We’ll be the first to admit that we are not fluent in the language of automobiles and transportation; we’re conversational at best. But, what we do have proficiency in is the language of music. So, with that in mind, we’ve taken a stab at mining the lyrical meaning of Grease’s famous song “Greased Lightnin’.” The song is sung by the film’s co-lead John Travolta (Danny Zuko) and supporting actor Jeff Conaway (Kenickie).
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So, jump in as we take a drive down the lyrical lane of “Greased Lightnin’” below.
What the Lyrics Mean
“Greased Lightnin’” is first and foremost about the car nicknamed Greased Lightnin’. Kenickie, Danny’s best friend and fellow T-Bird, had bought a used car with the money he made the summer before their senior year of high school. After buying it, and with Danny’s help, Kenickie was repairing and modifying the car to get it into racing shape. When the other T-Birds see the car, Danny points out that the car has the potential to be an eye-catcher for the ladies. The song “Greased Lightnin'” is subsequently a rallying cry from Danny and Kenickie to get the other T-Birds on board with their slick plan of remaking Greased Lightnin’.
Well, this car is automatic, it’s systematic, it’s hydromatic
Why it’s Greased Lightning!
We’ll get some overhead lifters and four-barrel quads, oh yeah
(Keep talking, Woah, keep talking)
A fuel injection cut-off and chrome plated rods, oh yeah
(I’ll get the money, I’ll kill to get the money).
Quickly falling in line, the T-Birds sing and prance as they talk about fixing up Greased Lightin’ for a drag race. For those non-car-aficionados like us, drag racing is usually an event between two cars that start from a standstill and race for a quick quarter mile. Hence the lyric, go, greased lightnin’, you’re burnin’ up the quarter mile.
And, after a brief study, it does appear that many of these modifications to Greased Lightnin’ aren’t completely legitimate. (“Duel-muffler twins,” for instance, is redundant, and “purple-pitched tail lights” are largely illegal today.) Consequently, these lyrics are more akin to the boasting that often arises from a group of young men trying to attract young women.
This makes sense in light of the racy—pun intended—lyrics. Several of the lyrics like, You are supreme, the chicks’ll cream, for greased lightnin’ and You know that I ain’t braggin’, she’s a real pussy wagon are explicitly sexual.
With a four-speed on the floor, they’ll be waitin’ at the door
You know that it ain’t shit, we’ll be gettin’ lots of tit, greased lightnin’
The song is clearly referring to getting lucky with the ladies thanks to their oh-so-cool car. However, to young audiences, the inferences the song made were lost on them. A user on Reddit shared a story about when he was growing up and a friend brought the song in to play for the class. The kids in the class had memorized the song and the movie, after all, it was all the rage in 1978. Needless to say, as the kids were singing along to the sexual lines when the teacher abruptly stopped the record. The friend ended up being sent home for bringing in a dirty song, but the kids had no idea why. It was just a song about a car, right?!
After researching the song, the kids found out the true meaning of ‘Greased Lightnin'” Ahhh, We remember the days when the song was really only about a cool car.
Today, several subsequent performances of Grease have cleaned up these lyrics for younger audiences.
How It Went Down
The song was written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey for the original 1971 musical version of Grease. In the musical, Kenickie’s character sings the lead in “Greased Lightnin’,” but in the movie, Danny sings the lead with support from Kenickie.
“I have to be completely honest with you. I wanted the number,” Travolta told Vanity Fair about the song. “And because I had clout, I could get the number.”
Conway was, reportedly and understandably, unhappy about losing his solo and he wasn’t the only one. Patricia Birch, the film’s choreographer disagreed with the solo switch. “It’s Kenickie’s goddamned number!” she said. “I was upset with it because I thought Jeff needed a number. John was very good doing it, but it should have been Kenickie—it was Kenickie’s car!”
A Deadly Dance Scene
To add another layer of complexity to this song’s backstory, “Greased Lightnin'” had negative repercussions for Conway’s health. While filming the famous dance number for “Greased Lightnin’,” Conaway had a serious fall. More specifically, while Conaway and the other cast members were dancing on top of the car, Conaway fell from the car and injured his back.
That back injury ultimately gave Conway access to painkillers and was one reason for the actor’s addiction to prescription pills. Tragically, it was that addiction that killed Conway. On May 27, 2011, Conway died of pneumonia with sepsis after drug use disabled his ability to seek medical help. He was 60 years old.
Photo by Paramount Pictures/Fotos International/Getty Images