We all know that songs, particularly classic ones, don’t just come right out of an artist’s mind fully formed and fleshed out. Some end up demos. Like a film or a good book, it’s a constant process of drafting, revising, reworking, and editing, until you have something that matches your vision.
In the case of music, we have demos – the rudimentary seeds from which timeless tunes and chart-scaling hits are born. Of course, sometimes artists really do just have a stroke of genius and a song comes out pretty much the way it ends up on the album the first time around, without even needing to make demos.
In other cases, unforgettable songs started off in forms that are almost unrecognisable when compared to the ones we know and love in the form of demos. We’ve compiled a few of our favourite demos. In some cases, we reckon the demos may even match the originals!
Michael Jackson – ‘Beat It’
While there’s plenty of famous pop tunes in this list, this one is undeniably the most memorable and iconic of all featured. After all, it comes from one of the most important pop albums of the 20th century from one of its most important artists.
But what separates this demo from the others on the list is that while many of them already had the beat pretty much nailed and it was just a matter of the star injecting their lyrics and/or vocals into the mix, the demo of ‘Beat It’ was radically different. For one thing, it was entirely a cappella.
Nirvana – ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
Listening to the demo of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ for the first time is a rather extraordinary experience. Besides the fact that you get to hear how a song that would go on to have such a significant impact on popular culture started off (with different structure, including a repeat in the first chorus, and mostly unformed lyrics), but you get to hear a band that has no idea what they’re about accomplish – they’re just demoing a song for their next album.
Eminem – ‘Lose Yourself’
This is that one rap song that just everyone seems to know the lyrics to, and if they don’t, they’re more than familiar with the famous “mum’s spaghetti” line.
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But when the song was just in its demo stages, there was no “mom’s spaghetti” and the chorus wasn’t nearly as memorable.
Instead there were borderline nonsensical lines about “Cadillacs and Buicks” and a bunch of bars that just don’t seem to fit. It just goes to show that genius is not a matter of sudden inspiration, but commitment and multiple revisions.
The Strokes – ‘You Only Live Once’
Before Drake had everyone hash-tagging #YOLO, The Strokes were reminding us about our own mortality with this heartfelt rocker whose intro sounded suspiciously similar to Queen’s ‘I Want To Break Free’.
The uplifting, melodic indie rocker was one of the defining singles of what many saw as the beginning of the band’s decline and one of the most thoughtful pop rock tunes of the decade. But frontman Julian Casablancas’ demo was a far cry from the garage-y original, featuring sleepy vocals and charming Casio keys.
Men At Work – ‘Land Down Under’
Men At Work always had a white reggae vibe throughout their music, but the original version of what is arguably their most famous hit, ‘Land Down Under’, is pure dub.
Considerably slowed down from the original and way less upbeat, the track is more concerned with rolling, phased-out bass lines than the released version’s famous flute trills, though they are there, just not in the pitch that we remember them in.
The vocals are considerably more muted and the track has numerous quirks, like atmospheric harmonics and voiceovers from the characters described in the song.
Nicki Minaj – ‘Starships’
“What I want the world to know about Nicki Minaj is, that when you hear Nicki Minaj spit, Nicki Minaj wrote it,” said Nicki when accepting an award at the 2014 BET Awards, and while the verses to her 2012 hit ‘Starships’ was indeed all Nicki, the bridge and that inescapable chorus came courtesy of relatively unknown singer Mohombi.
Sensing a hit on her hands, Nicki left Mohombi’s deftly crafted pop hooks within RedOne’s Eurodance production and stripped the verses for something a little more her style.
David Bowie – ‘Ziggy Stardust’
When David “The Chameleon” Bowie first donned the red hair and the shiny jumpsuit to reveal Ziggy Stadust to the world, is one not only a defining moment in the rock icon’s career, but was arguably one of the most important cultural flash points in modern music.
But while the concept may have set the course for Bowie’s career, as well as countless others, impacting everything from glam rock, to punk and hair metal, it all started with a simple acoustic demo.
Britney Spears – ‘Toxic’
Hearing demos of pop songs gives one a strange sense of voyeurism, of hearing something you’re not quite supposed to be hearing, and that you’re not quite sure how to process.
While we all know where iconic rock songs come from (one member of the band sitting down with a guitar and a notebook or an impromptu jam session), so hearing an acoustic demo is pretty much par for the course, hearing a manufactured-by-committee pop song designed to shift units can be somewhat confronting and unexpected. Just check this one out.
Pink Floyd – ‘Money’
It’s one of the most famous intros in music and one of the most famous riffs on a centrepiece to one of the most famous albums with one of the most famous covers of all time.
But before ‘Money’ was the track your dad used as an example of “real music” when he came into your room while you were listening to Deadmau5, it was just a crude demo that Roger Waters had toyed around with.
What’s rather remarkable though is not only the way the rather short demo expanded into a six-minute epic, but the way the themes of the song and most of the lyrics were already in Waters’ head.
The Who – ‘My Generation’
Along with tracks like ‘You Really Got Me’ by The Kinks, ‘My Generation’ was instrumental in forging the foundation for garage and punk rock. The dirty production, garage-y arrangement, and defiant lyrics make this slice of proto-punk one of modern music’s most enduring youth anthems.
But when guitarist and songwriter Pete Townsend was first penning the classic tune, it sounded more akin to later hit ‘Magic Bus’, consisting of shuffling acoustic guitar and a reverb-laden call-and-response section.
Ramones – ’53rd & 3rd’
For a band that was about raw, fiery, unbridled aggression and devil-may-care ferocity, the Ramones’ albums were relatively mild compared to their infamous live shows.
While the albums were certainly aggressive and far more ferocious than anything else out at the time, the production techniques of the ’70s often added a little too much polish to the New York City punk gods.
This demo version of ’53rd & 3rd’, one of the most memorable tracks from the band’s self-titled debut, on the other hand, is a full-on assault.
Fleetwood Mac – ‘Dreams’
This rock radio staple, which featured on the band’s classic 1977 album Rumours is known for its instantly memorable lyrics, unforgettable chorus, inspired arrangement, and the moody atmospherics throughout the tracks, largely accomplished through a solid rhythmic backing and Christine McVie’s keyboard work, as well as the brooding lyrical themes.
While the demo features are far sparser arrangement, featuring just keys, guitar, and vocals, it’s remarkable the way it already contained the album version’s palpable mood.
The Vines – ‘Highly Evolved’
The Vines are a band that have always worn their influences on their sleeves. But on the demo version of the Aussie rockers’ single ‘Highly Evolved’, from their 2002 album of the same name, the influences are drastically different to the ones proudly emulated on the album.
Less akin to an uplifting garage rocker, with grunge-y guitars and a defiant Brit-pop swagger, it sounds like some previously undiscovered collaboration between The Kinks and The Stooges.
The Smashing Pumpkins – ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’
Recorded at Sadlands studios, the entirely acoustic version of ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ from Smashing Pumpkins’ 1995 landmark double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is certainly a more muted effort than the aggressive alt-rocker that made the album.
Singer Billy Corgan keeps his vocals relatively restrained, singing in a higher register and refraining from the guttural wailing of the album version. Interestingly enough, however, the arrangement of the song effectively follows on from Corgan’s acoustic chords on the demo.