25 Things You Might Not Know About “Hallelujah”

It was written in 1984 but only became a hit in the digital age. The amazing story of “the most perfect song in the world.”

It’s one of the best-loved songs in the history of recorded music, and the subject of a new book

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It’s been covered by all these people

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In fact there are over 300 known versions

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Bono has called it “the most perfect song in the world”. And yet, “Hallelujah” didn’t become a hit until decades after it was written…

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1. It was originally composed by Leonard Cohen, and released on his 1984 album “Various Positions”

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2. But Cohen’s record company hated the album, describing it as a “disaster”

Mike Lawrie / Getty Images

Upon hearing “Various Positions”, CBS chief Walter Yetnikoff told the singer-songwriter:

“What is this? This isn’t pop music. We’re not releasing it. This is a disaster.”

Many years later Cohen told the Canadian Broadcasting Company:

“It wasn’t considered good enough for the American market. So there’s a certain mild sense of revenge that arose in my heart.”

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3. Another label put out the album, but “Hallelujah” wasn’t even released as a single. People just kind of ignored it

Rolling Stone’s review of the album didn’t even mention the song.

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And that’s how things stayed for several years

Mike Cassese / Reuters
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4. The thing is, Cohen’s is not the famous version. No, the arrangement everyone’s familiar with is the work of John Cale, who covered the song in 1991

He recorded it for “I’m Your Fan”, a Leonard Cohen tribute album.

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5. Cohen’s original is very different, and features a whole bunch of verses that no-one sings anymore

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6. In fact Cohen wrote around 80 draft verses for “Hallelujah”

Chris Pizzello, File / AP

Some of them were penned at the Royalton Hotel in New York. Cohen found it such hard going he was reduced to sitting on the floor in his underwear, banging his head on the floor.

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7. When Cohen heard that Cale was interested in covering the song, he faxed him FIFTEEN PAGES of potential lyrics

Cale then picked out the “cheekiest verses”.

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8. Jeff Buckley then covered Cale’s version on his 1994 “Grace” album. But that wasn’t a huge hit either. At least, not initially

Chris Jackson / Getty Images

Many people think of Buckley’s as the most powerful version, though he didn’t live to enjoy its success. The singer-songwriter, who died in 1997, described his intimate interpretation of the song as “a hallelujah to the orgasm… an ode to life and love.”

But like Cohen’s original, Buckley’s version was never officially released as a single - it first charted posthumously in 2006.

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9. In fact, ‘Hallelujah’ didn’t really hit the mass consciousness until 2001, when Rufus Wainwright’s version appeared on the “Shrek” soundtrack

Though, confusingly, it was John Cale’s version that featured in the film itself. Whatever, the soundtrack album sold over 2 million copies.

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10. The film’s musical directors assumed the studio execs would object, but to their surprise, they loved the song

Codirector Andrew Adamson says:

“I expected the studio would push me to do something more popular, which they often do, but the emotion really outweighed the expectation.”

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11. Rufus Wainwright had known Jeff Buckley while he was alive, but only came to love “Hallelujah” in the wake of his death

Victoria Will / Reuters

His explanation:

“I was alone and probably on something. I put his version of the song on, and it was this kind of cosmic communion. It kind of hit me how great he was, and how fabulous the song is, and how foolish I had been for being so petty.”

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12. It was “American Idol”, though, that propelled “Hallelujah” to the top of the charts at last

In March 2008 “Hallelujah” topped Billboard’s Hot Digital Songs in the U.S. after a performance of the song by Jason Castro in the seventh season of American Idol.

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13. From there, it started to appear EVERYWHERE

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14. Imogen Heap’s version soundtracked Marissa’s death in the third-season finale of “The O.C.”

It was a moving echo of the season one finale, that had been soundtracked by Buckley’s version.

However, Heap was initially reluctant to take on such a well-worn anthem. She explains in the book:

“I had actually just sent an e-mail to the show saying I was sorry, but I wouldn’t be able to give this the time it requires. I was in the shower and feeling a bit sad about it, and I started singing it and thought, ‘Why don’t I just do it this way—do it a cappella, with no music or production, as if I were singing in the shower?’ So I got out and I sent them another e-mail back.”

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15. On 21 December 2008, “Hallelujah” became the first song in 51 years to occupy the first and second positions on the UK Singles Chart

The X Factor winner Alexandra Burke’s and Jeff Buckley’s version were the two highest-selling songs in the week beginning 15 December 2008. Leonard Cohen’s version reached Number 36 in the same chart.

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16. In 2010, Justin Timberlake recorded the song for a Hope For Haiti Now benefit concert

The Holy Or The Broken’s author Alan Light describes Trousersnake’s version as a triumph:

“It was more ragged and more powerful than anything you might expect from the former NSync-er. It was the broken hallelujah in full force.”

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17. The great thing about “Hallelujah” is that it can be adapted for different occasions. Witness Adam Sandler’s version, directed at Hurricane Sandy

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18. It took on a new emotional resonance in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting

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19. Ill Divo did an operatic version

The group’s David Miller told Rolling Stone:

“The way the melody is structured is quite genius. It builds, it lifts, then there’s always the one word coming back down. It’s almost like sex – it builds, it builds, there’s that moment, and then the afterglow. To go on that journey, the whole thing taken as an experience, is wonderful.”

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20. Sheryl Crow sped it up a bit

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21. It even sounds good on the ukulele

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22. Not every cover hits the mark. Bono’s was so bad - by his own admission - he offered the world an apology

In The Holy And The Broken, the U2 singer says:

“”The lyric explains it best. There’s the holy and the broken hallelujah, and mine was definitely the broken one. … It was a snapshot, a Polaroid, of a place I was in, but you really shouldn’t go putting these things out when they’re done in such a private way. Intimacy was the currency of the occasion.”

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23. Cohen’s response to the song’s ubiquity?

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“I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it”

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24. And his explanation of the song’s meaning?

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Well, he’s always been cagy about that - but he did once offer this by way of explanation…

View this embed ›

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25. “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.’”

Mike Lawrie / Getty Images
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Amen to that

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