Inside track: the stories behind some of pop's greatest hits

In an exclusive extract from a new book, record producers provide their insight

Rihanna, Umbrella, 2007

The "Umbrella" demo was recorded in around 25 minutes, and the composition team knew they had a hit – a hit for Britney Spears. When her management rejected it, Tricky Stewart and The-Dream then offered the track to British singer-songwriter Taio Cruz. It was after Cruz's record company also turned it down that Stewart and The-Dream offered the song to Rihanna... as well as Mary J. Blige.

Rihanna told Blender magazine. "I said, 'I need this record. I want to record it tomorrow'." Tricky Stewart recalled, "The song was anointed as a smash before we even cut the record. Then, when we did cut the record at Westlake in Los Angeles, L.A. Reid was on the speakerphone because he wanted to hear Rihanna do 'Ella, ella, eh, eh'. He was like, 'She can't change a thing. She's got to sing it exactly like on the demo'.

"When Rihanna came in, she really nailed it. Her voice and that record were a match made in heaven. The session lasted maybe two-and-a-half hours, and during that time she gave us about eight takes that we comped together.

"As it turned out, she was the perfect vehicle for our quirky little song and quirky little sound that was going to take over the airwaves for the next five years. For me, she has become the number one person to call if you have a hit song and want someone to deliver it to the world."

The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead, 1986

With the band's backing tracks complete, it was time to track the vocals. Morrissey rarely sang along with the band, preferring to lay down his vocal immediately afterwards. "He recorded his vocals in the live room, screened off so no one could see him, and two or three takes were all he needed," Stephen Street said. "The guy could perform. He'd get himself vibed up and just go out there and do his takes. I'd have a little check-sheet with the lyrics, and I'd make notes regarding which were the good takes and which were the slightly dodgy parts. But to be honest with you, within two or three takes we'd have everything we needed from him. He was fantastic. In fact, the things that really turned the song around were getting Morrissey's vocal on there and Johnny's great feedback."

Madonna, Like a Virgin, 1984

"She is smart, very capable and very focused," Jason Corsaro said. "She made sure that everything went exactly how she wanted it to, and while some people maybe thought it was pushy, I just thought it was powerful.

"She was determined for the record to be successful and she made no bones about it. She was there all the time, making sure everything was going right. If someone played a part she didn't like she'd make it clear and tell him how she wanted it. She had her say, and nothing went by without her hearing it.

"Madonna was very specific about what she wanted. For instance, Nile [Rodgers] was really interested in playing a different style of guitar, and Madonna said, 'I don't want that. I want what you played on Chic.' He said, 'But I've already done that,' and she said, 'I want you to do it again.' So, that's what he did. If it was up to him he probably would have played things a little differently, but that's what she wanted and that's what she got. Madonna wasn't a taskmaster, but in those days people often fooled around and had a lot of fun, and she would say, 'Time is money and the money is mine. Let's get to work'."

Kate Bush, Wuthering Heights, 1978

"In the case of 'Wuthering Heights' she was imitating this witch, the mad lady from the Yorkshire Moors, and she was very theatrical about it. She was such a mesmerising performer – she threw her heart and soul into everything she did – that it was difficult to ever fault her or say, 'You could do better'," Jon Kelly recalled.

"You couldn't keep Kate away from the sessions even if you had wild dogs and bazookas. She was just drinking it all up, learning everything that went on. The first moment she walked into the control room, I could tell that's where she wanted to be; in control of her own records. She was astute, and she was also phenomenally easy to work with.

"In the final analysis, Kate's talent would shine through anything." Which is precisely what happened when she re-recorded her "Wuthering Heights" vocal late one night, doing two or three takes from which Andrew Powell chose the best. "There was no compiling," Kelly confirmed. "It was a complete performance. We started the mix at around midnight and Kate was there the whole time, encouraging us," Kelly remembered. "You couldn't deny her anything. So we got on with the job and finished at about five or six that morning."

Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA, 1984

Writer-director Paul Schrader asked Springsteen to write the title track for a movie about a blue-collar bar band. Having turned down the lead role subsequently given to Michael J. Fox, Springsteen decided to keep "Born in the USA" for himself.

"In those days, Bruce had a particular way of teaching the band a new song. He would not play it for them from the beginning to the end; he would teach them the different parts of the song, and not necessarily in the order that they appeared," recalled Toby Scott.

"He'd ask, 'Everybody got that?' and if they did he'd say, 'OK, we're going to start with the second part I showed you and then go to part number four. We'll play that twice, and then we'll go to part number one before going back to part four, then on to part three, back to number four, back to number one, then part number three again, then four, one, one and we'll ride out on one…' They'd be like, 'Huh?' and he'd go, 'Alright, you want to run through it?'"

What he wanted to capture were those moments of inspiration, born of unfamiliarity, that he hoped would emerge during the early takes.

The Rolling Stones, Start Me Up, 1981

"After they cut it, I said, 'That's bloody great! Come and listen'," said Chris Kimsey. "However, when I played it back Keith said, 'Nah, it sounds like something I've heard on the radio. Wipe it.' Of course, I didn't, but he really did not like it and I'm not sure whether he likes it to this day. I don't think it's one of his favourite songs, although it's obviously everyone's favourite guitar riff; his guitar riff. Maybe because Keith loves reggae so much, he wanted it to be a reggae song, but that wasn't to be.

"Including run-throughs, 'Start Me Up' took about six hours to record. You see, if they all played the right chords at the right time, went to the chorus at the right time and got to the middle eight together, that was a master. It was like, 'Oh, wow!' Don't forget, they would never sit down and work out a song – they would jam it and the song would evolve out of that. That's their magic."

Classic Tracks by Richard Buskin is published by Sample Magic on 6 December (www.samplemagic.com)

This article appears in the 1 December issue of The Independent's Radar magazine

 

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