religious upbringing. And when he was first approached with the lyrics, he says he resisted putting the song on the album, fearing that people would view Mr. Mister as more of a Christian band than a pop band, and that would be essentially the kiss of death. But he said the song started to take on a life of its own and ultimately it didn’t matter what it was saying. And then, of course, he noted how funny it is that so many people don’t even know what the song means, often coming up to him with whatever lyrics they’ve managed to plug into the phrase. He says he doesn’t usually discourage them from their beliefs.

But prayer or not, the song works on a lot of levels. It’s a great pop tune that was also accessible to older folks, the guitars have a mix of power chords and a jangly sound, and the whole thing is elevated when they do the acapella break.

There are two different versions of the record, but there’s only one real difference between the two. The album does a full chorus repeat fade out to four minutes and twenty-four seconds, while the single, which was also the version used for the video, ends with a return to the acapella sing of the choral line, ending at 4:10. Personally, I like the single’s ending a little better, but your mileage may vary.

Speaking of the video, it was directed by Nick Morris, and features the band in performance on a stage in Miami, interspersed with some other footage taken in the area, near the end of their 1985 tour with Tina Turner. So there’s some footage of the band interacting with people on the Miami boardwalk, and doing rock star stuff like riding in limos and prepping backstage. Morris said once in an interview that on the first day of shooting, Page had read a bad review in the Los Angeles Times and it killed his mood for the day, thinking he’d lost credibility as a musician. Morris said that was the day he would no longer let musicians read the papers on the day of the shoot.

“Kyrie” was not considered to be Mr. Mister’s biggest hit, but I’d argue that “Broken Wings” only barely edges it out, given that they both hit Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and held it for two weeks, but “Kyrie” dropped off the chart a little faster. However, “Kyrie” was a Top Ten song all over Europe, except for Italy, where it peaked at Number 51. And the song has been covered a few times by both traditional and contemporary Christian groups.

And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you What these five performers have in common? They are:


Joe Cocker

Joan Osborne

Bill Haley and the Comets,

And the Rolling Stones.

The answer is that all of them released songs that later became theme songs for television shows. In reverse order, The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” was used for the CBS show Tour of Duty, which ran for three seasons in the late 80s; Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” was the theme for Happy Days for its first couple of seasons; “One of Us” was a hit for Joan Osborne which was used for the show Joan of Arcadia from 2003-2005—now, she did re-record the song for the show, but it’s still the same basic song with no important changes; Joe Cocker’s cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends” was the theme to The Wonder Years back in the late 80s and early 90s, and finally R.E.M.’s “Stand” was used as the theme to the show Get a Life! which ran for two seasons in the early 90s. I should note that this all started with me thinking about John Sebastian and “Welcome Back,” but that song was written for Welcome Back Kotter and later became a hit. All of these songs were hits first, and then used for the TV show.

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And I’ve got a little bit of a theme going on here, so next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we look at a couple more songs with non-English words in the lyrics.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.