Music isn’t perfect. It never was. And it never will be. By nature, people are flawed. Inadvertently, so is the music we create. But isn’t that what also makes it so amazing?
Indescribable, intangible moments can often be found in our favorite recordings. Call it accidental, call it happenstance, or just plainly call it a mistake. If you listen to music as much as I do I’m sure you’ve come across a few.
Below, I’ve compiled a list of ten such instances that the engineer, producer, and/or artist not only knew about, but decided to leave in anyway.
The Police – “Roxanne”
Even though it didn’t actually chart upon its initial release in the UK in 1978, “Roxanne” brought The Police tremendous success when it was released a year later in North America.
The mistake in this memorable tune about a prostitute can be found right near the beginning. When recording vocals for the track at Surrey Sound Studios, Sting accidentally sat down on a keyboard, producing an atonal piano chord. Both the chord and his laughter after making the sound are now preserved forever.
Pearl Jam – “Rearviewmirror”
Some of the greatest grunge acts of the ’90s were birthed in Seattle, Washington. One such band was Pearl Jam, led by Eddie Vedder.
On the group’s second studio album ‘Vs.’ you’ll find a track entitled “Rearviewmirror” clocking at exactly 4:44. As the guitars ring out at the end of the song, drummer Dave Abbruzzese throws his drum sticks against the wall.
According to Five Against One: The Pearl Jam Story by Kim Neely, this was “in response to the pressure that was placed on him by producer Brendan O’Brien during the recording of the track.”
But what’s crazy is what happened after the recording. Abbruzzese supposedly punched a hole through his snare drum and then tossed it off a cliff. He was later fired before the release of the band’s third album due to personality conflicts.
Led Zeppelin – “The Ocean”
A little more than a minute and a half into Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” a telephone can be heard ringing ever so slightly in the background.
Even though a few fans have felt that the ringing wasn’t an accident due to the fact that the sheet music included in the CD box set has the word “ring” in it, legendary engineer Eddie Kramer, who was involved in the recording of the song stated, “I don’t remember there being [a phone ringing].”
There’s also another sound heard right before the 2:00 mark and again at 2:12. It appears to be someone pronouncing “ca”. You’re bound to end up with some noises when recording in a house though, right?
Steely Dan – “Aja”
Released in 1977, Aja became Steely Dan’s best-selling album and won a GRAMMY award for “Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording.”
The record is known for featuring world-class musicians, including highly respected drummer Steve Gadd. His solo on the album’s title track is arguably one of the best drum solos ever recorded. Chick Corea once said, “Every drummer wants to play like Gadd because he plays perfect.”
Almost! Over the past few decades, drummers have attempted to replicate Gadd’s solo on “Aja” to a T not realizing that the click sound at 4:57 was actually a slip of his stick; albeit a well-timed one. But I’m not complaining. That solo was done in one take.
Pink Floyd – “Wish You Were Here”
Recorded at the renowned Abbey Road Studios, Pink Floyd’s ninth studio album Wish You Were Here was released in September 1975 to critical acclaim. Supposedly, keyboardist Richard Wright and guitarist David Gilmour consider the album to be their favorite.
However, allegedly, one thing Gilmour didn’t like was the sound of his coughing around the :44 mark on the album’s title track. The rumor is that after hearing himself coughing and sniffing in the song, Gilmour decided to give up smoking.
The Beatles – “A Day in the Life”
The Beatles’ recording sessions have been talked about time and time again. Almost every engineer I know can recall at least one interesting fact they’ve learned about the band’s fabled time in the studio.
Something I remember hearing about back when I first listened to “A Day in the Life” was that the ringing alarm clock heard after the bridge section was unintentionally left in.
According to the awesome Beatles anomalies site “What Goes On,” “…it is widely written that fitting with the lyrics [“Woke up, fell out of bed…”] was only coincidental, and the alarm clock’s purpose was originally as a marker. Nothing more. A happy accident that was capitalised on, as the Beatles often did.”
Another fun gaff in “A Day in the Life” was detailed in engineer Geoff Emerick’s book Here, There, and Everywhere:
“On one of the overdubs, Ringo shifted position very slightly at the very end, causing his shoe to squeak. This happened, of course, just when the sound of a pin dropping could be heard! A cross Paul shot him a sideways glance, and from the look on his face I could tell Ringo was mortified. If you listen quite closely to the song just as the sound is fading away, you can hear it clearly, especially on the CD version, where there is no surface noise to mask it.”
The Mamas & The Papas – “I Saw Her Again”
Just because a song has a big mistake doesn’t mean it won’t become a big hit.
According to Wikipedia, “While mixing the record, engineer Bones Howe inadvertently punched in the coda vocals too early. He then rewound the tape and inserted the vocals in their proper position. On playback, the mistaken early vocal could still be heard, making it sound as though Doherty repeated the first three words of the verse, singing ‘I saw her…I saw her again last night.’ Producer Lou Adler liked the effect of the engineering error and told Howe to leave it in the final mix.”
Here’s Howe explaining it in his own words from the documentary The Wrecking Crew: http://www.wreckingcrewfilm.com/premiumboneshowe/bones.html
The Who – “Eminence Front”
“Beh-it’s an em-emin-in-ence front!” What did they just sing?
In the originally released version of The Who’s “Eminence Front” there was a bit of a timing mismatch in the first chorus. Guitarist Pete Townshend was a syllable behind vocalist Roger Daltrey which led to some difficulty understanding what the guys were saying until the chorus came around again.
This error was eventually “fixed” with some panning when a remixed version of the song was released in 1997.
Nirvana – “Polly”
Originally titled “Hitchhiker”, and later “Cracker”, “Polly” was set to appear on Nirvana’s 1989 debut album Bleach until vocalist/guitarist Kurt Cobain felt it didn’t fit with the overall sound of the record. Instead, “Polly” can be found on the band’s highly successful sophomore album, Nevermind.
The track itself was inspired by the horrific rape and torture of a 14-year-old girl in June of 1987. The error in this song occurs when Cobain comes in a little early before the third verse. Producer Butch Vig talks about the false start here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7gjlly4b98
The Kingsmen – “Louie Louie”
“Louie Louie” is a song with a fascinating history. The tune was written by Richard Berry in 1955 but didn’t become a smash hit until 1963 after The Kingsmen recorded their own rendition.
Oddly enough, The Kingsmen’s cover of the track prompted a 31-month FBI investigation. The FBI was looking into what they believed were obscene lyrics, but eventually the case wrapped with them not able to find any, let alone understand what was being sang.