A problem that some music aficionados find with more recent recordings is their pristine polish and unnatural mixing. Auto tuning of vocals and the ability to drop in on Guitars, Drums, means no more solos that have imperfections, which surely is what makes artistic expression mean so much more. I personally adore anything that the late great Leonard Cohen put to vinyl, but they are many times when his vocal goes out of tune. This makes him sound so human and emotional. Music these days have any accidental moments that occur during the recording process cut from the final mastering of the track – creating an unrealistic representation that takes away from the rougher qualities of a song.
However, it has not always been this way. In the earlier days of modern recording, the creaks and cracks were much more prevalent than they are today, with less production tools to work with. As the years rolled on, many artists started to intentionally leave in the errors rather than mask them – which brings us to our latest top ten.
This list includes those songs which do not hide their mistakes, but rather, lay them bare for the world to hear. In doing so, they exude a more real and natural portrayal of the artist’s musicianship. Nothing can be perfect, and refreshingly, these ten tracks embrace their imperfection to the max.
A few great mentions that I did not list. The mighty Led Zeppelin’s ‘Since I’ve been loving you’ has a squeak the whole way through it as Jon Bonham had not oiled his bass drum pedal but who cares when it is the might that is Zeppelin. In fact, Zeppelin has a few if you have listened to the albums as much as I have. ‘Out on the Tiles’ second verse, you clearly hear Robert Plant call ‘stop’ for a retake but is blanked by the band.
On the first chorus of Bowie’s “Jean Genie”, Bowie can be heard telling the bassist to “get back on it”, since he is switched notes to the chorus early.
Kansas – “People of the South Wind” from Monolith – keyboard run at 2:28.
Genesis – “Behind the Lines” from Duke – keyboard run at 1:16.
Kinks – “I’ll Remember” – Peter Quaife goes back to the verse on the bass when everyone else goes to the middle 8.
In the studio, even the most lackadaisical musicians can usually be counted on to stop a take or re-record a song if they notice something wrong. Sometimes that stems from the quest for a sound that Feels Just Right, but more often it is just to fix technical errors (wrong production levels, a misplaced drum hit or string pluck) or clean up studio clumsiness (a knock on a door, fumbled lyrics). Who wants to waste time and tape to commit flawed music to a professional release, right? And yet there are some musicians who have gone the “they’ll dance to anything” route and put out imperfectly played, sung, recorded, or mastered songs. Weirder still, fans and artists have embraced some of these as cult favourites, beloved deep cuts, even actual classics. Just look at The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie,” a single take so messy and filled with sonic Easter Eggs that even the FBI could not figure it out. So, here is our examination of 10 of the most egregious examples of songs with mistakes. Do not feel too bad about liking them; we critique because we love.
Whether or not some of Joe South’s bass notes in “Visions of Johanna” as recorded on Blonde on Blonde are famous mistakes, they serve the dual purpose of pulling the listener simultaneously out and back into the song, even if they are not aware that they needed to be. At 1:58, when Dylan is telling you about the night watchman, he plays a note so sour that it forces your attention. The bounciness of the bass is a key ingredient in communicating the messages of longing, regret and optimism that if it were smoother, the song would mean something different. Similar missed notes appear once or twice later in the song, most notably during the elongated last verse (at 6:30, when the fiddler steps to the road) when South goes up as if anticipating a change. Dylan is not one to suffer mistakes easily, so it is possible that they were either intended or Dylan agreed that they added something to the song
War – “Why Can’t We Be Friends”
from Why Can’t We Be Friends? (1975; United Artists)
You don’t have to wait too long to hear keyboardist Lonnie Jordan’s flub in one of the most joyous R&B hits of the ‘70’s: It happens right in his introductory solo. On the eighth chord in Jordan’s pattern, he accidentally hits a note that is one half-step higher than the note he intends to hit. The result is what musicians call a grace note: a tiny, quick tone that immediately resolves into another, longer note. But it is out of tune with the basic chord of the song – quite obviously a mistake. Why this error fascinates me: It is something War’s recording engineer and Jordan could have fixed immediately. We are talking a four-second segment that could have been re-recorded in a flash so it would be perfect. Yet they not only left the mistake in, but they also released the uncorrected song as a single and got one of their biggest hits. Why? Was it just another example of the song’s laid-back, loose charm? Did somebody have a family emergency and could not get around to fixing it before the tapes were due at the mastering plant? Was the engineer getting paid by the note? Or maybe, as the rest of the song implies, we are supposed to love it the way it is. Thankfully, that is easy to do.
Pink Floyd – “Wish You Were Here”
from Wish You Were Here (1975; Columbia)
Pink Floyd’s epic 1975 album is a beautiful, sad signal flare sent up for their exiled former bandmate Syd Barrett. It is a masterwork of sound craft to help tell a story, but the title cut featured some that may ultimately have been a happy accident. The intro lands us in what is supposed to be a room with someone (an avatar for Barrett) playing acoustic guitar alongside a radio broadcast. The performance is actually by band co-leader David Gilmour amid some questionable breathing caught on tape, including sniffles and coughing. While one school of thought claims that those noises were either done on purpose or just more radio chatter, another insists that Gilmour could not control the side effects of his smoking—and that he quit cold turkey upon hearing the playback.
The beginning of this post-punk classic has bothered me forever. My gears always grind over the shift in pitch and tempo of Andy Summers’ guitar chords as the song starts. In researching this cut, the best excuse for that flange seems to be loose recording tape wrapping around a take up reel too slowly. But a few seconds later is one of the song’s defining sounds that on its face does not quite sound like a mistake—an atonal noise followed by Sting’s soft laugh, almost as if he were on the same street occupied by the song’s namesake reluctant prostitute. The truth is much more mundane: In trying to sit down for the studio take, Sting accidentally introduced his ass to some piano keys.
In terms of return on mis-investment, the drum error on the Cars’ debut single might be the Most Valuable Mistake on this list. It happens in the third and final verse. Up to that point drummer David Robinson has played a standard rock beat, with the snare kicking in on the second and fourth beats of each bar like it is supposed to in virtually every mid-tempo rock song. But on the line “Cause when you’re standing oh so near, I kind of lose my mind,” Robinson gets mixed up and hits the snare on the first and third beats. Instead of going kick-SNARE-kick-SNARE, he goes SNARE-kick-SNARE-kick. That mistake disrupts the meter in the listener’s head—and gives a whole new layer of meaning to the song. Up to that point singer Ric Ocasek’s been very structured in the face of a relationship that is not all that great, but nonetheless gives his life some sad shadow of order. The Robinson mess-up, though, adds an element of disorder, an audio clue that there is something amiss in his defence mechanism. The mistake works so well that a couple of bars later Robinson does it again—this time, intentionally.
The Who – “Eminence Front”
from It’s Hard (1982; MCA)
Lyrical flubs in professionally released music are everywhere and nowhere at once. Flip-flopped words pass us by in the blink of an ear. When timed right, mistimed vocal cues can sound natural, even purposeful. But nothing should have allowed the original LP version of this cut to reach mass duplication. The opening of the first chorus finds Pete Townshend, on a rare lead vocal, quickly falling a syllable behind Roger Daltrey. With each committed to slightly different words (“Behind an eminence front” vs. “It’s an eminence front”), it feels like the duo need a dozen extra sounds and mouth movements to finally reach the end of the line. You can almost hear Townshend rolling his eyes. It says a lot—none of it good—that this flawed anthem-to-be for coked-out 1980s culture is still somehow this album’s saving grace.
The B-52’s – “Love Shack”
from Cosmic Thing (1989; Warner Bros.)
Wait, what the hell’s wrong with this? Well, music is littered with songs where a vocalist jumps into their lyrics too soon or too late (Nirvana’s “Polly” and James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” immediately leap to mind). In a 2011 interview, Kate Pierson let it slip that bandmate Cindy Wilson missed a cue in the song’s instrumental track. Her legendary caterwaul—”Tin roof rusted!”—was not supposed to be a solo a Capella, or at least was a beat or two off. The band decided to leave it in as a point of emphasis. It helped turn the song from merely a party monster into one of alt-pop’s signature tracks.
The Athens, Georgia quartet included this song—inspired by and interpolating The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”—as a light-hearted respite from the towering drama throughout Automatic for the People. It too had its share of melancholy, referencing missed connections and the lost playthings of youth, but just past the song’s halfway point Michael Stipe ends the third verse and enters the chorus (“Or a reading by Dr. Seuss/Call when you try to wake her up”) while working through a laugh. Interviews suggest he kept stressing “Seuss” too much, making it “Zeus,” and the band decided to keep his incredulousness in the picture. It is an inadvertent moment shining rare lights of humour and self-deprecation on their infamously guarded lead singer.
Radiohead – “Creep”
from Pablo Honey (1993; Capitol)
Not many publicly available musical mistakes come to mind that were made with some form of malicious intent, but Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood presaged the band’s reputation as a go-big-or-go-home kind of outfit. Greenwood was not a huge fan of the song’s original quiet nature, so he went out of his way to fuck it up. He would yank tuneless dead notes out of his guitar as Thom Yorke propelled his own bitterness to the chorus: “But I’m a creep/I’m a weirdo.” As practice on the song progressed, the band decided to accept the noise as part of the song, and the studio wonks they then played it for smartly chose to preserve it for posterity. The rest, as they say, is a career.
Whiskeytown – “Bar Lights”
from Pneumonia (2001; Lost Highway)
Depending on which album of Ryan Adams’ you are listening to, the prolific singer/songwriter can either be pitch-perfect and professional, or raw and imperfect by design. With his band Whiskeytown, however, he rarely deviated from the former. Adams’ partnership with Caitlin Cary made for some typically gorgeous harmonies and beautifully performed alt-country tunes. But on “Bar Lights,” things go wrong in a subtle way. With a minute left in the song, Adams forgets his line, then Cary laughs, then he laughs, and then his string breaks. Under ordinary circumstances this would be a do-over moment but placed at the end of the album it provides some endearing levity to close out a record with lots of emotional highs and lows. Adams even acknowledges it at the end, commenting, “Can you believe that? I forgot the line, started laughing, and then my string broke!” That it is still one of the best songs on the album goes to show that a little mishap cannot derail a band at its best.
Conclusion: “Humans are not infalliable and music should reflect this. The polished auto tuning, programmed drumming, computer editing has sadly taken away that edge what music once had”. – Lee Davey 2021