Today, when every computer ships with GarageBand-type software, sour notes can be sweetened with Auto Tune, and radio stations broadcast focus-grouped computerized playlists, there seems to be no room for the serendipity — — or sheer incompetence and confusion — that helped create some of the greatest records of all time.
For instance, the ultimate irony of the urban legend that “Louie, Louie” is a “dirty” song (there’s a whole book about it) is that today you can just about make out what the FBI(!) couldn’t back in 1963:
What you can’t hear are the backstories: the flukes, accidents, misunderstandings, coincidences, white lies, and willpower that wrenched classic songs from crazy recording sessions.
What you know about a particular recording can change the way it sounds.
If you’re my age, you’ve heard Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” about 10,000 times, which may be 9,999 times more than you ever wanted.
But you may not realize that lead singer Brad Delp “actually hits those high notes; there’s nothing electronic helping him.”
One of the more remarkable vocal pyrotechnics on an album where Delp’s singing gives Scholz’s guitar work a run for its money is on the passage where Delp’s ever-rising tenor rides into the first notes of the signature guitar solo, a move Boylan says was planned and executed flawlessly on virtually the first take.
You may also not know that Brad Delp committed suicide in 2007.
Now, give that 1976 recording one more listen.
See if it sounds… different.
# 6: Rumors (1977) by Fleetwood Mac
Hey, I know!
Let’s all take tons of drugs, sleep with each other, break up, take more drugs, then lock ourselves in a studio and cut a record about it.
Maybe it’ll even be one of the biggest selling albums of all time!
(As you might imagine, there’s a whole book about that soap opera, too.)
Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors was everything punk rock was rebelling against:
By the time it was made, the personal freedoms endowed by the social upheaval of the 60s had unspooled into unfettered hedonism. As such, it plays like a reaping: a finely polished post-hippie fallout, unaware that the twilight hour of the free love era was fixing and there would be no going back.
In the end, that battle ended in a draw.
Rumors may sound like brontosaurus mating calls to some ears today, but the re-engineered reissue is still selling pretty well.
#5 — “Good Vibrations” (1966) by The Beach Boys
The most famous Beach Boy hated the beach.
Brian Wilson never even learned to surf.
So in a way, it’s weirdly fitting that Wilson’s songs were California to millions of listeners around the world, who would never set foot on the Pacific seashore, either.
Many of these eternally evocative tunes, which practically qualify for solar energy subsidies, were actually composed while schizoid Brian was safe inside his home, “sitting at a grand piano with his feet scratching and twisting in a homemade sandbox.”
The songs were mainlined straight from Wilson’s imagination into other minds and hearts without number, their perfect purity unsullied.
Oh, and he was partially deaf…
The pressure to surpass Pet Sounds and keep apace with the ante-upping Beatles set the stage for this obsessive-compulsive, career-derailing masterpiece. Wilson amassed hours upon hours of tape at multiple studios to cobble together his intricately segmented, cut’n’paste “pocket symphony,” reportedly spending anywhere between $16-50,000 to produce three-and-a-half minutes of weird yet accessible pop.
Nothing but perfection here. The Beach Boys’ first million-selling #1 hit…was a major technical breakthrough…the record that showed that anything was possible in the studio.
#4 — “Tutti Fruitti” (1956) by Little Richard
That’s Little Richard (giving a rather subdued performance, actually.)
He’s from Mississippi.
If he was a character in The Color Purple or Ragtime, he’d also be dead.
In real life, of course, Little Richard became a highly influential and successful musician, who continues to perform today to adoring crowds.
But that success almost didn’t happen.
Not because the Klan was tailing his tour bus as he went from one mixed-race gig to the next — black clergymen gave him a harder time — but because producers subjected Little Richard to the standard “I love you — now change!” treatment so many other talented yet hard-to-label artists have endured.
A fed-up Little Richard went off to bang out some pent-up stress on the piano.
“Finally,” the producers exclaimed, “THAT’S the sort of song you should be doing!”
There was one catch:
Little Richard had been playing that particular little ditty, called “Tutti Fruiti,” in gay bars, and the lyrics were salacious, to put it mildly.
(In retrospect, the title should’ve been clue one.)
No problem: They cleaned up the lyrics, and Little Richard and the musicians laid down their tracks.
“Tuttie Frutti” sold 200,000 copies in the first week. The song made it to Billboard‘s No. 17.
Alas, Pat Boone’s whiter, watered-down cover version hit No. 12.
It’s true: black rock and roll pioneers in the 1950s got ripped off by white promoters, producers, and performers –like the sainted Beatles — all the time.
But Little Richard wasn’t too upset about that; he called Boone “the man who made me a millionaire.”
And anyway, he didn’t have much right to complain:
Little Richard stole his entire persona from this poor guy you’ve never heard of:
Check out PJ Lifestyle next Tuesday for Part 2…
More on culture, technology, and music from Kathy Shaidle: