Sonic Trademarks: Quirky Sounds That Make the Song, From The Supremes to Billie Eilish

Earworms aren’t always a killer chorus or a rocking riff. Sometimes records depend on the strategic deployment of an unusual sound. You hear it and think: What’s that? And it sticks in your mind. Next time the song comes on, you’re listening out for that sound. Whatever it is.

These days, with sampling and synthesizers, you can have pretty much any weird sonic signature you want on your record. But since the early days of rock’n’roll, enterprising souls have made records with distinguishing, hard-to-place noises and musical phrases. And all created in a spirit of make-do inventiveness with curious instruments, studio trickery, and found sounds. Here’s a journey through the decades, picking up just a few of them.

By the time the female vocal quartet The Chordettes charted with “Lollipop” in 1958, the song had already been a hit for Ronald & Ruby. The Chordettes' version, later heard on the soundtrack for the 1986 movie Stand By Me, was punctuated by pauses with popping sounds heavy on reverb—and this was made by one of the band flicking her finger out of her cheek.

There was plenty of reverb, too, on Del Shannon’s breakthrough hit three years later. “Runaway,” with its falsetto vocals, rhythmic stabs, and guitar arpeggios, is all hooks. But perhaps its most individual feature is the shrill solo of indeterminate origin that comes in just over a minute into the song. It was supplied by the song’s co-composer Max Crook playing his Musitron—which was, in fact, a modified Gibson Clavioline, one of the piano attachment keyboards popular in the 1950s and ‘60s. Crook was always a little hazy about the nature and extent of the modifications he made, although he did refer to a reverb unit employing a spring from a garden gate.

Gibson Clavioline Tube Amplifier.
Gibson Clavioline Tube Amplifier

Whatever it was, the Musitron became almost synonymous with Shannon’s sound. It cropped up on his similarly constructed followup “Hats Off To Larry” and several subsequent hits. But Shannon’s third hit, “So Long Baby,” broke with tradition. The song follows a familiar structure, but when it reaches the solo you hear not the expected Musitron, but a kazoo.

The year 1966 was a good one for this sort of thing. Pop music was embarking on a journey of psychedelic exploration. It was also the golden age of garage rock. The two trends collided in what’s-that-sound moments on three classic debut hits.

“You’re Gonna Miss Me” by The Thirteenth Floor Elevators is not just crunching guitars and Roky Erickson’s shrieking. Underneath, like something malevolent in the basement, snakes a wobbly, percussive pattern of varying pitch and intensity. It’s the sound of the band’s resident psychedelic guru, Tommy Hall, vocalizing into a jug with a microphone in it. Hall’s “electric jug,” an attempt to evoke the mind-altering experience of LSD, featured on much of the band’s subsequent output.

The juddering surge at the beginning of “I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)” by The Electric Prunes could be a giant insect. Actually, it’s a distorted, reversed recording of guitarist Ken Williams working the Bigsby whammy bar on his Gibson Les Paul, chanced upon by accident when the engineer turned over some tape. The ghostly vocalizations that follow later, before the chorus, are the engineer groaning through the tremolo channel of a Fender Twin Reverb.

I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night) by The Electric Prunes.

Over in England, The Troggs had no time for such studio trickery. Recorded in 15 minutes, “Wild Thing” is a primitive three-chord punk romp. It earns its place here on account of perhaps the most unlikely solo in rock. What sounds a little like a flute or a recorder is singer Reg Presley playing an ocarina, a shepherd’s musical pipe usually made of clay. The Troggs had heard what they thought was an ocarina on a demo recording of the song. It was the engineer whistling through his thumbs.

While all this was going on in ’66, The Beach Boys had stepped out of the surf and into the studio to make pop music of unprecedented sophistication. One of the many distinctive features on the episodic and complex “Good Vibrations” was a shifting electronic tone, heard most clearly hovering above the fast-bowed cellos. Even now, many people, including Brian Wilson himself, say this was a Theremin.

In fact, it was a home-made one-off instrument called the Electro-Theremin, played by the session trombonist and educator Paul Tanner. It was an audio-test oscillator housed in a wooden box with a mechanical slider to adjust pitch, which Tanner had been using for a few years by the time The Beach Boys called. You can hear it again on “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” and “Wild Honey.”

“Reflections” by Diana Ross & The Supremes (1967) was a transitional record. Not only was it the first time Motown gave Ross top billing, but also it marked a change in approach. Moving with the times, Motown added some textures to the arrangement to appeal to the burgeoning psychedelic culture. The electronic flourishes are often claimed to be an early use of a Moog, but in fact they were made by keyboard player Earl Van Dyke operating a test oscillator, a device like the one at the heart of Tanner’s Electro-Theremin.

Reflections by Diana Ross & The Supremes.

Into the ‘70s, and by now synthesizers were available. But they weren’t the only way of finding that unique sonic flourish. Belying their clean-cut image, The Osmonds could rock hard when they felt like it, and never more so than on their big 1972 hit “Crazy Horses.”

Building on a pulverizing guitar riff by Wayne, the band composed the song in an hour during a rehearsal. The original track was recorded at MGM in Hollywood, but without the screeching, sliding noise everyone now remembers. The titular horses were gas-guzzling cars, and the sound the brothers chanced on works because it evokes both a neighing horse and a revving engine.

Speaking to Greg Prato, Donny said: “It was a YC-30 Yamaha organ with a portamento slide. We had a wall of Marshalls in the studio. It was so loud that you couldn't even walk in the studio, so we had to play the organ from the control room. … The secret to it was a wah-wah pedal. We opened the wah-wah just enough to get that really harsh kind of a piercing sound.” Yamaha’s YC-30 was an otherwise basic combo organ released in 1970 distinguished by its three-octave portamento ribbon controller—which, the owner’s manual explains, produces “a variety of novel sounds.”

Star Instruments Synare 3.
This is a Star Instruments Synare 3

By the end of the ’70s, punk had grown up into post-punk and new wave and away from back-to-basics guitar chords and root-note basslines. In April that year, Joy Division were in the studio recording their debut album, Unknown Pleasures, with the maverick producer Martin Hannett.

Drummer Stephen Morris was using a Star Instruments Synare 3 drum synth, an electronic drum pad, to augment his acoustic kit. On “She’s Lost Control” the Synare mixes in with the live drum pattern. Urban legend has it that it didn’t stop there, though. Did Hannett send the drummer into the vocal booth with an aerosol can to record the hissing sound of a squirting aerosol? Listen to the record, and you can believe he did.

She’s Lost Control by Joy Division.

Later that year, The Clash abandoned punk’s primitive musical template with their third LP, the double London Calling. This included the songwriting and lead-vocal debut of bassist Paul Simonon, on “Guns Of Brixton.” The scratchy noise you can hear over the loping bassline intro is members of the band ripping Velcro straps in front of a microphone. The Clash had previous form in this regard. The chorus repeat at the end of their version of “I Fought The Law” was recorded in a public toilet, with drummer Topper Headon hitting pipes with a wrench.

R.E.M. earn a place in our canon with “We Walk” from their 1983 debut album, Murmur. The rumbling sound you can hear could be thunder. But it’s a manipulated recording of pool balls colliding. Digital samplers were on the market by the time Murmur was recorded, though they cost the earth. Within a few years, however, they were affordable for most musicians, and it became much easier to insert an odd sound into a record. But even in the sampling age, artists turned to more arcane, enigmatic practices.

Another entry in the actually-it’s-not a-Theremin category is Mercury Rev’s album Deserter’s Songs (1998). The frail, wispy sound that floats in and out of the mix—particularly noticeable on “Holes”—is a bowed saw, or musical saw, played by Joel Eckhaus. The roll call of saw players includes the film star Marlene Dietrich, who played the singing blade in her cabaret act entertaining the forces in World War II.

Holes by Mercury Rev.

The saw is just one element of the unique sound of Deserter’s Songs. The album features a treasure trove of other mysterious musical instruments, including both Chamberlin and Mellotron tape-replay keyboards, and the Tettix Wave Accumulator. This, it turns out, is a bank of test-tone oscillators. To cap it all, the album was mastered onto 35mm magnetic film, for what its producer Dave Fridmann called an intentionally weird sound.

The Walker Brothers had been Beatles-rivaling teen idols for a while in the ‘60s. When the band split, lead singer Scott’s solo career followed a bewildering trajectory. After phases as an intense art-song interpreter and middle-of-the-road crooner, by the ‘90s he was making solo music of uncompromising avant-garde experimentation.

Sessions for his album The Drift (2006) were captured in a biographical film, 30th Century Man. They show Walker supervising the construction of a wooden box and a collaborator hitting the box with a concrete block. “We love that. We’re having that,” says Walker into the talkback mic.

It didn’t stop there. According to percussionist Alasdair Malloy, Walker ushered him into the studio kitchen, opened the fridge, and produced a side of pork. Would Malloy hit this, Walker asked, to get the effect of punching somebody? Walker died in 2019, but the spirit of tinkering around in the studio looking for the individual and the idiosyncratic lives on.

Speaking in a television interview, Finneas O'Connell, brother of Billie Eilish, talks of how he and Billie collect interesting sounds they chance upon, recording them on phones and little digital recorders. Sometimes they end up on multi-platinum records. There’s that dental drill on “bury a friend,” for instance. And the rhythmic pattern that stands in for hi-hats on “bad guy”? That’s actually the signal that tells you it’s OK to proceed at an Australian road crossing. “I always want something to set my stuff apart,” O’Connell says.

About the Author: Mark Brend is an author and a musician. His books The Sound Of Tomorrow (Bloomsbury 2012) and Strange Sounds (Backbeat 2005) explore early electronic music and musical instruments. He lives in Devon, England. More info at

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