R.E.M. - "What's the frequency, Kenneth ?"

There is a song by the band Game Theory on their 1987 album Lolita Nation called "Kenneth, what's the frequency ?" It was produced by Mitch Easter, who was also the producer for R.E.M. albums "Chronic Town", "Murmur", and "Reckoning". Coincidence ? Yes. Both song titles are related to an incident that occurred in 1986.
One October night of that year, CBS news anchor Dan Rather was walking down a Manhattan street when he was punched from behind and thrown to the ground. His assailant kicked and beat him while repeating, "Kenneth, what is the frequency ?" No one could explain the event, and the rumors flew fast and wide. "What's the frequency ?" and calling a clueless person a "kenneth" became trendy youth culture catch-phrases which is probably why Michael Stipe (vocals) wanted to use them, rather than out of interest for Rather. The incident also became a running joke on "The David Letterman Show". Rather had a good sense of humor about the whole event and later appeared on the show, singing the song with R.E.M. backing him.
In 1997, based on a tip from a psychiatrist, Rather's attacker was identified as William Tager. According to the psychiatrist, Tager, who is currently serving time for killing an NBC stagehand, blamed news media for beaming signals into his head, and thought if he could just find out the correct frequency, he could block those signals that were constantly assailing him. Hence the enigmatic inquiry.
As for the actual writing of the song, Peter Buck (guitars) explains : "Mike (Mills, bass) came up with the chords to "Kenneth," and I helped him rearrange them. It was weird, because I really couldn't get a handle on it at first. It's so circular, I couldn't tell the A from the B section. Michael was asking : "Where do I sing on this one ?" Then we simplified it, chopped out a couple of parts, including a bridge, and, as we accented the chords, the pieces began to fall into place".
"It slows down at the end. The truth is, Mike slowed down the pace and we all followed, and then I noticed he looked strange. We had to rush him to the hospital and it turned out he had appendicitis. So we never got back to re-recording it".
Available on the album "Monster"


Metallica - "Enter sandman"

"Enter Sandman" is the first song on the self titled "Metallica" album and it is "a one-riff song", according to Lars Ulrich (drums) : "The whole intro, the verse, the bridge, the chorus, all that stuff is the same riff.'' "Enter Sandman" was also the first song written for the album. Ulrich : "That's why it's the leadoff track. To me, it was 'Here's the new vibe gone right to the extreme'".
Apparently, the riff was created one night when Kirk Hammett (guitars) was drunk and picked up his guitar and started recording stuff on a tape recorder. Once the tape stopped, he went to sleep. James Hetfield (vocals and guitars) picked this up in the morning and heard the riff and got Hammett to play it again.
Concerning the guitar solo, Kirk Hammett (guitars) : "I started thinking, 'If Brian Robertson from Thin Lizzy played on this song, what would he play ?' With that mind-set, I started playing what I thought Brian Robertson would play on a song like that, and the entire guitar solo wrote itself ! You know how the guitar solo goes : it plays out, and then there's a lead guitar break that leads into a breakdown ? Here's where I actually got that lick : it's from "Magic Man" by Heart, but I didn't get it from Heart's version ; I got it from a cut off Ice-T's "Power" album, where he used it as a sample. I was listening to "Power" a lot while we were recording "Metallica", so I kept on hearing that lick. I thought, I have to sneak this ! I did change it around a bit, though !"
"Strangely" enough, after the US invaded Iraq in 2003, this was one of the songs they played over and over in sessions designed to break the will of Saddam Hussein's supporters.
Available on the album "Metallica"


The Smiths - "Some girls are bigger than others"

The curious fade in/out at the start of the song was apparently not made on purpose.
Indeed, engineers and producers often "spoil" mixes they send to record companies so they cannot be used. The most common way of doing this is by whacking the faders down to just below half (to throw to haywire the noise reduction systems) within the first 30 seconds - just as in this song. It means the client (in other words the record company) gets a good idea of the mix but also something totally unreleasable. Normally this is done to ensure payment for a track. The guess is that production on all aspects of the album was so behind schedule, and Rough Trade (The Smiths' record company) were in such a hurry to get it out, they didn't bother to check the master too thoroughly.
Available on the album "The Queen is Dead"


The Verve - "Bitter sweet symphony"

If you believe the credits in the CD booklet of "Urban Hymns" (on which you can find the song), the Verve neither wrote nor played on "Bitter Sweet Symphony". The composition is credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (though there is a little line that concedes : "Lyrics be Richard Ashcroft") and the song is "performed by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra". ABKCO Music, which controls the copyrights to the biggest hits in the Rolling Stones' Sixties song catalog, owns 100 per cent of the publishing rights to "Bitter Sweet Symphony."

Jagger and Richards did write part of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" – the guitar and vocal riffs in "The Last Time" that were rearranged in marginally recognisable, shlocko form for a mid-sixties Stone-on-strings album speciously credited to Oldham, the band's early manager. Ashcroft admits that, when he bought a copy of the original Oldham record a few years ago, he knew that the orchestrated "Last Time" lick could be "turned into something outrageous".

Ashcroft has paid dearly for his inspiration. Just as "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was about to be issued as a single, ABKCO Music head Allen Klein refused clearance of the sample. Jazz Summers, the Verve's co-manager, went to top Virgin Records brass in the US for help. Virgin vice chairman Nancy Berry played "Bitter Sweet Symphony" for Jagger and Richards, who reportedly liked the track but declined to get involved in the fracas.
Summers also sent a cassette of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" to Oldham, who now lives in Bogota. Summers : "Andrew Oldham sent me this fabulous note. He said, 'Fair cop ! Absolute total pinch ! You can see why ABKCO are rolling up their sleeves'". Klein finally approved clearance in what Summers now describes as "a fifty-fifty deal – fifty per cent Keith Richards and fifty per cent Mick Jagger".
"We sampled four bars" Ashcroft says of the Oldham-record riff. "That was on one track. Then we did forty-seven tracks of music beyond that little piece. We've got our own string players, our own percussion on it. Guitars. We're talking about a four-bar sample turning into "Bitter Sweet Symphony" – and they're still claiming it's the same song".

Nevertheless, Ashcroft has learned to live with the fact that "Bitter Sweet Symphony" is no longer his – legally anyway. He's called it the best song Jagger and Richards have written in twenty years." And he talks, keenly and at great length, about the genesis of "Bitter Sweet Symphony", about what he means by outrageous. "I wanted something that opened up into a prairie-music kind of sound, a modern day Ennio Morricone kind of thing. Then after a while, the song started morphing into this wall of sound. There are three or four vocals in there. It's like an outro to a Temptations record, except I'm the four guys in a row: the rhythm one underneath, the sex and violence voices, like a doo-wop thing".
Chris Potter (sound engineer for the album) on the whole process of recording the song : "It started with the infamous Andrew Loog Oldham loop which Peter (Salisbury, drums) and Simon (Jones, bass) played over the top of. That loop, just for the record, is very little. It's a basic chord progression and a couple of bongos, it's not the string riff. It's no big deal. Then we started laying down guitars and vocals and things. I remember we used quite a lot of loops. I think some of the guitars were looped guitars that start at the beginning of the track and end at the end of the track. We didn't have too much of a musical arrangement for it until quite late on. It hadn't been set in stone. A lot of things on this track go from beginning to end, playing all the way through on the tape, so we muted things in and out in order to get the musical arrangement. There are Nick (McCabe, guitars)'s guitar noises at the beginning. It was one of the first things he played on. He gets amazing things out of guitar feedback, that you've never heard before. He seems to be able to control it and when you think about what guitar feedback is, it's a really difficult thing to keep a rein on and make the tones and noises that you want to. He's really incredibly good at it, so that's what those swirly, seagull noises are. He also plays some Coral (electric) Sitar on this. I still hear things in this record and I can't quite put my finger what they are, and I know exactly what's on it, I mixed the bloody thing. You can hear the way that some things mingle against each other and some sounds sort of intertwine producing some other sound as a result. There's a lot of stuff on it, it was a bit of a kitchen sink job sometimes, this record. Some of the sounds only come in for odd moments here and there, the odd bar".
"It was the right first single from the album but when it was first talked about as first single I was quite surprised. We hadn't finished it at that point and it developed much further until in the end there wasn't really any other choice. The first single couldn't have been anything else".

Ashcroft: "It's beyond hiphop. With hiphop now, the trend is to leave the thing they've sampled as the hook, to sell more records. This song was old-school hiphop – take something but twist it into something else. Take it and use your imagination".
Available on the album "Urban Hymns"


Placebo - "Pure morning"

"Without You I'm Nothing" (Placebo's second album) was co-produced by Steve Osbourne, previously mixer for Happy Mondays and U2. Brian Molko (vocals and guitars) : "We wanted someone who had one foot in the dance camp, to texture our music in a slightly more modern way. Because, as most of our songs were written at soundchecks, the basic recording is quite straightforward, but there's also a lot of trickery involved".

The exception to the Osbourne-produced sessions is the song "Pure Morning", which grew from a spate of cutting new b-sides with Phil Vinall at London's Livingstone Studios when Placebo unwisely believed the album was dusted. Molko : "Pure morning didn't even exist before we went into the studio one morning. We worked up a loop - it came out of nowhere, really - and before the end of the day we had a song. I immediately thought it should be the first single". And it was indeed.

Available on the album "Without You I'm Nothing"


AC/DC - "Thunderstruck"

A lot of AC/DC's hooks are single string riffs where Angus Young (guitars) alternates between freted notes and playing the open string. Like "Thunderstruck" for example.
The famous intro/main theme for the song came from a warmup guitar exercise he learned for stretching his fingers. Angus Young : "I was just fiddling around with my left hand when I came up with that riff. I played it more by accident than anything. I thought 'not bad' and put it on tape". Sounds so easy...
When recording that part of the song, all of the other strings were taken off his guitar except for the B string (second thinnest) so that no accidental notes would be hit.
Available on the album "The Razor's Edge"


Green Day - "Homecoming"

Billie Joe Armstrong (vocals and guitars) wrote what was the first single of Green Day's last album to date, the song "American Idiot". He'd written a bunch of other songs too, but the band felt that this song was far better so it was like : "This is where we should start from". So they scrapped all of what they had done before. But the song "American Idiot" proved a hard fact to follow. Mike Dirnt (bass) found the solution : comic relief.
Tré Cool (drums) : "Mike was in the studio one day, and he wrote this 30-second song that was really funny and cool. It was basically a song about being alone in the studio. Then Billie came back and was like, 'Oh I want to do that', and he wrote a 30-second song and stuck that on the end of Mike's. Then they were like, 'Tré, you make one'. So then I made one, and then Mike made another one, and Billie made another one, and we kept that going until we had ten minutes of music. It started off funny and took more of a serious turn towards the end. We were trying to out-do each other and make it better than the one we did before".
Armstrong : "We kept connecting these little half-minutes bits until we had something. I wanted to have one great part after another - boom, boom, boom - all put together really well. It's a tricky thing to do and the transitions are really important".
Cool : "A lot of things came from the idea of writing a bunch of 30-second songs". One of those is of course the song "Homecoming", one of the two "rock operas" on the album that last for 9 minutes.
Available on the album "American Idiot"


4 Non Blondes "What's up"

Christa Hillhouse (bass) : "For a short time, Linda (Perry, singer and main songwriter) had quit her job and she was living with me in this little 2-bedroom flat in San Francisco. She wrote the song when she was in a room down the hall. I was in my bedroom having sex [!], and I stopped because I heard her playing that song. I remember running down the hall and saying, 'Dude, what are you playing? I like that.' We had a lot of rock, thrashy stuff back then, but Linda always would pull her ballads out. I remember being struck by it. She kept looking at me, going, 'Does this sound like something? Am I plagiarizing someone?" I said, 'Finish the song, it's beautiful.'".

The title is not in the lyrics. The chorus refrain is "What's Going On," but that's the name of a 1971 Marvin Gaye R&B classic, so they always called the song "What's Up".

Hillhouse: "For any song, people are going to try to read deliberate meaning into, but when Linda wrote the song, she was just sitting down the hall. We played guitar all the time, that's all we ever did. We practiced every day. I know people who think about formulas when they write a song or they think about structure - Linda has never lived that way. Linda's pretty organic in that way, she just sits down and starts singing what she's feeling. There is a difference between the songs she wrote then and the songs she writes now [she writes songs for the likes of Pink or Christina Aguilera]. She got to a point now where I think she is thinking about them structurally, but back then, she played acoustic guitar and all the songs she wrote she'd just sit there and here they'd come. A lot of people write like that. I write like that - a song is kind of there already and you're like the speaker. All of the sudden there's a song in my head and I don't know where it came from."

Hillhouse: "Recording that song was interesting. We recorded it with the rest of our album in Calabasas in Southern California with this producer, and Jimmy Iovine at Interscope heard the version we recorded with Interscope and then he heard the version we did on our demo take, and Jimmy Iovine liked the demo better. It was a cassette. He and Linda met, and then Linda came and said, 'We're going to re-record it.' I was like, 'Good,' because it got a little too foofed up in major production land - it softened it up and took something out of it. We went to Sausalito and recorded it separately in one day, raw, because Jimmy Iovine knew the demo version was better than the one we did with the producer and all the fancy equipment."

Hillhouse: "The song was an expression of something she was feeling, and it ended up being a pretty universal experience. There's just something there that's pure, that you almost can't define, and that's the thing. We were just living as honest a life as we could, and I think the music that came out of it had heart. I remember when she was writing the verses to What's Up, she knew it so well, she thought she heard it before. I think that's why the song connects with so many people. What she was feeling she was able to translate. If you look at the lyrics, they don't mean anything. It's the way the song makes certain people feel. In Europe, they don't speak English, but they know every broken-English word, and that song makes them feel something. I knew right when we played it, the song made the whole room feel this thing. It's a connection to humanity. Certain simple songs, that's what they do. There's an honesty there that breaks through that people can relate to. Then of course they played that song to death and a lot of people are really sick of it."
Available on the album "Bigger, Better, Faster, More"


Portishead - "Half day closing"

Adrian Utley (guitars, moog, song writer): "It took us two years to make this album because we got into a really bad hole after our first album and tour. We were miserable and blocked about what we were doing. I feel that 'Half Day Closing' got us out of that. We thought, 'Let's just do this; let's just finish something.'" [could there be a song having the same effect for their long awaited 3rd studio album?]
"It was a departure for us, really, because there are no samples on it -it's Geoff and me playing live. It was inspired by an album by the United States of America, from 1967 or '69. It's a psychedelic band that people tell us is quite obscure. We tracked up loads of weird Moog stuff over the top - weird noises and odd melodies. And we put Beth's vocals through a rotating organ cabinet called a Leslie. We just sort of tripped out, really".
Geoff Barrow (songwriter, decks, drummer): "It's kind of roughly based on an old psychedelic track from the United States of America, an old psychedelic band. It's really weird because I don't know musically how similar it is. I know it's styled on it. It's the only one I play drums all the way through in, which I was absolutely chuffed with, I've actually managed to play drums through a whole track. Rather than it being based on samples, that was the turning point of the record really because what we did is that Dave put up some channels, me and Ade went into the studio, I got on the drums Ade got on the bass and we recorded it start to finish. We usually use samples and stuff like that and spend ages on arrangements but literally we just went "okay let's record it" so we recorded this track and built it up like a normal guitar band would build up a track and mixed it like it as well. It's kind of like people will say it's a bit psychedelic or whatever but I don't know. We were just on that thing of nothing mattered, the whole Portsishead thing didn't matter. We were just going to enjoy recording a track - didn't matter what it sounded like, we were just going to bang it out and be noisy and not kind of rock noisy".
"It wasn't even going to be on the album it was just something to do to really be inspired by music again and feel like you're doing it for the enjoyment rather than you're doing it because of a business. And that's pretty much how it came together and it ended up on the album and its one of my favourite tracks".
Available on the album "Portishead"


The Calling - "Wherever you will go"

Alex Band (vocals and guitars) : "Me and Aaron (Karmin - guitars and co-songwriter) came up with it together, it was one of the first songs I've ever written, although we never finished it until a year later. We just came up with it while we were jamming on our acoustics one day. I never dreamed that from that simple riff it'd become this huge song [well, you, reader and listener, will make your own opinion on that slightly arbitrary comment!]. It's just a handful of chords really but that's often the best way. We've never set out to write complicated songs, and I don't think we ever will".
Available on the album "Camino Palmero"


Ryan Adams - "Shallow"

Does Ryan Adams listen to other people’s songs and deliberately steal ideas? Or try to play like them and then come up with his own variation? Ryan Adams : "Even when I’m trying to write in a vacuum and do something just based on a bass guitar line, I’ll find references to other songs. I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened. So instead of just avoiding them I go, ‘Oh this kinda reminds me of…’ I usually mean what I’m singing, and so I figure that’s the main point".
"Shallow" is Ryan Adams ripping off Oasis ripping-off T.Rex (who probably ripped-off some blues guy in the first place), complete with Liam Gallagher-style vocal and a lyric that apes ‘Roll With It’s’ "You gotta say what say don’t let anyone get in your way". Ryan : "Yeah. That’s totally my homage to Noel Gallagher and those guys. We had this T.Rex part and I thought it needed a middle eight, so I was gonna go total Oasis. ‘Cos there’s no point NOT doing it".
Ryan : "The record’s called ‘Rock N Roll’, so it really is me playing homage to all this rock’n’ roll music I’ve loved forever, so I didn’t care. Maybe some people won’t get the joke and they’ll say, ‘He’s just ripping people off left and right!’ It’s like, ‘NO ! – that’s the point!’"
Available on the album "Rock'n Roll"