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Perfect Imperfections: When Mistakes Or Unintended Sounds On A Song… Just Work

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Considering the amount of money, creative energy and hard work invested in the world of professional recordings?

The number of wrong notes, flubbed lyrics or invasive sounds that can be heard on well-known songs is surprisingly high. 

Many of them slip in and out unnoticed by most of us listeners until they are pointed out.

Even when detected, they don’t tend to sink the entire ship, though the musicians themselves may wish they could have had another crack at it. 

Then, there are those times where a mistake, freak accident or unintentional sound gets left on a recording, and it actually feels like an inherent part of the song. 

As much as it is in the nature of the artist to strive to “get it right”, to sonically capture their vision for their music, there is beauty in falling short, in life’s unexpected and unplanned moments. 

Here are a few examples:

Roxanne
The Police
(1978)

Being a big fan of this band in high school, I was used to hearing dissonance and “outside the box” sounds on many of their songs. It was therefore surprising to learn that the discordant cluster of keyboard notes heard during the song’s intro, followed by Sting laughing, was not intentional. 

Sting had accidentally sat on an open keyboard as the song was starting and subsequently let out a cackle. It was all left in the recording as is, and Sting was credited with “butt piano” in the liner notes. The song wouldn’t sound complete without it.


I Saw Her Again
The Mamas & the Papas
(1966)

Before the vocals come in for the final chorus, a chord is struck and held for a bar at 2:42. For the vocal take on that section, the recording engineer, Bones Howe, accidentally punched in early, causing singer Denny Doherty to start singing “I saw her” a bar too soon, and quickly stop when the error was realized.  They then redid it, coming in at the right time. 

Producer Lou Adler heard the false entrance and loved it. And told them to leave it in. The result was “I saw her (pause) I saw her again last night…” and it’s just the perfect way to emphasize that key line of the song and the emotion it evokes. 


Cannonball
The Breeders
(1993)

During the intro to the song, when the bass line initially comes in (0:21), it slides up to a note a half step lower than it does for the remainder of the song. 

In rehearsals, bassist Josephine Wiggs repeatedly came up a bit short in attempting to slide up to the intended note initially before the guitars would come in. The band thought it sounded great, and it was clear to all of them that the right thing to do was to keep it that way. 

It gives the impression that the song is going to be in a different key and then suddenly, it’s not.  It just sounds cool and gives the right vibe to complement the brash, raw feel overall. 


Been Caught Stealing
Jane’s Addiction
(1990)

The opening of the song features two dissonant chords, followed by fierce sounding barks as the grinding rhythm kicks in. It’s the perfect effect, in that one can imagine that singer Perry Farrell getting caught stealing involved him being chased by an angry pack of hounds. 

What an intense and unique way to start a song. And it was totally unplanned.

The barks came from Annie, a shelter dog that Farrell had adopted. She was rather needy and he didn’t want to leave her at home alone, so he brought her to the studio. 

When Farrell was recording his vocals, she got excited and began barking. They decided to incorporate it into the song. Can you imagine what it would sound like without it? I cannot.


Wish You Were Here
Pink Floyd
(1975)

After an intro where a radio dial appears to be switching to various stations, a reflective 12-string guitar line enters: Played by David Gilmour, processed so that it sounds like it’s coming from an AM radio as well. A second acoustic guitar (also Gilmour) then begins soloing over the initial guitar line as if it’s someone in a room listening to the radio and playing along with it.

Before the solo, a cough can be heard, followed by a sniffle and some heavy breathing. 

The first few times I heard the song, I found these sounds distracting. But in a song about a longing to make a connection with someone distant, those “unwanted” sounds give flesh and bone to the person sitting in that room alone, playing a guitar. 

In this way, they contribute to the feel and meaning of the song. It has been implied that Gilmour was upset that he couldn’t control his breathing,  so much so that he quit smoking after that session, but I did not find a quote from him or anyone involved confirming this. Being that they could have easily just done a retake or edited out those sounds, perhaps the band understood them to be part of the personal, human element conveyed in the song – and let them be. 


The Man Who Sold the World
Nirvana
(recorded live in 1993)

Recorded at the band’s MTV Unplugged performance, on the album Kurt Cobain can be heard guaranteeing that he will screw up this cover of an early Bowie deep cut.

And then saying “I didn’t screw it up, did I?” after the song concludes. There is one noticeable error though. 

At the 2:47 mark, he launches into a lead guitar line meant to mimic Bowie’s wordless vocal line and as he attempts to slide up to the second note, he undershoots it, and then overshoots it before settling in on the desired pitch. 

For me, that gaffe exemplified a clear demarcation line between the rock and roll that I knew before Nirvana and after they and other “alternative” bands kicked down the doors in the early 90s. 

Granted it was a live album released after Kurt’s death, but I couldn’t remember ever hearing a mistake that obvious in a rock song played constantly on the radio. What it reinforced to me at the time was that at its heart, this music was not about technical ability, musical prowess, or following a pre-determined set of rules. It was about a real human being expressing themselves and connecting on a raw, unfiltered level with their audience. 

Not being well-versed in the punk scene, this was a new concept to me.  As much as I would try to fight it, in my mind, the definition of musical greatness was being expanded.


Louie, Louie
The Kingsmen
(1963)

Any conversation about perfect imperfections in music starts and ends with this song by this band. 

Where to begin? 

Most of the words are unintelligible and the singer comes in too early on the third verse and has to start over. The playing all around is at best, sloppy. At one point (0:54), the drummer, Lynn Easton, misses a fill and shouts out an F-bomb. Technically speaking, this thing is a disaster.

To be fair to the band, the circumstances of recording were not ideal. They were recording what was supposed to be an audition demo for a cruise ship gig on a budget of about $50. They were in small jingle studio that didn’t usually record rock bands.

The singer, Jack Ely, stood on his tiptoes and strained his neck to reach up to the boom microphone hanging from the ceiling and had to yell to have even a chance to be heard over the band, let alone be understood. The fact that he had braces didn’t likely help either. 

The band was under the impression that they were just warming up, and expected to play the song again for real. When the producer, local deejay Ken Chase, said it was a great take and moved on to the next song, they were not happy about it at all, because they knew the performance was subpar, to put it mildly. 

What Chase must have heard was a joyous, raw and raucous version of a 3-chord wonder that just hit in the right spot and countless hordes of dancing teenagers would soon agree. 

The song went to #2 on the Hot 100 and may be the messiest smash hit to ever reach that high.

If the band was given a chance to do a better take of the song, would it still have hit the way it did and have this kind of lasting effect? 

We’ll never know for sure.

But we do know that in all of its flawed, chaotic glory, it will forever be seen as a beacon of light.

Leading us back to what rock and roll is all about in its purest sense, when it has been perceived to have lost its way.

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rollerboogie

Music is what brought me here, but I do have other interests. I like ill-advised, low budget movies that shouldn't even be close to good, but are great, and cats too.

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Zeusaphone
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Zeusaphone
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April 1, 2024 8:30 am
Phylum of Alexandria
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April 1, 2024 9:38 am

If you want flawed, chaotic glory in music, I’m sure I can deliver plenty!

That is, if you’re looking for someone with less musical practice than The Shaggs.

Brian Eno was famous for promoting the “Bob Ross” approach to music-making, mistakes being one type of several ways to get creative.

But perhaps the pinnacle of this sound is Shonen Knife. The playing on their first two albums is so stiff and clumsy, but it absolutely enhances the giddy charm of their punky pop tunes. Their later albums are great too, but something special was lost once they actually learned to play their instruments.

I’ve sung these early songs to some of my Japanese friends’ kids, and they love them. Unvarnished inspiration speaks to the inner child in all of us.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_dYkxfLSFc

JJ Live At Leeds
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April 1, 2024 10:27 am

I like the imperfections, they add an extra dimension and in some cases humour. While in the case of Louie Louie they add a wild raucous charm. Whether it would have matched the same heights if they’d had the chance to do another take and tidy it up I don’t know but it’s perfect as it is.

I had no idea about Cannonball. One of my favourite songs of the 90s. Doesn’t diminish it at all. To my musically untrained ear there’s probably all sorts of mistakes that have passed me by. Vocal fluffs are more obvious (Zeusaphone has already posted the one that came straight to my mind) but bum chords and the like don’t really register unless pointed out to me.

Virgindog
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April 1, 2024 10:52 am

The Beatles had lots of mistakes. The most famous is probably McCartney dropping the F-bomb in “Hey Jude” but my favorite is when his voice cracks in “If I Fell.” Those perfect harmonies weren’t always perfect and leaving it in made it more human.

Virgindog
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April 1, 2024 12:07 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

Can anyone tell me what the voice says after the line “It’s a love that has no past” in “Don’t Let Me Down?” Genius.com says it’s “Seeking past” but I always though it was someone correcting Lennon’s grammar by saying “Any past.” Both of those guesses are probably incorrect.

Virgindog
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April 1, 2024 12:25 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

We need to get Rick Beato on the case.

blu_cheez
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April 3, 2024 4:49 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

I like the songs (Rocky Raccoon, Helter Skelter, probably more I can’t recall right now) where Paul almost ruins the take by laughing.

Zeusaphone
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April 1, 2024 4:18 pm

Billy Joel has a flub in “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” that he wanted to redo but Christie Brinkley suggested he leave it in because it fit the theme of the song.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wE69yWi5iHA

cappiethedog
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April 1, 2024 10:20 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

I was mildly disappointed when I learned that “Uptown Girl” was actually about Elle MacPhereson. Knowing this ruined the song for me.

LinkCrawford
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April 1, 2024 5:28 pm

Having listened to a lot of Chicago, I can think of some missed or cracked brass notes here and there, and a couple of percussion oddities that seem like obvious mistakes.

How about the Beach Boys version of “Barbara Ann”? Clearly the group of singers weren’t in full recollection of the lyrics. Lots of ambient sounds in that song. (Oops! Edited because I didn’t realize that this one had already been discussed. )

But the most memorable example to me is Todd Rundgren’s failed count-offs to begin the song “Hello, It’s Me”, only heard on the album cut.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gZrWGAXM_I

Last edited 23 days ago by LinkCrawford
cappiethedog
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April 1, 2024 10:18 pm

I’m a non-musician. I don’t know how to describe the mistake Jonny Greenwood makes on “Creep”, but Thom Yorke said that’s good.

I bought the Yes cube because I read that it would help me better appreciate post-Bends Radiohead. I wish the song-oriented version of this band lasted for one more album.

I still don’t get it.

Radiohead is to Pitchfork as Bruce Springsteen is to Rolling Stone.

Phylum of Alexandria
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April 2, 2024 8:00 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

#JusticeForTreefingers

Phylum of Alexandria
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April 2, 2024 7:59 am
Reply to  cappiethedog

If you need Bends-level accessibility, maybe there’s nothing to be done. But there’s plenty of tuneful Radiohead material from their last few albums that’s near OK Computer levels of accessibility.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2e2LQzTxZfs

Phylum of Alexandria
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April 2, 2024 10:54 am
Reply to  cappiethedog

Here’s a playlist of non-album and later album tracks that match the tunefulness of The Bends (and OKC).

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4MkMDey2ykVHaYLjUhhFUM?si=dd28a9ddfe024a8f

cappiethedog
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April 2, 2024 2:11 pm

Thanks, Phylum.

It’s pretty awful being a music fan and not liking the one band that everybody likes. Some people some like contrarians for contrarian sake, and I know I sound like that guy. I remember being downvoted for choosing “Prove Yourself” as their best song.

Maybe Thom Yorke thought he wasn’t going to top “Fake Plastic Trees” and decided to go in a completely different direction.

Phylum of Alexandria
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April 2, 2024 2:29 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

When I was working at Tower Records (2000-2006ish), plenty of my coworkers had stopped liking Radiohead after The Bends or OKC. And that’s fine; everyone’s got different preferences.

Maybe popular sentiment has shifted since then, but I doubt it. It’s probably more that certain fan bubbles (like the Stereogum commenter bubble) are more ubiquitously die-hard about post-Kid A Radiohead than others, so those who disagree feel like they’re missing out on something they just don’t vibe with.

Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Moon Shaped Pool are actually both heavy on melodic songs. But if I were to compare them to The Bends, they’re more in the vein of “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” than anything with a verse/chorus/verse structure or guitar crunch. Thom is generous with his melodies, but not so much on anthemic rock dynamics.

Maybe that’s the crucial difference. But still, they rarely skimp on dramatic power and good old fashioned prettiness.

Zeusaphone
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April 2, 2024 12:44 pm

Just Mickey and Davy with the playback

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqmRF32xKQo

spacecitymarc
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April 3, 2024 2:40 pm

Ages ago, when my friends and I were in what I realized years later would’ve been considered an emo band had we stuck together long enough for emo to actually become a thing, we were recording in our rehearsal space, courtesy of a professor friend who liked playing with his toys so much that he made them freely available to any musician who wanted them. The space was a converted toilet factory in downtown Houston, and Houston being Houston, it was hot as hell so we had the windows open. Just as we finished what was clearly the best take were were going to get of one song and the last chord rang out, a police siren suddenly blared up out of nowhere and ran down the street. Once it had faded off into the distance, we stopped the recording. I’m not sure it had anything to do with the song in question, but the timing was so flippin’ perfect that we knew we weren’t doing another take.

spacecitymarc
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April 4, 2024 12:09 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

I mean, I have it.

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April 10, 2024 11:09 am

Great article – I love these imperfections as well – another example is The Who’s “Happy Jack” where at the end Pete Townshend says “I saw you” – the story is they didn’t want Keith Moon’s harmony vocals on the song – but Keith kept sneaking back into the studio to try to add his vocals. https://youtu.be/52cQeFBU2Kw?feature=shared

mt58
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April 10, 2024 4:27 pm
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Good welcome to you, @garjen55 !

mt58
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April 17, 2024 8:39 pm
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@garjen55 : Can you please send me an email at submissions@tnocs.com ? Somehow, your account had been deleted and I want to assist in getting you back. Thank you, mt

Phylum of Alexandria
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April 17, 2024 12:56 pm

I was listening to a lot of Orange Juice during my recent trip to Japan, and I thought of this article.

I know that the correct answer is supposed to be that the original indie releases of their songs are the superior versions, but in most cases I prefer the more professionally recorded redos.

“Falling and Laughing” is a perfect example. The original showcases mostly tight and innovative musicianship, rather than amateurish primitivism. But that “mostly” is key, as it isn’t as confident as the take on their first proper album. Everything is perfectly executed in the LP recording, which I feel does better justice to the band’s talents.

The way that AllMusic described You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, you’d think the band had teamed up with Hall & Oates.

Phylum of Alexandria
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April 17, 2024 6:32 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

I can’t recommend their first album (You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever) enough. It’s like Talking Heads 77 but with the erudite sulkiness that UK indie pop so often excels in.

The compilation The Glasgow School is also fantastic. It compiles all of their early indie stuff. As I said, I tend to prefer the remakes, but beyond the first album, most of those remakes are only available (nowadays) via their box set. And the originals are still great.

I love “Rip It Up” the song, but the second album is a mixed bag for me. As is the third, though I like it more. Really the best stuff they wrote was early on.

Perhaps Edwyn Collins’ most famous song now is his 1994 single “A Girl Like You,” which I first heard on the Empire Records soundtrack.

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