The offices on the 4th floor of the Directors' Guild building, below Mercury Studios, were infested with a ragtag collection of miscreants and petty criminals whose only real offenses were occasionally stealing lyrics and/or sequences of musical notes from each other, then copyrighting them.
There were small offices and large offices. The occupants of the small offices, when they were not busy getting high, banged away on little spinet pianos, trying to come up with music that would impress the occupants of the large offices, known as A&R men (the occupants, not the offices). Among this squirming mass of obliviants lurked two geniuses: one genius composer-producer, a guy named Paul Leka, and one genius A&R guy, Bob Reno.
Paul had produced a few songs with his old high school friend, Gary DeCarlo, a singer who had changed his name to Garrett Scott. Mercury had picked one of the songs to release as a 45 RPM single record, and asked Paul for a 'B-Side', or throwaway song to act as a sort of makeshift filler, for the other side of the disc.
Paul Leka's genius was his amazing ability to put together a pop song in the studio. His sessions were intense and energetic, yet relaxed and fun. He was only 26, but had already had a big hit record with Green Tambourine in 1968.
This particular evening, Paul swept into the control room with a one-inch 8 track tape from another studio, and told me to make 3 copies of just the drum track. This was weird. I couldn't imagine what he wanted with just the drum track from a song that was already recorded. Gary and Dale Frashuer, another old friend, joined him out in the studio while I got busy making copies.
I found out later that the three of them were trying to flesh out a song they had written in high school. They were adding a newly written section that had no words yet. They sang "na na naa naa" as stand-in words, and were trying to come up with a new lyric. However, time was a-wastin' so they decided "fooey" or words to that effect, and kept the na naas.
When they returned to the control room, I had the copies finished. Paul told me we were doing a B Side, and the budget for the whole production was a generous $85! And we had to complete the song that night!
Now Paul's genius really went berserk. He took the pieces of one-inch, 8-track tape and started splicing. Each hunk of tape had just one track of drums recorded on it, leaving seven tracks empty. He showed me how to splice the three pieces so that a whole new drum track was created, with plenty of room for us to add new instruments, playing a whole different tune than the one for which the drums were originally intended. No, it didn't make any sense to me either.
Altogether we came up with a pretty good drum track. I got messed up somewhere around the second verse, and the drums got kind of turned around—— the fills, that were supposed to connect different sections, ended up playing within the lines instead of between them. Actually the odd drumming kind of maybe helped the song a little.
Now Paul laid down a piano track, then an organ part. No money for studio musicians or guitars or even an electric bass. We just used what was lying around the studio. There was an actual nice vibraphone (sort of a high tech metal xylophone) so we piled that on too.
Now we were ready to print Gary's vocal. I think he did it in just one or two takes, and improvised a nice jazzy bunch of na naas at the end. Then of course, the background vocals and mandatory hand-clap track.
Then Paul came up with another weird idea: he had me slow the tape down to half speed. He had come up with something to replace the guitar part that we didn't have. Now the song is playing back. . . really. . . slow . . . and he adds a little 4-note piano part that also made no sense. Until we got back up to normal speed. Then it sounded kind of like a harpsichord, or maybe a banjo, or maybe, maybe a guitar...
So now the song was finished, but we had a really unusual problem: it was too short! Only about two and a half minutes. After a year of making stuff shorter so it would get played on the radio, now I had to make this one longer, so there was no chance that some spoilsport dj would play it by mistake. It was a B-side, after all.
So we added a bunch more of those nonsense words and created a much, much longer last chorus. It was a lot longer, but extremely boring.
Then something else clicked in Paul's head, and he decided to just cut out all the tracks, including the vocals, at about 2 minutes in. He had me just mute all the tracks except that "stolen" drum track. Then we faded in the other tracks, slowly, one by one.
Now the song timed out to 3:45. No way would radio ever play this thing.
4 AM: Everybody was getting their coats on, ready to brave the New York chill, confident and happy that we had just created a true B-Side, that no radio station in its right mind would ever play, when Gary / Garrett had an idea. "I need a piece of wood!"
He grabbed a chunk off the wooden base of the electric organ's speaker cabinet and some mallets from the vibraphone. He plunked the foot-square piece of lumber onto a stool. I set up a microphone and sent its signal to our one remaining open track.
Gary played a kind of conga or bongo drum part with the borrowed mallets on that slab of wood. It added a cool swagger to the track and did a pretty good job of filling in for the nonexistent low bass notes.
The next day, the other genius of the 4th floor, Bob Reno the A&R guy, heard our rough mix of the song. Even at 3:45, he thought it had potential.
That night we did a final mix. For an A Side with a whole different artist, who would not be Gary. He had faith in his originally selected record and wanted no part of this sloppy, second-hand tune that was finished in one night.
Out on 57th Street, the four of us trudged towards Broadway, where I would catch a subway train and the others would head for their cars and home.
A giant white plume of smoke blasted up out of a manhole cover right in front of us. Paul said, "Look at all that steam!" and so was named a brand-new band, a One-Hit Wonder that didn't even exist. A name without a band.
By December, our $85 record hit number one, knocking the Beatles out of first place. I bet "Come Together" cost a bit more than $85.
Almost 50 years later, this little nonsense song has been sung by choruses of thousands. It has become kind of an anthem in reverse, ushering losing sports teams and politicians off the scene, or off the playing field, or out the door.
How does it feel to be part of a Number One Record? It's a bit hard to describe. The music business has changed so much, I'm not sure anyone gets to feel this way anymore. But back then, I started to become a bit disoriented, and giddy.
I sent a telegram to my old high school girlfriend: NA NA NUMBER ONE. PLEASE COME TO NEW YORK. I figured she would get a romantic crinkled yellow paper message like in the movies, delivered by a jaunty kid in a cap. What she actually got was a phone call from a perplexed Western Union phone operator who had no idea what she was reading about. Nobody got romantic crinkled yellow paper telegrams anymore.
I took a pretty Mercury secretary to lunch, just happening to have my Gold Record with me in a paper bag. "Ever seen one of these?" I asked casually, propping the framed spray-painted object on the table. She was impressed only by my idiotic behavior. I didn't care.
I made a deal for some songs I had written, all worse than terrible. I used the money for a down payment on an old brownstone in Brooklyn. That was actually a good move.
Paul Leka, who wrote most of and produced and played most of the Number One Record, liked to do much of his own engineering. Once he kind of gently shoved me aside and took over completely, because he knew exactly what he wanted and knew what knobs to turn. I was insulted and walked out of the control room.
I sulked into a little editing room down the hall, knowing he would eventually get to the point where he would push the wrong button or disconnect something and need my help. Then he would have to find me and apologize. The door opened.
"Warren, is there a problem?"
"Yeah well, who is the engineer on this session, me or you?"
I knew that was an off thing to say and deflated instantly. I'm like: Oh shit. I felt terrible. Paul knew it but had to cajole me anyway, back into the control room, back to work. Yes, I was the engineer, not him. Yes, I was an ass. My excuse: I was 19. Even so, it was inexcusable. Unprofessional.
But damn if I didn't pull that same tantrum again, in a different place, a few years later. *
* Yeah, in my case the immaturity excuse is a handy one. But the real cause is the myopia of egotism, and the wisdom of age doesn't cure it. It drives us to try and make something of our lives, but at the same time makes us grossly misinterpret ourselves (and everyone else...)