15 Bizarro Details of the Recordings of Famous Songs
Recording a hit song is a serious and expensive endeavor, except when it involves a bunch of celebrities with god complexes and alarming blood alcohol levels, which is usually. Some of the most important works of musical art of the last century were captured under bizarre, illegal, and sometimes downright dangerous circumstances.
“Loser” by Beck
If Beck’s nonsense breakout single sounds like it’s just some guy rapping about the stuff he sees looking around a kitchen, that’s because that’s exactly what it is. It was recorded spontaneously in his producer’s kitchen, and when he heard the playback, Beck said, “Man, I’m the worst rapper in the world, I’m just a loser,” which led to the chorus.
“Rocket Queen” by Guns N’ Roses
Axl Rose knew he wanted to end the song that ended Appetite For Destruction with that most melodic sound of some good, hard fuckin’, but he didn’t actually plan beyond that until the distraught girlfriend of Guns N’ Roses drummer Steven Adler showed up at the studio. Sensing an opportunity to be a huge scumbag, Rose convinced her that the best way to get back at her cheating boyfriend would be to have sex with him and let him record it, and that series of bad decisions was subsequently immortalized.
“A Day in the Life” by the Beatles
Firmly rooted in their obnoxious phase by the recording of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles demanded that the orchestral section of “A Day in the Life” be played by 40 classical musicians all dressed in full evening wear. As if that wasn’t annoying enough, when the musicians showed up, they were then told they’d also be wearing an assortment of funny hats, clown noses, and whatever else Paul McCartney could find at the British ‘60s equivalent of Party City.
“Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie
There’s a reason why everyone’s favorite karaoke duet sounds like two different songs, and that reason is cocaine. The song was written and recorded during a wild 24-hour coke and wine bender after a chance meeting in Switzerland, where the musicians came up with the instrumental (including the iconic bassline) on the fly and then Bowie convinced Mercury to enter separate recording booths where they couldn’t hear each other and just make up words. As we all know now, Mercury mostly came up with random noises.
“The Show Must Go On” by Queen
Much later, Queen recorded “The Show Must Go On,” one of Mercury’s most powerful performances despite the fact that it was one of the last songs he recorded with the band, nearing the end of his struggle with AIDS and barely even having the strength to walk. Guitarist Brian May later recalled expressing concern that Mercury couldn’t do it, in response to which Mercury slammed a shot of vodka, spat “I’ll fucking do it, darling,” and killed it in one take.
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd
Founding member Syd Barrett left Pink Floyd before they hit it big, having become incapacitated by mental illness, but he had a huge influence on the band long after. In fact, they were recording a song written about him, the perhaps politically incorrect “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” when he just walked into the studio, initially unrecognized by some members of the band because he’d changed so much since they’d last seen him. They made pleasant small talk, Roger Waters asked him what he thought of the song, Barrett said it sounded “a bit old,” and then he just got up and left. It was the last time some of the band members would ever see him.
“Gold Dust Woman” by Fleetwood Mac
The recording of Rumours was a scientifically unique type of chaos, but “Gold Dust Woman” was chaotic for reasons that had nothing to do with who was sleeping with whom. Stevie Nicks had decided the best way to capture her vocals was by wrapping her whole head in the black scarf while Mick Fleetwood pounded a variety of instruments that aren’t usually considered instruments, from a jet phaser to panes of glass he smashed with a hammer as she sang.
“The Elements: Fire” by the Beach Boys
The Beach Boys’ legendary experimental Smile album contained a “movement” about the four elements, and for the one about fire, Brian Wilson insisted on putting little plastic fire helmets on everyone in the studio and then setting it on fire. Well, he actually just asked the janitor to start a fire in a bucket, but he got it into his head that the musicians simply couldn’t produce the right sound unless they could “smell the smoke.”
"Kiss Him Goodbye" by Steam
The “na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, goodbye” song was only recorded because songwriter Paul Leka’s buddy needed a B-side for his single, so they quickly pounded it out as badly as possible for a patience-testing four minutes to ensure that it didn’t get played. Unfortunately, they didn’t do it badly enough.
“Tequila” by the Champs
“Tequila” came together in a similar fashion, just some session musicians farting around, trying to fill a B-side by recording the lowest-effort jams imaginable. The Champs weren’t even a band until the song took off and someone told them they had to have a name to put on their Grammy.
“Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen
The most well-known version of the Jamaican sea shanty is famously so garbled that the FBI investigated it for obscenity, but that wasn’t the result of any particular artistic choice so much as the fact that the Kingsmen were broke and not great decision-makers. They used the single studio hour they’d scraped up enough cash to secure to record a song they barely knew, then wasted it on what they thought was a practice take. There actually is an obscenity in the song, shouted in frustration by the drummer, that the FBI missed.
“Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35” by Bob Dylan
It turns out “everybody must get stoned” wasn’t just a line but a command Bob Dylan made to the musicians in the studio to ensure he got the vibe he was looking for. After telling them he “wasn’t going to record the song with a bunch of people,” everyone started lighting and drinking up. They got goofy, started swapping instruments, and produced what they also thought was a practice take that sounded exactly like a bunch of stoners messing around, which was apparently what Dylan wanted.
“Roxanne” by the Police
That jumble of notes at the beginning of “Roxanne” where it sounds like someone punching a piano was, in fact, someone sitting on a piano. Yep, one of the most famous songs in music history is partially played by Sting's butt. That's also why you can hear him laughing a second later.
“Twist and Shout” by the Beatles
The Beatles's first album was recorded in a single day while John Lennon was fighting off a cold, which is why “Twist and Shout” sounds like it's sung by a guy who's been both singing and smoking for 10 hours straight. They even saved the song for last because they knew he'd be useless afterward.
”(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding
Don't feel bad if you can't nail the whistling at the end of the sing -- it was never supposed to be there. Co-writer Steve Cropper always “left space at the end of a song” for Redding to riff, but when it came time to add that extra pizzazz to the end of “(Sittin' On) the Dock of the Bay,” he straight-up “forgot what he wanted to sing" and just started whistling instead. He intended to continue playing around with the song, but two days later, he died in a tragic plane crash, and what boiled down to a doomed man's brain fart became an iconic part of music history.
Top image: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons