Couldn't Get Ahead



Couldn't get ahead
I just couldn't get ahead
Couldn't get ahead
Just couldn't get ahead

Come out of pub, the shop is closed
Come out of pub, Harry wants to know (2)
When the next bus is
I said five or ten minutes
I had my change
In my hands
The bus flashes past
My hands are cupped

Couldn't get ahead
I just couldn't get ahead
Couldn't get ahead
Just couldn't get ahead

In a week, earned money for month
Got all my jobs done
My eyelids were sick of it
Gist was I could sleep for a day,
But bad bills have no respect for a decent man's rest
Flopping on the doorstep
Outlined in color red (3)

I just couldn't get ahead 
I just couldn't get ahead
Couldn't get ahead
I just couldn't get ahead


On an Asiatic plane with wings not of the brain
Toilet queue was endless
Couldn't get a beer
The hostesses were muslims
When I get in toilet,
Light flashes: "Return to seat"
I feared withdrawal
And I feared beer was making sludge of my head

Just couldn't get ahead 
I just couldn't get ahead
Couldn't get ahead
And I just couldn't get ahead

Now my problems are solved
It's a remedy of old
I pretend I'm blind you see
Put on some Armani clothes (4)
And act like ET (5)
Where I'm at is a cabbage patch, (6)
no longer strewn with weeds
Have a gandy at me (7)
Colour mags wish me well
No more, no get ahead (8)

I just couldn't get ahead 
I just couldn't get ahead
Couldn't get ahead
I just couldn't get ahead





1. A very straightforward song that is reminiscent of the Ramones, both musically and lyrically (see note 6). 


2. "'Come out of pub Harry wants to know' may refer back to Sham 69's 1978 hit "Hurry Up Harry," which had the refrain "We're going down the pub!'" (from mikemcsg).


3. Dan points out that this last most likely refers to the bills rather than the dead party--he'd be outlined in white, and it's doubtful he'd be flopping.


4.  Max WIlliams suggests that the narrator is pretending to be blind in order to get "a lot of assistance from the state: extra benefits, prioritised and special treatment on planes, buses, etc., and maybe some nice volunteer to come round to sort his garden out: hence the garden (cabbage patch) now de-weeded."

It has been documented that MES did indeed don Armani togs during the period when Brix was dressing him.


5. A reference to E.T. the Extraterrestial, a soggy 1982 film by Steven Spielberg.  


6. Cabbage Patch Kids were children's dolls that were the subject of a huge fad in the 1980s. Also, a 1901 novel by Alice Hegan Rice called Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch tells the tale of a rural American family living in a jocular brand of poverty.  

Raging Ostler points out, elsewhere, that "cabbages" is English slang for stupid people, so that may be what's going on here.


7. This seems to be a slangy substitution for "have a gander." Annotated Paul says it's "have a ganny," and that's also possible. The Lyrics Parade had "Have a Ghandi [sic]", which is also possible, but since there's no source (and since I feel there's a 'd') I switched it to the more generic version above.


8.As per note one, this song reminds me of the Ramones, and for some reason this line seems like something they would say, even though I cannot think of a good parallel Ramones lyric. Indeed I may have gone a bit too far in saying without qualification that it is lyrically similar to them in note 1; it doesn't exactly match up with anything, I suppose, but I could see this being on an album like [i]Pleasant Dreams[/i] or [i]Subterranean Jungle[/i] nevertheless. The song's blue collar attitude, with music and lyrics that are straightforward and unassuming, yet pack a discernible punch, seems to me to express something of the Ramones' ethos, particularly in their middle and later years (the latter of which haven't happened yet, of course). 




Comments (34)

  • 1. John | 01/08/2013
This is a massively clever song, going through the various meanings of ahead/a head. Physically getting ahead via the bus, financially getting ahead of your bills (late bills sometimes have a red border on the envelope), "head" as slang for the bathroom, "head" on a beer.
Holy Liar
  • 2. Holy Liar | 23/11/2013
I thought it was about blowjobs? Sorry.

BTW It's a weird captcha thing on this - only allows French speakers to post comments. What's with that?
  • 3. bzfgt | 27/11/2013
They're the only ones sophisticated enough to get the blowjob jokes.
  • 4. Mark | 22/05/2014
"On an Asiatic plane with wings not of the grain" - I've always heard it as "... of the brain". Not that it makes any more sense...
  • 5. Mark | 22/05/2014
I seem to recall that the line "Colour mags wish me well" was MES' reaction to the increased coverage of the group and the surprise as to how positively they were being perceived.
Max Williams
  • 6. Max Williams | 15/01/2015
I always thought the point of the narrator pretending to be blind was to get a lot of assistance from the state: extra benefits, prioritised and special treatment on planes, buses etc, and maybe some nice volunteer to come round to sort his garden out: hence the garden (cabbage patch) now de-weeded.
  • 7. dannyno | 03/02/2016
"Flopping on the doorstep
Outlined in color red"

I only just twigged that he's talking about the bills here. Probably everyone else in the world already understands this.
annotated paul
  • 8. annotated paul | 03/02/2016
I'm pretty sure it's actually 'have a ganny at me', which based on my small amount of research, doesn't seem to have ever been common usage, and may be a term for 'gander' that Mr. Smith invented himself.
  • 9. bzfgt | 19/03/2016
Maybe they do, maybe they don't, but it's our job to make sure they do!

I can't honestly say whether I ever thought about that line or not, there are so many Fall lyrics in the world it's almost obscene. When I get behind on these comments like I have lately, I realize this is a lifetime job...I doubt I'll ever be able to "retire" and ignore them, there could always be that one that puts the song over the top. Might as well put this one in...
  • 10. bzfgt | 19/03/2016
Paul, that's entirely possible. This isn't in the Lyrics Books, I just inherited "Ghandi" from the Lyrics Parade (and never noticed it was misspelled until tonight). I don't think its entirely distinct but my ears think there's a 'd'--I switched it to the more generic "gandy" and put all this kind of blather in the notes, including an acknowledgement of your version.

However, is "Have a Gandhi" any kind of British slang? If so I'd be tempted to put Mohandas back in the mix....the weird thing is that some schlub scratches down what she thinks she hears and a few years later it's become canonical, to the point where I felt weird changing it. That's one crazy thing about doing this--in some cases I know it's unavoidable I'll be creating "official" Fall lyrics, there's something about having it in black and white for years that makes one half-assed guess tower over the others in peoples' imaginations. Especially once it's quoted in the press a few times, which of course occasionally happens...
  • 11. dannyno | 28/03/2016
"On an Asiatic plane with wings not of the grain"

Never really thought about this line before, now I do doesn't it sound like he's indicating that the plane is no better than one made badly out of balsa wood?
  • 12. Lanark26 | 08/07/2016
My impression has always been that this bit was:

"I had my change in my hands
The bus flashes past
My hands are cupped"

which seems to make more contextual sense.
  • 13. bzfgt | 15/07/2016
Much more coherent line, I'll check it and the tie will go to the runner, if it's not distinct.
  • 14. bzfgt | 15/07/2016
Yep, we're going with it, excellent work.
  • 15. Mark | 19/07/2016
Cabbage Patch Kids ( were rather popular around the time that the song was recorded, so I wonder whether the line "Where I'm at is a cabbage patch" is a sideways reference?
  • 16. bzfgt | 19/07/2016
Mark, this is already in note 5...
  • 17. mikemcsg | 14/08/2016
"Come out of pub Harry wants to know" may refer back to Sham 69's 1978 hit "Hurry Up Harry" which had the refrain "We're going down the pub ! "
  • 18. dannyno | 22/02/2017
Error! Notes 3 and 4 seem to be the wrong way around.
Martin Gammon
  • 19. Martin Gammon | 06/03/2017
Surely it's 'my hands are cold'? Or have you already been through that?
Martin Gammon
  • 20. Martin Gammon | 06/03/2017
And I heard 'common minds wish me well' as in we can all relate to not getting ahead...
  • 21. dannyno | 06/03/2017
I'm not hearing "my hands are cold". Doesn't sound like that to me.

"Common minds" isn't a phrase I've ever heard. "Colour mags" is what I hear.
  • 22. bzfgt (link) | 19/03/2017
"Common minds" makes sense and I'm sure I've heard it. I don't hear that or "hands are cold" here, though. "my hands are caught" is possible, although "common minds" is closer than the other I still hear it this way more.
Ex worker man
  • 23. Ex worker man | 23/04/2018
my interp; 'With wings, not of the brain' i.e. He's on an Asian airline flight, not a higher plane of the mind as attained through following Asian religious practise
  • 24. dannyno | 05/05/2018
Comment #23. It's obscure to me, but just to note that the brain has lobes. But insects are sometimes described as having wing-like lobes too.
  • 25. bzfgt (link) | 09/07/2018
I have "last pub" for the second "come out of pub," let me know if anyone objects or has another idea (verse 1 line 2)--less likely is maybe "last port"

The bus might "lurch" past, what do you think?

Changed the choruses to make them more accurate @dannyno

I definitely hear "brain" now
  • 26. bzfgt (link) | 09/07/2018
....but I don't know about the interpretation there of EWM, I have to mull over it and hopefully others will as well
  • 27. dannyno | 02/10/2018
The WC Fields movie version of Mrs Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch seems only to have been shown on UK TV by the time of this song once, BBC 2, Monday 5 May 1980. But MES could have read the book or seen the film in the US. I'm curious about this film, does feel like a connection.
  • 28. dannyno | 14/12/2018
Comment #25, not currently consistent with note #2 and the text.

For "Last port, Harry wants to know", I think he gabbles through it on the album version but it is "Come out of pub...." like the previous line. "Come out of pub, Harry wants to know". It's clear on the Peel version.
  • 29. bzfgt (link) | 19/01/2019
Now you say I clearly hear that second "out of pub"
  • 30. jensotto | 02/07/2019
The last episode of the series Get Ahead (1958-62) featured "Mrs John Profumo" 1962-05-24 (ROLEX) - during his Keeler-affair
  • 31. dannyno | 21/05/2021
"Asiatic plane"

in the context, surely it has to be "plane", what with wings and hostesses.

But does it?

What if it's actually "Asiatic plain", referring for example to the Siberian tundra? The narrator could still be flying over the Asiatic plain, but perhaps not in an Asiatic plane.
  • 32. bzfgt (link) | 22/05/2021
Good point
  • 33. Wrayx8 | 27/09/2021
The "wings not of brain" appears to be another Blake reference (a similar image is used in "W.B.").
  • 34. dannyno | 18/01/2023
Text on this song from the press release for the Couldn't get Ahead / Rollin' Dany / Petty Thief Lout 12 in, reproduced in Blue lyrics book, p.117

Grainy horrid visions from that most perceptive Gland - One vote, one say, fodder for the aimless.

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