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9 Songs That Weren’t Supposed to Be Big Hits

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It’s tough enough for a song to become a worldwide smash, but what about those songs that became hits without industry support? Or that weren’t even supposed to be singles in the first place? These nine songs managed to top the charts despite the odds.


No song exemplifies Eddie Van Halen’s technical prowess and all-around musical genius like this one-and-a-half-minute instrumental. But the song wasn’t meant for public consumption when it was first recorded. Van Halen was simply warming up early one morning in the studio, and producer Ted Templeman decided to put the exercise on tape. The producer decided to include the recording as-is on the band’s 1978 self-titled debut—to the chagrin of the guitarist, who later said, "To this day, whenever I hear it, I always think, 'Man, I could’ve played it better.'" Fans don’t seem to agree: The track is consistently voted as one of the greatest guitar solos of all time.


One of Guns n' Roses' most memorable riffs was also the result of a warm-up. While hanging out during preproduction for the band’s 1987 debut, Appetite for Destruction, Slash started noodling around with a string-skipping exercise. Axl Rose overheard the resulting riff, and the following day during rehearsal, he coaxed his reluctant guitarist into replaying the melody and started singing along. The final product stayed at No. 1 for two weeks in 1988.


Gaga wrote somewhere in the vicinity of 100 songs for her 2013 effort, ARTPOP, and claims this song almost missed the cut. It was Interscope Record head Jimmy Iovine who ID’d the track as the album’s first single, after hearing it during a listening session of 40 ARTPOP contenders. As usual for the record-biz veteran, his instincts were right: The song went all the way to No. 4.


Queen didn’t originally intend to release this sparse, groove-laden recording as a single. Drummer Roger Taylor even went so far as to say "That will never be a hit," of the cut off 1980’s The Game. It was Michael Jackson, visiting the band backstage after an L.A. show, who convinced the band otherwise. The King of Pop knew what he was talking about: The song went to No. 1 and remains Queen's best-selling single in the States.


By all rights, this Grammy-winning hip-hop gem never should have been a single, let alone a No. 1 hit. The Seattle-based duo self-released their recording in August 2012, as the fourth single off their album The Heist. After six months of building a devoted following through touring and social media (and without any mainstream promotion), the song finally hit the top of the charts in February 2013.


Macklemore was the first label-less artist to go to No. 1 since 1994, when Lisa Loeb did the same thing with the lead-off single from the Reality Bites soundtrack. Were it not for the fact that she was friends and neighbors with the film’s star, Ethan Hawke, who pressed for the song’s inclusion on the soundtrack, the singer-songwriter might still be toiling in obscurity.

7. "LOSER" // BECK

When Beck recorded this song in 1991, he never intended it to be a Gen X anthem. Instead, he was merely trying out some raps to impress producer Karl Stephenson, at whose house he was recording at the time. Perhaps influenced by Stephenson’s hip-hop ties, the then-unknown singer, who did occasionally rap during his shows between songs, freestyled some lyrics in the spirit of Public Enemy. The song’s famous chorus—"I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me"—was Beck’s response to hearing his attempt played back to him; as he later said, "When they played it back, I was like, 'I’m the worst rapper!'" Three years later, the song went into heavy rotation on radio and MTV, and those lyrics became the poster song for a new genre called "slacker rock."


The lyrics to BTO’s 1974 No. 1 hit were as much a goof as those in "Loser." Randy Bachman, while producing BTO’s third album, Not Fragile, used the song as an instrumental to test out the equipment in the studio, perfecting the sound for the tracks actually intended for the record. The lyrics were something he’d sung off the cuff, stuttering as a gentle poke at his brother, who was known for having an actual stutter. But when Mercury Records head Charlie Fach heard the song while looking for the band's next single, he knew he’d found a hit and insisted they include it on the album. According to Bachman, the song appears—at Fach’s insistence—exactly as it was when they used it to test the studio, despite the guitars being out of tune!


This 1990 hit also wouldn’t have existed if not for the label’s insistence—literally. Warrant were all set to hand over their second album to Columbia Records when label president Don Ienner called requesting another track. Ienner was looking for a massive hit—"another 'Love In An Elevator,'" according to Warrant singer Jani Lane—and hadn’t heard one on the record as it stood. Lane responded by writing "Cherry Pie" overnight. The song went to No. 1 and remains one of Warrant’s best-known contributions, but because of its history, it’s never sat well with the band. Lane even went so far as to tell VH1, "I could shoot myself in the f**king head for writing that song."

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Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Pop Culture
How Phil Collins Accidentally Created the Sound That Defined 1980s Music
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Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Unless your technical knowledge of music runs deep, you may have never heard the phrase “gated reverb.” But you’ve definitely heard the effect in action: It’s that punchy snare drum sound that first gained traction in music in the 1980s. If you can play the drum beat from “I Would Die 4 U” by Prince or “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen in your head, you know what sound we’re referring to.

But that iconic element of pop might not have emerged if it wasn’t for Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. As Vox lays out in its new video, the discovery was made in 1979 during the studio recording of Peter Gabriel’s self-titled third solo album (often called Melt because of its cover art). Gabriel’s Genesis bandmate Phil Collins was playing the drums as usual when his beats were accidentally picked up by the microphone used by audio engineers to talk to the band. That microphone wasn’t meant to record music—its heavy compressors were designed to turn down loud sounds while amplifying quiet ones. The equipment also utilized a noise gate, which meant the recorded sounds were cut off shortly after they started. The result was a bright, fleeting percussive sound unlike anything heard in popular music.

Gabriel loved the effect, and made it the signature sound on the opening track of his album. A year later, Collins featured it in his hit single “In the Air Tonight,” perhaps the most famous example of gated reverb to date.

The sound would come to define music of the 1980s and many contemporary artists continue to use it today. Get the full history of gated reverb below.

[h/t Vox]

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Keystone/Getty Images
‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ Could Have Been a Meat Loaf Song
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Keystone/Getty Images

Imagine a world in which Bonnie Tyler was not the star performer on the Royal Caribbean Total Eclipse Cruise. Imagine if, instead, as the moon crossed in front of the sun in the path of totality on August 21, 2017, the performer belting out the 1983 hit for cruise ship stargazers was Meat Loaf?

It could have been. Because yes, as Atlas Obscura informs us, the song was originally written for the bestselling rocker (and actor) of Bat Out of Hell fame, not the husky-voiced Welsh singer. Meat Loaf had worked on his 1977 record Bat Out of Hell with Jim Steinman, the composer and producer who would go on to work with the likes of Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand (oddly enough, he also composed Hulk Hogan’s theme song on an album released by the WWE). “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was meant for Meat Loaf’s follow-up album to Bat Out of Hell.

But Meat Loaf’s fruitful collaboration with Steinman was about to end. In the wake of his bestselling record, the artist was going through a rough patch, mentally, financially, and in terms of his singing ability. And the composer wasn’t about to stick around. As Steinman would tell CD Review magazine in 1989 (an article he has since posted on his personal website), "Basically I only stopped working with him because he lost his voice as far as I was concerned. It was his voice I was friends with really.” Harsh, Jim, harsh.

Steinman began working with Bonnie Tyler in 1982, and in 1983, she released her fifth album, Faster Than the Speed of Night, including “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It sold 6 million copies.

Tyler and Steinman both dispute that the song was written specifically for Meat Loaf. “Meat Loaf was apparently very annoyed that Jim gave that to me,” she told The Irish Times in 2014. “But Jim said he didn’t write it for Meat Loaf, that he only finished it after meeting me.”

There isn’t a whole lot of bad blood between the two singers, though. In 1989, they released a joint compilation album: Heaven and Hell.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]


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