10 Hit Songs That Were Almost Never Released
By Rudie Obias
It might be hard to imagine a world where Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" wasn't on your gym playlist, but if the country star-turned-pop princess' label had gotten their way, the song would never have made it to the airwaves. Ever. Swift is hardly alone in the near-miss hits department. From Marvin Gaye to Metallica, here are 10 hit songs that almost never saw the light of day.
1. “KISS” // PRINCE
Prince originally wrote the song “Kiss” for the Minneapolis funk band Mazarati. After he and the band collaborated on the song, Prince ended up releasing it as the lead single from his 1986 album Parade. ("It's too good for you guys," The Purple One told Mazarati’s producer—and Prince’s engineer—David Z. "I’m taking it back.") Prince’s record label didn’t like the song because it was so minimal, but Prince insisted that the song was going to be a hit: “That's the single and you're not getting another one until you put it out,'" David Z recalled Prince saying at the time, according to Sound on Sound. “Kiss” went on to the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and would later receive a Grammy Award.
2. “SHAKE IT OFF” // TAYLOR SWIFT
Before 2014, Taylor Swift was primarily a country music star. For her fifth album, 1989, she went in a much different, much poppier direction—one that her label, Big Machine, was not exactly thrilled with. "Everybody was really scared for me to change up the formula," Taylor Swift told MTV in 2014. "From the way people at my label would see it was, 'Why are you messing with that?'" According to MTV, the label even went as far as trying to block 1989—including its catchy first single, "Shake It Off"—from release.
But Swift insisted that pop was the direction she wanted to go in. Still, even after winning that fight (and fights about the cover art and the album name), Big Machine tried to convince Swift to put a few country songs on 1989, so her fans wouldn’t be alienated by her transition from country to pop. Swift refused: "If you throw things on the album that don't belong on this album, people will see right through it because people are not stupid—especially music fans," she said.
“Shake It Off” debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed on the chart for 50 consecutive weeks, which makes it Swift's biggest single to date.
3. “(I CAN’T GET NO) SATISFACTION” // THE ROLLING STONES
In 1965, Keith Richards was recording a guitar track in the middle of the night when he fell asleep. When he listened to the tape later, he heard two minutes of acoustic guitar riffs and "then me snoring for the next forty minutes," he wrote in Keith Richards: In His Own Words. He brought one of the riffs to Mick Jagger, and the pair began to compose a song with it. That riff eventually became "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"—and, if Richards had had his way, it never would have seen the light of day.
Richards hated pretty much everything about "Satisfaction": He thought it sounded too much like a folk song and too closely resembled “Dancing In The Street” by Martha & the Vandellas, which was a big hit at the time. He considered the recording an unfinished demo and didn’t want to release it.
Fortunately, the other members of the Rolling Stones, along with their manager and the sound engineer, felt the song was a hit. "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" went on to reach #1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and UK Singles in 1965.
4. JIMMY MACK // MARTHA & THE VANDELLAS
One of Martha & the Vandellas’ later hits, “Jimmy Mack” should have been released much earlier. Originally recorded in June 1964, this song was about a woman hoping her man returns before she falls in love with another potential suitor. Motown’s Quality Control quashed it, though, and the song spent the next two years gathering dust on some shelf. Why the song was nixed isn't clear, although some have speculated that it was because the song sounded too similar to The Supremes; others believe it was quashed because of concerns that the escalating Vietnam War would give the song an unwanted political dimension.
In 1966, the song was finally released on the album Watchout! and started to get traction on local radio stations. According to legend, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. heard the song and exclaimed, “get this thing ready to go out right away, this is a damn hit record.”
It was released as a single in 1967, and got to #10 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Many music historians feel its success could be tied to the same thing that may have stopped its release: the Vietnam War. As Billboard said when they voted it the 82nd best girl group song of all time, “the song took on special resonance [in the late 1960s], as girls across the country were pleading for their own Jimmy Macks to hurry back from overseas, before fates a lot worse than romantic betrayal befell them.”
5. “SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT” // NIRVANA
In 1991, When Kurt Cobain first played the now-iconic opening riff for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, Novoselic thought it was “so ridiculous” and Grohl didn’t like it at all. The band tooled around the riff to make it something everyone liked, but Grohl remained unconvinced. “I really remember thinking, ‘That is such a Pixies rip,’” Grohl said in a BBC documentary in 2011. “It was almost thrown away at one point because it just seemed too much like the Pixies.” After weeks of working on the song, Nirvana recorded and released it as the lead-off track of Nevermind in late 1991. It became an instant hit, peaking at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and becoming an anthem of a new generation and music movement during the early '90s.
6. “NOTHING ELSE MATTERS” // METALLICA
Originally, Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” was not intended to be released. It was a very personal song that lead singer and guitarist James Hetfield wrote in the early '90s for his then-girlfriend, and he would play the song for her over the phone while he was on tour. When drummer Lars Ulrich overheard it, he wanted to release it as a Metallica song.
“That was the song that I thought was least Metallica, least likely to ever played by us, the last song anyone would really want to hear. It was a song for myself in my room on tour when I was bumming out about being away from home,” Hetfield told the Village Voice. “I’m grateful that the guys forced me to take it out of my tape player and make it Metallica.”
7. “WHAT’S GOING ON” // MARVIN GAYE
After witnessing police brutality and violence during an anti-war protest in People's Park in Berkeley, California, songwriters Al Cleveland and Renaldo "Obie" Benson wrote the protest song "What’s Going On." Though it was originally intended for Benson’s group the Four Tops, they turned it down because of its subject matter.
The pair later offered "What's Going On" to Marvin Gaye, who jumped at the chance to record the song, despite Berry Gordy Jr.’s protests. Gordy famously said, "Marvin, don't be ridiculous. That's taking things too far." Undeterred, Gaye re-worked and recorded "What's Going On" and presented it to Gordy, who said it was "the worst thing I ever heard in my life." He didn’t want to release it. Gaye threatened to never record another song for Motown unless they released the song; the record label eventually released it under the subsidiary Tamla Records.
"What’s Going On" would go on to be a hit song on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100; in 2011, Rolling Stone ranked it #4 on the 500 Greatest Songs of All-Time list.
8. “WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME” // U2
According to Rolling Stone, as U2 was working on their album The Joshua Tree, the Edge decided to compose “the ultimate U2 live song,” emerging with the idea of “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
Or at least parts of it.
According to bassist Adam Clayton, the Edge “had the beginning and the end but he didn’t really have the bit in the middle, so we would spend interminable hours figuring out chord changes to get the two bits to join up.” And those hours started to weigh heavily on producer Brian Eno.
Eno decided that everyone would be best served if an “accident” was arranged that erased the tapes of the song, although relevant parties have suggested different motivations for the action. Rolling Stone quotes fellow producer Daniel Lanois as saying that “Brian thought if he could just erase it from the tapes we could stop working on it ... I'm sure they would have just come up with another song.”
Meanwhile, Eno has said that he felt fixing up the song would go much faster if they could restart work with a completely blank slate. Either way, he wasn’t successful in erasing the tapes (some witnesses claimed that Eno “almost had to be restrained, forcibly, by the tape op”), and the eventual music video would go on to win a Grammy and the song became a live performance classic.
9. “LIKE A ROLLING STONE” // BOB DYLAN
In 2011, Rolling Stone named Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” the greatest song of all time, and it is one of the most influential parts of a legendary opus that garnered Dylan a Nobel Prize in Literature. But writing in the The New York Times, Shaun Considine, then-coordinator of new releases at Columbia, said it was almost shelved.
According to Considine, the song was a hit among the artists and repertoire department and promotion department, but the sales and marketing department had a different view. On one level they objected to rock ’n’ roll, although the stated problem was with the six-minute runtime, so the executives wanted to cut the song in half.
This was a period of upheaval at Columbia, so Considine explains that “the single was to be moved from an ‘immediate special’ to an ‘unassigned release.’ Translated, it was in limbo, soon to be dropped, no doubt, into the dark graveyard of canceled releases.”
Considine then takes credit for saving it, saying he took the studio cut acetate to a trendy Manhattan club where everyone immediately loved it. At the club were two of the most powerful radio figures in New York, who demanded the record. Columbia obliged—splitting it in two, three minutes on one side of the 45, three minutes on the other. DJs responded by splicing the two sides together, and the complete song was broadcast to the world. When the single was released soon after it was the full version, and a music revolution had begun.
10. “SOMEBODY THAT I USED TO KNOW” // GOTYE FEATURING KIMBRA
According to Australian singer/songwriter Gotye, “Somebody That I Used To Know” was a tough song to write and record. He hit a roadblock when he was penning it—he couldn’t figure out how to finish the story about a bad breakup he was trying to tell in the song. “I wrote the first verse, the second verse and I’d got to the end of the first chorus and for the first time ever I thought, ’There’s no interesting way to add to this guy’s story,'” Gotye—whose real name is Wouter De Backer—told the Herald Sun. “It felt weak.”
But he powered through—only to run into another roadblock during recording. The original “high-profile” female vocalist he booked for the recording session backed out at the last minute and he couldn’t find a suitable replacement. He even tried his girlfriend for the second vocal, but they couldn’t capture the bitterness the song required. “I was so close to putting [the song] in the too hard basket," he said. "I thought maybe it wasn’t meant to be, that the album was pretty good without it."
On his producer’s recommendation, Gotye brought on New Zealand singer Kimbra to record the song, which went on to be a massive worldwide hit for Gotye: It sold more than 7.9 million copies in the United States alone.