We tend to think of successful songs as the carefully crafted result of great artistic vision and hours of grueling, dedicated work. This isn't always the case, though. Every so often a song explodes into the mainstream completely by accident, tearing up the charts to the surprise (and sometimes chagrin) of the musicians responsible. Like ...
The first and biggest hit of Beck's life would be the result of a bored Beck and his ability to make up random bullshit on the fly.
He had a lot of practice. Before he got famous, Beck played his music anywhere he could -- in clubs, in coffee houses and on the streets of L.A., usually to crowds who couldn't give less of a shit about him. Being the type of guy he is, he'd eventually break out of whatever song he was playing and start making up random lyrics instead, just to see who was paying attention.
"Heathcliff the cat, fucking a midget, with a pigeon's foot in the skyyyyy!"
This particular skill came into play later when Beck and Carl Stephenson, a producer for Rap-A-Lot Records, spontaneously decided to record a song in Stephenson's kitchen. Beck started rapping, and they both got a laugh out of how terrible he sounded. As they were playing it back, Beck just started sarcastically singing, "I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me." Everything else is just random nonsense Beck made up while staring at things in Stephenson's kitchen.
Suddenly the lines about dog food, beef and Cheez Whiz make sense. Well, more sense, anyway.
The track took six and a half hours to record and produce from start to finish. Beck wasn't happy with the song, it being something he slapped together as a demonstration of how bad he was at rapping, and only agreed to release it under pressure from his label at the time, Bong Load. Because who wouldn't recognize the wisdom of every business decision made by an organization with such a name?
U2, for example, got their first big break while signed to Boner Fart Records.
"Loser" got Beck the attention he needed, and he soon got picked up by a real label, Geffen Records, which reissued the song in 1994. It peaked at 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, made Beck a star and was ultimately ranked #203 in Rolling Stone's "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time." Not bad for a bunch of gibberish made up in a kitchen.
Featured on the Beastie Boys' debut album, Licensed to Ill (1986), "Fight for Your Right" was the group's first hit and helped establish the persona of the badass, take-no-shit, hard-rocking party boys that they totally weren't, at all.
In fact, the Beasties hated the whole rocker scene, feeling it was populated by obnoxious, testosterone-laden douchebags. They wanted to poke fun at mindless party anthems like "Smoking in the Boys Room," so they cut the lyrics to "Fight for Your Right" as an in-joke before going on tour.
Their producer, Rick Rubin, added some drums and a blaring guitar riff and released the track, which soon became a big hit. Thinking the song's success was hilarious, the Beasties made what they assumed was an equally ridiculous video to go along with it.
This, shockingly, is disingenuous.
Slowly, they began to realize that the whole "parody" part was lost on most of the listening public, and the majority of their newfound fan base was now made up of the same toolbags they were making fun of.
The kind who would happily waste good pie.
Despite being the song that put them on MTV, the Beastie Boys publicly denounced "Fight for Your Right" and haven't performed it live since 1987. They would not be the first or the last band to find out that the whole "make an intentionally stupid song mocking other bands" thing can come back to bite you ...
When "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was released in August of 1991, it virtually changed mainstream music overnight, allowing us to finally forget about the popular music of the 1980s.
Nirvana would go on to inspire a whole new generation of artists, with their breakout single eventually ranking in the top 10 of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list (which is a fine pedigree, but before we proceed it should be noted that the list recently dropped Iggy Pop in favor of Kelly Clarkson).
The world dropped Iggy Pop quite a while earlier.
The name of the song came about when Cobain walked into his bedroom one day to see that his friend Kathleen Hanna had spray-painted "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the wall. Being somehow totally unaware of Teen Spirit deodorant, the brand that his then-girlfriend Tobi Vail wore, he thought it was some kind of badass revolutionary slogan and didn't realize that Hanna was actually making fun of him.
Surprisingly, this was not in Kurt Cobain's wheelhouse.
When he finally found out, Cobain didn't care, because he felt the song had been a joke from the start. He said in a Rolling Stone interview that he was trying to rip off the Pixies and write the ultimate pop song, and came up with his version of the riff from Boston's "More Than a Feeling." When he showed the riff to the rest of his band, bassist Krist Novoselic instantly dismissed the song as "ridiculous," so Kurt made the band play it repeatedly for an hour and a half because his ability to write music was eclipsed only by his ability to be a shithead.
Then he started writing the lyrics, which may sound deep and full of imagery but according to him were "just making fun of the thought of having a revolution."
"Load up on guns and bring your friends. Who are idiots. Like you."
When "Teen Spirit" became a hit, Cobain resented having to play it all the time, and would sometimes lead into it with "More Than a Feeling" just to tell everyone exactly how much of his ass they could kiss. Damn, Kurt, you should have asked the Beastie Boys about the dangers of sarcastic music. Then again, both of them could have asked Quiet Riot ...