Marvin Gaye didn’t want to record “I Heard It Threw the Grapevine.” Gladys Knight and the Pips had a version out already, so Marvin didn’t see the point. “It was a throwaway to me,” Marvin said later. “We included it on In The Groove because Norman Whitfield wanted it there. I didn’t particularly like it.”
That throwaway became Gaye’s largest grossing single, ranking sixty-sixth on Billboard Magazine’s Greatest Songs of All Time. The California Raisins version for Post Raisin Bran, with Buddy Miles singing, made Billboard’s Hot 100.
Another song “The Weight” almost didn’t make it on Music From Big Pink. Robbie Robertson held the song back, figuring it was “too weird” lyrically compared to the rest of the songs. “I threw it in at the end,” he said.
While The Band’s version only reached #61 on the Billboard charts, Aretha Franklin’s version went to #19. An interesting side note: Duane Allman played slide guitar using an empty bottle of decongestant pills.
“The Weight” is still one of the most covered songs in pop history. Mavis Staples of the Staple Singers says she’s still asked to perform it. “I can’t leave the stage if I don’t,” she admitted.
So how do throwaways become hits? Even Robbie Robertson can’t give a definitive answer. “Sometimes you write something and wonder how it can be good,” he said. “It falls outside of the typical and expected. You have nothing to compare it to, so you figure you should keep it in your back pocket.”
Imagine John Phillips showing the other members of The Mamas and the Papas “Monday, Monday” and getting no response. “I just thought it was dumb,” Michelle Phillips admitted. “We all did. John kept trying to convince us, so finally we gave in. John’s like that.”
“Monday, Monday,” was The Mamas and the Papas’ largest grossing single.
In any creative endeavor, there’s always doubt. Nobody wants to “fall outside the typical and expected,” especially where careers are involved. We’re all thinking of our reputations and personal saleability — even Gaye, Phillips and Robertson. Sometimes circumstance and fate make the decision for us.
One of the most enduring jingles of all time “At Speedy You’re a Somebody,” was what I call a “wastebasket hit.” Jerry Goodis, owner of The Jerry Goodis Agency, tells the story of spending weeks trying to come up with a slogan for Speedy Muffler. He said he wrote down “At Speedy You’re a Somebody” and quickly threw it away. In fact, he was going through another copywriter’s wastepaper basket and found “At Speedy You’re a Somebody.”
When I say it’s fate, it’s probably not fate at all. While we’re comfortable with the expected (as shown by research), something inside of us yearns for what we don’t expect. The term “I’ll know it when I see it,” may be another way of saying, “I want to b surprised but I can’t tell you what will surprise me.”
None of us really knows what constitutes a surprise, or, more importantly, what constitutes a saleable one. Vincent Van Gough never had a saleable surprise (the only painting he sold was to his brother Theo).
As Robertson pointed out, if you have nothing to compare it to, how do you know? He waited weeks before showing The Band “The Weight.” That’s surprising in itself, considering they played and recorded anything Bob Dylan pulled out of his typewriter back then (Dylan was actually their landlord).
Dylan frequently told Robertson you couldn’t know what worked and what didn’t. All you had for that was comparison, and once it was comparable to another song, it wasn’t original anymore. Dylan wondered if “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” was too commercial. He recorded it on “The Basement Tapes” (all of which he wanted dumped), but the song endured, becoming a hit for The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers.
All of which should make us all wonder: What have we thrown away that we should have kept? How quickly do we toss an idea under pressure of a deadline or an unreasonable client. How many internal reviews have killed great ideas?
I think back to one agency where everyone voted on a concept, and I mean everyone. There were maybe fifteen or sixteen people, including the account group, media and research. Inevitably, they voted for the safest campaign. You can’t judge by crowd mentality (didn’t John Phillips prove that with Monday, Monday?)
Elon Musck has thrown many ideas away, even the electric car at first. Nobody thought Tesla stood a chance. Musck kept going back to it, nearly going bankrupt several times but, like Dylan, he found the thought of creating something completely original overwhelming. Tesla is now at the forefront of electric car technology, being followed by the big three American auto manufacturers.
Today it’s even easier to throw ideas away. All we do is click delete. Through the course of the average day, I click delete hundreds of times. Have I thrown away good ideas? Probably. At least back in the days of hard copy, we might glance down at our wastepaper baskets. We might have the foresight — or hindsight — to unfold that crumpled piece of paper. Or there might be a Jerry Goodis rummaging through after we’ve gone home.
Technology, delete buttons, that handy little trash icon have all made it easier to toss and discard, possibly losing what could have been our claim to fame. Maybe we need a program that sends all our deletes to a “maybe file.”
Or perhaps we should just have more faith in what we create in the first place.
What do you think? Are our best ideas going out in the trash? Have we become too quick to discard what we don’t feel will be “liked”? Let me know at: email@example.com
Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, blogger and novelist. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details (you can also buy from them directly).