Lyrics of “Watching the Detectives”

Elvis CostelloElvis Costello’s first album My Aim Is True was released 36 years ago yesterday. And that got me thinking about one of the songs on that album “Watching the Detectives.” So I got my guitar out and fiddled around with it. Soon I checked online for the lyrics, which are fairly complicated; I certainly didn’t have them memorized. And one line really stood out, “He stares at you, and you mash a cigarette.” But that isn’t what anyone but me thinks the line is.

Let me explain. “Watching the Detectives” was the song that made me take notice of Costello. And it was that one line about mashing a cigarette that caught me. I thought that it was a wonderfully simple description that perfectly brought to mind those old Humphrey Bogart detective movies. I’d never heard the term before, but it was right: people mash their cigarettes out when they are done. So was I wrong when I thought that? Who knows! I’ve listened to every version I could find this evening and none of them are any more clear than this one:

Opinions on the whole line are varied. No one I’ve found agrees with me on the line. In fact, no one agrees with me on “mash.” Everyone else has “match.” But note that not one of the following lines makes any sense:

  • You snatch a chill, and you match a cigarette
  • You snatch a chew, you a match his cigarette
  • You snatch a tune, you a match a cigarette
  • He snatches at you, and you match his cigarette

My line probably is wrong, but it doesn’t appear to be as wrong as all of these. Also, the next lines follows it thematically, “She pulls his eyes out with a face like a magnet.” The song has two narratives: the guy trying to get the attention of his girl friend and the TV detective show the girl friend is watching. So at this point, more or less the same thing is happening in both narratives. He’s staring at his girl friend as she puts out her cigarette. And on the screen, some detective is salivating over a femme fatale.

It could be about the room temperature, tobacco product types, a song request, or snatching at you, whatever that might mean. And it could be that the two people are comparing or exchanging cigarettes. God knows that Elvis Costello doesn’t make the issue any easier. But really: “snatch” and “match”? Really?! What ever it was, I’m at least sure that Costello is a good enough writer to have avoided that.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

6 thoughts on “Lyrics of “Watching the Detectives”

  1. Hello Frank,
    My name is Russell Keith, but everybody calls me Kip. I’m from Boston, MA
    Thanks for your candid thoughts on the lyrics. It helped me clear up my own thinking about it.
    “Watching the Detectives” is my favorite Elvis Costello song for lots of good reasons. I fell in love with film noir detectives from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in the late 70s. I even worked for Pinkerton’s one summer as a detective, but on a far smaller scale than Hammett did.
    I was fortunate enough to see Elvis Costello live last Saturday night – Nov 10th 2018 – and he played that song which fulfilled my big wish for the night. (My friend most wanted to hear “Oliver’s Army” but was not so lucky.)
    I used to wonder a bit about that line about the cigarette. But I always thought the words were “matchless cigarette” and after reading your thoughts and playing that line over and over in multiple versions, I’ve decided that I respectfully disagree.
    “She(s) got you chewing your matchless cigarette” is the way that’s going into my books as of today.
    At first when I heard “matchless cigarette” I thought of the device Bogart’s Sam Spade uses to light up in his office. ( But if you Google ” ‘matchless cigarette’ 1977″ you’ll see that was actually a thing back then. So you picture the detective character distractedly chewing on his cigarette as “she” pulls his eyes out with a face like a magnet. This makes the two lines mesh perfectly in my mind.

    Well, thanks for the blog, etc.

    • Hi Kip,
      I’ve wondered about this verse also, for a long time.
      It kinda sounds like, “he stares at you and your matchless cigarette”. The way he pronounces, ‘stares at you’ sounds like ‘snatch a chew’, but it makes no sense in any context.
      Therefore, I think it’s a lag in the way ‘at you’ is being spoken, as I recall other people having difficulty speaking those kinds of vowels clearly when they flow together, they slur the vowels together.
      The context of, “he stares at you and your matchless cigarette” makes sense if you will picture the anti-hero looking at the femme fatale who is confident that her pose will affect the guy, not realizing that he is smarter than she thinks, hence he also notices the cigarette in her mouth is not lit – “.. matchless cigarette”.
      I must also say, that “she’s got you chewing your matchless cigarette” doesn’t seem to make sense – as to why anyone would ‘chew their cigarette’. I can’t figure why film producers would put that scene in a movie.
      I hope this is helpful, Cheers.

  2. I’d always pictured a typically film noir pool hall scene – ‘you snatch a CUE and you match a cigarette’. And while we’re at it, am I the only person who thinks ‘red dogs under illegal legs (or X)’ makes no sense at all, whereas ‘red Docs’ as in Doc Martens would be an eye-catching discovery at the lower end of ‘illegal legs’?

    • I don’t know. Like so much of Costello’s work, it’s hard to tell. But I think “illegal legs” is a very evocative phrase. Maybe someone else will have an insight!

  3. In the published sheet music for this song the lyrics are given as “He snatch at you and you match his cigarette”.

    I take the song to be about a frustrated guy trying to romance his girlfriend who is otherwise preoccupied with the detective show on TV, although the lyrics (deliberately) conflate the viewers and the actors. So maybe the guy is trying to take advantage and she either lights his cigarette or lights her own in imitation of the TV detective (which is quite a nice play on two meanings of ‘match’), further frustrating his attempts.

    Elsewhere the published lyrics confirm that it’s “red dogs under illegal legs” which I think is just suitably lurid pulp fiction imagery. I’m not sure what “red dogs” means in this context, but of course Costello plays on “dog” with the next line about getting down and begging.

    • I think it is the ambiguity that makes the song work. Although what I most love are the noir imagery like “red dogs under illegal legs.”

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