It is simply human nature to be intrigued by mysteries. In fact, it is a biological imperative. If something was amiss in our days of fending off predators, then you’d be best served to find out what it was rather than shrugging your hirsute shoulders and getting on with scribbling on the cave wall and not spotting the slithering trail of a killer culprit.
Although naturally, this explanation lends itself toward the fervent true crime intrigue, our evolutionary prerogatives can explain our lust for mysteries of any description. To put it in terms so simple that I can almost hear the scowls of academics as I write this: Problems are better off solved – and anything unknown is potentially problematic.
Thus, we are obsessed with mysteries; it’s only human. And musical mysteries are some of the most intriguing of all for one very good reason: it’s such a well-documented world that anything unaccounted for is an inherent rarity. Page one of Officer Obvious’ Investigative Handbook decrees that the role of modern music is literally to record and log everything.
Hell, if a fly farted in the studio these days, you may well find it credited in the session log. Nevertheless, things have slipped through the musical cracks, and many mysteries have arisen. We’ve compiled a quick five of the most bizarre that you may well never have heard of. Some are solved; others remain maddening mysterious, but hopefully, all will titillate your detective side.
Five lesser-known musical mysteries:
The jailhouse mystery of Elvis Presley’s ‘Without You’
On June 26th, 1954, an 18-year-old Elvis Presley received a phone call from Sun Records. His previous encounter with Sun Records was when he paid $4 to record the song ‘My Happiness’ as a gift for his mother, Gladys. This was a standard way for a studio to earn a bit of extra cash back in the day, but when Elvis rolled in, he sent a few eyebrows rocketing. Thus, producer Sam Phillips thought he might be a good fit for a track titled ‘Without You’, which came into his possession in May of 1954.
However, the unusual thing about the ‘Without You’ demo is that nobody knew who the original singer was. Adding to the mystery is that he was so good that a young Elvis apparently exclaimed, “I hate him. Why can’t I sing like that?” He tried his best to do so for the rest of his career, but ‘Without You’ was abandoned for songs that suited his pipes better.
Nevertheless, the influence never died, as Greil Marcus said in the 1975 book Mystery Train of the ‘Without You’ demo: “Most of all, anyone who listens hears Elvis… The unnamed singer’s voice is full of pain and full of acceptance; gliding along the stately lines of the song, reaching for solace, falling short, reaching again.”
Phillips said that he got the track from Nashville’s Peer-Southern Music, but the authors of the song, Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins, claimed he must’ve got it from Nashville State Penitentiary, where he had been recording with a group of inmates called The Prisonaries. And that was that, there was a road block in the case and it seemed that the future of pop culture had simply crept down from the ether to fatefully land on Mr Presley’s young shoulders and leave nothing in its wake.
The most obvious conclusion was that it must’ve been an inmate and that’s why nobody stepped forward in the interim years to say that they kicked off the rock ‘n’ roll revolution forever reverbarating. After all, a lot of people tell a lot of stories in prison so an inmate claiming he launched Elvis’ career was probably taken with the same pinch of salt as when he said he was innocent.
Alas, a prisoner was the most promising lead but that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t until very recently that music producer Chris Kennedy finally made the discovery that it was Nashville singer Jimmy Sweeney. Sweeney passed in 1992 and quit the music industry back in 1962, but his daughter Eugenia confirmed Kennedy’s suspicion that it was her father singing on the demo and commented: “He would’ve loved it quietly. He wouldn’t have made a big deal out of it, you know? But he was very modest – I think modest to a fault. But he would have really enjoyed knowing that finally, somebody is giving him some credit.”
Who the hell is Harumi?
The problem with a lot of mysterious records and songs is that you could make a million of them up in a hot second. All you need to do is find an old song from the past that never became a hit but was once played on the radio and ask where the hell did this track come from?
The chances are, it came from a local act trying to make it big, booking a studio, failing to do the due diligence of filling out forms, handing the demo to a radio station, moving on with their lives, and then suddenly 40 years later a mystery is afoot.
Harumi is far different for two very good reasons. On the sleeve of the record, it is revealed that Tony Wilson produced it. The reason that is significant is that the late Tony Wilson was world-renowned. Before working with Harumi, he had produced records for Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, The Velvet Underground and Simon & Garfunkel. Aside from the production credit of Tony Wilson, the rest of the album is pretty much blank. It doesn’t have any musicians listed or even a date (although it is believed to have been recorded between 1967-1968).
Secondly, The album is a genuinely great piece of work. This is not the work of an outsider artist or a young garage band. After the record’s release, Harumi disappeared into the ether, which imbues its undeniable ethereal feel with an even deeper sense of spiritualism. Harumi, if you’re out there, then please do get in touch?
The Ricky Gervais Philippines incident
This tale is less of a puzzle and more of a paradigm of how musical mysteries can come about. You see, it might stretch the imagination to levels akin to a horse in a living room to even think of the “chubby little loser” Ricky Gervais shuffling around the new romantic scene, let alone assailing it as a pop sensation… but all shall be revealed.
The year was 1982, and Gervais had somehow successfully warded off scurvy during his university years. David Bowie’s new period was proving divisive, but Gervais had the hairline for it and snaffled it up. Together with his pal Bill Macrae, he formed the band Seona Dancing. They recorded a 16-song demo tape, sent it off to agencies, sat back on a pork chop and awaited the inevitable results. London Records signed them up, and soon, they were releasing the singles’ More to Lose’ and ‘Bitter Heart’.
The singles received widespread publicity for a brief period but in an era saturated with bequiffed synth stars, their label had a harder job on their hands than the Elephant Man’s tailor. The songs flopped, and Gervais and Macrae moved on with their lives.
However, three years later, in 1985, two things were huge in the Philippines — fraudulent government authoritarianism and Seona Dancing. With corruption proving so rife in the region, Gervais and Macrae were being swindled. The plucky Pilipino radio station DWRT-FM found Seona Dancing’s failed track ‘More to Lose’ and chanced their hand at placing a piece of near-untraceable Western music on their airwaves.
They billed the song as ‘Fade’ by Medium, inserted a station ID halfway through and claimed the track as a sort of exclusive. Therefore, no royalties had to be paid, no other station could use the glossy anthem, and nobody from the West had heard the song anyway, so they were able to dole it out as a western gem without ever footing the bill for it. Thus, they played the hell out of it, and the catchy hook caught on.
The song became a staple at high-school dances as the Philippines modernised from the staunch brutality of Ferdinand Marcos and soared on the boon of Gervais’ new wave revolution.
The strange case of Trent Reznor’s murder investigation
Any story that begins with a rural farmer spotting lights in the sky is bound to lead to a rabbit hole. When that rabbit hole leads to a federal investigation into the murder of Trent Reznor, a man still very much alive and releasing records, you know that the journey is going to be more twisted than most. As it turns out, the lights that farmer Robert Reed witnessed were merely weather balloons tied to a Super 8 camera. Nevertheless, the mystery was just getting started.
Reed turned the camera over to the police because several other farmers in the area had recently been charged for ‘accidentally’ letting wild marijuana encroach onto the outskirts of their farms. Therefore, he had reason to believe that the weather balloons contained surveillance footage. All authorities denied such a rudimentary monitoring technique, and when police developed the footage, a murder investigation was soon afoot.
When developed, the video displayed the shocking scene of two men standing over a dead body. The face of the deceased was smeared with an unknown substance and, as Detective Paul Wood told Hard Copy, the two possible assailants wore “black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”
The FBI stepped in and revealed this cult killing would soon be revealed as the shocking murder of Trent Reznor… in the music video for the band’s debut single ‘Down in It’ in 1989. The substance that led to the expert FBI opinion that the body was rotting was actually corn starch used by a cash-strapped make-up department to represent fake blood, and the reason the finale to the video was recorded on a floating Super 8 was because the band couldn’t afford to hire a crane, but unfortunately, it went wrong, and the balloons blew off.
It took two years for the FBI to crack the case when an art school student responded to a flyer saying that he was actually a big fan of the living musician prostrate on the floor, and he recognised the surroundings from their groundbreaking video sadly devoid of its long-lost final shot.
Where did the ‘Peanut Duck’ come from?
The mystery track ‘Peanut Duck’ recently came to people’s attention when Rhino Records released it on a girl-group box set with the following notes: “At Virtue Sound Studio in Philadelphia, a mystery girl singer cut ‘Peanut Duck’, a feverish soul stomper that trailed the Loco-Motion, Mashed Potato, Twist trend. But the track was never released, and Marsha Gee was not the actual singer. The only proof of ‘Peanut Duck’ lay in an acetate discovered by a British Northern Soul DJ who took the disc back to England and released it as a bootleg on Joker Records in the ’80s.
Continuing: “Not wanting his rival DJs to infringe upon his precious find, he christened the unknown singer Marsha Gee (who incidentally had a single out on Uptown Records in 1965). The true voice behind ‘Peanut Duck’ has yet to be revealed. Anyone?”
Since then, the question has remained unanswered. It would seem that the song was recorded in 1965 when a group of mystery musicians wandered into a studio and set about laying down the strangest dance craze to date. They threw in a curious obsession with George Washington Carver’s favourite legume for good measure, then closed the track with a lobotomised frenzy and fled forevermore.
Unlike most unknown songs involving some downbeat folk crooning into a lo-fi microphone like a bedroom-bound Thom Yorke, there seems to have been a genuine commercial purpose to this track. Why would you attempt to create a primitive viral craze without ever claiming the potential rewards? The ‘Peanut Duck’ is a mystery that lives on.