“I’m not going to be dictated by fans, certainly.” Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye didn’t want to record “I Heard It Through 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 the other songs. “I threw it in at the end,” he said.
“The Weight” is still one of the most covered songs in pop history.
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 it wasn’t, so finally we gave in. John’s like that.”
“Monday, Monday,” was The Mamas and the Papas’ largest grossing single.
While we’re comfortable with the expected, something inside of us yearns for what we don’t expect.
In any creative endeavor, there’s always doubt. Nobody wants to “fall outside the typical and expected.” We’re all thinking of our reputations and personal saleability — even Gaye, Phillips and Robertson.
Sometimes circumstance and fate make the decision for us.
When I say it’s fate, it’s probably not fate at all. While we’re comfortable with the expected, something inside of us yearns for what we don’t expect.
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).
Dylan frequently told Robertson you couldn’t know what worked and what didn’t.
As Robertson pointed out, if you have nothing to compare it to, how do you know if it’s good or bad? He waited weeks before showing The Band “The Weight.” Surprising in a way, since they were recording numerous songs with Dylan which weren’t, by definition, expected. Dylan was expanding his reach and the definition of a song, never looking over his shoulder.
Bob 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.
He 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 hits for The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers (both bands had Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons).
All of which should make us wonder: What have we thrown away that we should have kept? How quickly do we toss away an idea under pressure?
Elon Musk has thrown many ideas away, even the electric car at first.
I think back to one advertising agency where I worked. We were always having internal reviews, voting on what creative concepts to show the client. Everyone voted in these reviews, 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 Musk has thrown many ideas away, even the electric car at first. Nobody thought Tesla stood a chance. Musk kept returning to it, nearly going bankrupt several times.
Like Dylan, he wanted to look beyond the typical, beyond what the pundits and naysayers and shallow visionaries said could—or should—be done. Sure, stuff gets thrown away, but some doesn’t. Some stays and eventually makes sense. Tesla is now the third largest electric car manufacturer in the world.
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.
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. More than likely. Okay, absolutely.
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.
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 have more faith in what we create in the first place.
Robert Cormack is a novelist, children’s book author and blogger. 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.