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Great music can be difficult to understand. For example, Petula Clark’s “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” baffles the star who sang it. Notably, the oblique lyrics of “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” made it fit in with numerous other songs from the 1960s.

"Don't Sleep in the Subway" singer Petula Clark holding a record
Petula Clark | Mirrorpix / Contributor

Fred Astaire wanted Petula Clark to explain the lyrics of ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’

Clark co-starred in the 1968 Francis Ford Coppola musical Finian’s Rainbow with Fred Astaire. During a 2013 interview with Songfacts, she discussed talking with the movie star. “Well, I remember Fred Astaire, we used to spend a lot of time just sitting around singing,” she said. “I thought he was a great singer and he would sing those wonderful songs from his movies. 

“Then he would get me to sing songs and explain,” she added. “He said, ‘What does this really mean?’ He wanted me to explain a Beatles song, for example.” For context, Clark covered Fab Four tracks like “The Fool on the Hill” and “Rain.”

“He said, ‘What is ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’ really all about?'” Clark recalled. “And I said to him, ‘You know, I don’t really know.’ I said, ‘All I know is I think it’s a wonderful song.'”

Petula Clark said the song was a combination of 3 different tracks by the same writer

Clark discussed what the writer of “Don’t Sleep in the Subway,” Tony Hatch, told her about it. “Tony told me at one point that it was made up of three songs. All of Tony’s songs have three stages in them. He just sort of glued these three stages together.”

Hatch’s words apparently did not illuminate the meaning of “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” to Clark. “It’s a bit of a mystery to me, the song,” she said. “But it’s got to be one of my favorites, though I’m not quite sure what it’s about. It doesn’t matter.”


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‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’ might be unusual but it still became a hit song

Perhaps it doesn’t matter what “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” means. Lots of great songs have oblique lyrics especially great songs from the 1960s. On the other hand, “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” seems to be a song about an imperfect relationship even if the details aren’t clear. Regardless, who knows why someone would willingly sleep in a subway.

“Don’t Sleep in the Subway” became a hit even if it’s unusual. The track reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, staying on the chart for 10 weeks. It was part of a string of hits Clark had in the United States during the mid-1960s.

“Don’t Sleep in the Subway” also impacted popular culture. The track appeared in episodes of the popular television series Malcolm in the Middle and Glee. In addition, Frank Sinatra covered the track for his album The World We Knew. In the process, he significantly changed the melody of the track.

“Don’t Sleep in the Subway” is an ambiguous song and that’s what makes it so fascinating.