“Life is a first impression. You get one shot at it. Make it everlasting.” — J.R. Rim
Perfection is the name of the game in pop music. Especially in the modern-day, in an age of digital recording which allows for frequent reworking and easy discarding of material not quite up to par, artists have the ways and means to labour over every little aspect of their recorded output.
But it wasn’t always this way. Especially in the 1950s and ’60s, artists had a narrow window for recording and archaic equipment which was expensive to abandon. The idea of “close enough” became a central tenet of rock and roll, with mistakes being buried in the mix or covered with additional instrumentation rather than restarting the entire recording process.
Throughout popular music’s long and varied history, there remain songs and performances that were able to capture the energy, drive, sonic styles, and vocal nuances immediately. Some artists were talented enough just to get it right on the first try.
Here are 10 of the best one-take performances of all time.
10 best songs recorded in a single take:
‘Twist and Shout’ – The Beatles
Other than a few piano overdubs from producer George Martin, the entirety of the Beatles first album, Please Please Me, was famously recorded in a single day, February 11, 1963.
The band simply set up and played their live set from The Cavern Club, with most songs requiring only a few takes before being deemed adequate. The album’s lead-off track, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, required multiply tries, but it was the first take that was eventually used. But the true one-take masterpiece in the band’s discography is the rip-roaring, throat-shredding ‘Twist and Shout’.
Saved for the end of the day due to the negative effects the screaming vocals would have on John Lennon’s voice (Lennon has already been suffering from a cold: his coughs are audible on parts of the album), ‘Twist and Shout’ is the ultimate example of giving every last ounce of energy you have to make a great final product. You can still feel the frantic and manic energy that was used to create it, even nearly 60 years later.
‘House of the Rising Sun’ – The Animals
Touring with rock and roll legend Chuck Berry in 1964, The Animals were looking for a song that would allow them to stand out among the hordes of other R&B-influenced British Invasion bands. While skulking around a folk club one night, singer Eric Burdon heard a song that he believed would add a darker and more sinister edge to his band’s repertoire.
Hardened from a gruelling touring schedule, Burdon and company wanted to waste no time in the studio. Having performed ‘House of the Rising Sun’ every night, the band had perfected the arrangement, which included arpeggiated guitar lines and frantic organ freakouts. It’s hard to believe that Burdon’s haunted howl, Alan Price’s frenetic keyboard lines, and Hilton Valentine’s steady picking were all done live.
Knowing the song inside and out, it only took a single take to capture the ominous atmosphere of ‘House of the Rising Sun‘. In less than 15 minutes, the band had recorded and mixed what would eventually become the band’s only number one hit.
‘Louie, Louie’ – The Kingsmen
The Kingsmen, despite their regal name, were in reality just one of the hundreds of teenage garage rock bands that popped up in America during the mid-’60s. Armed with a proto-punk energy and a complete disregard for formality, the Oregon band had only been in a studio once before they recorded their signature track ‘Louie, Louie’.
The odds could not have been more stacked against them: producers Ken Chase and Robert Lindahl didn’t care much for the band, recording costs meant that they only had a single take to get it right. Even worse, lead singer Jack Ely had recently gotten braces on his teeth, turning his vocals into an unintelligible mush. The end result is filled with mistakes and is perhaps the sloppiest and most poorly recorded hit record of all time. And it’s amazing.
What The Kingsmen didn’t figure was that their ragged one-take performance captured a sort of frenzied mania that immediately translated to their audience. The drums are loud and crashing, the guitar break is angular and enthralling, and Ely’s mush mouth vocals helped perpetuate an urban legend of obscenity that helped propel the song to success. ‘Louie, Louie’ is, for all intents and purposes, the first punk song, and it only took one pass to perfect.
‘Sister Ray’ – The Velvet Underground
More than any other group at the time, transgressive art punks The Velvet Underground were fascinated with pushing the boundaries of polished professionalism and good taste. The clattering bass of White Light/White Heat‘s title track, the bizarre narrative of ‘The Gift’, and John Cale’s ever-present electric viola were all combative elements to the band’s raw sound.
Before the recording of the album’s final track, the band made a deal: one take and anything that gets captured was meant to be on the recording. No fixing, no second tries. It’s a highly conceptual attitude to take towards making music, and for a song as long and challenging as ‘Sister Ray’, it meant that every botched noise or droning blast of distortion was going to be preserved.
Studio engineer Gary Kellgren allegedly left the room due to the harshness of the noise, and the final song isn’t exactly the most pleasant or casual of listens. But it does represent a band fighting to retain their rebellious mix of art and rock, no matter what the end result might amount to.
‘My Way’ – Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra wasn’t one to mess around. Known as ‘One-take Charlie’ in his films, Sinatra would bring the same quick working attitude to his recording sessions. Sinatra rehearsed intently with his orchestra to make sure everything was in its proper place once the red light was on.
Pop singer Paul Anka adapted a French song called ‘Comme d’habitude’ and rewrote the lyrics with Sinatra in mind. When he finished the grandiose and half-affirming lyrics, he called Sinatra immediately and previewed the song for him. It took only minutes for Sinatra to latch on to the meandering melody, and when it came time to record on December 28, 1968, Sinatra gave it only a single go.
The result is, quite simply, magic. Bringing a fair amount of bravado and showmanship that he was well-known for, Sinatra has the professionalism of an old soul, belting out the song’s climactic high notes like they’re not even a challenge. While Sinatra would eventually come to detest the song and its association with him, it’s hard to deny how perfectly the two were meant for each other.
‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’ – James Brown
Speaking of guys who didn’t mess around, James Brown was a taskmaster if there ever was one. The hardest working man in show business knew every beat, every dance move, and every note of a song he would perform, to the point where he would assess fines to band members who would miss notes or break formation.
Because of his authoritarian control, recording songs was usually a fast process for Brown and his band. Before the start of ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’, Brown made a proclamation to the recording engineers behind the desk: “This is a hit!” As if there was any doubt.
Brown’s style was perfectly suited for the bare-bones drive that would eventually become known as funk. His version of rhythm and blues favoured simplicity, drive, rhythm, and energy, which was usually in its best form on the first take of a song. ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’ has Brown and his musicians attacking the song with an enthusiasm that couldn’t be replicated through multiple takes.
One and done, just the way Brown liked it.
‘I Feel Love’ – Donna Summer
As the live band takes began to be replaced with complicated arrangements built by machines, the idea of recording a song in a single pass became quaint to the point of near impossibility. What starts to take shape after the mid-’70s is obsessively produced backing tracks that are paired with a single, unreplicable vocal take.
Giorgio Moroder laboured over the synthetic backing track of ‘I Feel Love’. The song runs over eight minutes, but Moroder would record bits and pieces of the song only seconds at a time, due to the limited capabilities of the Moog synthesizer at the time. When it finally all came together, Moroder had slaved over the complicated arrangement, of which only the bass drum was recorded live.
But, when it came to the song’s lead vocal performance, Donna Summer faced none of the strain that Moroder encountered. Using her unmatched ability to translate the mechanical thump of electronic instrumentation into something genuinely human, Summer recorded her sensual and emotional vocal in a single pass. Even the harmonies were recorded in one pass each. What took Moroder weeks to compile took Summer minutes to perfect.
‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World’ – Israel Kamakawiwoʻole
In 1988, Israel Kamakawiwoʻole had an idea for a medley. Combining two popular songs that had become standards, Kamakawiwoʻole wanted to record the idea before he forgot. The only problem: it was 3 am.
Kamakawiwoʻole called the recording studio where engineer Milan Bertosa was finishing some work in the wee hours of the morning. Bertosa gave him 15 minutes to show up. When he did, Kamakawiwoʻole spent less than half an hour recording what was supposed to be a demo version featuring just him and his ukulele.
The recording features some flubbed lyrics and a highly informal style. Kamakawiwoʻole would record a more professional version for his album Ka ʻAnoʻi, but after the demo was included on his biggest-selling album Facing Future, the impromptu solo acoustic version would be forever associated with the man they called IZ.
‘Losing My Religion’ – R.E.M.
The lush backing track for R.E.M.’s biggest chart success ‘Losing My Religion’ was anything but spontaneous. The string arrangements, mandolin sound, and intricate backing vocals all took time and labour to properly capture. But when Michael Stipe walked in to record his vocal, the magic was there immediately.
Due to the way R.E.M. wrote and recorded material, Stipe often wasn’t needed until after his bandmates were already done with their nominal duties. Having taken in the dramatic and stirring nature of the recording, Stipe penned a tale of unrequited love and powerless desire that he was able to immediately translate onto tape.
What’s remarkable about Stipe’s performance is his ability to balance the rawness of his voice with the melodic precision that the track’s minor-key progression required. ‘Losing My Religion’ isn’t an easy song to sing, but Stipe simply got all of the gut-churning emotions right on the very first try.
‘Bodysnatchers’ – Radiohead
The unwieldy and experimental aspects of Radiohead’s preferred recording style requires a fair amount of time. The band like to go through multiple different versions of songs, honing in on the aspects that work the best. Sometimes these are progressions and rhythmic patterns, and sometimes it’s a single sound that they want to replicate.
In Rainbows saw the band ease back into the fuller sound of a live rock and roll band after the electronic splicing of Kid A and the unrehearsed spontaneity of Hail to the Thief. Even though the band would refine the arrangements of songs, Thom Yorke still wanted an off-the-cuff excitement to his vocals. And so ‘Bodysnatchers’, the driving and fuzz-filled rocker, kept Yorke’s harried first vocal take as its final.
Connecting more with the propulsive rhythms and distorted guitars rather than focusing on intonation or articulation, Yorke allows himself to gets close to punk as he would ever reach, turning his immaculate instrument into a frenzied wail.