Joe South’s “Games People Play” Lyrics Meaning

Many have classified “Games People Play” as a protest song, which to some degree it is. But comprehensively, it serves as Joe South’s social commentary on how he perceives the world around them. 

There are eight verses in all, grouped in twos, with each pair being representative of a different reflection in that regard by the vocalist. So for the sake of simplicity, we will delve into each grouping individually to get a better idea of what’s going down.

First

In the first, Joe is obviously criticizing the powers that be. This is one of the points where “Games People Play” reads most like a protest song, this being the 1960s and all. And what he appears to be saying, most simply put, is that our leaders are dishonest and then basically chilling off of the profits of being so all the days of their lives.

Second and Third

But the second stanza reads more as if it is more directly interpersonal, i.e. reflecting a relationship between the singer and a loved one. And what he is saying in that regard is that we as individuals tend to be untruthful, oath-breaking or however you want to put it. 

And then instead of accepting the blame for such actions, we cast it onto the other party. So at the end of the day, many relationships which initially had a long-term potential are cut short, due to both parties’ hardheadedness, or something like that. And in the aftermath, what remains is this sadness concerning what could have been.

In the third stanza, South then turns his attention onto self-righteous religious folk. He is speaking to the type that teach but don’t practice and use whatever religion they are preaching for their own ulterior purposes.

Finally

In the final section, Joe once again turns the attention onto “you and me”. And what he is saying is that we, himself included, tend to get caught up in our own “pride and… vanity”. And the implication is that it is such a common weakness, if you will, which results in all of the confusion as highlighted above. 

So instead of continually dumbing out, we need to “turn… back” to our “humanity”. Or let’s say that as Joe South sees it, our greatest aspiration should be striving to remain self-grounded, so to speak. And doing so would minimize or eliminate the prospect of unfavorable interpersonal relationships.

“Games People Play”

And all of such related actions – being deceitful, unforgiving or unable to admit one’s own faults – is what the vocalist defines as “all the games people play”. It’s almost as if he’s saying, if you act so, then you’re not really serious about the relationships you are in. Or put differently, if you want to live as nature intended, then you wouldn’t go around ‘playing games’ with others.

Lyrics to Joe South’s “Games People Play”

Success of “Games People Play”

Joe South (1940-2012) not only sang this song, but he also wrote and produced it himself. And whereas his name may not be one you commonly hear in terms of popular’ 1960s’ musicians, “Games People Play” did net South a couple of Grammy Awards. This transpired in 1970, and they were in the categories of Song of the Year and Best Contemporary Song.

Joe South’s “Games People Play”

This single also had an impressive chart history, appearing in 10 countries overall, which wasn’t a common feat in those days. It fared impressively on the Billboard Hot 100. Here, it reached number 12. And even better on the UK Singles Chart, it peaked at number 6. 

And ironically enough, the only country in which this song actually reached number one was apartheid-era South Africa.

Joe South

For the record, Joe South was in fact from the southern part of the United States – Atlanta, Georgia to be exact. And whereas his singles’ discography is pretty terse he did have a couple of other hits besides this one. These include the likes of “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home” and “Walk a Mile in My Shoes”. 

Both of those he dropped alongside a crew he was a part of called Joe South & The Believers. And between 1968 and 2002 he was able to come out with 13 albums, 3 of those being dropped in 1971 alone.

2 Responses

  1. Adam Tondowsky says:

    “Games People Play” is based on a 1964 book of the same name written by Eric Berne. (The full name of the book is “Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships.)

    The book itself was strictly about psychology but because it delved into ‘transactional analysis’ which has morphed in economics (and other fields) as ‘game theory’, the book is seen as the forerunner of game theory.
    Two additional comments:
    1.At first he seems to attack religion in general, but then later sings “God grant me the serenity to just remember who I am” making it clear his only problem is with organized religion.

    2.In the following verse, the word he obviously left out by singing ‘la la la…’ instead is ‘damn.’ I think Joe South is clearly saying here: “If I sang ‘damn’ I wouldn’t get this song played on the radio. I’m no better than anybody else when it comes to playing these games. ”

    The song is not just brilliant lyricism, but is brilliantly structured as well.

  2. Anonymous says:

    What is an eight by ten as in verse 2?

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