Demo tapes give us front row seats to the creative process behind a track. Intimate, human and raw, the best examples can often be superior to the final release.
Demo tapes can be brilliant things, sometimes, dare I say, ever better than the final cut. In these original recordings, released on expanded editions of albums or leaked onto the internet into the wringing hands of fans, we get to experience a piece of music in its raw, stripped-down origins. Demos feel off the cuff and immediate, the value of which can sometimes be scrubbed away through the many hours of studio tinkering that precede the music’s release. In the best examples, we hear bums shifting on seats, doors creaking closed and mumbled studio conversations. Often the playing can be rough, the music thick with the hiss of the tape recorder, but that's ok, after all these tracks are being created at the very moment of our listening.
We are reminded of the human element of the music, as if we are being allowed intimate access into their artistic process. Sometimes, as with Prince’s 17 Days demo, or Amy Winehouse’s Love is a Losing Game, the tracks feel far more raw and emotive than their final versions. Perhaps, this is because the content of the music is a reflection of something recent, the final recordings maybe months or years down the line, when some of that immediacy and emotion has faded.
Certainly, the best demo versions are those which achieve very much with very little. That’s certainly the case with Prince and Amy Winehouse, but also with the early version of George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord and the stark, bare bones demo of Q Lazzarus Goodbye Horses. We are given a glimpse into the raw songwriting talent on show, with the original recordings of John Martyn’s Solid Air or Carole King’s It’s Too Late, we can actually hear the songs being formed as they’re played.
It’s interesting to listen to a demo version and the final release side by side, noticing the ways in which the track has evolved over time. With 17 Days, the original lyrics have been heavily revised, The Doors’ Riders on the Storm is almost entirely different with it’s characteristically rich production and, with Blondie’s Once I had a Love AKA the Disco Song, the original demo precedes even its final Heart of Glass title.
A consequence of the internet over more recent years, it can sometimes be that demos are leaked to the public before the final versions are ever completed. There are stories of this happening to everyone from the rock band Brand New to the R&B singer SZA, and it can sometimes be that these demos end up becoming the only versions of the music we ever hear. Jai Paul’s Jasmine appeared as a rough demo online in 2013 and quickly became a viral phenomenon amongst music fans. The fact that this incredible, raw but beautiful, track was still only a work in progress meant that both the artist and his music were quickly propelled to cult status. If this track sounded so fantastic now, what else was yet to come?
Eventually re-released several years later, Jai Paul’s leaked demos were never given the opportunity to evolve into their final versions. In a sense, it’s only in the shadow of a track’s final release that we can truly appreciate its demo version. It's only so good being given front row seats to own our private show if we get the chance to experience both the beginning and the ending.