Hallelujah, one of Leonard Cohen’s best-loved songs and covered multiple times, nearly didn’t get released.
The song, which would later take both first and second positions in the UK chart with different cover versions, featured on Cohen’s 1984 album Various Positions.
But the singer-songwriter told how he enjoyed a “mild sense of revenge” over its success because his record label did not think the album was good enough.
According to Alan Light’s book about the song, CBS chief Walter Yetnikoff was unimpressed with the whole album.
“What is this?” he is quoted as saying. “This isn’t pop music. We’re not releasing it. This is a disaster.”
Asked about the song’s success in 2009, Cohen told the Canadian Broadcasting Service he had “a mild sense of revenge in my heart”.
“The record that it came from… was called Various Positions (1984) – (a) record the label wouldn’t put out. They didn’t think it was good enough,” he said.
“It had songs like Dance Me To The End Of Love, Hallelujah, If It Be Your Will. So, there was a mild sense of revenge in my heart.”
The record was eventually released on an indie label but Hallelujah – which would eventually get covered by everyone from Willie Nelson to Justin Timberlake – was not put out as a single.
One artist who had discovered it early on, though, was Bob Dylan, who sang it at his concerts in 1988.
It was John Cale recording a version of the song in 1991, and whose arrangement inspired a recording by Jeff Buckley a few years later, which made the song the success it is today.
Buckley once said of the song’s meaning: “Whoever listens carefully to Hallelujah will discover that it is a song about sex, about love, about life on earth.
“The ‘hallelujah’ is not a homage to a worshipped person, idol or god, but the ‘hallelujah’ of the orgasm. It’s an ode to life and love.”
Cohen himself is said to have taken five years to write the song, at one point sitting in his underwear in his room at a New York hotel, filling notebooks, banging his head against the carpeted floor.
“To find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat,” he once said.
There are now said to be around 300 covers of Hallelujah, which Bono – who also sang it – dubbed “the most perfect song in the world”.
The song soared in popularity after Rufus Wainwright’s version appeared on the Shrek soundtrack in 2001.
It became ubiquitous on American Idol and in 2008 it became the first song in 51 years to take the first (Alexandra Burke) and second spots (Buckley) on the UK singles chart.
It has been performed by everyone from Bon Jovi, Norah Jones, k.d. lang and Susan Boyle, and was featured in TV shows The OC and The West Wing.
Cohen has said of the song: “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled.
“But there are moments when we can reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by Hallelujah’.”
He has stated, modestly, of its success: “I think it’s a good song, but too many people sing it.”