Sometimes songs are written and recorded in a straightforward manner; other times, they follow a twisted path, like a drunken Igor stumbling through a graveyard, collecting random body parts for his master to imbue with life.
Rupert Holmes needed one final track for his fifth album, Partners In Crime. With a deadline looming and few other options, he brought a song into the studio titled “People Need Other People,” a number written a few years prior with less than stellar lyrics. After playing the song for his band, the drummer noted it had a somewhat complicated rhythm and the beat Holmes wanted could more easily be accomplished by utilizing a second percussionist. They procured a session drummer post-haste and ran through one take of the song to see how it sounded.
Listening to the playback, Holmes heard potential but knew it sounded a little rough. He called for another take only to find his hired musician unconscious as a result of too much 70s (this was the period, after all, when even White House cabinet members were hanging out at Studio 54 and allegedly snorting la cocaína). Running out of time, money, and drummers, Holmes improvised.
Using a primitive form of sampling, he found a small section of the song where everyone sounded good, and then looped it. This was before computers and automated studios, so Holmes had to dub the section over and over again and then repeatedly slice the tape with a razor and join the pieces with tape (that’s how they used to make edits prior to digital recording — “Escape” contains about 60 slices). With most of the music in hand, the lyrics now stood as the primary obstacle. He erased them and started from scratch.
Holmes wrote dozens and dozens of lines, discarding them as he went along. The night before the final day of recording, he still had no lyrics. Picking up a newspaper lying around his apartment, Holmes turned to the personal ads and the words suddenly came to him in a flash. (Originally, the chorus started with “If you like Humphrey Bogart, and getting caught in the rain.” Thankfully, Holmes changed it to the tropical drink five minutes before recording the song.)
In the studio the next day, Holmes laid down a practice vocal—making up the phrasing as he went along—so his guitarist would know where to add fills and a solo. When he went back later to record a proper vocal, Holmes found he couldn’t top the spirit and energy of his demo — the first take became the final take. (Considering vocals are often “comped”—compiled from multiple takes, sometimes down to the syllable—even for the greatest singers, one vocal take is a rarity.)
So “Escape” was cobbled together from a snippet of usable music, a lyric written overnight, and a vocal which hadn’t been attempted before and wasn’t intended as anything but a guide. The final product proceeded to go to #1 for three weeks at the end of 1979. It may have been even bigger but buyers initially had difficulty locating the single — they kept asking clerks for “that pina colada song,” unaware that the title was actually just “Escape.” Sales shot up once Holmes agreed to change the title.
For the last 30 years, Rupert Holmes has kept busy writing Tony Award-winning Broadway plays and an Emmy-nominated cable TV series. Asked about his most famous song, he responded, “I have a feeling that if I saved an entire orphanage from a fire and carried the last child out on my shoulders, as I stood there charred and smoking, they’d say, ‘Aren’t you the guy who wrote The Pina Colada Song?'”