6 Musicians Who Accidentally Crapped Out Masterpieces
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 by Bill Haley
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 by The Surfaris
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.
Under the Bridge by Red Hot Chili Peppers
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.
Louie, Louie by The Kingsmen
If you drop a handful of children into a single room with a piano, it would only be a matter of time before one of them started pounding out the three chords of Louie, Louie. The progression is so deeply rooted in our collective consciousness and so intrinsic to our idea of music that you'd swear it wasn't composed, just handed to humanity, fully formed.
"Here, just ... just do something with this. I can't get it out of my head."
In 1956, singer Richard Berry released an R&B cover of You Are My Sunshine. For the B side he recorded a song he had written after swiping the riff from a Latin swing number called El Loco Cha Cha and using a mock Caribbean accent inspired by Chuck "No Relation" Berry's song Havana Moon.
Former R.E.M. drummer Bill, though often confused as kin, is also not related.
This song, a sea chanty, has a lonely sailor telling a barman named Louie about how much he misses his girl back home in Jamaica. The record-buying public responded to the release of yet another, version of You Are My Sunshine with a collective "meh" but after an enterprising DJ started playing the flip side, the record became a modest hit.
Berry, deciding the song had run its course, sold off his share of the rights for a whopping $750.
He then set that money on fire and declared himself the Anti-Scrooge.
In his defense, he would have been right if singer Rockin' Robin Roberts hadn't discovered a copy of the song in a Seattle shop's bargain bin. His version became a regional hit in the Northwest, but more importantly, it became the go-to song for every wannabe rock 'n' roll band in the area. In 1963, one of those wannabe rock groups was The Kingsmen. They weren't particularly fond of the song themselves, but the public seemed to like it, so they scraped together $36 for a one-hour recording session.
This session was, by anyone's standards, a disaster. For starters, singer Jack Ely had sung himself hoarse doing a concert the night before. Another problem was that, in those pre-lyrics-online days, he had taught himself the song by playing it a couple of times on a jukebox and hadn't really caught all of the words. More crucially, when he taught the song to the band, he got the beat wrong, changing the original's 1-2-3-4, 1-2, 1-2-3-4, 1-2 to a punchier 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2. Thereby accidentally creating one of the greatest riffs in rock history.
The biggest problem, however, was that the band didn't realize that their first stab at the song in the studio wasn't a practice run; it was the only take they were going to get.
The result was a glorious mess. Listen at just before the two-minute mark where the singer starts to come back in from the solo a beat too soon and the rest of the band scrambles to cover it.
The song was released and sold indifferently until rumors started flying that Ely's incomprehensible shrieking was a deliberate ploy to obscure the lyrics. The reason? The lyrics must be filthy. Soon there were hundreds of versions scribbled on pieces of paper of what everyone though they heard.
"We understand, Louie. From our wrath, the world shall all be born anew."
For the record, these are the real lyrics.
And here's one version of what people were hearing:
At night at ten I lay her again
Fuck you girl, oh, all the way
Oh, my bed and I lay her there
I meet a rose in her hair.
So what was a concerned parent to do? If you said, "Contact the goddamn FBI," then you're goddamn right.
Apparently 1963 was a slow year for kidnappings, and bank robberies, because the FBI actually decided it was a worthwhile use of resources to launch a full investigation into whether a record had some dirty words on it.
In the spring of 1992, the FBI permanently disbanded. No word as to why.
A bewildered Richard Berry was hauled in for questioning by agents who repeatedly demanded he tell them the "real" lyrics. The offending record, meanwhile, was played at every conceivable speed and direction in the bureau laboratories as technicians tried to decode any of it. The result of this scandal was predictable: Every kid in the country was trying to get his/her hands on the legendary dirty record. Sales soared until eventually, it peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, its rise to the top curbed only by The Singing Nun's Dominique.
We wish we could say we were joking about that. We were not.
As for the FBI, they came to the conclusion that the record was incomprehensible at any speed and therefore, they had no reason to prosecute. By then, of course, Louie, Louie was firmly embedded in the national consciousness and went on to be one of the most covered songs of all time. Also worth mentioning: The FBI had been so focused on trying to decipher the lyrics that they failed to notice that, at about 55 seconds in, the drummer shouts a muddy "Fuck!" in the background.
By way of a happy ending, nearly 20 years later an artists' rights group helped Richard Berry recover his rights to the song eventually, netting him around $2 million.
OK, one more, but if you drop this one, that's it.
Theme from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless) by The M*A*S*H Singers
Set in the Korean War, the television series M*A*S*H famously ran for four times as long as the actual conflict. Its 1983 finale still remains the highest-ever rating for a television program that doesn't involve people falling on footballs.
And Jamie Farr did the whole damn thing in women's clothing. Not even the women of the show did that.
Few people remember though, that before the series, M*A*S*H was actually a highly successful film (of course, in this post-literate age, even fewer people realize that it was also a novel). The 1970 film is a dark comedy satirizing the then-current war in Vietnam.
One crucial incident in the film occurs when the camp's dentist kills himself (did we mention that this film is a comedy?). For the scene depicting his actual attempt, director Robert Altman wanted a song to help jolly things along. According to his director's commentary, Altman intended to write the lyrics himself but was having difficulty capturing the required tone before deciding there was no one more qualified to write a song about suicide than a teenage boy. And for the second time, angsty teen poetry directly affected the shape of modern music.
Wait, between that and Jamie Farr, we can finally explain Marilyn Manson!
Altman's 14-year-old son, Mike, was set the task and he duly delivered a little ditty titled Suicide Is Painless, the lyrics of which read exactly as you would expect a poem by a 14 year old boy to read. The scene, shot as a parody of da Vinci's "The Last Supper," was a great success but, more than that, Altman was so pleased with the song he had it given the full orchestral treatment and made it into the theme for the movie.
Mike Altman had only wanted a new guitar in payment for his work but the producer insisted on giving him his full authorship rights. The use of a jazz version of the song for the television series theme ensured that he received royalties for years to come and to date he has earned an estimated $2 million from the song.
For comparison's sake, if you stacked $2 million worth of hundred dollar bills, it would look roughly like that.
Robert Altman, on the other hand, had been offered a percentage of the films profits but had turned that down after an argument with the producers. In the end, he received a flat directing fee of $75,000 for his efforts which must have led to some interesting dinner table conversations in the Altman household.
Tutti Frutti by Little Richard
Little Richard, alongside Elvis and Bill Haley forms the foundation of rock 'n' roll. As Little Richard says himself, "A lot of people call me the architect of rock 'n' roll. I don't call myself that, but I believe it's true." (Also, just for the record, he does occasionally call himself that).
His breakthrough single Tutti Frutti was named by MOJO Magazine as the most influential rock 'n' roll song of all time beating out the likes of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Elvis. In the buttoned down and repressed early 50s, Tutti Frutti's opening scream of 'A wop lop a do wop alop bam boom" must have sounded, at worst, like the opening battle cry in a cultural war between adults and teens, and at its best like a "a torrent of filth wailed by a bisexual alien."
You aren't American, Little Richard ... You are America.
Of course, as you've probably already guessed, this nearly didn't happen. By 1955, Richard had been shuffling around the music scene for half a decade without any notable success. Now on a new and bigger label, he had been hoping for greater things but so far his first recording session wasn't going well. With his new producers trying to mold him in a style somewhere between Ray Charles and Fats Domino, his songs were coming out dull and uninspired.
And "dull and uninspired" are two things Little Richard absolutely refuses to be.
During their lunch break, a frustrated and pissed off Richard wandered over to a piano and started hammering out Tutti Frutti, a song he had been performing regularly in clubs. His producer heard it and immediately realized that this was exactly the kind of thing they should be recording.
There was just one tiny hitch.
If you're not already, you might want to make sure you're sitting down for this next part.
The venues in which Little Richard had been playing and perfecting the song were gay clubs, and the original lyrics demonstrated that:
A wop bop a loo mop, a good goddamn!
Tutti frutti, loose booty
If it don't fit, don't force it
You can grease it, make it easy.
Now this was 1955. Down South, they were still lynching black men for looking too hard at white women. What they would do to an at best sexually ambiguous black man singing about the joys of anal sex doesn't bear thinking about. A lyricist was quickly summoned to rework the words, and by the end of the afternoon it was done.
The song made it as high as No. 17 in the Billboard charts. An unheard of feat for a black musician back then, but this was sadly trumped by Pat Boones anemic cover which made it all the way to 12. Little Richard was convinced that white kids were buying Pat Boone so they could show the Boone record cover to their parents while they were actually listening to Richard's version. He would gleefully attempt to make all his follow up songs too high pitched and too fast for Boone to be able to cover.
John has no Web presence of his own but his flatmates do have this delightful Web comic.
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