'It Was Totally Spontaneous': Behind The Scenes Of Denzel Curry's 'Like A Version' Performance

27 January 2020 | 11:00 am | Michael McGlynn

Michael McGlynn, of Vienna People Productions, was the musical director and keyboard player behind Denzel Curry's Like A Version. We asked him to pen a retrospective about what went into the record-breaking cover.

It was truly incredible to see the joy this Like A Version brought to literally millions of people around the world. And to be playing in the band, in that room, while Denzel Curry delivered THAT performance - it was amazing on so many levels. So how did we put it together? How did four local musicians get the chance to rock out with one of the biggest rappers in the world? What was Curry like to work with? These are questions I get asked all the time, so here’s how it went down. 

Seven Weeks To Go

Two days before Christmas 2018, I got an email from George Dalziel at Caroline Records asking if I would put a band together for Curry’s Like A Version. He would be doing Black Balloons as the original, with Sampa The Great guesting on a verse, and covering Rage Against The Machine’s Bulls On Parade. When I heard the choice of cover I was excited but had two main questions: Would we be reinterpreting the song? And what kind of vocal was Curry going to bring - would he rap it or scream it?

Four Weeks To Go

It’s a huge honour to be asked to do a Like A Version, but also a huge responsibility to be asked to put a band together. I have worked with so many incredible musicians both live and in the studio and have so many close friends who would do an amazing job. It was a gig I wanted to offer to so many people, but I knew I could only offer it to three. I had to consider that this was both a live performance and a studio recording, and the players needed to know how to rock but be super tight as well. Jamie Cameron on drums was obvious - we have done countless sessions together and he delivers every time. Joel Burton on bass is an absolute weapon - he rocks hard and has a powerful yet deeply funky groove. I had never met Harts before, but had followed him ever since seeing a doco on him and learning that Prince was a massive fan. I knew we needed a guitar god, and Harts kept coming to mind as the right player. The band was now locked in. I asked Denzel's management whether we were doing a rock version of Bulls On Parade or if they wanted us to work on a hip hop/boom bap arrangement for him and waited for their response. In the meantime we focused on Black Balloons and made sure we knew it inside out.

Left to right: Sampa The Great, Michael McGlynn Denzel Curry, Harts, Jamie Cameron 

Three Weeks To Go

“Let’s do the rock version,” said the email from Denzel's management. With that I let the band know: “We’re doing it as per the original. Let’s rock the fuck out of this.” Rehearsal was set for the day before recording - we had three hours with Denzel and Sampa The Great to rehearse the two songs in my studio. I thought that should be enough time.

One Day To Go

The band got to rehearsal at 10.30am and we went through the tunes before Denzel and his team arrived. It was sounding great as a four-piece. At this stage we still didn’t know how Denzel was going to deliver the vocal on Bulls On Parade but we knew we could adapt to anything. Denzel and his crew arrived at midday. He was super friendly and looked fresh in a white tee. His energy was through the roof from the start. I immediately liked him. 

After we’d all been introduced I asked Denzel what song he’d like to start with. His reply was, "We have to start with a game of Uno," and pulled out two decks, shuffled them and started dealing the hands. It felt like the longest game of Uno of all time. When someone won, we all said, “Ok, let’s rehearse now,” but Denzel wouldn’t start rehearsing until everyone’s hand was out. There were about eight of us playing and there were two decks. It took fucking forever. But it was hilarious and totally got us relaxed and made us forget about music for a while. 

"We have to start with a game of Uno."

Once Uno was over it was time to work. We started with Black Balloons - Sampa The Great’s verse was fire. Denzel killed it, of course. The band nailed it. The only question was how we’d finish it - and Denzel said he wanted to introduce the band members one by one. We played it a few times until we all knew we were good to go the next day. Then came the moment of truth - Bulls On Parade. We started the song, it was sounding heavy as shit, and then Denzel screamed, “Come with it now!!!” I still get shivers thinking about hearing that for the first time. We all knew it was going to be epic. Denzel powered through the song like a man possessed, and he just smashed it out of the park. The energy was crazy. I asked him if it hurt to sing it like that, and he replied casually, “No, no it doesn’t. I’ve learnt to do that on stage every night.” Turns out he’s a metal fan as well. He was made for this moment. We wrapped the rehearsal after running each of the songs a couple more times. Denzel headed back to his hotel to make sure he knew the words and memorised all our names so he could introduce us all during Black Balloons. He was a class act. The band was ready.

I left the band with one parting thought: “We know our parts. All we have to do is bring crazy energy to our performance and let Denzel go nuts.” 

Recording Day

I’ve been blessed to do two Like A Versions before-  L-FRESH The LION’s Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air and Loyle Carner’s Give Me The Night - and both had been in the small radio studio where it’s super cramped for space. For this one we were ushered into the big room downstairs where we could really spread out which was awesome. The production team at triple j are super friendly and totally pro. They worked out with the camera and lighting crew what would look best - the band kind of in a big semi-circle - and we set up. Soundcheck was great - the team got our headphones sounding perfect and we were ready to go. The first song was Black Balloons. We had such a great time playing that song - the chords are really fucking cool, the groove is super funky and Denzel and Sampa The Great just tore it up. The jam at the end was super fun and spontaneous. It was a success. 

 "It was a really magical moment in my life."

One down, one Rage Against The Machine cover to go. When we did our soundcheck for Bulls On Parade there was a major problem - the headphones kept falling off because we were headbanging too much. Denzel asked the audio team if we could lose the headphones and run it through floor monitors instead and they made it happen. It was time to record. At the start I saw Denzel crouch down. Then we got the cue to go; Jamie counted us in and we started playing. I expected Denzel to stand up, but he stayed crouched like a tiger ready to pounce. Next to him on the keyboards I was thinking, “What’s he doing?” It was all totally spontaneous and that’s what great performers do. But then, “COME WITH IT NOW!!” and he sprung to life. He was a freight train, and we were all attached and being hurtled down the tracks at a million miles an hour. 

It happened in slow motion, and yet seemed to take no time at all. Every beat, every scream, every note felt incredible. I was totally present and yet out of my body at the same time. And then it was over. Denzel calmly put down his mic and walked out, and I collapsed on my keyboard. My neck was sore for days afterwards. We all felt great but didn’t really think too much about the impact it would have. We thought we’d done a fucking kickarse cover on national radio and that was enough. It wasn’t until a couple of the crew came up and said, “That was literally the most energy we’ve ever seen in a Like A Version,” that we thought maybe we’d been a part of something out of the ordinary. Then we listened to the performance with Greg Wales, the outstanding engineer at triple j, and heard it back for the first time. Normally when you listen back to a take straight away you hear all the things you wish you could do again, but this time we were gobsmacked. The performance was undeniable. We headbanged some more and high-fived, laughed, danced and loved it. It was a really magical moment in my life.

After The Recording 

The reaction around the world has been insane. There are videos on Youtube of people reacting to the song that have almost a million views. It’s nuts. Getting in the top five of the Hottest 100 is literally a dream come true. Sure it’s for a cover, but when I watch that performance I realise we had one job - to make the performance the best it possibly could be. To play one of the greatest songs of all time, and do it justice. To back one of the greatest rappers of our time. Denzel Curry’s a freaking genius. It was perfect. And I’m forever grateful to have played a part.