Famous First Takes
Prior to the 1940s, of course, the overwhelming majority of recordings were ‘first take’ – the technology didn’t exist to make multiple takes either easy or remotely affordable. Mess up a recording and that’s that, new lacquer and once more from the top. Not ‘first take’ every time, then, but always ‘single take’.
And then once re-recording and overdubbing became commonplace, it became desirable - virtuous, even - to spend as long committing one’s artistic vision to tape as one could get away with. But you can’t bottle lightning/should trust your instincts/leave well enough alone every now and then. Sometimes magic visits only fleetingly, and when it does you’d better have that tape rolling. Here are five songs that could only have worked first time…
The Beatles Twist and Shout (1963)
The Beatles needed to record 10 more songs for their debut album Please Please Me – they would be added to the four they’d already recorded and that made up their first two singles.
Producer George Martin booked morning and afternoon sessions at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios (in the end an evening session was added too, even though Martin’s budget was tight and the entire day ended up costing almost £400), and on Monday 11th February 1963 (at 10am sharp) The Beatles began working their way through what was basically their live set. By 10.40pm they were ready to record their version of The Isley Brothers’ version of, Twist and Shout – George Martin knew they only had one shot, and not only because it was nearly knocking-off time. John Lennon’s throat was sore, thanks to both 12 hours in the studio and his customary head-cold, so he basically sang, screamed and shouted his way through the song on its first take. They had another pass at the song immediately afterwards, but take two was quickly discarded. And because the world was different then, the next day the band played two shows - one in Oldham and one in Sheffield.
Aretha Franklin I Say a Little Prayer (1968)
Not the first song written by a third party that Franklin would take complete ownership of and certainly not the last, I Say a Little Prayer was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David during their Imperial phase of hit-making. They wrote it for the prodigious Dionne Warwick and she took it to the Top 5 in the Billboard singles charts in December 1967. Fast-forward less than six months and Franklin’s version is in the Top 10 of the same charts, and for no other reason than Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler heard Franklin and her background singers The Sweet Inspirations fooling around with the song during rehearsals for the Aretha Now album. He insisted they get into a studio with some musicians, and the track was recorded in a single take. “It’s a better record than the record we made”, acknowledged Bacharach in 2010, “it’s just more natural”.
Bruce Springsteen Born in the USA (1984)
Famously misinterpreted (not least by Ronald Reagan*), Born in the USA was originally a voice-and-acoustic-guitar song that was recorded in January 1982 for Springsteen’s upcoming Nebraska album.
It was felt the song didn’t fit the rest of the Nebraska material, though, and was shelved until Springsteen revived it later in 1982 and recorded it in a full E Street Band arrangement. The arrangement was made up on the spot, with each member of the band adding their improvised part with the original acoustic recording acting as the ‘guide’. Once every contribution (including vocal) had been recorded, the band had another pass at the song as an ensemble. And it’s this take, of a song still not formally arranged, that constituted the title track of Springsteen’s enormo-selling 1984 album.
(*Reagan, out on the re-election trail in New Jersey during September 1984, stated “America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about”. Springsteen, displaying a great deal more class and restraint than many in his position might have mustered, replied in December that year “and you see the Reagan re-election ads on TV – you know, ‘it’s morning in America’. And you say, well, it’s not morning in Pittsburgh. It’s not morning on 125Street in New York. It’s midnight… and that’s why when Reagan mentioned my name in New Jersey, I felt it was another manipulation, and I had to disassociate myself from the president’s kind words”)
Radiohead No Surprises (1997)
Radiohead wrote No Surprises in August 1995 while supporting R.E.M. on the American band’s Monster world tour, and it was the first song they attempted on the first day of sessions for 1997’s OK Computer album. And that first take is the version that appeared on the album, despite (according to vocalist Thom Yorke) “endless versions afterwards - they were all just covers of the first version, so we gave up and went back to the original”.
Apparently, No Surprises is an attempt at a ‘stadium-friendly’ song, a pop song with a lullaby for a chorus. But as Yorke has it, “if you play it right it is fxxxing dark. But it’s like acting, it’s on the edge of totally hamming it up”.
Gnarls Barkley Crazy (2006)
A Grammy Award-winning recording, the first song ever to top the UK singles charts on the strength of download sales alone, a record deleted by its creators after just a couple of months so people would “remember the song fondly and not get sick of it” - and with a powerhouse vocal performance recorded in one take. Not only that, a vocal performance that constituted the first time singer Cee Lo Green had ever seen the words or attempted to sing the song - he’s holding the lyrics on a piece of paper as his performance is committed to tape. And despite the song being leaked online months ahead of its official availability, Crazy spent nine weeks at the summit of the UK singles chart and helped the St. Elsewhere album of which it’s part shift well in excess of a million copies.