The Meaning of Seemingly Random Numbers Mentioned in Popular Rock Songs

Paul Simon was probably right, but he definitely shortchanged us when he sang, “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.” The song actually only mentions four or five ways to get out of a relationship, like Jack sneaking through the back, Stan finding a new plan, or Lee dropping off the key.

I have always wanted to hear the other forty-something ways Simon had in mind when he wrote the hit. Granted, it probably would not be exactly fifty, since Simon likely just rounded up to a nice, easy number. After all, a song titled “46 Ways to Leave Your Lover” would not be nearly as catchy, even if it were mathematically correct.

An artist does not have to round up to a catchy number in order to make a good song, however. Some really memorable songs are built around seemingly random numbers, either in the title or in the verses.

Here are some of the seemingly random numbers from popular songs, accompanied by a viable explanation of why that particular number was chosen.

“35 Sweet Goodbyes” by Steely Dan

This sum appears in the opening line of “My Old School” and, according to a Rolling Stone interview with Donald Fagen, represents oral sex (half of 69). The “Daddy G.” in the last verse, by the way, belongs to G. Gordon Liddy, who was the dean when Fagen attended Bard College.

“14 joys and a will to be merry” by Bob Welch

The line here from “Sentimental Lady” refers to the Stations of Joy, fourteen passages in which the resurrected Jesus desired to transform sorrows into sorrows. Hence, the final half of the line quoting the desire to be happy instead of sad.

“73 men sailed out from the San Francisco Bay” by Blues Image

In an interview the band claimed the number had no significance, and that they had just randomly chosen it to open their hit “Ride Captain Ride.” Some fans still feel that the number is a biblical reference.

“21 Reasons” by Frank Black and the Catholics

This song by the former front man of the Pixies refers to the 21 missions used to establish California, hence his mention of Berkeley, Monterey and the rocky coast.

“99 Luft Balloons” by Nena

This anti-war song was more popular in its German version, but the number is the same in any language. It describes several other nouns in the song, culminating in 99 dreams. Why 99? The only reasonable explanation is that physically that number most resembles a balloon. Since there are two people in the song buying the balloons, it would make sense for the title to have two nines, thus a balloon for each one.

“96 Tears” by? and the Mysterians

This title probably uses 96 because it is the largest of the five “untouchable” numbers under 100. The lyrics reveal that the singer cannot touch the girl, but that she will eventually end up crying a lot more than he currently is.

“Obviously Five Believers” by Bob Dylan

Some Dylan fanatics believe that the quintet here represents the number of people who, no matter how silly the words of his songs, always insist on finding deep interpretations. To complicate the song even more, Dylan throws in “fifteen jugglers.”

“25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago

Singer Peter Cetera revealed that the song was written as several band members were trying to stay awake all night, “Sitting cross-legged on the floor” and “Getting up to splash my face.” After one asked what time it was, the other answered that it was either 25 or 6 to 4 (o’ clock). The better question was asked a few years earlier by the band in their song “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”

“Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes

Stop trying to figure out which septet of countries is being referred to in this title. I once erroneously assumed that they were the powers on the United Nations Security Council plus some up and comers like Korea or Greece, but Jack White dismissed that notion. The name, according to the song’s creator himself, came from his childhood misinterpretation of The Salvation Army.