Magic Carpet Ride: How Music Gets Created

Here’s a story of the unpredictable, improvisational process of creativity. It’s the story of how the 1968 hit song “Magic Carpet Ride” was created by the band Steppenwolf.

Maybe the process works this way: A songwriter writes a song, usually alone, and then gathers the band together to perform the song. If that’s what happens, then musical creativity is a solitary act. But that’s not how most songs are created. They emerge from collaboration, with unpredictable twists and turns.

Here’s the creative process behind “Magic Carpet Ride,” according to two of the musicians who played on the recording:

  1. A guitarist named Mars Bonfire (not his birth name!), who was not in the band, visited the studio and was playing a new song he’d written.
  2. At some point, the bass player, Rushton Moreve, starting playing a bouncy riff that he always played on sound checks on the band’s first tour, but which had never been part of any song.
  3. Mars liked the bass line, and started playing some chords with it. Not related to his original song; they were just playing around and having fun.
  4. The recording engineers in the sound booth loved it. They said “Hey, keep doing that. That’s really good.”
  5. Then, the whole band joined in. But all they had was that one-measure bass riff. What else could they add?
  6. Mars improvised some chords and suggested they could be an instrumental interlude. (Later, singer John Kay would write lyrics for this interlude that made it into the final song: “Close your eyes girl/look inside girl/let the sound take you away”)
  7. The lead guitarist, Michael Monarch, loved thick distorted guitar sounds. John asked Michael to do some loud feedback through his amp, and then John improvised matching lines in the high register. They improvised the same few bars twice.
  8. The recording engineers had actually hit the “record” button, even though John and Michael were just playing around. For the final recording, the engineers edited together pieces of the two different takes, to make it sound better.
  9. Everyone loved the track they’d recorded, but they still needed lyrics. John took home a cassette and played it in his home stereo, trying to think of lyrics that worked. He’d just bought a new stereo and it was high-end, the best available. John started singing lyrics about how awesome his stereo sounded: “right between my sound machine/On a cloud of sound” and then the rest of the lyrics were improvised after that.

Anyway…by now you’ve probably stopped reading. But at least, you can see the long and unpredictable creative process. This is how music is created, the music that we hear and love. It doesn’t come from the mind of an inspired, or tortured, songwriter–it emerges from a collaborative process.

  • This story is taken from Marc Myers in the Wall Street Journal, Friday July 15, 2016, page D6.
  • You might also want to read John Seabrook’s book The Song Machine about today’s pop music hits.

4 thoughts on “Magic Carpet Ride: How Music Gets Created

  1. This reminds me of my surprise when I found out that many amazing sounds I attributed to the Beatles, such as the chamber music in “Yesterday” was actually added on by music producer George Martin , called the “Fifth Beatle” who recently died at 90! Also mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, http://www.wsj.com/articles/beatles-producer-george-martin-has-died-says-manager-1457511966 .[QUOTE]

    ‘On Wednesday, Paul McCartney recalled one such time. “I brought the song ‘Yesterday’ to a recording session and the guys in the band suggested that I sang it solo and accompany myself on guitar,” he wrote in a statement on his website. “After I had done this George Martin said to me, ‘Paul I have an idea of putting a string quartet on the record.’ I said, ‘Oh no George, we are a rock and roll band and I don’t think it’s a good idea’. With the gentle bedside manner of a great producer he said to me, ‘Let us try it and if it doesn’t work we won’t use it and we’ll go with your solo version’.” The song, with Mr. Martin’s guidance, went on to become “one of the most recorded songs ever with versions by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and thousands more,” the musician added. ‘

    Of course, he started with wonderful sounds.

    Isn’t it surprising that a business newspaper would have long articles with insights into music – but then both successful businesses and bands are based on collaboration.

  2. That’s how some music is created for sure but as you know not all. It is a complicated process across many kinds of music.

  3. You’re right, I should clarify: What I meant is all RECORDED music. All of the music that we hear, basically, is produced. I have listened to a lot of singer-songwriters, who write their own songs and then play them in folk clubs, without any other instruments and without production. And yes, that is certainly a creative process–although even that writing process is wandering, iterative, and unpredictable (according to the musicians I know and interviews I have read). But, when those same singer-songwriters are recorded for an album, their compositions are produced and with multiple instruments. And that process is just like any other production process.

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