Long before the days of YouTube and Twitter, aspiring musicians struck it big by mailing out demos to record execs. With bloopy audio and shoddy instruments, demo tapes featured artists at their hungriest. No commercialization, no auto-tune; just enough raw promise could land a life-changing contract with a label.
Today, the demo is a lost art, scrapped for self-recorded music videos and downloadable mixtapes. Still, diving back into the nascent efforts of some of the industry's biggest stars can be a lot of fun. Can you imagine Eminem's raps free of violence or pop culture allusions? Would you have checked out a band called On a Friday, headlined by a young dude named Thom Yorke? Get a load of these four demo tracks.
Before the accolades, the devote legion of fans and the 30 million units sold, Radiohead would practice in the Abington School's music room once a week after classes let out. Then aptly known as On a Friday, the band recorded for the first time in friend Nigel Powell's bedroom in 1986.
On a Friday performed their debut show later that year in an Oxford tavern. Jonny Greenwood functioned as the band's harmonica and keyboard player before later transitioning to lead guitar. Though the members of On a Friday would go on to separate colleges, they reunited during school breaks and began touring the indie circuit once degrees were in hand.
Many thought On a Friday was too late to and out of place with the shoegazing, grunge-style trend that was sweeping the early 90s scene. But a show at the Jericho Tavern caught the attention of Oxford's Courtyard Studios owners, Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge, who began working with the band on a demo. They remain Radiohead's managers in 2013.
A chance encounter with an EMI A&R lead to a record deal that culminated in the famous Pablo Honey. EMI urged On a Friday to change its name, and the rest is history.
Why's it shocking?: Some of the original songs wound up getting reworked for Pablo Honey and other albums. Unlike most demos, you're able to compare the differences between the first cut and the final studio versions.
2. The Beatles
You may have heard of these guys. Decca Records certainly has.
Back when Ringo Starr was still drumming with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, the Beatles auditioned for Decca in 1962 in hopes of securing a major-label deal. Managed by the ambitious Brian Epstein, Paul, John and company reportedly arrived 10 hours late.
The Beatles ripped through 12 popular covers and three McCartney/Lennon originals in just one hour, donning the fresh rock and roll style that made them famous on Please Please Me a year later. The band was scooping considerable popularity in Liverpool's Merseybeat scene, but Epstein urged the quartet to stop swearing, smoking and eating on stage. A more polished professional act, he believed, would capitalize on their natural charisma.
Why's it shocking?: Part of the shock factor comes from imagining the Beatles being "less popular than Jesus" at some point. The biggest band in history was once a struggling act looking to get signed.
Of course, the Decca audition tape is famous because the Beatles didn't get signed. Decca execs told Epstein that "guitar groups are on the way out," and that "the Beatles have no future in show business." Yikes.
Decca opted for the local act Brian Poole and the Tremelos, which was a safer act that required less transportation cost. I guess the Beatles made enough to compensate a few flights and train rides.
Perhaps not of the same artistry as the previous two, but just as startling.
Ke$ha's mother, Pebe Sebert, was a singer-songwriter that emerged in the late 70s. Going on tour with her mother as a child, the Nashville native was privy to the music industry very early on. After scoring a 1500 out of 1600 on her SATs (for real), Ke$ha (real name Kesha, surprisingly) emerged as an intuitive musician with plenty of quirk.
She and Pebe cowrote songs and self-distributed demos. Two of the tracks from a tape that was sent to pop producer Dr. Luke were a traditional country ballad and a tongue-in-cheek trip-hop goof. Guess which one caught his attention.
Why's it shocking?: Listen to this thing. Ke$ha's blasted all over the world as this ridiculous caricature of sleaze, but deep down lies a talented country songstress. This sounds more like a Taylor Swift demo than any glitter-drenched single we've heard over the past few years. One can only wonder what would have happened if Dr. Luke dug this instead of the other ... uh ... music.
You've seen the ascent of Eminem chronicled in 8 Mile. What you probably haven't heard, however, is Infinite.
Em's debut effort came in '96, recorded at the Bass Brothers' "Bassmint" while Mathers was holding down a job washing dishes at a restaurant called Gilbert's Lodge. The album was entirely produced by Mr. Porter, while best friend and fellow D12 member Proof programmed the drums. With bass-heavy production and an upbeat boom-bap vibe, Infinite sounds nothing like the Eminem you know today.
The tape sold around 1,000 copies but caught the attention of Dr. Dre, who flew Mathers out to California and inked him to Aftermath. Rare physical pressings of Infinite go for triple-digit prices today, and the critical reception was mixed at best: Em was charged with emulating Queens rapper AZ and lacking an ear for beats.
Infinite has the respect of underground heads today, and Em would later note that much of the record's subject matter was lightened up in an effort to reach the radio.
Why's it shocking?: "You can rule the world, you can do anything!" he raps on the hook of "Never 2 Far." Seriously. Em's demo is a rare case of playing more to labels than commercial works. It's also strange to hear him rap without the Slim Shady persona. No Britney Spears jabs; no threats aimed at his estranged wife.