One of the strangest #1 hits in history, this song was written as a throwaway B-side, but became a cultural phenomenon used for years to come as a musical goodbye.
The song was written by Gary DeCarlo, Dale Frashuer and Paul Leka, who had been in a band together called the Chateaus in the early '60s. One of the unfinished songs they wrote as the Chateaus was a tune called "Kiss Him Goodbye," which they worked on in 1961.
In 1968, Leka co-wrote and co-produced the song "Green Tambourine
," which was a huge hit for The Lemon Pipers. The following year, he started working with DeCarlo, who was using the stage name Garrett Scott. Working for Mercury Records, they set to work writing singles for "Garrett Scott," recording four songs, which Leka produced. The first one released was "Working On A Groovy Thing," which was written by Roger Atkins and Neil Sedaka. The 5th Dimension also recorded the song and released it first, which tanked the Garrett Scott version (The 5th Dimension recording made #20 US; Patti Drew recorded the song a year earlier, taking it to #62).
The next single planned for DeCarlo was "Sweet Laura Lee," a ballad written by Larry Weiss, composer of "Rhinestone Cowboy
." Needing a B-side, Leka and DeCarlo went back to the studio, where they were joined by their old bandmate Dale Frashuer, who suggested they use their 1961 song "Kiss Him Goodbye." That song didn't have a chorus, so Leka wrote one, lazily using "na na"s instead of actual words. They started the session around 7 p.m. and finished at 5 a.m., but when they emerged, they had the completed song.
When Bob Reno, the A&R man at Mercury, heard the song, he loved it and didn't want to waste it as a B-side. He needed singles for the Mercury subsidiary Fontana Records, so the song was released on that label and credited to the group Steam (named because after the session to record it, the guys were crossing 7th Ave and a subway train went beneath the roadway, shooting steam up from a manhole).
From there, the story gets convoluted, but when the single was released it became a surprise hit. Another song called "Now That I Love You" was used instead on the Garrett Scott "Sweet Laura Lee" single, which went nowhere when it was released. DeCarlo had a huge hit on his hands, but not as a solo artist but as part of an anonymous group.
The most-repeated story is that the three writers were embarrassed about "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," so they created the name Steam to hide their identities. DeCarlo told Songfacts, however, that he was never embarrassed by the song, and that he was promised more of the action. "I was supposed to be the singer and road act for 'Na Na' as it was my B-side," he said. "When Paul and the company got together they decided to split the record, meaning there would be two out. Paul said I would be able to do both as Garrett Scott, which I was later told I had no group. Paul said he would get me a group from a booking agency in New York, which never happened. 'Na Na' was never done with a group in mind, it was the B-side of my single. The name Steam wasn't invented until the album was being done."