Early Demo Versions of 11 Hit Songs
By Rudie Obias
Hit singles have to start somewhere. Listening to a recording artist figure out how to make a song work can be just as enjoyable as listening to the finished product. Here are the early demo versions of 11 famous songs.
1. "THRILLER" // MICHAEL JACKSON
Originally called “Starlight,” songwriter Rod Temperton and producer Quincy Jones changed the title and lyrics to “Thriller,” believing it would work better as a commercial hit.
“When I did my ‘Thriller’ demo, I called it ‘Starlight,’” Temperton told The Telegraph. “Quincy said to me, 'You managed to come up with a title for the last album, see what you can do for this album.' I said, 'Oh great,' so I went back to the hotel, wrote 200 or 300 titles, and came up with the title 'Midnight Man.’ The next morning, I woke up, and I just said this word … Something in my head just said, this is the title. You could visualize it on the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as 'Thriller.’”
2. "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT" // NIRVANA
Before producer Butch Vig worked with Nirvana, the Seattle-based rock band’s sound wasn’t quite as polished. The rehearsal demo of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from 1991 features very different lyrics and structure than the iconic single that kicked off Nevermind later in the year.
3. "STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER" // THE BEATLES
The demo version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” features John Lennon trying to figure out the song’s structure with his bandmates. The Beatles reportedly spent 45 hours over the course of a month tweaking and refining the song during November 1966.
4. "UNDER PRESSURE" // QUEEN
Before it was titled “Under Pressure,” Queen noodled around with an unfinished song called “Feel Like” until David Bowie sat in with the British rock band for a recording session in Queen's studio in Montreux, Switzerland. The demo version is very rough and is missing Freddie Mercury and Bowie’s playful duet and bassist John Deacon’s iconic bassline.
5. "PSYCHO KILLER" // TALKING HEADS
Recorded in 1975, the CBS demo version of “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads is more low-key than the version released on Talking Heads: 77. The demo track was recorded as a trio with David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, and Chris Franz before Jerry Harrison joined the band.
6. "TAKE ON ME" // A-HA
Before singer Morten Harket joined Norwegian band A-ha, guitarist Magne Furuholmen and keyboardist Pål Waaktaar-Savoy were a rock duo called Bridges who had a catchy song called “The Juicy Fruit Song.” When Harket joined in 1982, they changed their name to A-ha and re-worked the song into “Lesson One,” which catered to the singer’s dynamic vocal range. A-ha eventually sped up the song, which evolved into the first version of “Take on Me,” which was released in 1984.
However, it was a commercial flop until the band re-recorded the song in 1985 and re-released it with a stylish pencil sketch rotoscope music video from director Steve Barron that we know today.
7. "UNDONE (THE SWEATER SONG)" // WEEZER
In 1992, Weezer recorded a demo version of “Undone (The Sweater Song)” for The Kitchen Tape demo session, which was named after the place to get the best sound for the drum kit during recording in the Amherst House in West Los Angeles, where the band rehearsed. The Kitchen Tape features other classic Weezer singles, such as “My Name Is Jonas,” “Say It Ain't So,” “The World Has Turned,” and “Only In Dreams.”
8. "BULLET WITH BUTTERFLY WINGS" // SMASHING PUMPKINS
During the fall of 1994, Billy Corgan recorded a less angry acoustic demo of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” at his home recording studio, Sadlands. Interestingly, the song was originally written during the Siamese Dream recording sessions in 1992.
9. "IS THIS IT" // THE STROKES
The Strokes recorded an early demo version of “Is This It” in the year 2000. At the time, the band members had part-time jobs and would record at night; eventually, they caught the eye of manager Ryan Gentles, who immediately booked The Strokes for four shows at the Mercury Lounge in New York City that December.
10. "LAST GOODBYE" // JEFF BUCKLEY
Before Jeff Buckley released his debut album Grace in 1994, the song “Last Goodbye” was originally titled “Unforgiven.” In fact, Buckley’s iconic Live at Sin-é recording from 1993 listed the song as “Unforgiven.” The demo version is unrefined, as the singer/songwriter recorded it with his band Babylon Dungeon in L.A. in September 1990. The intro is very different than the slide guitar that starts off “Last Goodbye.”
11. "HEART OF GLASS" // BLONDIE
In 1974, Blondie wrote “Once I Had a Love” as a funkier disco song that the New York City-based band simply referred to it as “The Disco Song.” When Blondie met producer Mike Chapman in 1978, guitarist Chris Stein and keyboardist Jimmy Destri added an upbeat drum machine to the song to make it more danceable and disco.