Five Genius Songs Written at the Last Minute

Funny thing about songwriting. I can speak from personal experience: sometimes you spend days, weeks, or years getting a song right, and sometimes you just throw some crap into a microphone at the last minute and hope that someone doesn't hate it.

In the hands of master musicians, though, that last-minute Hail Mary is often the unfiltered smoke of genius. There's even a word for it in Portuguese, desenrascanco. It's the reason that people who work with David Bowie always keep the tape running. Even though he says it's just a practice run, it's probably going to be a sudden work of brilliance.

Today we salute you, hits and anthems that have about as much thought behind them as the average crammed seventh-grade history test.

Warrant, "Cherry Pie" It's likely that the only song you know by hair metal band Warrant is "Cherry Pie" and that most of all because of the video above featuring Bobbie Brown looking like nine kinds of sex. However, if you heard the single and the original title track of that 1990 juggernaut album, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," you know that Warrant should definitely be associated with a deeper and more inventive pop metal sound than they were hung with.

Worried that the album lacked the obligatory rock anthem that made all of the turn of the '90s kind of a blur, president of Columbia Records at the time, Don Ienner, pressured frontman Jani Lane to please write one. It took Lane 15 minutes to channel a little Def Leppard and Joan Jett into an entendre-laden sex anthem that remains their biggest hit. Lane has alternated between being disgusted with the tune to be grateful so many people enjoy it. If you did, please do one old hair metal apologist a favor and check out 1992's Dog Eat Dog to hear all Warrant was really capable of.

The Who, "Pinball Wizard" Believe or not, the famous rock opera about a deaf, dumb, and blind kid who becomes a messiah after achieving superstardom as a pinball prodigy originally contained almost none of that sentence at all. In fact, most of what we would describe as the backbone of Tommy was actually a last-minute attempt to impress critic Nik Cohn.

Cohn was initially ambivalent about the album and all its heavy spiritual overtones. Knowing that Cohn was a pinball fan, Pete Townshend suggested a disabled boy who excelled at the game, and Cohn went on to give it rave reviews after Townshend went right out and recorded "Pinball Wizard."

Kansas, "Dust in the Wind" When it came time to put together songs for 1976's Leftoverture Kansas' main writer, Steve Walsh, experienced a serious case of writer's block that left the album fairly short. In stepped Kerry Livgren with one of the band's biggest hits, "Dust In the Wind." The funny thing is, "Dust in the Wind" sounds nothing like the rest of the record, for a very good reason.

The main melody was only a guitar warmup that Livgren would use, and it was only on the advice of his wife -- who overheard it and remarked that it sounded pretty enough to be a song -- that he brought it in near the end of recording to submit to the band. There's a long history of guitarists turning such exercises into big hits, such as Joe Walsh with "Life in the Fast Lane" and Slash with "Sweet Child o' Mine." So the next time your guitarist is just noodling about, just shut up and write some words to it.

Story continues on the next page.

Simon & Garfunkel, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" The song itself was no last-minute addition. Paul Simon didn't work like that. He's well-known for taking his time with tracks, but the song's final form is a good example of a master musician getting swept away.

Art Garfunkel was off filming Catch-22 while Simon was working on the duo's next album, and the chaos and fracturing was apparent in both the nature of the recording and the lyrics. Originally "Bridge" was just two verses long, but producer Roy Halee asked for a third to build to a more epic conclusion, and Simon obliged with a quick third verse dedicated to his girlfriend.

He's always considered it a bad idea, something that turned the song into something too long and unwieldy, but it's gone on to be one of the most covered songs in history, with that third verse in particular being many fans' favorite.

Nobuo Uematsu, "Final Fantasy Prelude" If you're a gamer you just perked right up and got ready to deal out some heroism. The famous prelude used in some form in every Final Fantasy game is easily the third most recognizable video game theme in the world after Mario and Zelda's main motifs. It's haunting, beautiful, and operatic in it's scope.

Uematsu was plucked out of working in a music store to compose for Square, so he was already used to flying by the seat of his pants. He had put together the soundtrack for what was the company's last hope to stay afloat, Final Fantasy. Series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi asked Uematsu for one more song, and five minutes of playing with arpeggios birthed the epic intro to untold adventures. Uematsu has said he's embarrassed that so rushed a work has been so often used, but you can't argue that it it's not brilliant.

Jef has a new story, a tale of headless strippers and The Rolling Stones, available now in Broken Mirrors, Fractured Minds. You can also connect with him on Facebook.


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