Mistakes. We’ve all made ’em. Some of us more than others. Rock stars are not immune to the embarrassment of a glorious clanger, and sometimes these little whoopsies, wonky notes and unwanted warbles can even make their way onto vinyl/tape/mp3 for all the world to hear.
Sometimes they make it through to the listener intentionally, and sometimes they sneak by purely by accident, but however they get to us they’re part of what makes rock and roll so much fun, and what keeps kids wedged between a set of headphones when they probably should be studying. So here are 10 of the greatest mistakes that made it to tape.
10. The Beatles – “Helter Skelter” (The Beatles, 1968)
“Helter Skelter” is one of The Beatles’ most frenzied songs – in fact, a case could very well be made that it has a lot in common with the prototypical heavy metal that would soon follow. One of the most fiery aspects of the tune is the intense drum performance by Ringo Starr. According to The Beatles: The Biography, Ringo recorded 18 takes of the drum part on September 9, 1968. The very last take was the one used for the master recording, and it’s also the one in which Ringo performed one of the greatest tantrums in rock and roll, screaming out “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” at the end of the take. You can hear Ringo’s outburst at 4:24.
9. Joe Satriani – “Surfing with the Alien” (Surfing with the Alien, 1987)
Joe Satriani’s sci-fi tones and out-of-this-world phrasing aren’t just the result of inspiration and perspiration – sometimes a little bit of serendipity and a whole lot of electronic malfunction play a role, too. For the lead guitar tone on Surfing with the Alien’s title track, Satriani used a wah-wah pedal and a harmonizer. The former worked perfectly, while the latter was in its death throes. Satriani told Guitar World, “The sound that came out of the speakers blew us away so much that we recorded the melody and the solo in about a half-hour and sat back and went, ‘Whoa! This is a song, man!’” Then the harmonizer broke down and couldn’t be fixed. “We couldn’t do anything,” he said. “We lost our tone. When we finally got it working again, we weren’t able to recreate the original effect. It just sounded different. So rather than screw up a wonderful-sounding performance that may have had a couple of glitches, we decided to just leave it, because it was just swinging.”
8. Frank Zappa – “Muffin Man” (Bongo Fury, 1975)
Frank Zappa often said he saw lyrics as a necessity that he didn’t quite enjoy. In his autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book he said he felt that if he had to write lyrics, he might as well make them something that appealed to his particular skewed worldview. Nowhere is this more evident than the monologue at the start of “Muffin Man,” where the text and the voice he reads it in so appeal to Frank’s worldview that he breaks character to laugh at himself (0:48), before saying “Let’s try that again” and giving the line another shot.
7. Megadeth – “Paranoid” (Nativity In Black, 1994)
Megadeth’s take on this Black Sabbath classic was recorded for an all-star tribute which also featured Type O Negative, Sepultura, Biohazard, White Zombie, Corrosion of Conformity, Ugly Kid Joe, Faith No More and others. Megadeth’s version of “Paranoid” was a little faster and a lot angrier than Sabbath’s 1970 original, and the anger was ratcheted up tenfold when drummer Nick Menza continued playing by himself after the song was supposed to have ended (2:23-2:30). Menza is cut off by Dave Mustaine shouting “Nick… Nick …NICK!” – and when he realizes his mistake Menza berates himself with some choice words of his own.
6. Metallica – “The Four Horsemen” (Kill ’Em All, 1983)
One of the most unique features of Metallica’s classic track “The Four Horsemen” is its distinctive simultaneous two-headed guitar solo, heard from 4:10 to 4:30. You can hear two Kirk Hammetts, one in each speaker, playing roughly similar but still quite different solos. In 1991 Hammett told Guitar World this cool effect was entirely a fluke. After recording two takes of the solo, Hammett and Co. were trying to decide which one to use. “I listened to both tracks at once, to see if one would stand out,” Hammett said. “But playing both tracks simultaneously sounded great, and we decided to keep it like that on the record. Some of the notes harmonized with each other, and I remember Cliff [Burton, bassist] going, ‘Wow, that’s stylin’ – it sounds like Tony Iommi!’”
5. Steve Vai – “Sex & Religion” (Sex & Religion, 1993)
These days Devin Townsend is known as a heavy metal auteur, solo and with Strapping Young Lad. But when he was 20, Townsend found fame as the singer in Steve Vai’s band, alongside T.M. Stevens on bass and Vai’s fellow Zappa alumni Terry Bozzio on drums. A vocal follow-up to Passion & Warfare was always going to be a bold move for Vai, but nobody was prepared for the hyperactive Townsend, who soared into gorgeous melodies before plummeting down to the lowest pits of hell with piercing screams, often in the space of a single bar. At the end of the album’s title track, Townsend really goes for it with a perfectly pitched but very intense melodic scream which lasts for a whole 18 seconds (from 4:05 to 4:23) – and he doesn’t quite make it back. Townsend passed out after the take, and Vai kept some of what he said after he came to. “Oh I hurt your brain? Oh. My fingers are numb… right now, they’re numb… can I deprive my brain of oxygen?”
4. The Police – “Roxanne” (Outlandos d’Amour, 1978)
“Roxanne” is a classic for its melody, its vocal performance, its orchestration and the instrumental timbres, but it’s also unique for a different reason. The mysterious piano chord heard at 0:04 is an unusual, atonal cluster that has nothing to do with the rest of the song. So what gives? Well it turns out Sting slinked back to relax on a nearby piano but didn’t realize the lid was up, so he unwittingly played that gloriously dissonant chord with his butt. This also explains his laugh at 0:06.
3. Led Zeppelin – “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” (Led Zeppelin, 1969)
“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” is an eerie, moody track to begin with, but if you listen very closely you’ll hear a ghostly voice at 1:43. What is it? A backwards-masked magic spell? Some kind of ghostly incantation? Nope. That’s actually the sound of Robert Plant singing along with drummer John Bonham during tracking, and there was no way to delete Plant’s singing from the drum tracks. Whether that’s his actual naked voice leaking through the drum mics, or perhaps being blasted through Bonzo’s headphones, perhaps we’ll never quite know, but it sure sounds cool, and adds yet another interesting layer to discover among Led Zep’s tapestry of orchestration.
2. Radiohead – “Creep” (Pablo Honey, 1993)
One of the most unique parts of Radiohead’s hit “Creep” was the salvo of chunky, deadened notes played by Jonny Greenwood right before the chorus at 0:58, and again at 2:00. Bandmate Ed O’Brien told Select magazine that Greenwood’s ear-catching decision was actually born of frustration. “That’s the sound of Jonny trying to [expletive] the song up,” O’Brien said. “He really didn’t like it the first time we played it, so he tried spoiling it. And it made the song.”
1. Van Halen – “Everybody Wants Some” (Women and Children First, 1980)
This Van Halen classic features oodles of the loose party vibe the band were known for in the early days – you can almost hear the clinking of beer bottles and the boogying of bikini babes. Almost. One thing you can most definitely hear though is the sound of David Lee Roth totally flubbing a lyric. According to his autobiography, Crazy From the Heat, the line was supposed to be something along the lines of “I’ve seen a lot of people just looking for a moonbeam.” But that’s not what came out. Instead, at 1:58, Dave sang something resembling “Ya take a moople-ah, wookie pah-a moopie.” The band decided that the vibe of the new line worked just as well, and the messed-up take was left in the song, an enduring legacy to just how hard Van Halen rocked it.