Steam Bids “Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye” To George W. Bush, Hello To Another Retelling Of Its Curious Tale

noah | January 20, 2009 1:45 am
The things you learn when you’re trying to place the news events of the day into a musical context: Did you guys know that Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”—made famous to the MTV generation by Remote Control, and sung to former President George W. Bush’s departing helicopter by a Washington, D.C., crowd earlier this afternoon—has verses? OK, you probably did. So here’s another fact I learned about the track: Its path to being a No. 1 hit in the late ’60s, and a catcall at gymnasiums and arenas all over the world in the years that followed, was both accidental and kind of resented by its principal songwriters.

“Na Na” was apparently recorded and mixed in a night, according to The Billboard Book Of No. 1 Hits, and intended to be a b-side for a single that friends Paul Leka and Gary De Carlo were putting out on Mercury. The song was originally only two minutes long, and the two wanted to stretch out its length so as to discourage radio programmers from playing it:

“I said we should put a chorus to it.” Paul recalls. “I started writing while I was sitting at the piano, going *na na na na, na na na na…’ Everything was ‘na na’ when you didn’t have a lyric.” Someone else added, ‘hey hey hey.'”

By 1 a.m. the track was done, but the vocal track included the dummy lyrics. “We agreed it was just a B-side and said, ‘The hell with it, let’s leave those lyrics in.’ We fattened it up by singing it a couple more times.

“When we came out of the studio at five in the morning, it looked like there was a big fire. There was a manhole, and someone said, ‘Wow, look at all the steam!’ I put that in the back of my head for a group name,” says Paul.

A day later, an employee at the mastering lab called Paul. The track was so long, he couldn’t make a good pressing of it without the record skipping. He asked Paul if he could shorten it, and Paul suggested he fade it out earlier. Meanwhile, Reno heard it and said it sounded loo good for a B-side. He told Leka that Mercury had to release so many records per year on its Fontana subsidiary, and he wanted “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye’* as a separate single.

“It was an embarassing record,” Paul confides. “Not that Gary sang it badly. But compared to his four songs, it was an insult.”

Of course, it became the hit, after Leka decided to name the group that sang the song “Steam” (thanks, manhole!). And the four “better” songs, you may not be surprised to hear, didn’t fare as well in the public eye, which made De Carlo kind of upset—well, actually, so upset that he declared that there was no way he was going to record music under the Steam name. So Leka recruited a bunch of ringers and passed them off as Steam (NB: this may be why the lip-syncing in the above clip is so shaky), and the rest is one-hit-history.

Steam – Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye [YouTube] The Billboard Book Of No. 1 Hits: “Na Na Hey Hey” [Google Books]