When Mistakes/Studio Glitches Give Famous Songs Their Personality: Pink Floyd, Metallica, The Breeders, Steely Dan & More

Before the advent of dig­i­tal stu­dio tech­nol­o­gy, a degree of impre­ci­sion nat­u­ral­ly result­ed from the record­ing process. It may now be too easy to erase and cor­rect per­ceived errors. As Bri­an Eno has point­ed out, “the temp­ta­tion of the tech­nol­o­gy is to smooth every­thing out.” Per­haps that’s why so many of the famous songs con­tain­ing mis­takes in pop cul­ture lore come from a pre-dig­i­tal age. In any case, such lore abounds. Some of it spec­u­la­tive, some anec­do­tal, some apoc­ryphal, and much of it clear­ly evi­dent in close lis­tens and con­firmed by the musi­cians, engi­neers, and pro­duc­ers them­selves.

A recent Red­dit thread com­piled 500 com­ments worth of dis­cus­sion on the sub­ject. One promi­nent exam­ple is Ella Fitzgerald’s 1960 “Mack the Knife,” in which she for­gets the lyrics to the cho­rus and impro­vis­es. “Talk about fail­ing grace­ful­ly,” writes user Bleue22. The album, they note, went on to win a Gram­my.

But this exam­ple, you may object, comes from a live album—no sec­ond takes allowed. And Fitzger­ald sets up the error by say­ing before­hand, “we hope we remem­ber all the words.” (I’d guess she’s using the roy­al “we,” to which she’s ful­ly enti­tled.) Nonethe­less, her “Mack the Knife” may have no equal.

Still, we don’t lack for stu­dio exam­ples of mis­takes in great record­ings. If you’re a met­al fan, Metallica’s “Seek and Destroy” from 1983’s Kill ‘Em All like­ly holds a spe­cial place of hon­or in your col­lec­tion. As Kirk Ham­mett revealed in a 2002 inter­view with Gui­tar World after his induc­tion into the magazine’s hall of fame, his solo on the track was only a sec­ond or third take, with lit­tle rehearsal. “There were no frills, no con­tem­pla­tion, no over­in­tel­lec­tu­al­iz­ing,” he says. The result? Amaz­ing, right? But, Ham­mett con­tin­ues, “On a cou­ple of notes in that solo, I bend the notes out of pitch; for 18 years, every time I’ve heard that gui­tar solo, those sour notes come back to haunt me!”

Every gui­tarist has suf­fered through this expe­ri­ence while lis­ten­ing back to their records. Few make Gui­tar World’s hall of fame. The point is that great­ness and per­fec­tion are not always the best of friends. Anoth­er exam­ple of the kind of thing that might only haunt a musi­cian: In Steely Dan’s “Aja” from the 1977 Gram­my-win­ning album of the same name, drum­mer Steve Gadd plays “one of the best drum solos ever record­ed,” writes Michael Dun­can as Son­ic Scoop. Drum­mers for decades have sought to repli­cate the moment, espe­cial­ly an idio­syn­crat­ic click at 4:57. Turns out, it was “actu­al­ly a slip of his stick; albeit a well-timed one.” The solo, Dun­can notes, was done in one take.

Oth­er exam­ples may have had life-chang­ing con­se­quences for the musi­cian in ques­tion. It’s rumored that David Gilmour’s faint­ly record­ed cough­ing on Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” both­ered him so much that he quit smok­ing. In some cas­es, the mis­take can turn into a hook or a musi­cal state­ment, such as Cindy Wilson’s shout of “Tii­i­i­i­i­in Roof! Rust­ed” in the B‑52’s “Love Shack,” appar­ent­ly a mis­take on Wilson’s part. The phe­nom­e­non, grant­ed, tends to man­i­fest in gen­res that accom­mo­date all vari­eties of looseness—rock, blues, jazz, etc.—and the great bulk of exam­ples in the Red­dit mis­take thread come from such record­ings.  I couldn’t say whether it’s pos­si­ble to com­pile such a list in music with far stricter arrange­ments or reliance on elec­tron­ic instru­men­ta­tion.

I also couldn’t say whether mis­takes in, say clas­si­cal or elec­tron­ic music, would pro­duce such desir­able results. What often emerges in these dis­cus­sions is the degree to which mis­takes, unplanned impro­vi­sa­tions, or hap­py acci­dents can become essen­tial fea­tures of a song. Take The Breeder’s “Can­non­ball,” which inten­tion­al­ly incor­po­rates a mis­take bassist Josephine Wig­gs repeat­ed­ly made in rehearsals, slid­ing to the wrong note in the solo bass intro, then cor­rect­ing when the gui­tars came in. “We all just thought it was hilar­i­ous and thought it sound­ed real­ly great,” she remem­bered.  “It was clear to us at that moment that that was the right thing to do, to keep the wrong note in there.” Does it mat­ter that some record­ed mis­takes are inten­tion­al and oth­ers are not? That ques­tion may be fod­der for anoth­er 500-com­ment-long dis­cus­sion. Or we could heed the wis­dom of Bri­an Eno or Miles Davis and just go with it either way.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bri­an Eno Explains the Loss of Human­i­ty in Mod­ern Music

What Miles Davis Taught Her­bie Han­cock: In Music, as in Life, There Are No Mis­takes, Just Chances to Impro­vise

Jump Start Your Cre­ative Process with Bri­an Eno’s “Oblique Strate­gies” Deck of Cards (1975)

John Cleese on The Impor­tance of Mak­ing and Embrac­ing Mis­takes

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (8)
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  • Ted says:

    No men­tion of the serendip­i­tous mess-up in the Beast­ie Boys’ “The Sounds of Sci­ence” where their DJ was sup­posed to do a very basic scratch on a beat, but instead the nee­dle jumped all over the record. They kept it in (at 2:18):

  • J.J. says:

    Favorite mis­takes: the squeaky bass drum ped­al on “Super Bad” by James Brown. The Eric Clap­ton scream edit­ed onto the 25th anniver­sary release of “Keep on Growin’ ” by Derek and the Domi­noes. Not a mis­take, but now I can’t lis­ten to the song unless it’s that ver­sion.

  • stawek says:

    Don’t for­get Kate Bush with her Among Angels, which begins with a wrong chord, and also includes a soft “No” before she starts again.

  • nerf says:

    louie louie, by the kings­men. he comes in the wrong place on the 3rd verse, and then does it again. its a great moment.

  • Mariana Horchata says:

    the false start after the cho­rus in I saw her again by the mamas and the papas

  • Eljan says:

    That cym­bal crash on Kind of Blue:

    Cobb hit a cym­bal crash just as Davis began his solo, and wait­ed for the trum­peter to call for anoth­er take.

    “I thought I had made a mis­take and had hit the cym­bal too hard … but it worked out because it res­onat­ed and got small­er and small­er.”

    Davis kept the tape rolling, and launched into one of the most mem­o­rable solos in jazz his­to­ry-lyri­cal and restrained, using space to build dra­ma, with his trum­pet hav­ing a heart­break­ing qual­i­ty.

  • Dale says:

    On one of the long-ass solos in the All­man Broth­ers’ epic ver­sion of “Moun­tain Jam” on Eat a Peach, Duane (I guess) pret­ty clear­ly hits a wrong note. So of course, he goes straight back to that note, but this time on pur­pose. To my ears, it does­n’t quite redeem the clam, but it makes it pret­ty for­giv­able.

  • Werner Loe says:

    Speak­ing of Miles, I think that on one of his record­ed solos, the first note he hits kind of breaks. Peo­ple argue about whether it was intend­ed or a clam (that he cov­ered so well). Does any­one know what tune that was? I can’t find it.….

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