As Pharrell Williams continues to bask in the success of his global hit single “Happy,” he reminisces with the Dandy Goat entertainment team about more difficult times.
“The original, lesser-known version of the song was called ‘Crappy,’” laughs Williams over a pitcher of Cadillac Gold margarita at a swanky Manhattan brasserie. “It was a lot slower, so l guess you couldn’t really dance to it, so that was the first big mistake.”
He remembers it was raining the day the song was recorded. “I’d had a row with my girlfriend the night before, and l hadn’t slept well,” he says. “I hadn’t had any breakfast.”
Williams recalls that when the sound engineer turned up, he’d just been ticketed for running a red light while taking his sick pet rabbit to the vet to be euthanized; and he’d spent the previous day cleaning out his basement, which had been flooded by a burst water pipe.
“So the lyrics pretty much wrote themselves,” Williams chuckles ruefully.
He continues, “As for the melody — if you can call it that — l remember we were just bouncing these negative vibes off each other in the studio. There was this amazing synergy of hopelessness. We started messing around fretfully on the mixing console, and we were mashing up these breaks from ‘Atmosphere’ by Joy Division, and Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Sisters of Mercy.’ The sound engineer layered in the bass line from Eva Cassidy’s version of ‘Over the Rainbow’ — the song that was released after she died of cancer — but he felt it was too light and optimistic, so he had to take it down a couple of keys. And run it backwards.”
In the end it all came together. “We really felt that we’d captured a unique moment of despair,” says Williams.
The video to accompany the song was filmed on a dark winter morning in an abandoned steel plant in Syracuse, New York, featuring as extras local homeless people and mental patients, shuffling aimlessly in stagnant pools of industrial slurry. Williams was excited when he was told by his record company that the video for “Crappy” had gone viral, but it turned out that it was mainly amongst goths, emo kids and Satanists, and many of the posts were accompanied by people planning school shootings or threatening to commit suicide.
But looking back now, Williams can see the bright side. “l heard that a Lebanese kid from Dearborn, Michigan who had gone to fight in Syria used the song as the background music for his martyrdom video,” he says, wincing. “It’s horrible when you think about it, to be associated with something as awful as that. But on the upside it gave a real boost to my name recognition the Middle East, and that helped to contribute to ‘Happy’ becoming such a big global hit later on.”