Behind The Music: Songs Recorded Under Unusual Circumstances
While most of us might think our favorite stars spend big bucks recording at top-of-the-line studios, the truth of the matter is that creativity almost always trumps a huge budget. Artists don’t need fancy gear to make a great record — they can record outside with a tiny microphone or set-up shop in an NYC Apple Store. The biggest hits don’t always follow a typical path. These artists all recorded their songs under unique circumstances — traditional studio and techniques be darned.
“I Never” – Rilo Kiley
In 2004, Rilo Kiley made their major label debut with More Adventurous. Though the LP is largely regarded as their most influential album and biggest commercial success, it wasn’t an easy path. Lead singer Jenny Lewis had to strip down to get there — literally.
Lewis’ performance on “I Never” is one of the most ubiquitous stories from early ‘00s indie rock lore, and it wasn’t even a proper single. The flame-haired singer reportedly stripped down completely nude in the recording booth to help capture a natural sense of vulnerability. Did it work? It’s hard to tell, but there’s no denying Lewis’ pipes are powerfully emotive (but we’re guessing she’d be that way regardless because the lady can sing).
“When the Levee Breaks” – Led Zeppelin
The drum sound in the intro of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” might be one of the most famous drum sounds of all time (beyond Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” solo). Strangely enough, the widely-sampled sound wasn’t recorded in a studio — it was recorded in a stairwell.
Zeppelin was working on Led Zeppelin IV at poorhouse-turned-recording studio Headley Grange in the Southeast of England. During one of the sessions, John Bonham temporarily set up his drums next to a stairwell in a three-story hallway. The band liked how they sounded so much that they ended up hanging a microphone from the second story and recording them right there. Who needs a live room when you’ve got acoustics like that?
“Give it Away” – The Red Hot Chili Peppers
What happens when The Red Hot Chili Peppers take a break from doing tons of drugs and decide to record an album in a haunted mansion? They end up selling more than 13 million copies. Blood Sugar Sex Magik by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the album that spawned the infectious and arguably overplayed songs “Give It Away” and “Under The Bridge,” was allegedly recorded in Rick Rubin’s haunted Laurel Canyon mansion.
It was so haunted that drummer Chad Smith refused to stay there with the rest of the band. “We had heard that the property was haunted by a woman who was murdered there in the Thirties, and that didn’t sit well with him,” said singer Anthony Kiedis.
“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” – The Eurythmics
Recording music is unbelievably pricey — especially for bands who don’t have a label footing the bill. That’s why so many artists resort to DIY basement studios (which still are studios nonetheless). The basement is a go-to for starving musical acts around the globe largely because it’s easy to soundproof in comparison to a bedroom, but what about the attic?
Annie Lennox and David Stewart found themselves short on cash when the time came to record the second Eurythmics album. Instead of spending money on a traditional studio, they borrowed a few thousand pounds, purchased a bunch of equipment and self-recorded the album in a warehouse attic. “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” the band’s biggest hit to date, was one of the songs they self-produced.
“Twist And Shout” – The Beatles
“Twist and Shout” from the Beatles’ first UK album Please Please Me almost didn’t happen. It was recorded at the end of a marathon 13-hour recording session while John Lennon was so sick that it reportedly felt like sandpaper for him to swallow. His coughing is actually featured in the background of the album. Lennon managed to get through the performance, but it absolutely shredded his voice. He did it in just one take, and claimed his voice “wasn’t the same for a long time after.”
“John’s [voice], in particular, was almost completely gone so we really had to get it right the first time, The Beatles on the studio floor and us in the control room. John sucked on a couple more Zubes [throat sweets], had a bit of a gargle with milk and away we went,” said engineer Norman Smith.
“The Downward Spiral” – Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails needed to capture a certain amount of insanity in “The Downward Spiral.” For that reason, it totally makes sense that the group decided to skip out on using a traditional studio and record their breakthrough album at a literal murder sight. The locale was so infamous, Trent Reznor would find dead roses and candles at the front gate.
Reznor opted to record the album at 10050 Cielo Drive, the address where the Charles Manson Family cult murdered actress Sharon Tate and four other people in 1969. The singer reportedly dubbed the home “Le Pig” because one of the murderers scribbled the word “pig” in blood on the home’s entryway.
“Folsom Prison Blues” – Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash’s epic live album At Folsom Prison has become a thing of country music legends. It remains one of the most famous live recordings of all time because of its bizarre methodology.
Cash got an interest in California’s Folsom Prison after watching a documentary about the facility while serving in the U.S. Air Force Security Service. The 137-year-old prison was one of the first maximum-security facilities in the country, and Cash ended up going there to record the tracks with producer Bob Johnson. In the album’s liner notes, the star admits he was fascinated with the idea of isolation found within the prison doors. Weird, but it works.
“Intruder” – Peter Gabriel
In 1979 when Genesis was taking a hiatus, Phil Collins hopped behind the kit to help Peter Gabriel cut his solo album. At the time, Gabriel couldn’t afford a full-time American band, so his bandmate offered his services and the pair met at Gabriel’s house in Bath, England. There was just one catch to the recording — Gabriel didn’t want any cymbals on the record (barring one track which had a drum-machine high hat).
“The first thing happened when I got there was that Peter said, ‘Take away the cymbals, I don’t want any metal on the record’ which I thought was a little stubborn on his part but, ya know, it’s his album,” Collins told Rolling Stone. “We started putting tom-toms up where there would be cymbals and I started to just play around on the drums getting comfortable and [engineer] Hugh Padgham started to get a sound.” That specific drum part ended up on the song “Intruder” and the cymbal-free sound became Gabriel’s signature.
“The Food” – Common
You can thank Dave Chappelle for Common’s hit “The Food.” The comedian had a knack for convincing his favorite rappers to perform in strange places for Comedy Central’s infamous Chappelle’s Show. During one episode, Common and Kanye West debuted their new song “The Food” in a Kitchen (get it, the place where you make food). It sounded so good that Common never ended up going to the studio to cut the track.
More than a year after Common’s Chappelle’s Show appearance, the rapper released the kitchen-recorded track on his album Be. Instead of re-recording it with a big budget, the star decided to just take the audio from his TV performance and let it live among the rest of his traditionally-recorded tracks.
“Gunga Din” – The Libertines
The Libertines jumped out of an 11-year hiatus and right into a literal snakepit. The band recorded Anthems for Doomed Youth, which included the single “Gunga Din,” in Thailand in a tropical studio that was reportedly built on a dangerous snake pit. No one ended up getting seriously injured and the album was a success, peaking at No. 3 on the UK charts.
“The snake god Nāga had a shrine. You could still find snakes there,” Carl Barat told NME in a 2015 interview. “I said to the guy there: ‘Do you have anti-venom for the snakes?’ He said: ‘Anti-venom?’ I said: ‘Yeah, anti-venom for snake bites.’ He said: ‘No, if snake bites you, you die.’ I thought: ‘Ok, what about going to hospital?’ He said: ‘No! You die!’ It scared the life out of me. They’re called pit vipers. Nasty buggers.”
“10 A.M. Automatic” – The Black Keys
Before landing major international success, The Black Keys found inspiration in an abandoned tire factory — but recording there was kind of terrible, and that’s compared to the experience the duo had while recording their first two albums in drummer Patrick Carney’s basement.
For album number three, aptly titled Rubber Factory, the Black Keys went to the abandoned General Tire factory, which ended up being demolished in 2010. Recording there was nothing short of a nightmare since the place had terrible acoustics and the console the duo bought off eBay regularly malfunctioned (a testament to the gamble of used electronics). Nonetheless, Rubber Factory became the band’s first album to chart on the Billboard 200.
“Karma Police” – Radiohead
Radiohead’s first UK No. 1 album OK Computer catapulted them into international fame. It’s largely considered their seminal record — their absolute masterpiece and magnum opus. You wouldn’t expect an album that’s largely regarded as one of the most influential of the decade to be recorded outside of a massive studio, but leave it to the indie darlings to eschew tradition in favor of weird as heck history.
OK Computer, which included the hits “Karma Police” and “Paranoid Android,” was recorded in a 15th-century mansion outside of Bath that was owned by ex-Bond girl Jane Seymour. It was also a former monastery and allegedly the place where King Henry VIII hid an illegitimate daughter. Plus, it’s totally haunted. “Ghosts would talk to me while I was asleep,” Thom Yorke said of the experience. “There was one point when I got up in the morning after a night of hearing voices, and I decided to cut my hair.”
“Sometimes” – Prince Harvey
Brooklyn rapper Prince Harvey was ultra-thrifty when recording his debut album Phatass. After his friend’s apartment and all of their musical equipment were seized because they failed to pay the rent, Harvey went to an NYC Apple Store to record some tracks. The rapper spent the next four months recording songs using GarageBand and a built-in microphone on the store’s display computers. Only a few employees were in on the charade.
“There were no chairs – I had to stand there for four or five hours at a time,” he said. “There were two employees who then said: ‘Hey, what he’s doing is really positive and creative. If anything, him demo-ing the equipment will drive sales.’ At the mention of sales, the managers kind of got with it.”
“I Can Hear You” – They Might Be Giants
Indie rock legends They Might Be Giants might actually be mad scientists. The group decided to ditch a traditional recording studio and record their hit single “I Can Hear You” at an actual science lab. Why? They used one of the earliest wax-recording cylinders developed by Thomas Edison. Talk about a vintage sound!
Today, Edison Laboratory — where the band recorded in 1996 — is an actual historic park with a tower and a museum. It’s basically the birthplace of the vinyl record, even if Edison ended up leaving the record production industry in 1929 because of declining sales (hey, the music industry has always been a tough gig).
“Big in Japan” – Tom Waits
Tom Waits’ hallmark — beyond his voice — has always been his distinct blend of lo-fi and hi-fi. He’s certainly no stranger to using unconventional recording techniques to achieve that perfect mix. He went as far as recording the sound of a Mexican hotel room to perfect the opening track of his 1999 album Mule Variations. To get the drumbeat, he banged on the dresser.
“I started screaming and banging on this chest of drawers really hard, till it was kindling, trying to make it sound like a full band,” he said. Waits ended up using the beat at the start of “Big in Japan,” which you can hear before the full band kicks in.
“Through The Wire” – Kanye West
Kanye West wouldn’t let a car accident stop him from breaking through into the mainstream. If you couldn’t tell by literally his entire career trajectory — the rapper will make magic happen now matter what. Who else gets to sell $50 socks at Coachella?
In 2002, West recorded “Through the Wire” while his jaw was wired shut after a getting into a car crash. How did he rap? It’s a mystery. Two years later, when West was able to chew solid food again, he released the song on his debut album College Dropout. It peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 and landed the rapper his first Grammy nomination at the 2005 awards show.
“Summer Of Love” – Waxahatchee
Waxahatchee’s cult album Ivy Tripp has a number of lo-fi gems, but the most raw and emotive might just be “Summer Of Love,” a gutting, stripped-down track about looking back on a failed relationship.
Singer Katie Crutchfield has a long track-record of recording in unconventional spaces. The large swath of Ivy Tripp’s drums were recorded in a middle school gymnasium, though “Summer of Love” is distinctly drumless. The acoustic track, which features the distinct sound of a dog barking, was recorded outside rather than in a studio or bedroom, which gives it an airy, open quality. It’s singer-songwriter vulnerability at its finest.
“Phoner to Arizona” – Gorillaz
By their fourth album, Gorillaz were already massively successful. They were kind of at the point in their careers where they could do just about anything and still sell a bunch of copies. The Fall is sort of an example of this. The group recorded the entire thing on a tour bus while riding across the United States and Canada, but it spawned out of the nerdy tinkering most of us feel when we get a new gadget.
Damon Albarn recorded the album when he totally fell in love with his new iPad. It took a month to create. “I literally made it on the road. I didn’t write it before, I didn’t prepare it. I just did it day by day as a kind of diary of my experience in America,” he told NME.
‘()’ – Sigur Ros
Sigur Ros’ third album (), also known as the brackets album, pushed the boundaries on just how experimental the Icelandic rockers could get. They recorded each song in a completely, made-up gibberish language known as “Hopelandic,” and that wasn’t even the weirdest part.
To get the soothing, dreamy sound of (), the band recorded at Sundlaugin in Iceland. The studio’s name roughly translates to “swimming pool” because that’s exactly what it is — a drained, abandoned swimming pool from the 1930s. The group originally wanted to record in abandoned NATO tracking base, but things didn’t work out. Pool it was!
“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
The Presidents of the United States of America absolutely dominated MTV in the ‘90s. Their singles “Lump” and “Peaches” perfectly capture the era’s affinity for quirky, messy rock. To get this sound, Chris Ballew modified his guitar into a “basitar,” or a 6-string guitar with only two bass strings. He learned this technique from Morphine’s Mark Sandman. The band’s guitarist also uses a similar instrument called a “guitbass,” which has just three guitar strings instead of the traditional six.
“There are tons of Ethiopian musicians that play 2- and 3-string guitars. So it is not my creation,” Ballew told One Louder Magazine. “It is an old African arrangement that Mark became aware of and through him, I discovered it. I rarely play a standard bass or standard guitar.”