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'MacArthur Park' And A Cake Out In The Rain: Worst. Lyrics. Ever?

Music | November 11, 2020

Donna Summer performs on stage, circa 1975, as Richard Harris looks on. (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns; IMDB)

"MacArthur Park," a hit for Richard Harris, Waylon Jennings, the Four Tops and Donna Summer, has the worst lyrics ever written. That's an article of faith in popular music of the latter half of the 20th century -- many artists have written or belted out terrible cliches or atrocious rhymes, but nothing touches "MacArthur Park," a heartfelt elegy for a rain-ruined cake. See, rain is not good for cakes, you don't have to be Betty Crocker to know that, but as a metaphor a green cake melting in the rain is just silly. Also, it's not even a metaphor. There really is a cake.

Psychedelic, bizarre songs composed of absurd lyrics dominated the airwaves so much throughout the 1960’s, that people even stopped questioning the strangeness of these tunes. However, Jimmy Webb’s 1968 eccentric composition "MacArthur Park" still confused the masses who had already been accustomed to the ‘60s standard of weird.

Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don't think that I can take it
'Cause it took so long to bake it

Listeners everywhere drove themselves crazy trying to understand what the story of this cake was.  Despite being considered by many critics to be the “worst song ever written,” the song has charted again and again, proving to be the strangest top 40 hit in history.

MacArthur Park Is A Story About One Of Jimmy Webb's Relationships

Source: Rolling Stone

"MacArthur Park" describes a true story about a deep heartbreak experienced by the narrator. Jimmy Webb wrote the song in 1967 about his old flame Suzy Horton, a relative of Linda Ronstadt. Horton had a strong hold on Webb as she also inspired his famous tunes "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," "Where’s The Playground," and "The Worst That Could Happen." In "MacArthur Park," Webb recalls the lovely days he spent with Horton at the Los Angeles park where she worked across the street and they often met for lunch. The song takes a turn when it reaches their breakup, which completely devastated Webb. Webb unloads his depressing emotions in "MacArthur Park" in such a surreal manner that makes listeners feel his misery.

MacArthur Park Was Unexpectedly Sung By An Actor

Webb brought "MacArthur Park" to The Association as their producer Bones Howe was looking for a complex song that would sound great with an orchestra, but Webb’s tune was much too out-there for the sunshine pop group famous for "Never My Love," "Cherish" and "Windy."  Around this time in the mid-‘60s, Webb and the Irish actor (and future Dumbledore of Harry Potter movies) Richard Harris bonded while getting drunk together backstage at a charity event in Los Angeles. Webb later received a telegram from Harris stating his desire to record an album with his help. Webb was shocked since the actor, who had recently starred in the 1967 musical film Camelot, was never expected to begin his own musical career. Thus, Webb flew to London and after Harris rejected all of his song suggestions, he threw out "MacArthur Park" at the last second and Harris was set on it.

Singer/Actor Richard Harris and Composer Jimmy Webb. Source: Pinterest

They recorded the song December 21, 1967 with famous session group The Wrecking Crew backing Harris and Webb himself playing the harpsichord. MacArthur Park was officially released on Harris’s 1968 album A Tramp Shining and as a single, which was a bold move since the song clocked in at seven and a half minutes long. Despite its length which would usually be discarded by radio stations, MacArthur Park was a success reaching no.2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Harris had actually promised Webb he would give him his Rolls-Royce Phantom Five if the song was a hit, but he did not keep that promise and Webb never received the car.

Was MacArthur Park Really 'The Worst Song Ever?'

Source: Dangerous Minds

Humorist Dave Barry called MacArthur Park “the worst song ever written” with “the worst lyrics” in his 1997 book Dave Barry’s Book Of Bad Songs, and many critics have agreed. One of the reasons the song is hated by so many is because of the difficulty of interpreting the song’s meaning as it seemed to just be a collection of gibberish, and the widespread belief was that it was just another drug song written on hardcore psychedelics with no significance at all. The confusing lyrics have driven people crazy trying to analyze the strange metaphors. Why would someone leave a cake out in the rain and why do you need to make the cake when it’s already made? Webb kept the true meaning of the song hidden for decades until he finally explained in a 2014 interview with Newsday.

Everything in the song was visible. There’s nothing in it that’s fabricated. The old men playing checkers by the trees, the cake that was left out in the rain, all of the things that are talked about in the song are things I actually saw. And so it’s a kind of musical collage of this whole love affair that kind of went down in MacArthur Park. ... Back then, I was kind of like an emotional machine, like whatever was going on inside me would bubble out of the piano and onto paper.

There Was A Cake. There Was Rain. There Was Green Icing

Source: Pinterest

It turns out there were no metaphors or hidden context in the misunderstood song, but it was a straight-forward story of exactly what Webb witnessed in MacArthur Park. Some people also argue "MacArthur Park" is not only composed of impressively visionary lyrics, but it’s also a very important song in the history of music as it was the longest hit single at the time and paved the way for other musicians to lengthen their top songs. Paul McCartney followed this new trend when he wrote the seven-minute single "Hey Jude," which became one of The Beatles’ biggest hits in their entire career, and Don McLean's "American Pie," with a total running time of 8 minutes, 36 seconds, later topped the chart. The song was also an extremely sophisticated composition that was composed of four different sections of various instrumentation and key changes that featured a dramatic crescendo of epic proportions. The vivid imagery Webb created portrayed his uncontrollable and frantic emotions that developed from his broken heart. Perhaps MacArthur Park just focused a little too deeply on the cake that was left out of the rain, the line that baffled listeners and became the butt of jokes for the following decades.

Donna Summer Created An Even Bigger Hit Out Of MacArthur Park With Disco

Cover of Waylon Jennings' album with The Kimberlys. Source: discogs.com

Although it seemed ridiculous at the time, "MacArthur Park" was covered by many other artists over the years and even the different versions became hits. Future outlaw country luminary Waylon Jennings won a Grammy in 1969 for a country version recorded with The Kimberlys, and The Four Tops’ cover reached no. 38 on the Billboard Hot 100. But it was Donna Summer who had the biggest hit with her disco style rendition of "MacArthur Park" in 1978. Summer’s producer/collaborator Giorgio Moroder had been searching for a ‘60s song Summer could revamp into a dance number when he heard the original "MacArthur Park" on the radio. He knew Summer’s powerful voice would be perfectly suited to the song's high notes. Summer was already dominating the disco world of the late ‘70s with hits like "Last Dance" and "I Feel Love," but "MacArthur Park" would send her into an even higher level. Summer glamorized the originally somber song with her polished voice, and repetitive synthesizer sounds fused with vestiges of the tune's psychedelic elements. Her initial version was eight minutes long (which would be included on her 18-minute melody "MacArthur Park Suite"), but was chopped in half to gain more radio traction.

Source: Pinterest

The new song was now played at clubs and became a dancing favorite as it reached no.1 on both the dance and pop charts, and the song with “the worst lyrics ever” was now Summer’s first chart-topper. Although with Summer’s beautiful soaring voice, the subject of the song never mattered as she could make anything sound phenomenal. The effervescent instrumentation created a disco sensation as a song now full of life and energy making listeners want to dance instead of dissect the lyrics. Summer became queen of the disco world and with "MacArthur Park" she was nominated for her first time ever for Grammy Award For Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Who knew all of this success would come from a song that was criticized so heavily by critics and listeners as one of the worst songs ever?

The Lyrics To 'MacArthur Park'

Source: Pinterest

Spring was never waiting for us, dear

It ran one step ahead

As we followed in the dance

MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark

All the sweet, green icing flowing down

Someone left the cake out in the rain

I don't think that I can take it

'Cause it took so long to bake it

And I'll never have that recipe again

Oh, no

I recall the yellow cotton dress

Foaming like a wave

On the ground beneath your knees

The birds, like tender babies in your hands

And the old men playing Chinese checkers by the trees

MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark

All the sweet, green icing flowing down

Someone left the cake out in the rain

I don't think that I can take it

'Cause it took so long to bake it

And I'll never have that recipe again

Oh, no

MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark

All the sweet, green icing flowing down

Someone left my cake out in the rain

And I don't think that I can take it

'Cause it took so long to bake it

And I'll never have that recipe again

Oh, no, oh

Tags: Donna Summer | MacArthur Park | Richard Harris | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.