One of my favourite records (now CDs) of all time is Duran Duran’s Rio. I’ve listened to it countless times, and almost all of those times on speakers, not headphones, until recently, when I started listening to music at work in the afternoon to keep from getting drowsy.
Towards the end of the last track, “The Chauffeur,” there’s some speech and other sounds. The speech is in a resonant male voice with a somewhat toasty British accent. For years I really didn’t know what the voice was saying. You can’t tell that well over speakers, especially with the pan pipes, synthesizer and especially drums going all at the same time. I amused myself imagining the most audible bit was “It’s Maury Niska-Nagay, and Maury’s… covered in shit.” I knew, of course, that that certainly wasn’t it, though there were sounds of that general order.
But recently, listening to it on headphones, I thought, “No, really, what is that dude saying?” Sensibly enough, I didn’t just try to figure it out myself first. I looked it up. I found out at Ask Katy that it was “from a nature record that the band found. The man is talking about ‘insects in the grass’.” And several lyrics sites were quite obliging in giving what the specific words were. Well, to a certain extent.
All the sources pretty much agree that the most audible part (which starts just after 3:51 in the song) is There’s more to this kind of camouflage. More than just colour and shape. A few put it as “more of” rather than “more to,” but if you put on your headphones and listen it’s pretty clear.
Many of the sources act as though that’s all there is of this voice. But my ears told me otherwise. There’s a short bit before it (just after 3:38), and a longer bit some time after it (starting about 4:46), and possibly another little bit later (at 5:02).
The beginning of the bit at 4:46 is also often included. Most of the sites you visit have it as Who’s going now; some have it as Who’s calling now. But there’s more to it. And the rest of the sentence gets a variety of interpretations. The ones that have Who’s calling now? tend to have From the twilight’s last gleaming. The ones that have Who’s going now often have no more, but if they have a rest of the sentence it’s often into a classiomatic.
Into a what? WTF is a classiomatic?
Whatever it is, there are a lot of people out there saying that’s what the guy is saying! People post a question: “What’s that voice saying?” And others say, “Who’s going now… in to a classiomatic.” And others are like, “Yeah, that’s it.” And the person who asked is like, “Thanks, now I know.” And you get the sense that the more people say it’s so, the truer it is, or something.
I reasoned that, given that the voice was the same all the way through, whatever he was saying had to relate to insects in the grass. “Classiomatic” didn’t seem likely. But I figured that if I followed the lead on “classiomatic” I might find someone saying what it actually was. I might even find out what a classiomatic is!
Well, first of all, the answer to “What is a classiomatic?” is “A mishearing of some speech in the background of ‘The Chauffeur’ by Duran Duran.” The word didn’t exist before, and it still doesn’t have a real object to refer to. If anyone can find good evidence for the existence of classiomatic prior to the release of Rio, please post it. I’m not holding my breath waiting for something to show for it.
But, in the world of ‘net “knowledge,” which often operates at about the same level as the general “knowledge” of grade 8 schoolkids, that’s no obstacle. This “classiomatic” is passed around like a doobie. Google |what is a classiomatic| and you’ll get this page first: a foray into that dungeon of the benighted, Yahoo Answers, where the blind lead the blind and other blind people vote on which road looks best. (If you think my criticism of Yahoo Answers is harsh, just check it for anything to do with, say, English usage. Even –and sometimes especially – the “winning” answers can be breathtakingly ignorant.)
But in this case, the “winning” answer doesn’t pretend to know; the author just has the most appealing imagination, which is not such a bad approach for an illusory word. Another one of the answers gives a brief exegesis on the etymology of classiomatic and its significance in the song. It’s useful for two reasons: a) there really is a basis for a construction such as classiomatic; it’s made of discernible English parts; b) it talks about its relation to the song, and while the actual details on the word are outside of reality, you can see where the ethos of the song – as reinforced by its video, which involves a “classic” or “classy” kind of eroticism (fair warning: bare tits near the end) plus a shiny car (automatic?) – could make such a word seem plausible.
But anyway. None of this got me any closer to the real words.
And what about the other two bits I could hear? No one, anwhere, seems to even acknowledge they’re there.
So I opened the track from my CD in a nice little program called Amadeus II, which I use mostly to cut music for my wife’s figure skating students’ programs (it does a great job). It has a few filters and tools, nothing really really super-high-end but enough to help trim out some of the distracting noise. I put on my headphones and listened. Used up a nice little piece of my evening on this exercise (add the writing of this post and “a nice little piece” = “all”). And here are the results.
After 3:38, the first two words are actually pretty clear: “known as.” After that, it sounds fairly clearly to me like “Albert Schweitzer.” Evidently these insects had something to do with the good doctor. Or else the “known as” refers to something that just sounds pretty much like “Albert Schweitzer.” But it sounds sufficiently much like that to me that I will put, provisionally:
3:38 …known as… Albert Schweitzer.
There follow some breathing-type sounds, like Darth Vader (the sound quality of this guy’s voice is somewhat Vaderish, too, which had me wondering at first, back in the ’80s, whether it was a Star Wars clip). Then some insect chirps.
Then, at 3:51, exactly what pretty much everyone hears:
3:51 There’s more to this kind of camouflage… More than just colour and shape.
Then there’s more chirping and a lengthy section of the music. (The vocals end before the beginning of the sound clips.) Then there’s the real problem segment. And it trails off some near the end and has loud percussion and all that… Knowing the subject helps to guess. But this is a real exercise in top-down effects on speech perception. If you think you hear something, it sounds more like what you think you hear. It’s similar to how things in the dark can look exactly like human forms and faces, and then when you turn the light on they look nothing like them. Categorical perception is a fascinating issue in linguistics; it’s why anglophones often aren’t even aware that there’s an aspiration on the p in pan that’s not there on the p in span, even while some other languages would treat those two sounds as different, and why speakers of Spanish merge some English vowels and speakers of Japanese have a hard time with l and so on. It’s also responsible for the speech-to-song illusion, whereby a snippet of speech, taken out of context and repeated, can come to sound enough like music that many people will repeat it as music. (Check out the link. It’s really interesting. For the record, I heard the speech the same all the way through, as did some others I know, but others – no less linguistically trained, to be sure! – hear the illusion.)
So I listened and listened and applied some filters and some other filters and tried different headphones and thought about it and… First of all, once you get it clearer, it’s pretty clearly “Who’s going now,” even though I would like it to be “Who’s calling now,” since my guess is that the “more to this kind of camouflage” is sound, i.e., the chirping. After that? Next is “in the” for sure; once you listen carefully, that’s evident. Next I found could be “tall grass” or “tall glass” or… but “tall grass” makes sense. And after that? I kept listening until something fell into place. The vowels are [i] [ai] [ei], what we tend to call “long e, i, a.” And what fell into place was “near my tail.” Now that’s what I hear pretty clearly. Could be top-down effects! But I do think I have it. So:
4:46 Who’s going now… in the tall grass near my tail?
Note that there’s a certain pattern to that which, with some transposition, could suggest “at the twilight’s last gleaming.” Also note that, if you listen with all the music and everything, heard over speaker, “into a classiomatic” actually sounds like a plausible transcription, the unlikeliness of it aside. A useful lesson in the fuzzy nature of speech phonetics. You only distinguish speech sounds by the harmonics (in technical terms, formants) made by the shape of your articulatory passage, especially your tongue. The main distinguishers are the resonances from the throat to the the back of the tongue, which are lower when the tongue is higher, and the resonances from the front of the tongue to the mouth opening, which are higher when the tongue is farther forward. There are other factors and resonances, too, certainly, but it’s really about harmonics. And many things can interfere with and distort those! Yes, there’s more to this kind of camouflage…
Oh, and the fourth bit of speech? I’m not 100% sure I hear it, but it might be there; it’s very brief and whispered. Put on your headphones and pay attention, and you may hear an important admonition:
Addendum, three years later: a commenter (below) has directed my attention to a video with the band members answering questions, and one of them talks about this. On the basis of what he says, and of input from other commenters, I can confidently revise my hearing of the key line a little:
Who’s crawling now, in the tall grass near my tent?