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The Stories Behind the Weirdest Back-Up Vocals

Microphones for back-up vocals

Remember those songs with the really weird back-up vocals? You know the ones, where you tried to sing along - even if you didn’t really know the words. Let’s check out what was behind some of the weirdest.

For this list we’ve looked at back-ups that were made by human voice. So, we’re not going to be looking at songs with those unusual sounds made by animals, mechanical devices, or elaborate soundbites; that’s a whole other list.

#9 The Safety Dance

This 1982 hit was by Canadian new wave band Men Without Hats.

 The memorable, happy and easy-to-dance-to Safety Dance was written by lead singer Ivan Doroschuk as a protest against some bouncers who kicked him out of a night club for pogo dancing, which had become common in the early 80’s for dancing to many types of songs. However, the bouncers at one particular club thought Ivan was dancing too dangerously. Well, it did eventually evolve into slam dancing, so they were kind of right. 

But, it’s clear that Ivan still felt strongly about his protest, even when making the video, as can be seen in the extreme seriousness and intensity in his face, for what is supposed to be a happy dance song.

The weird back-up vocals are thanks to Anne Dussault, who provided the female vocals on the album Rhythm of Youth, which included The Safety Dance. That’s right, just one word ‘Dancez’ (being French for ‘to dance), just once in the whole song; that’s it!

This one word is lip-synced by one very excited safety dancer in the official video of The Safety Dance, who then dances around acting like an escaped psycho patient through the rest of the video. Crazy girl’s true identity was not made public until 2013, when we discovered that she is actually Louise Court, former Editor in Chief of Cosmopolitan Magazine in the UK.

 

#8 Kung Fu Fighting

Carl Douglas’ huge 1974 hit, Kung Fu Fighting was so well-timed, coming out at a time when martial arts movies were big business. Even though that well-known oriental riff is used a lot through the song, it was very much a funky disco song, and you can hear Carl’s enthusiasm for the genre throughout the lyrics.

Interestingly, this was originally intended as a B-side song to a much more romantic song. In fact, after spending over three hours recording the intended A-side song - Carl only had ten minutes left to throw together this ninja-worthy hit.

The weird back-ups are of course, all of that fighting action. Okay, sure, the back-up vocalists are simply making a range of grunting sounds to enhance the effect of a Kung Fu fight. But I’m imagining those guys auditioning and rehearsing those sounds - “Okay guys from the top - I want to hear real pain in your huhs and hahs.”

Over the years, the song became so easily recognised - that it has been used in several movies and TV shows - including Scrubs, Beverly Hills Ninja and Rush Hour 3.

#7 Genius of Love

 The quirky and clever Genius of Love was a hit for Tom Tom Club in 1981. Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth and fellow Talking Heads drummer (and husband), Chris Frantz’s side project also included Tina’s sisters Laura and Lani, providing those awesome harmonies.

The song and unique animation came out at a time when, thanks mostly to MTV, there was a growing demand for more elaborate music videos on TV.

The weird back-up vocals in Genius of Love are provided courtesy of Chris Frantz. When first heard, that James Brown line hits you as a total surprise, unless you’re also watching the video. And yet it just works perfectly with the rest of the song.

When I first heard Genius of Love, I wondered about how this repetitive chant must have affected James Brown himself at the time. Brown was already a living legend, but now he’s got every smart-alec, jerk shouting out - “James Brown, James Brown”, every time they see him. You’d think that eventually it’s going to drive him nuts. Oh look, it did.

 

 

#6 Should I Stay or Should I Go

The Clash’s 1981 hit ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’, with Mick Jones on lead vocal, is actually their only song to reach number 1 in the UK. That clever and catchy constant riff, from the opening and throughout the song, just grabs the listener and keeps them bouncing along.

It is so easy to understand why this song is listed in Rolling Stones’ 500 Greatest Songs of all Time, although I would have ranked it much higher than 228.

Should I Stay or Should I Go is so well-known that, even after more than 30 years since its release, it has been used in many different forms of media, including the highly popular video game, Far Cry 4. It was also heavily used in the first season of the hit Netflix show, Stranger Things, perfectly enhancing the feel and mood of the 80’s setting, making even the scary scenes fun, and also telling us that Jonathan is a rocker.

Now regarding those weird back-up vocals - that short, almost hiccup-like scream is such a memorable and easily recognizable introduction to this classic rock song. Interestingly, Mick Jones took that scream with him to Big Audio Dynamite II, and included it when creating the 1991 single The Globe.

The other unusual backup vocals were provided by Joe Strummer and Joe Ely. Strummer decided, at the last minute, to do the backups in Spanish, and thanks to the, over the phone, translation help of sound recorder Eddie Garcia’s mum, the two Joes are heard singing in Ecuadorian Spanish.

#5 Unbelievable

British band EMF’s big 1990 hit Unbelievable was a chart topper in the USA and hit number 3 in the UK. That fast-paced rhythm and catchy riff just shouts action and fun. Although it was deemed a one hit wonder for EMF, the song was ranked 31 in VH1’s list of the ‘100 Greatest 1 Hit Wonders’. Many people might remember the song being used in the movie Coyote Ugly.

These interesting back-ups were provided courtesy of American comedian Andrew Dice Clay. The regular inclusion of the shocked “oh’ works so well, stressing the surprise at how unbelievable the person being sung to really is. After regularly listening to this hit for the past thirty years, it’s pretty hard to imagine the song without it.

#4 Sick and Tired

Anastacia delivered her 2004 hit song ‘Sick and Tired’ with so much emotion and passion that it resonates throughout the song. The song reached the top 5 of charts across Europe and the UK in 2004.

The song failed to reach similar peaks on the U.S. charts, suggesting that Anastacia is proof that being American, having an amazing voice and being an awesome songwriter and performer won’t guarantee you huge success in the U.S. Fortunately, the rest of the world listened and loves her, especially in Europe and the UK.

This is definitely one of those songs that we’re so happy to have the tech to check the back-up lyrics of this song, otherwise we’d all be humming and guessing. That is except those that can understand Punjabi.

The male vocals are from the song ‘Let the Music Play’ by Shamur, released in the same year. The line being sung means “I have given my heart to someone who does not care at all”.

 

 

#3 She Blinded Me With Science

Thomas Dolby’s synthesizer driven, oddball 1982 hit, ‘She Blinded Me with Science’ was another one of those just-right-for-music-video songs. In fact, that’s exactly what happened. Dolby actually wrote and recorded the song to accompany the already story-boarded video, and then he also directed the music video.

Full of early 80’s techno sound effects, it successfully convinces the listener that the song is about mad scientists. What better way to push the message of a mad scientist than to have a scientist repeatedly shouting out “science” throughout the song

Hey - why not make it a real scientist? Which is exactly what they did. The mad scientist in this song and video is renowned British scientist and TV presenter of the 70’s and 80’s, Magnus Pyke.

 

 

#2 Hooked On A Feeling

Blue Swede’s 1974 immortal hit ‘Hooked on a Feeling’ was originally performed by BJ Thomas in 1968. Swedish band Blue Swede’s rejigged version, with a strong horn section and rockier lead vocals and guitar riffs, fitted easily with the growing early 70’s rock scene and was a huge hit, reaching number 1 in the U.S., number. 2 in Canada and number 4 in Australia.

But what most people remember as the distinct highlight of this love song is that chant. What you may not know is that this was not the first version to include the “ooga chaka” chant. British singer, Jonathan King came up with the idea of putting a bit of a reggae feel into the song in his 1971 version.

But it actually doesn’t start there. The guys in Blue Swede claimed that their extra tweaking of the song’s jungle chant was actually inspired by the Beach Boys song ‘Do you like worms?’, which was originally on the unfinished Smile album.

 #1 Rock Lobster

 

We’re here - number 1, and quite fittingly it is the B52’s 1978, hugely successful Rock Lobster. The unusual-for the-time length of the song, which almost sounds more like a jam session at times; the surf-style guitar riffs with Fred Schneider’s matter-of-fact way of delivering the lyrics, combined with Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s vocals, made this song such a breath of fresh air at the time

The B52’s’ first big hit is also listed at 147 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. But it was the incredible vocal feats of both Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson that made this hit so unique. This awesome song is just rich with amazing sounds, ranging from the imaginative creations of cries from different types of aquatic life, through to the broad range of coos and screams that complete the picture of this musical tapestry.

Well, there you have it Rockers, did I get it right? If you can think of any that I might have missed, please write and let us know.

If we get enough good suggestions – we might make a second list.

 

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Check out Cranky’s video ‘Strangest Backup Vocals’ on YouTube