NEW YORK — For those who don't get out to the old ballgame very often, "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)" is the song everyone sings that isn't the national anthem.
It could be called the national anthem of trash-talking, because it's the song hometown fans sing as a taunt when an opposing pitcher is getting pounded, or an opponent has fouled out of a close game, or the other team's goalie has given up three soft goals and is about to get yanked.
Millions of fans, maybe tens of millions, lustily join this chorus, blissfully unaware of the fact the song was originally a desperate attempt to craft something no one would ever want to play or hear.
For better or worse, that plan didn't fly. Somehow, "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)" was an almost overnight No. 1 hit.
Sometimes you can't lose for trying.
The story began in New York's Mercury Records studio one night in late 1969, when writer/producer Paul Leka needed something to put on the B side of a record by his friend Gary De Carlo.
Years earlier, Leka and De Carlo were in a band in Bridgeport, Conn., and when Leka got to the city, Mercury and the big time, he landed De Carlo a recording deal. They cut four De Carlo songs and were convinced every one of them was the stuff of which rock stars are made.
So now they just had a minor housekeeping chore to take care of. Because singles had to have two sides, they needed something really unpalatable to put on the other side of the first release, just to be sure some muddleheaded deejay wouldn't accidentally play the wrong side and screw up the momentum for the surefire hit.
You wouldn't think finding a mediocre song would be that difficult, given the history of popular music, but finding a guaranteed flop was a little trickier. The old "Springtime for Hitler" dilemma.
So Leka rang up another old pal, Dan Frashuer, and they fished out a song they wrote in 1961, "Kiss Him Goodbye":
He'll never love you, the way that I love you
'Cause if he did, no no, he wouldn't make you cry
He might be thrillin' baby but a-my love (my love, my love)
So dog-gone willin'
So kiss him (I wanna see you kiss him, wanna see you kiss him)
Go on and kiss him goodbye
Yes, they agreed, this one had no potential whatever.
Which is why they had abandoned it in the first place, after writing just two short verses.
But, now that they'd resuscitated it, they needed to stretch it out — maybe to four minutes, since that further ensured no top-40 station would touch it.
Leka suggested nonsense syllables — "na na na na, na na na na," the kind of thing that was called scat singing when Ella Fitzgerald did it and "filler" when anybody else did it.
So Leka cut some "na na na na" choruses, while De Carlo or Frashuer yelled "hey hey" as a further joke.
They briefly considered replacing those na-na-na-nas with lyrics. But why bother?
Also, why bother to bring in professional session musicians to do a record no one would want to play? Leka did the drumming himself.
Triumphantly, they presented the results to Mercury so it could press up a few promotional copies, and a few days later they got the really bad news.
Mercury liked "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)."
Mercury thought it had hit potential.
Talk about a nightmare.
Hurried negotiations produced a compromise. The song would be taken off the B side of De Carlo's Mercury record, which was going to released under the name Garrett Scott, and shuttled over to Mercury's subsidiary label Fontana, where it would be released under a different name so it couldn't undercut De Carlo's serious records.
Of course, there was no other artist on "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)." It couldn't be put out under Leka's or Frashuer's name. So an artist had to be created, fast.
As the story goes, Leka was leaving the studio about 5 a.m. and, as will happen in Manhattan, steam was rising on the near-empty streets from the manhole covers and the underground plumbing.
"Steam!" thought Leka.
And a few weeks later, "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)" by an entirely nonexistent group called Steam was released on Fontana. And shortly it was No. 1 — scorned as bubblegum in some quarters, but undeniably catchy.
It's not hard to guess the other half of the story. All four Garrett Scott songs bombed.
De Carlo, meanwhile, annoyed about the whole thing, refused to participate in any more "Steam" projects, which was a problem both for followup songs and for putting a live Steam on the road. Once the song hit, Mercury was quite insistent that Leka find someone — anyone — who could tour to promote it.
So Leka recruited another band from Bridgeport, which became Steam and did the road trips.
The band then cut a couple of records under the Steam name, none of them hits.
And a few years later, someone at some sporting event picked up "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)" and the gloating hasn't stopped since.
As with "White Christmas," probably 90 people out of a hundred can sing only the chorus.
And probably only two out of a hundred even know it has verses.
But its message in the arena is as clear as the message to the gladiator when the emperor turned his thumbs down.
Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, goodbye.