Some artists spend years working on a single song, perfecting their lyrics and arranging each and every note with meticulous detail—from the opening guitar chord to the final crash of the cymbal. Then there are other musicians who fall backwards into success thanks to a random chain of events. Sometimes those songs stay isolated within a musician’s catalogue; other times, they burst into the world as stratospheric singles. Here are 10 of the best songs that became hits on accident.
1. Tommy James & the Shondells, “Mony, Mony”
Picture this: You’ve got all the makings of a hit song. A groovin’ beat, catchy hook, and both handclaps and group vocals that are easy to sing along with. All you need is a title. That was the situation Tommy James found himself in while his band was recording the as-yet-unnamed “Mony, Mony.” Fortunately, inspiration struck when the group went outside to take a break. From James himself:
“True story: I had the track done before I had a title. I wanted something catchy like ‘Sloopy’ or ‘Bony Maroney,’ but everything sounded so stupid. So Ritchie Cordell and I were writing it in New York City, and we were about to throw in the towel when I went out onto the terrace, looked up and saw the Mutual of New York building (which has its initials illuminated in red at its top). I said, ‘That’s gotta be it! Ritchie, come here, you’ve gotta see this!’ It’s almost as if God Himself had said, ‘Here’s the title.’ I’ve always thought that if I had looked the other way, it might have been called ‘Hotel Taft.’”
Bonus: When James & the Shondells’ producer Bo Gentry accidentally inserted a copy of their song “I Think We’re Alone Now,” backwards in his reel-to-reel tape player, everyone thought it sounded great in reverse, too. They took the reverse chord progression and turned it into “Mirage,” which eventually became a Top 10 singl.
2. Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
This might be the only song to come about because of a deodorant. One day, Kurt Cobain returned home to find his friend Kathleen Hanna, of the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, had spray painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the wall. While she was just doing so to imply Cobain smelled like his then-girlfriend, fellow Bikini Kill member Tobi Vail, who wore a brand of deodorant called “Teen Spirit,” Cobain thought it meant something much more revolutionary and used it for the title of his new song.
That song, which really was a series of happy accidents, served as an anthem for the entire grunge generation. Cobain later said the entire song was him trying to rip off the Pixies, and the lyrics are just “making fun of the thought of having a revolution.” Cobain also called the intro riff clichéd, suggesting it sounded like Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” or “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen. When he brought the main riff and chorus vocal melody to the rest of Nirvana, they didn’t like it;bassist Krist Novoselic dismissed it as “ridiculous.” After Cobain made the band play the intro for an hour and a half, they finally came around. When the song became a huge hit, Cobain realized that playing the same thing all the time can get on a person’s nerves, so he’d sometimes play “More Than a Feeling” during concert to lead into “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
3. Otis Redding, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”
A musical departure for Redding, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is probably his most well known song. Part of that is due to its heartfelt lyrics, and there’s a certain mystique around the song, which was recorded just days before Redding’s tragic death in a plane crash at the age of 26.
The song is also a big hit thanks to the whistling melody as the song fades out. According to Steve Cropper, a frequent collaborator and co-writer and producer of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” the whistle was a happy accident. As he did in several other songs, Redding was going to include a short, ad-lip rap as the song faded out, but he forgot what it was so he simply whistled instead. The first take suggests Redding’s whistling game could use a little work, and the whistling part was actually re-recorded after his death, but it still remains an iconic part of the song.
4. The Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”
In 1982, the Eurythmics-consisting Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart-were barely two years old, but after mismanagement of their first record, they were in between labels and forced to record in the attic of a warehouse. Quite the cozy little studio!
Being in cramped quarters eventually took its toll on the duo, and Lennox threatened to leave. Stewart’s response? “Okay, fine, you don’t mind if I go ahead and program the drum computer then, do you?” And right there, on the brink of breaking up, Stewart created a masterpiece…by accidentally reversing a synthesized bass line. It sounded so good, in fact, that Lennox pulled herself together and laid down a synth line on her keyboard, all while improvising vocals and lyrics in one take. Turns out sweet dreams are actually made from constant bickering.
5. The Surfaris, “Wipe Out”
Remember when you were assigned a school project growing up, and even if you had two months to do it, you’d almost inevitably find yourself waiting until the last minute to get it done? While most of us who throw something together are lucky to scrape by with a “B-minus” grade, The Surfaris got a No. 2 hit out of their last minute panic.
The garage band, whose average age was 15, had already seen enough local success that they were able to acquire a manager. After the band’s drummer shared a song that had come to him in a dream, the manager booked them in a small studio in Cucamonga, Calif. They finished recording “Surfer Joe” and began celebrating, because, hey, recording a song is a pretty cool accomplishment at any age, let alone doing it before you can legally drive. That’s when the producer at the studio asked what they’d be recording on the B-side of the record. With zero preparation, the drummer started pounding out a beat, which turned out to just be a faster version of what the drum line played in the high school marching band. The rest of the group ad-libbed around it, the guitarist’s dad supplied the “surfboard” sound by breaking a plaster-soaked board he found in the alley, the manager added the laugh and introduction, and within six months the song was everywhere. That sure beats whatever science project you cooked up the night before it was due.
6. Prince, “Kiss”
Not only did Prince know how to write killer songs for himself, he also took other bands under his wing and gave them great material, too. Morris Day’s can thank Prince for some of his biggest hits with The Time and Apollonia 6. Mazarati was another one of those bands, for about 24 hours. When Prince was initially composing “Kiss,” it had more of a folk-country sound than anything he had done before, so he brought it to Mazarati for them to record. The group was not impressed with what they heard, and they all worked on it for a day, calling it a night believing they still had quite a bit of work to do.
The following morning, engineer David Z returned to find Prince adding guitar and vocals to the track. When asked what he was doing, Prince said, “This song is too good for you guys. I’m taking it back.” He actually ended up removing huge chunks of the song; only vocals, guitar and a drum machine remained after he finished cutting everything down to just nine tracks. For comparison, most songs have more than nine tracks in the vocal section alone.
Prince brought his finished song to his label, Warner Bros., who commented that the song sounded like a demo. In no uncertain terms, Prince said that was the song they were getting no matter what— fortunately the label relented and “Kiss” became a massive hit that still gets tons of airplay today, despite initially being dismissed by the label, a band, and Prince himself.
7. The Buckinghams, “Kind of a Drag”
The Buckinghams were one of those groups that seemed to be on top of the world – bursting onto the scene with “Kind of a Drag” in 1967. A few short years later, they had dissolved (though they did eventually reform with other members and continue touring to this day).
And if not for a go-go dancer named Susie Creamcheese, the group might not have had any hits. Jim Holvay, who wrote most of the band’s songs, first showed them “Kind of a Drag,” based on a girl he had been dating but who didn’t love him back. That girl was Susie, and every time they broke up, Holvay penned another hit to add to the heartbreak saga [“Don’t You Care,” “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song),” “Susan”]. They say misery loves company, so hopefully Holvay felt some delight in sharing his broken heart and tears with the world.
8. Beastie Boys, “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)”
“(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)/” is one of the most popular songs out there about rebellion. Who among us hasn’t dreamed about sticking it to authority, neglecting all responsibilities and just partying? Don’t count the Beastie Boys among that group, though. Both the song and video are poking fun at the mindless party anthems of the time (we can’t even imagine how they feel about the current barrage of party music out there), written by the band as an inside joke before going on tour. Before the Beastie Boys could pull a Rainier Wolfcastle and explain, the video had taken over MTV, and fans across the world were expressing their desire to party. To get back at the mindless sheep playing their music unironically, the Beastie Boys publicly renounced the song and didn’t play it live for nearly 30 years. That’ll show ‘em.
9. Blackstreet, “No Diggity”
Whether you like or dislike the way a particular someone works it, you’ve certainly heard “No Diggity.” It went platinum and reached the No. 1 spot on six different charts around the world—pretty impressive for a song that nobody liked. Co-producer and member of Blackstreet Teddy Riley offered the song to a number of different artists, all of whom passed on it, before finally bringing it to Blackstreet. And even then, the song wasn’t warmly received. According to Riley:
“None of the guys liked ‘No Diggity.’ None of them. They would even say it. That’s why I’m singing the first verse…You know how they say they pushed the little one out there to see if it tastes good and see if he would get egged? Well they pushed me out there—and it became a hit. And now they wish they were singing the first verse, so that they can have the notoriety like me. So [now] they trust what I’m saying…”
10. Alt-J, “Left Hand Free”
Do you ever listen to the radio and think, “Wow, this song seems like it was slapped together in about 20 minutes?” Perhaps you were even listening to “Left Hand Free” by the English band alt-J, which was written in about 20 minutes. The band, goofing around in the studio one day, decided to create “the worst Alt-J song ever” by expanding on a joke riff guitarist and lead vocalist Joe Thomas had shown them. Drummer Thom Green aimed to make the drums “as clichéd as possible” without any of his personality in it, and Thomas said that the phrase “gee whizz,” which he says in the song, is something he’s never uttered before, but imagines it “appealing to American truckers with Good Riddance To Bin Laden stickers.” Naturally, the American label responded favorably to the track, and the group had a big hit on their hands in the States.