Wednesday, August 26, 2015
TMFW 103 - Third Time's a Charm (Twice, for One-Hit Wonders)
[NOTE - Like TMFW 28, today's entry is really two related facts stuck together. And did you see the 3...2...1 thing I did in the title? Pretty clever, eh?]
My grandpa used to preach the value of persistence by telling me the story of Milton Hershey, whose first two candy companies failed before his third became world-famous and made him rich. Today's TMFW is two musical stories of "third time's a charm."
First up is the Norwegian band A-ha. You know them for their #1 hit (and all-time great song) "Take on Me." But you probably don't know that the song totally flopped on its first two releases and that it took a big gamble by the record company to finally make it big.
Here's the story. When A-ha was first in search of a record deal in the early 80s, they took an apartment in London and recorded some songs at a studio there. One of those was a first studio version of "Take On Me." After the band signed to Warner Brothers Records, a producer lightly remixed the tracks with an eye toward releasing music quickly. The label took that first version of "Take On Me," made a standard-issue "band plays the song" music video to go with it, and released the record and video in the UK and Norway in September 1984. Though it reached #3 in Norway, it flopped in the UK, selling less than 500 copies and failing to break the top-100.
Even in the face of that flop, Warner Brothers' team in the US was keen on the band, and so they sent them back into the studio to re-record the song with a new producer. That second version of the song is the one you know, and the label released it again in the UK in April 1985. But the London office of Warner Brothers didn't do much to promote the single, and the second release flopped too.
Even in the face of two failures with the same track, Warner Brothers committed a big pile of money to make a groundbreaking (and still cool 30 years later) music video for the song. The video used an animation technique called rotoscoping that required hand-tracing of over 3000 frames of film to create the combination of live-action and animation. It took four months to complete and cost $100,000.
When the video was ready, Warner Brothers released it to MTV in August 1985, a full month before they made the record available for purchase. The video got heavy airplay on MTV, and by the time the record showed up in stores it went to #1 in the US in just a few weeks. The rest of the world followed, and the record made #1 in 12 countries. It is remarkable to think that it took three releases for it to hit, and perhaps even more remarkable that the label was willing to take such an expensive bet on a song that had already failed twice. I am glad that they did.
Twelve years after "Take on Me," The Verve Pipe had their own version of A-ha's story, this time with three separate recordings of their big song.
The Verve Pipe was from East Lansing, Michigan, and made their name playing frequent and lively shows around the Michigan State campus and Detroit clubs. In 1992, they self-produced and released their first album I've Suffered a Head Injury, a 10-song LP that included as track 10 an acoustic song called "The Freshmen" (as a fun bonus, that link has a wonderful, random collection of pictures from a young man's freshman year at Michigan State in the mid-90s).
But shortly after the release of the 10-song record, and before it sold in any real quantity, the band formed a label and reshaped I've Suffered a Head Injury into a 7-song EP. One of the three songs that dropped off was "The Freshmen."
The band kept recording and building its following, and by 1995 they had signed a major label contract with RCA Records. Their first RCA release was the album Villains, which featured a totally new recording of "The Freshmen" as an album track. RCA released two singles from Villains - "Cup of Tea" and "Photograph" - but neither of them made the Hot 100 and it seemed that the band's first big record might not go anywhere.
For the third single off of Villains, the label chose "The Freshmen," but for reasons that I cannot figure out from my research they decided to record a brand new third version of the song and release that as the single rather than the actual track from the record. So there was a sort of bizarre moment where the record label was promoting an album with a song that wasn't even actually on the album.
But it worked. The third version of "The Freshmen" reached #5 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the US Alternative chart. After it hit, that final version was substituted in for the original album version of the song on subsequent pressings of Villains. It propelled the record to platinum status.
So there's your TMFW - and a life lesson - for today: if you believe in something enough, don't let failure, or even two failures, keep you down. (Caveat: unless your idea is stupid. Then just forget it.)
BONUS FACT: In late 1911, Milton Hershey planned a trip to Europe for his wife and himself. For their return trip, Hershey paid a $300 deposit to the White Star Line for a first-class cabin on the maiden voyage of their luxury ship the RMS Titanic. But business called Hershey back to the US three days early, and he and his wife ended up taking the German liner SS Amerika instead. Hershey lived another 33 years after the Titanic sank.
BONUS FACT 1.5: Remarkably, the SS Amerika (with Hershey aboard) spotted two big icebergs in the North Atlantic on April 14, 1912 and telegraphed their location to the U.S. "Hydrographic Office" at the Department of the Navy in Washington, D.C. But the Amerika did not have a strong enough transmitter to get the message all the way to land, so they relayed the message through a boat that did: the RMS Titanic and its state-of-the-art Marconi transmitter. Though the location of the icebergs was near the path of the Titanic, the message was passed right on through and the information never made it out of the"Marconi room" of the ship. The very next day, the Titanic hit a big iceberg in the North Atlantic and down she went.
BONUS FACT 2: The evolution of "Take On Me" is well more complex than simply three releases of two finished products. In fact, the hit single was actually the fifth version of the song. As this Sound on Sound entry details, the song started as the "Juicy Fruit Song" by the band Bridges, which featured A-ha's guitar player and keyboardist before they left to form A-ha. From there, it evolved to "Lesson One," a half-baked but more noticeably "Take On Me" rough cut by the full band. Next, the song grew into a full demo of the "Take On Me" that we know today. The two proper versions followed, with the fifth one finally hitting on the third release.
BONUS FACT 3: It's accurate to call A-ha "one-hit wonders" in the US, as they reached the top-40 only one other time in their career (hitting #20 with "The Sun Always Shines on TV," right on the heels of "Take on Me.") But in their native Norway, the story is different. The band has put out 10 albums, and 8 of them have reached #1 on the charts. They've had 17 top-10 singles, and 8 #1s. So the next time you are in Norway, be sure to show proper respect. Those guys are legends there.
BONUS FACT 4: When I was in college, one of the bands I played in (TMFW 82 subject The Meteors) covered "The Freshmen" for a freshman class dinner that we played. The song - being a supreme downer with no real hook that repeats itself for what feels like about 16 minutes from the stage - was an unmitigated disaster. That was the same show where we inexplicably tried to cover "Boot-Scootin' Boogie," which was equally bad.
BONUS OBSERVATION 4.5: But still: those were the days, man.