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/stream for all the world to hear.
Sometimes they make it through to the listener intentionally, and sometimes they sneak by purely by accident. Sometimes they might not even be actual bloopers so much as ‘in the moment’ things that get picked up and folded into the song. However they get to us, these little gems of humanity are 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!’”
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?”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Van Halen – “Eruption”
“Eruption,” with its blistering licks and innovative techniques, launched a million shredders, but the technique-redefining tapping section includes – by Eddie Van Halen’s own admission – a little mistake. Van Halen told Guitar Player, “…I took one pass at it and they put it on the record. I didn’t even play it right. There’s a mistake at the top end of it. To this day whenever I hear it I always think,’Man, I could’ve played it better’.” But wher is it? It sounds like a mistake can be heard at about 1.01 – listen for a tiny stutter which breaks up the flow of the tapping pattern. However, there are those of us who believe EVH’s playing to be utterly infallible and will not accept that he can make mistakes, even by his own admission.
Led Zeppelin – “Heartbreaker”
As anyone who has ever tried to jam along to “Heartbreaker” will attest, the song’s iconic unaccompanied solo section is pitched slightly higher than the rest of the song. As Jimmy Page explained to Guitar World in 1998: “The interesting thing about the solo is that it was recorded after we had already finished “Heartbreaker” – it was an afterthought. That whole section was recorded in a different studio and it was sort of slotted in the middle.” Even with the studio technology of the time it would have been possible to match the tuning of the two sections via some deft tape speed manipulation, so why does it sound higher than the rest of the song? Is it possible it was slightly sped up on purpose to appear even more impressive? Maybe we’ll never know.
Led Zeppelin – “Since I’ve Been Loving You”
Led Zeppelin chalk up another little studio mishap in the form of a squeaky kick drum pedal on “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” In 1993 Jimmy Page recounted his discovery of the artefact while putting together the first Led Zeppelin boxed set. “It sounds louder and louder every time I hear it,” he said. “That was something that was obviously sadly overlooked at the time.” Still, it’s one of those great little Easter Eggs that make Led Zeppelin albums such wonderful headphone fodder.
U2 – “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”
At around 3:10 to 3:14, drummer Larry Mullen Jr can be heard dropping a drum stick. He valiantly continues on for a few bars before obtaining another drum stick (I’d like to think that he summoned it to his hand using the Force). The mistake was left in the song – and it lends a particularly cool dynamic shift to the song – although legend has it that Larry Mullen Jr wasn’t exactly pleased with the decision to leave it in.
Frank Zappa – “We’re Turning Again”
On the version of this track from You Can’t Do That On Stage Any More Vol. 6, Mike Keneally loses control of his guitar after the Hendrix section (“You can regulate my fuzztone with your wah wah,” etc). Keneally quickly gets his axe under control but vocalist Ike Willis can be heard chuckling about the incident for a few more bars.
Black Sabbath – “Sweet Leaf”
Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” is a heavy, lumbering ode to a particular extracurricular activity the band often engaged in at the time of recording 1971’s Master Of Reality. The track opens with a tape loop of somebody coughing. Ozzy Osbourne told Rolling Stone in 2004 that the source of the cough was guitarist Tony Iommi. Iommi confirmed, “I was outside recording an acoustic thing, and Ozzy brought me a [not suitable for publication]. I had a puff and nearly choked myself, and they were taping it!”
Pantera – “Good Friends And A Bottle Of Pills”
The staccato feedback chops which punctuate portions of this Far Beyond Driven track were created when Dimebag Darrell stood a little too close to brother Vinnie Paul’s drums. Dime was running his guitar through a vintage flanger pedal and a noise gate. As he told Guitar World in 1994, his plan was to “just make a little bit of racket in the beginning of the song,” but by chance his guitar’s pickup sensed the sound of Vinnie Paul’s snare, and its output was enough to release the noise gate, creating a choppy, flanged roar perfectly synced to the snare.
Mr. Big – “Alive And Kicking”
This song instead – from Mr.Big’s breakthrough album Lean Into It – doesn’t include an actual mistake per se, but its main riff was created when guitarist Paul Gilbert was tuning his guitar. Gilbert told Guitar World (March 1991) that he hit two strings while twisting the tuning peg of one string, and the riff’s distinctively sassy first note was created. Gilbert figured out how to achieve the same effect by bending one string instead of messing with the tuning keys, but the riff wouldn’t have happened if not for a creative spin on a mis-hit note. Gilbert also plays off this effect during the song’s intro, both in the studio and live.
David Bowie – “Little Wonder”
While not quite a blooper so much as a clever rearranging of off-the-cuff moments, Reeves Gabrels told Guitar World in 1997 that the skittering riff on this 1997 hit was born after he recorded about 40 minutes worth of random guitar noises, loaded the results onto a sampling keybaord and messed around with the riffage until he found something he liked. Gabrels said that when Bowie and go started playing “Little Wonder” live, he had to figure out how to physically play what he had sampled. “It was really educational,” he said. “To a small degree it changed how I look at my actual real-time playing, which is a cool thing.”
The Mamas & The Papas – “I Saw Her Again”
This 1966 single includes an iconic and much-imitated blooper around the 2:40 mark. Singer Denny Doherty sings the first line of the third chorus a little too early, cuts himself off, and comes in again at the right moment with the rest of the group. Producer (who also produced Carole King’s Tapestry) intentionally left the flub in. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian mimicked the mistake on “Darling Be Home Soon” in 1967 and Kenny Loggins did the same on “I’m Alright” in 1980. A similar mistake can be heard before the start of the first verse of “Discipline” from Nine Inch Nails’ 2008 album The Slip.