Sometimes less really is more! Acoustic demo tapes provide a fascinating insight into a songwriter’s process. It’s a window into a private moment, when they’re usually alone in their bedroom (or studio) with nothing but a guitar and a tape recorder, creating a tune from out of nowhere. It’s like listening to magic happening right before your ears! And if the songs they create go on to become classics, it’s also a precious moment in history. We’ve put together a list of 10 incredible early tapes of songs you know by heart. Not only are they beautiful in their stripped down simplicity, but these first drafts are sometimes drastically different from the final cut. Read on to hear some amazing works in progress!
“Surfin’ USA” by The Beach Boys (1963)
Although now known as a genius of melody and harmony, Brian Wilson’s first Top Ten hit was actually a pretty blatant re-writing of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”. After penning new lyrics listing off various surfing hot-spots, he was ready to roll! We’re used to hearing Brian’s trademark falsetto in among the Beach Boy blend, so it’s truly special to hear his voice by itself, with a hint of soulful swagger.
“My Generation” by The Who (1965)
The fierce bit of proto-punk bite began life as an acoustic call-and-response blues song in the style of Mose Allison. It was allegedly inspired after the Queen Mother had Pete Townshend’s black Packard hearse (his favorite car) towed off the street in front of his house, because she was offended by the very sight of it!
“Ziggy Stardust” by David Bowie (1972)
As we all know, Ziggy played guitar…and so did Bowie on this acoustic version of the glam-rock staple. The whole Ziggy tale about an alien rockstar was inspired loosely by the story of Vince Taylor, an early British rock pioneer who suffered a severe nervous breakdown and believed himself to be a cross between a god and an alien.
“Money” by Pink Floyd (1973)
Although it ended up laden with innovative tape loops and guitar effects (not to mention the bizarre 7/8 time signature), Roger Waters originally sang this single cut from the zillion-selling Dark Side Of The Moon as an edgy blues number.
“Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen (1975)
It’s hard to imagine the Boss’ small town New Jersey saga without the E Street Band backing him up, but stripped down to a voice and guitar it takes on the appearance of a story-telling folk ode. The tune went through many incarnations before showing up on the grooves of Born To Run, and this early version was originally titled “Wings For Wheels”.
“Gypsy” by Fleetwood Mac (1982)
The etherial beauty of Stevie Nicks’ melancholic masterpiece is somehow intensified with just her vocals backed by an echo-drenched electric piano. Sure, it’s not technically “acoustic”, but it’s still pretty awesome.
“Beat It” by Michael Jackson (1982)
Everyone knows that MJ was a genius-level singer, songwriter and dancer. But this early acapella version of the Thriller cut shows that he had some pretty mean beat-boxing skills, too!
“Veronica” by Elvis Costello (1989)
Maybe stretching the definition of a “classic”, but this cut from Elvis Costello has always been one of our all-time favorites. It gets serious bonus points for being co-written with none other than Paul McCartney! The final version features the Beatle on bass, but this spirited demo is just Elvis double tracked with himself.
“Rape Me” by Nirvana (1993)
Kurt Cobain wrote the song while Nirvana’s landmark Nevermind record was being mixed in 1991. When it was released as the second single off of their next album In Utero, he told Spin magazine that it was conceived as a life-afferming anti-rape song. “It’s like she’s saying, ’Rape me, go ahead, rape me, beat me. You’ll never kill me. I’ll survive this and I’m gonna fucking rape you one of these days and you won’t even know it.'”
“Love Is A Losing Game” by Amy Winehouse (2006)
This instant classic ballad from Winehouse’s unsurpassable Back To Black was the final single released in the late singer’s lifetime. Although the lush orchestration from producer Mark Ronson was undeniably gorgeous, the quiet bedroom intimacy of this demo offers even more authenticity. What’s more, it reminds us just how much we miss her.