Song Writing

Intentionally Atrocious

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A selection of songs made to be terrible - some clearly achieved that goal.

Every now and then a musician or band makes a masterpiece purely by accident. It happened with Beck's "Loser," a throwaway gag meant to poke fun at his terrible rapping skills. It was only under pressure from his label that he released the song in the first place, and in one of those rare instances of the suits having more prescience than the artist, the song went on to jumpstart his career.

But then there's the opposite: awful songs made that way on purpose. These acts of self-sabotage can be done for a number of reasons, and they don't always hit their mark - you might actually like some of them.


"Cum on Feel the Noize" - Quiet Riot
1983

Many people (excluding, of course, the knowledgeable folks who visit Songfacts) would be surprised to learn that "Cum on Feel the Noize" was not an original Quiet Riot composition. No, it was first written and performed by the band Slade and released in 1973 on their album Sladest. This British glam rock band may not be a household name in the US, but across the pond they enjoyed a sizable level of success, topping the charts seven times in the UK. No word yet on if they ever plan to release a "best of" entitled Latest, Greatest, Sladest Hits.

Anyhow, back in the States, producer Spencer Proffer proffered the idea of Quiet Riot covering the song with hopes that it would break them big after nearly a decade of struggle. But the band was dead set against it.

Hair metal borrowed a lot from 1970s glam rock but Quiet Riot was decidedly uninterested in appropriating. They were going to forge a new path. Also, lead singer Kevin Dubrow wanted to write all the songs (or at least the hits) himself, which is much more lucrative.

To appease Proffer, Quiet Riot told him they were working on it, planning to placate the producer until he dropped the idea. That plan failed when Proffer scheduled studio time to record the track, but the band figured they would play it so badly it would be deemed unusable. Guitarist Carlos Cavazo, bass player Rudy Sarzo and drummer Frankie Banali warned the engineer about the impending sonic mishap, but when he rolled tape, they were far from hapless.

"I just started playing what became the intro," Banali told Songfacts. "Rudy joined in, and then Carlos joined in. Kevin was sitting at the corner of the studio, just giggling, waiting for this massive train wreck, and the train wreck never happened."

These guys were seasoned pros, so when they started playing, instinct kicked in and even without rehearsing, they got something worthwhile. They had accidentally sabotaged their plan to sabotage themselves. It was Inception if Inception was about purposefully making bad songs.

"Kevin grabbed me by the arm and almost dislocated my shoulder," Banali said of Dubrow's reaction. "He says, 'What the hell was that?' And I said, 'I don't know man. I just started playing it!'"

Banali told Dubrow to just tank his vocal track, but the singer gave in and delivered. Proffer was pleased. "Cum on Feel the Noize" became Quiet Riot's biggest hit and helped send the Metal Health album to #1 in America.




"A Musical Joke" - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
1787

Anyone familiar with Mozart knows that lewdness, irreverence, and infantile behavior went hand in hand with his incomparable musical skills. That said, Mozart's negative attributes could be a bit hard to swallow. And you will see that the pun is definitely not intended when we talk about his bawdier songs. Take, for instance, his 1782 composition "Leck Mic him Arsch." This canon in six voices is probably unfamiliar to you because, to our knowledge it has never appeared on any classical music "best of" albums. Not that the classical music community frowns on canons, mind you, but because the English translation of the song is "Lick My Ass."

He even made a sort of "sequel," if you will, entitled "Leck Mir den Arsch fein recht schon sauber." Think of the previous title, then add, "until it is nice and clean."

The lyrics in Mozart's scatological song are more horrific than the title - we will leave that up to your imagination. Suffice to say that Amadeus should probably have been named "Ama-Deuce."

So yes, Mozart was definitely not the type to take classical music seriously, and he was the first to poke fun at the conventions of the form. But not all of his comedic songs were so on the nose. (Again, pun definitely not intended.) For example, his entry on this list, "Ein Musikalischer Spass," was definitely an intentionally atrocious song, but it has a depth and complexity to it that transcends not only the other songs on the list but also his scheiss-related works. Translated into "A Musical Joke," this piece was intended to satirize his contemporaries whom he deemed incompetent.

The song is filled with intentionally discordant music. Movements are started in the wrong key, fugatos are flubbed, subdominants are thrown out in favor of less aurally appealing secondary dominants, and the strings are completely out of tune with the horns. But interestingly, this stab at his peers is one of the earliest recorded uses of polytonality, essentially using more than one key at the same time, which was quite ahead of its time and came to be legitimate more than a century after Mozart's time when modernist composers like Stravinsky and Debussy began to explore and transcend the boundaries of classical music. Nowadays some of the greatest musical compositions use polytonality to great effect, despite Mozart doing it just to make a joke. Impressively, with "A Musical Joke," Mozart came up with something quite complex, advanced, and even fascinating.

There are also those who say that this much more refined and G-rated stab at humor belies a depth that goes beyond merely being a very interesting technical piece. Many critics, in addition to acknowledging that Mozart is poking fun at parochial musicians who lacked his prodigious skill, also point out that he is simultaneously taking the piss out of the musicians of his era that were being overly adherent to the rules of classical music. Interpreted this way, one sees that the composition is very stringently structured to fit the conventions of the day. It is a commentary on the rote, uncreative expression of musicians who receive a formal education and refuse to paint outside the lines. This is largely achieved by the repetitious nature of the piece.

We should stress that Mozart never outright said one way or another who or what he was parodying with "Ein Musikalischer Spass" - these theories came later. It is clear that the composition was made with the intent of sounding resoundingly unpleasant.


"(Let's Dance) The Screw" - The Crystals
1963

This is one of the more notable appearances because "(Let's Dance) The Screw" was never released to the public. Despite that, this is by all accounts a song created with the specific intent of being unlistenable.

In 1961, Phil Spector teamed up with fellow producer Lester Sill to form their own label - Philles Records (Phil + Les). A few years in, Spector was sending groups like The Righteous Brothers and The Ronettes to the top of the charts while Sill's output was considerably less successful. Spector felt he was earning less than his share, so he orchestrated a split from Sill. "(Let's Dance) The Screw" was Spector's kiss-off.

In January of 1963, the most popular act under the Philles umbrella was The Crystals, famous for such massive hits as "Then He Kissed Me," "Da Doo Ron Ron," and other songs that were seemingly written for Martin Scorcese to put in his films. But for "The Screw," Spector set out to make a song terrible enough to torment Sill. The title is a thinly veiled acknowledgement that he is indeed screwing his former business partner.

The Crystals sound unenthused and lifeless in the recording. Spector appears on the song too, repeating "Dance the Screw" over and over again, sounding not just lifeless but soulless. What passes for a chorus in the song is the word "dance" repeated over, and over, and over, and over. To listen to all six minutes of the song is to know what self-flagellation is. The B-side isn't any better - it's essentially the same song, listed as "(Let's Dance) The Screw - Part II."

The song was never foisted on the public. The words "D.J. Copy – Not For Sale" were stamped on the original pressing. A copy of the recording was indeed given to Sill, but very few other copies were ever made, making it the vinyl version of an elaborate middle finger.




Metal Machine Music - Lou Reed
1975

It is one thing to make an intentionally atrocious song. But to fill an entire album with unlistenable drivel? That takes the work of a special kind of soul, and few souls were as special as the late Lou Reed.

In 1975 Lou Reed was already on his way to becoming a legend of sorts. He had made waves with the Velvet Underground, had an album produced by David Bowie, and even charted a hit, "Walk on the Wild Side." Seemed he was ready for something big.

What he delivered was Metal Machine Music, a double album of essentially nothing but distorted guitar feedback.

Why would Reed release something like this? There are quite a few theories. Many say that, in 1975, Reed was becoming concerned with his public image. Namely, the fact that he had a public image, which put him just one step away from being, gasp, a pop star. The success of the Bowie-produced Transformer, the album that brought him into the popular consciousness with "Walk on the Wild Side" and "Perfect Day," might have been too accessible for Lou's taste, and that is what might have caused him to want to reassert his own obscurity. This would make MMM akin to Bob Dylan's Self Portrait, where Dylan tried to slough off the shackles that came with being a voice of his generation along with his folk trappings.

Still others have speculated that the album came about due to Reed's famed penchant for speed. He did the recording himself with no producer and no studio. Instead, Reed took some amps and some open-tuned guitars, placed them in different positions, then moved them around as he saw fit all alone in his apartment, just himself and enough speed to kill an elephant. According to this theory, it's an album for speed freaks.

And then there are many respectable critics who consider MMM an avant-garde masterpiece crafted by a brilliant mind at its peak. It should be noted that many of these critics are more enamored with the concept of the album than the end product, but such is the case with a great deal of true art.

So what was the purpose behind MMM? Was it Reed's bid to escape his record contract? Was it a purposeful thumbing of the nose at those that would pigeonhole him as a pop sensation? Or was it an avant-garde masterpiece that was ahead of its time, making him more akin to a modern day Mozart, taking the polyphonic reins and making the musical equivalent of licking an Arsch? We may never know, but we're sure it belongs on this list.




Everybody's Rockin' - Neil Young
1983

"I'm not the kind of artist that you can tell what to play and what not to play," Neil Young said after being sued by his record company, Geffen.

After releasing the R&B-leaning album Re·ac·tor on Reprise in 1981, Young signed with Geffen, home of Donna Summer and Quarterflash. His first release on the label was Trans, which went in a techno-pop direction. For the follow-up, Young recorded a bunch of country songs, but Geffen balked, telling him they would allow just one country song per album. They pushed him to make a rock album - something that would sell. Like Quarterflash.

Bad move. Young mocked this directive by delivering Everybody's Rockin', a rockabilly album with just 25 minutes of music that was released in July 1983. Drenched in reverb, it comes off as a parody of '50s music. On the cover, Young wears a Pink suit and strikes a Chuck Berry pose. It's clearly a joke. Here's a sample lyric from one of the five original songs, "Kinda Fonda Wanda":

Well, I went out with Jenny
Took out Skinny Minnie
Long Tall Sally
And short fat Fanny
But I'm kinda fonda Wanda


Geffen, which was paying Young $1 million per album, retaliated by suing him in November, claiming he was making albums that were "not commercial in nature" and "musically uncharacteristic" of his previous material. Young countersued and threatened to deliver nothing but country music for the duration of his contract.

In April 1985 both sides came to an agreement, with Young's fee reduced to $500,000 per album. He issued three more albums on Geffen before heading back to Reprise, where his first release was the bluesy This Note's for You in 1988.




"The Chicken in Black" - Johnny Cash
1984

The Man in Black was always a renegade. He stood up against the establishment many times, like when he sang about being stoned in "Sunday Morning Coming Down," or when he played to inmates at Folsom Prison. But one of his lesser-known acts of defiance came when he recorded "The Chicken in Black."

Poking fun at his own mystique and his former hit "The Man in Black," this song came in 1984, a down time in Cash's career. The 1980s were not kind to country outlaws, save for Willie Nelson. Cash was rather prolific during the decade, but none of his albums cracked the Billboard 200. The folks at his label, Columbia, were far more interested in their rock and pop artists - Bruce Springsteen, Wham!, Journey and Billy Joel to name a few - and put little marketing muscle behind Cash, even though he was one of their biggest acts of the '60s and '70s.

Cash took out his frustrations in "The Chicken In Black," the story of a country legend who receives a brain transplant. His body gets the brain of a famous bank robber (the "Manhattan Flash") while his own brain is put into a chicken. The corporeal Cash keeps trying to perform onstage but ends up robbing people. The chicken becomes a star.

In his own autobiography (his second one) Cash claimed he made the song "intentionally atrocious" in order to gall Columbia and help him escape the record label limbo they had left him in. But he may have disavowed the song retroactively. according to Ian Crouch at the New Yorker, Cash liked it, and hoped it would get him back on the charts.

The single stalled at #45 on the Country chart; his big comeback would have to wait until 1994 when Rick Rubin produced his American Recordings album. When MTV finally noticed him, it was not for his antics in the "Chicken In Black" video, but for his stark and stunning performance in "Hurt."

-Landon McQuilkin
February 8, 2018

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Comments: 3

  • Ray Anselmo from Stockton, CaThere's a persistent rumor that David Bowie made his Berlin albums and "Scary Monsters" purposefully esoteric in order to deny royalty money to his manager at the time - then as soon as he was out of that contract churned out the more commercially friendly "Let's Dance" and "Tonight." Of course, it was Bowie, so even his "uncommercial" stuff included "Sound and Vision," "Heroes," "Ashes to Ashes" and plenty of other great songs.
  • Jim from Mobile, AlYou missed one. Jeff Beck Doing "Love is Blue", a veritable masterpiece of cacophany
  • Groovus Maximus from Boston, MaGreat piece, Landon! Superbly written with sharp wit, humor and insight -- I found it fascinating! It's funny, too, about Quiet Riot -- even though they tried to sabotage the session, and DuBrow HATED the song with a passion, it actually came out a treat and to this day remains one of my all-time favorite "hair metal" tracks bar none! It's also (as you point out) the song that basically put them on the map & led to bigger royalty checks for Kevin & the boyz... ROCK ON!
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