Bob Dylan once said "Tangled Up in Blue" took him ten years to live and two years to write. Sure, some singers pore laboriously over lyrics and melodies, but some plug out classic tunes in no time flat. Here's a tip of the cap to seven speed demon songwriters who whipped up some of their biggest hits in a matter of hours—if that.
1. Mott the Hoople, “All the Young Dudes”
Perennially underachieving Mott the Hoople almost called it quits in 1972 before David Bowie—probably assuming the messianic role of his glam rock alter ego, Ziggy Stardust—swooped in to save the band. He offered up “Suffragette City” if it meant the band would stave off breakup plans. Mott the Hoople’s bassist, Pete Overend Watts, turned it down.
Bowie called Watts two hours later, saying: “I’ve written a song for you since we talked, which could be great.” That song, penned by Bowie while sitting cross-legged on the floor of a room in Regent Street, London in front of Mott vocalist Ian Hunter, was “All the Young Dudes.”
2. The Rolling Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
Guitarist Keith Richards was passed out in the Jack Tar Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, Florida when he woke up, pulled out the tape recorder he carried with him, and recorded the riff to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Richards recorded himself saying “Can’t get no satisfaction” before dropping his guitar pick and falling back asleep.
When he woke up and played back his tape, it was “two minutes of ‘Satisfaction’ and forty minutes of me snoring.” Richards worried that the inspiration for the riff drew from Martha and the Vandella’s “Dancing in the Street,” but the song (and guitar hook) stuck.
3. Blur, “Song 2”
Blur never settled on exactly how long they spent writing and recording “Song 2”—the track’s working title in the studio—but the bandmates agree they came up with the hit in all of its improvised “woo-hoo!” glory in ten minutes to half an hour.
Lead singer Damon Albarn dismissed the hit as “just headbanging,” but producer Stephen Street claims Albarn wrote the song’s nonsensical hook on the fly. Street recalls, “Damon went ‘woo hoo” because he had nothing else prepared.”
4. Queen and David Bowie, “Under Pressure”
The Thin White Duke proved his marathon songwriting chops once again when he and Queen spent “an extremely long night” (according to Queen guitar slinger Brian May) in a jam session at Queen’s Mountain Studios in Switzerland. Bowie took charge of the song’s lyrics while Freddie Mercury spearheaded the music songwriting.
Mercury’s improvised scat singing from early in the jam session made the official cut, a song Queen debuted live quickly, though Bowie and May didn’t love the song. When the song was recorded and mixed (nothing was written before the session), Bowie and Queen went for pizza, according to Roger Taylor.
5. R.E.M., “Losing My Religion”
Guitarist Peter Buck spent a classy evening drinking wine, watching the Nature Channel on mute, and learning how to play the mandolin when he “played ‘Losing My Religion all the way through, and then played really bad stuff for a while.”
Buck woke up with the song’s chords all but forgotten, relearning to play it by listening back to the tape. The impromptu late night recording captured the song’s main riff and chorus—not bad for an unseasoned mandolin player who was lucky to think to tape his laid-back practice session.
6. Tears For Fears, “Mad World”
Brooding Brit Curt Smith told the Boston Globe, “I remember it being written in an hour or two in Roland’s little flat above a pizza place.” Smith and Tears For Fears bassist Roland Orzabal penned it as the first single of the band’s 1982 album The Hurting. In the liner notes for the record’s 1999 rerelease, Orzabal confessed that his flat probably wasn’t the best place to pen a track called “Mad World": “That came when I lived above a pizza restaurant in Bath and I could look out onto the centre of the city. Not that Bath is very mad—I should have called it 'Bourgeois World.'"
7. David Bowie, “Life on Mars?”
I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn't get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road. Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen ('William Morris,' so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.