The music industry spends millions trying to chart trends, isolate demographics and generally predict the necessary ingredients for a No. 1 single. But every now and then a song comes along that makes it all the way to the top end of the charts by sheer fluke.
Rock Around the Clock (RATC), however, was the first-ever rock song to hit No. 1 on the pop charts, thus transforming rock from a mere novelty act to a dominant force of popular music and the No. 1 cause of boob autographs in Western culture.
Not always a good thing.
And it almost never happened. In fact, if it hadn't been for the musical taste of a single teenage boy, the song that made rock cool might have disappeared into obscurity, opening the door for popular music evolution to travel down a completely different path.
On second thought, we may be willing to risk it. Fire up the time machine.
When Haley recorded RATC, his producer insisted on slapping the song on the B side of the record. For anyone who doesn't know, the B side of a single was traditionally reserved for experimental songs, halfhearted instrumentals and that song the drummer wrote about his ex-girlfriend. In other words, it was filler.
Most animals couldn't be bothered to piss on a B side.
Selected for the A side was a song called Thirteen Women. Know it? Of course not -- no one does. Having spent most of their studio time on the A side, they were left with only 40 minutes to arrange and record RATC. Session guitarist Danny Cedrone just repeated a guitar solo he'd already used on previous records, and the band grinded out the legendary recording in two takes. Thirteen Women was released and barely touched the lower reaches of the charts before quickly disappearing from American culture. And that's where the story would have ended if one of the people who bought Thirteen Women hadn't been a boy named Peter Ford.
Gaze upon the face of white-hot teenage rebellion.
Peter's father, Glenn Ford, was about to star in a gritty film called Blackboard Jungle, a story about a teacher trying to cope with a classroom filled with a gang of juvenile delinquents lead by Sidney Poitier.
Ford and the producers, deciding that they needed some music in the film that represented what the kids were listening to, raided Peter's record collection. RATC fit the bill perfectly, and they set the opening and closing credits to the song.
The movie and the song were a huge success. Kids were coming to the theater just to hear RATC over the credits. Teenagers in England were actually rioting in the theaters. RATC and rock 'n' roll in general became indelibly associated with youth and rebellion.
And that's when hair got fucking real.
After it was hastily reissued it as an A side, the song went straight to No. 1 and stayed there for eight weeks. Since then it's sold an estimated 25 million copies, making it the fourth-best-selling record of all time, right behind Bing Crosby's Silent Night. He, of course, has the advantage of his song being a guaranteed inclusion on every single Christmas compilation album ever released till the end of time.
Wipeout will always be synonymous with two things: surfing and montage footage of people injuring themselves in horrific ways. Its manic opening and infectious drum pattern make it one of the most recognizable pieces of music in rock history. So what musical genius could have possibly crafted this pop masterpiece? Well, actually it was a bunch of high school kids, and it was improvised.
Ironically, they were still three years away from being able to legally utilize their groupies.
The Surfaris were a California garage band with an average age of 15 who had been successful enough playing at sock hops and house parties that they were able to acquire a manager. One day in late 1962, the drummer announced that he had an idea for song that had come to him in dream the night before.
"Also, we can only play the song naked and in front of the whole school."
The rest of the band helped flesh out the idea, and the end result was a song called Surfer Joe. The manager was impressed enough to book them some time in a small studio in Cucamonga. One of the bandmates' mothers dutifully wrote out a check for $100 to pay for the studio hire and 100 45's. The idea was that the band could record their song and then sell the records at their gigs to earn enough money to buy better equipment.
Not a bad plan -- dreadlocks are expensive!
So they loaded up their (understandably shittier) equipment and had their dads take them out to Cucamonga because they weren't old enough to drive. The group recorded their song easily enough, and the result, while nothing earth-shattering, was at least pretty decent for a group of high school kids.
They were literally packing up their gear to leave when their manager turned on the intercom from the control room to ask what they wanted to record for the B side. They had been so excited about actually writing a song of their own that it had never occurred to them that they would need two.
"Um, guys, a record has two sides because it's not the future yet ... idiots."
So, like any teenagers faced with presenting a project they should have been working on for months, they just made some shit up. The drummer started pounding out a rhythm, and the rest of the group ad-libbed around it. Ten or 15 minutes later, they had their song recorded. The famous drumbeat is actually just a speeded-up version of the drum cadence that the drummer's high school marching band used when marching onto the field.
Define an entire generation with a drum line? Uh ... sure, give me a sec.
After the band decided to call the song Wipeout, the guitarist's dad fetched a plaster-soaked board from the alley and broke it in front of the microphone to sound like surfboard breaking, and the manager supplied the shouted introduction and creepy laugh. Six months later, it was No. 2 on the national charts, acting as a lesson to kids everywhere that hard work is a waste of time.
Throughout most of the 80s, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were best known for their Herculean levels of drug ingestion and a willingness to perform live wearing nothing but socks on their genitals. So it was a surprise in 1991 when they released a slow, sobering song about loneliness and overcoming addiction called Under the Bridge.
Luckily for the world, they were never quite able to overcome Flea.
After the success of the album Mothers Milk at the end of the 80s, Anthony Kiedis decided he wasn't going to do the drugs part of "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" anymore. According to his autobiography, Scar Tissue, Kiedis' transformation was driving a wedge between him and the two members of the group who were still heavy drug users (bassist Flea and guitarist Frusciante).
Feeling increasingly isolated, Kiedis responded to the situation in a way beloved by moody adolescents everywhere: He wrote a poem about it. It encompassed his alienation and reflected on his years of drug abuse and all it had cost him, culminating with a reference to the bridge where he bought drugs one night after pretending to be engaged to a gang member's sister -- one of the lowest points of his life.
And you could really feel the tension it later caused them both onstage.
That would have been the end of it if producer Rick Rubin's shocking disrespect for privacy hadn't allowed him to casually flip through Kiedis' notebook and discover the poem. Rubin thought it would make a great song. Kiedis was less convinced, pointing out that the slow, introspective ballad wasn't exactly in keeping with a band that was historically more inclined to produce songs such as Party on Your Pussy. Rubin persisted and finally convinced him to perform it for the rest of the band.
"Hey, Kravitz, you're not gonna believe the shit Anthony wrote about you in his diary."
Everyone in the group liked it enough to record it for their album Blood Sugar Sex Magik, but they were still unwilling to make it a single, despite the urgings of the record executives; the Chili Peppers thought it was too big a departure from their usual funk fare. What clinched it for them was a concert during which Kiedis missed his cue for the vocals to Under the Bridge and the audience responded en masse by singing it for him. This was enough to convince everyone they might be onto something with this song.
The single became a monster hit and the album went on to sell 17 million copies and it never would have happened if Rick Rubin hadn't been a nosy asshole.