In 1975, 10cc, a British band, released their hit single I'm Not in Love. It reached #1 in the UK and topped the charts for two weeks. This was a breakout hit world wide, reaching #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It is a haunting, beautiful song. If you haven't heard it, pause for a moment and call it up on your favorite music service. Listen to it a couple of times and return to this article.
The singer tries to tell us, and perhaps himself, that he is not in love, but of course he is, and that inescapable fact shines through. If you have ever been achingly in love with someone, and you're not sure if she loves you in kind, or maybe you know she doesn't, then you too may have tried to convince yourself that it's "just a silly phase I'm going through." To no avail. Here are the lyrics.
I'm not in love, so don't forget it It's just a silly phase I'm going through And just because I call you up Don't get me wrong, don't think you've got it made I'm not in love, no-no (It's because) I like to see you, but then again That doesn't mean you mean that much to me So if I call you, don't make a fuss Don't tell your friends about the two of us I'm not in love, no-no (It's because) [ Whispers ] I keep your picture upon the wall It hides a nasty stain that's lyin' there So don't you ask me to give it back I know you know it doesn't mean that much to me I'm not in love, no-no (It's because) Ooh, you'll wait a long time for me Ooh, you'll wait a long time Ooh, you'll wait a long time for me Ooh, you'll wait a long time I'm not in love, so don't forget it It's just a silly phase I'm going through And just because I call you up Don't get me wrong, don't think you've got it made, ooh I'm not in love I'm not in love
As backdrop for the lyrics, the music is a creative, engineering masterpiece. It is almost all voices, a choir of voices in the background, a wall of vocal sound. This was all done with tape loops and overlays, technology that is all but forgotten in the digital age. You can read the details below. A guitar, keyboard, and Moog synthesized drum track were added later, the drum more like a heartbeat, emphasizing the emotions of the singer. They even added a toy music box, double tracked and out of phase.
The song was nearly complete, and yet Godley felt that something was missing. He wanted someone to whisper something during the middle eight. It should be a female voice, someone to console him as he wrestles with his emotions. But who should do the whispering? At that moment his secretary, Kathy Redfern, entered the control room and whispered, trying not to interrupt their session, "Eric, There's a telephone call for you." They decided that was the voice they wanted, and convinced her to make the recording. But what did she say? What are the words whispered in the background?
That was the question that intrigued me when I was 19 years old in college. I heard the song from time to time on the radio, and I loved it, but why was she saying "Requesting quiet" throughout the middle eight. That's what it sounded like to me.
It's hard to imagine a world before the Internet, without instant access to knowledge. Questions that we answer today in 45 seconds flat took weeks of research, or perhaps went unanswered just because we didn't have the time. Well I made the time, along with my roommate, who also wanted to know. Why would she say "requesting quiet", over and over, in the middle of this love song? We went up and down the hall of our dorm, but nobody had the song, so I employed some then-modern technology. I had a stereo tape deck with a high fidelity microphone, which we held on standby as we listened to the radio for days on end, until the song came on, and then I pushed record. This was high end consumer electronics for a dorm room in 1979, but I didn't have a patch cord, or perhaps the radio receiver didn't include line-out, so I had to record over the air and hope the students across the hall didn't start yodling in the middle of the song. They didn't, and we made a decent recording. We played it again and again, and finally realized what she was saying.
35 years later, as I was writing this article, I asked my wife Wendy what she thought the whisperer was saying. "Bequest and quiet." she replied without hesitation. This is phonetically similar to what I heard, but still nonsensical in the context of the song. I told her what the words really were, and then it made perfect sense. The whispered words are presented below, but before you read them, realize that the auditory illusion will be broken at that point. It's hard to hear "requesting quiet" any more, though I can still get there if I set my brain on the right track. After all, the whisperer begins with "Be quiet", and that primes your brain with the word quiet, which makes it easy to think you're hearing the word quiet again and again. Linguistic error correction fills in the rest.
Yes indeed, the first words are "Be quiet," as though she is telling him that it will be all right, and that he's not fooling anyone with his denial, not even himself. Then she goes on, and you realize that he is crying. She is trying to console him because he is crying, or on the verge of crying.
Be quiet, big boys don't cry Big boys don't cry Big boys don't cry Big boys don't cry Big boys don't cry Big boys don't cry Big boys don't cry
I'm sure they didn't intend to place an auditory illusion in their song, but there it is, and like all illusions it's fascinating, because it provides a window into language perception.
I'm not the only one who went down this path. As of 2015, you can type "requesting quiet" into google, and 9 of the top 10 search results describe misheard lyrics from this song. Other misplacements include: "Be poised and quiet", "Be moist and quiet" (I don't want to think about what that one might mean), "Big Boston choir", "Be cresting cry", and "Break boys take 5". Of course words don't have to be whispered to be misheard. For extra credit, what is the line that follows "Rocket Man" in the chorus of Elton John's Rocket Man? For a while I thought it was "Burning all the trees off everyone."
Now that I realize she's telling him not to cry, it all fits. "I'm not in love … it's just a silly phase." Concept, lyrics, melody, cords, engineering, originality - to my mind this is one of the best songs ever produced.