10 Essential Stunt Songs

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Circle Jerks tour

Artists find plenty of entertaining variety in the well-worn constructs of the guitar-bass-drums band, dance music’s synths and samplers, and (at least) two turntables and a microphone. Sometimes, however, musicians look to create songs that do more than just use these tools or rest within these contexts. They’ll think of a goal to reach, a sound to make, a certain story to tell. Once determined, the rules of composition, performance and production get bent or even broken to reach that creative endpoint. Like history’s great stunt performers and extreme athletes, the results have as much chance to set records as to boggle laymen’s brains with their planning and self-indulgence. We’ve compiled a list of 10 essential stunt songs, a mixtape of music made solely because it could be.

stunt songs John CageJohn Cage – “4′ 33″”

As a composer, John Cage embraced the idea of chance as composer—he used the I Ching as a guiding principle for some of his works. As such he pioneered a technique known as “indeterminacy,” or as he described it, “the ability of a piece to be performed in substantially different ways.” As such, the work is essentially in the ear of the beholder, though in 1952 he composed a piece that could really only be performed in one way. Essentially comprising four minutes and 33 seconds of “silence,” the piece is intended to capture the sound of the room in which it is “performed,” so in that sense, it never sounds the same. The squeak of a chair, someone coughing, a whisper—it’s all part of the composition, which is unable to be predicted. It’s as conceptual as music gets, as the piece doesn’t comprise any actual music. It’s a blank slate. – JT

songs about guitars The BeatlesThe Beatles – “Revolution 9”
from The Beatles (The White Album) (1968; Apple)

What began as an outro to The White Album’s blues grind “Revolution 1” soon became a cut-up tape loop assemblage standing apart from pretty much everything else in The Beatles’ catalog. It was John Lennon’s most vain vanity-project song with the band. He was inspired by lions of the avant-garde like Karlheinz Stockhausen and flush with pride in Yoko Ono’s mad musical stylings, and lobbied hardest for this anti-pop to appear on the album. Yet “Revolution 9” was still a Beatles team project for better or worse: Yoko and George Martin’s voices haunt the recording, as do excerpts from Paul McCartney’s playing and arrangements; George Harrison helped produce it, while Ringo Starr helped select some of the four-dozen sound sources heard in the mix. This was not the first example of musique concrète or sound collage committed to tape and then to wax, but with a stamp of approval from The Fab Four it was arguably the first lifted into pop music’s bright spotlight. – AB

essential stunt songs Grateful DeadThe Grateful Dead – “Playing in the Band”
from The Grateful Dead (1971; Warner Bros.)

Progressive rockers, classical musicians, and metalheads of all breeds take pride in the technical prowess of their music. Apart from any innovative recording techniques or production trickery, it’s all in the arrangements. And the weirder the time signature, the better, right? There are countless documented instances of songs performed in whole or in part using rhythms far afield from your 4/4 stomps or 3/4 waltzes. We hunted high and low for a recognizable song recorded entirely using the same offbeat, uh, beats. We settled on the 10/4 time signature used throughout cult-favorite album cuts by Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, but first heard in pop and rock in this track from the 1971 self-titled live album by San Francisco’s favorite hippie dads. – AB

essential Stunt songs TGThrobbing Gristle – “United”
from D.O.A.: The Third and Final Report (1978; Industrial)

So much of what Throbbing Gristle did during their career was rooted in performance art that the proper single was frequently the exception rather than the rule. The band did, however, release a handful of singles, some of them even quite accessible, as evident from the sound of 1978’s minimal synth anthem “United.” So naturally, the track found its way onto their album released later that year, D.O.A.: The Third and Final Report. Only it doesn’t sound the same. In fact, it’s sped up 15 times as fast, so the entire four-minute track whizzes by in a baffling 16 seconds. It sounds not so much like a song as it does a brief noise. Which is entirely in character with the spirit of Throbbing Gristle’s confrontational art aesthetic. After all, this wasn’t commercial music for commercial people. – JT

essential Stunt songs Circle JerksCircle Jerks – “Golden Shower of Hits (Jerks on 45)”
from Golden Shower of Hits (1983; LAX)

Los Angeles punk rock pranksters pulled off a pretty amazing stunt of their own in 1983 with the title track from Golden Shower of Hits (with a suitably gross-out album cover). A medley of hit songs from the ’60s and ’70s, the five-minute-long track is a headfirst cannonball through jukebox platters, Jerks-style. The band plows through punk rock renditions of The Association’s “Along Comes Mary,” The Carpenters’ “Close to You,” Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight,” Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby,” Captain & Tenille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” and Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” all in one rowdy fell swoop. And to top it off, there’s a weird, creepy recitation of the medley’s title, not unlike some of The Beatles’ late ’60s psych-outs. – JT

essential stunt songs Napalm DeathNapalm Death – “You Suffer”
from Scum (Earache; 1987)

Holding the Guinness World Record for shortest recorded song certainly warrants a spot in this countdown. English grindcore pioneers, Napalm Death, originally wrote “You Suffer”—which clocks in at a brisk 1.316 seconds—during their From Enslavement to Obliteration demo sessions. Founding members Justin Broadrick, Nicholas Bullen, and Mick Harris admitted the song was originally a joke. However, the song would appear on their Scum demo, then later on its expanded release for Earache Records in 1987. It quickly became a staple in their live sets and helped the band break into mainstream success. The track soon surfaced on longstanding BBC Radio DJ, John Peel’s radio show and spurned the beginnings of a prolific career in extreme music for Napalm Death.

You suffer… but why? – CD

essential Stunt songs MobyMoby – “Thousand”
(1992; Instinct)

Before techno’s “little idiot” began raising his profile on Warner-affiliated labels, the Instinct label was compiling his early singles without his permission. The summer of 1993 held a brief respite from this licensing battle, during which Moby released an important double A-side single. “I Feel It” was a traditionally jumpy acid house cut, but history would hold a special place for its companion song “Thousand.” An aggressive experiment with sampled diva vocals and crushing percussion, it broke the 1,000 BPM barrier and landed Moby in the Guinness Book of World Records. To this day it’s considered the fastest piece of pop music ever recorded. – AB

essential stunt songs The OrbThe Orb – “Blue Room
(1992; Big Life)

You know how young children like to test limits of acceptable behavior before they get grounded by a parent or snapped at by the family pet? So went The Orb, the British dance-music outfit who defined the ambient dub genre with their Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld release in 1991. Toasting a decision to allow UK music chart eligibility for compositions up to 40 minutes long, Alex Paterson and friends created a standalone 40-minute single full of beeping, whooshing atmospheres broken up by liquified, muffled percussion and Jah Wobble’s ganja-friendly bass. It essentially condensed a trippy Paterson DJ night into one song, and with the UK immersed in rave culture at the time it saw surprising but serious success, reaching number 8 on the British charts. (By comparison, none of the longest top-10 hits in the US have cracked 10 minutes.) – AB

plunderphonics tracks Jason ForrestJason Forrest – “My 36 Favorite Punk Songs
from Shamelessly Exciting (Sonig; 2005)

There’s no official record on the books for “most punk songs sampled in one song,” though plunderphonic prankster Jason Forrest certainly gave it an earnest effort by cramming one two-minute song full of samples from the likes of The Ramones, Sex Pistols, Bad Brains, Black Flag, The Clash, Dead Kennedys and countless others. It ultimately becomes a fun game of spot-the-sample, wherein a single strum of a power chord can evoke a specific tone. And while there are certain cues—like “Blitzkrieg Bop” or Plastic Bertrand’s “Ca Plane Pour Moi”—it all whizzes by so quickly and maddeningly that it’s more about building a Frankenstein’s monster from these 36 parts than necessarily highlighting these elements on their own. – JT

essential stunt songs Brian EnoBrian Eno – “Reflection
(2017; Warp)

Brian Eno’s Reflection is a notable enough feat in that it’s an album-length track that spans 66 minutes. Only so many artists can create a seamless piece of music for that length of time. And, indeed, it’s a gorgeous ambient creation that’s soothing and therapeutic—a much needed salve after 2016’s shitshow (and before 2017’s shitshow, I suppose). But when Eno released “Reflection,” it also came in the form of an iOS app (at a somewhat high cost of $30) in which the piece is “regenerative,” meaning that it can be played endlessly. Yet it isn’t merely a loop—the algorithm on which it’s written allows “Reflection” to be a constantly changing piece of music. Eno likens it to “sitting by a river,” and there’s certainly a therapeutic quality to it. Surely this is the only infinite piece of music that never sounds exactly the same with each new regenerative cycle. – JT

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