10 Fascinating Early Demos by Famous Musicians

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We do still read the NME, god help us, and as such we were interested to see this feature about dodgy demos of classic songs on their website a couple of days back. Setting aside the question of whether anything ever recorded by Muse can ever be considered a “classic” (spoiler: no), the piece did get us thinking about early demos from our favorite musicians, especially in light of the recent reissue of Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights, which comes with a bunch of studio outtakes and other rarities. Anyway, we thought we’d run with the idea and share some early demos by some of our other favorite bands, which we think make for pretty fascinating listening. Let us know if you have any you’d like to share.

Interpol

We’ve spent all morning giggling over the rather excellent review of the Turn on the Bright Lights reissue at Pitchfork — when the ‘Fork get it right, they really get it right, and the observation that “[Paul] Banks’ words can be downright laughable on paper, and are often sung as if WRITTEN OUT IN ALL CAPS WITH NO PUNCTUATION” is hilariously spot-on. This early demo of “Roland,” previously available only on the insanely rare Fukd ID #3 tape, shows that Banks’ all-caps aesthetic was in place from the beginning — just listen as he somehow manages to deliver the immortal, “Oh look, it’s stopped snowing!” line with a perfectly straight face.

Radiohead

You may remember various demos from Radiohead’s earliest days, when they were called On a Friday, surfacing on the web last year. This is the earliest one we can find, dating from 1986 — it’s called “Girl in a Purple Dress,” and includes a) a saxophone solo and b)the lines “I’ll do whatever you want me to/ And stay for jasmine tea.” Aw, bless.

The Rolling Stones

Behold: the very first time the Rolling Stones set foot in a recording studio, putting down a version of Willie Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover.” The story goes that one hapless A&R guy at Decca Records rejected the recording, saying that “it’s a great band, but you’ll never get anywhere with that singer.” Thankfully for the label (who were already smarting from having turned down the Beatles months earlier), wiser heads prevailed, and the Stones were signed soon after.

Eminem

True story: Eminem and former partner Chaos Kid once recorded a song called “Poo Butt.” It’s not quite how it was related in 8 Mile, is it?

The Notorious B.I.G.

Also on the hip hop front, here’s something from Biggie’s very first demo, made in his Bed-Stuy basement in early 1992. Biggie’s instantly recognizable sing-song style is already in full effect here, and the whole thing has a real DIY charm to it. Amusingly, this tape was apparently featured on the radio in 1992 as part of a reader-voted demo battle, and lost comprehensively to a long-forgotten crew called Bronx Zu. Sigh. The public, eh?

Lou Reed

You’ve probably heard Reed’s very earliest work — his career as the in-house songwriter at Pickwick Records has been reasonably well-documented, particularly novelty hit “The Ostritch” — but we were fascinated to come across a set of demos that document his emergence as a solo artist after The Velvet Underground folded. The track above is from the fall of 1970, when Reed was back living with his parents and working for his father’s accounting firm. It’s one of three demos that date from time — there’s also a set to be had from winter 1970, including a fascinating early version of “Kill Your Sons” (under the name “Kill Our Sons”.) You can read more about the tapes here.

U2

Giggle all you want, but U2’s long-lost post punk roots are on full display here, and you can see why they were once mentioned in the same breath as The Virgin Prunes, Echo and the Bunnymen, etc. This song (which is actually called “Street Mission,” by the way) is from their first studio session, way back in 1978.

Ramones

Given how raw the Ramones sounded at the best of times, it’s no surprise that this early demo from 1975 doesn’t diverge a great deal from the version included on the band’s self-titled debut a year later. Still, we actually prefer this take — it’s less bombastic than the album version, and the slightly slower tempo makes it sound less like a punked-up stomp and more like a bruised reflection on a difficult subject. The quieter interpretation gives the “Don’t it make you feel sick” line that concludes the chorus more impact, too.

Jeff Buckley

Few artists’ legacies have been picked over as much as Jeff Buckley’s, so it’s no surprise to find that his very earliest demos are available with a bit of judicious searching. This early version of “Last Goodbye” — then called “Unforgiven” — was recorded as part of Buckley’s first studio session, at the Babylon Dungeon in LA in September 1990. It’s fascinating to hear how coherent Buckley’s vision was — this recording is a bit ropey, sure, and the song rather trails off due to the lack of a finished ending, but beyond that, it isn’t very different at all to the version that’d eventually appear on Grace.

Placebo

And finally, a demo that shows how much songs can change from their original versions to the finished product. This early attempt at “Hang Onto Your IQ” bears almost no relation to the finished song, which appeared on Placebo’s 1996 debut album — both the lyrics and the arrangement are completely different, and even the chorus is barely recognizable. It’s a rather fascinating study in the way songs evolve over time, we reckon.