5 Hit Songs That Were Almost Never Released

Failure has many modes of interfering. There are an unlimited number of ways a song can fail in the music business. Songs routinely run the risk of never getting heard. For some of these artists, different circumstances surrounding their biggest songs could have ended their careers. 

Videos by American Songwriter

1. “Creep” by Radiohead

During a session with producers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie, Radiohead played “Creep.” It was an old song Thom Yorke had written as a student at Exeter University. The band was working on different songs, aiming for a debut single. The producers thought the band was covering a Scott Walker song. Realizing “Creep” was an original, Kolderie convinced the band to record it. He then convinced EMI to release it as the first single. Unsatisfied with the song, Jonny Greenwood’s now legendary guitar explosions right before the chorus were his attempts to ruin the track. BBC Radio 1 thought the song was too depressing to play and it floundered on the charts. Later, an Israeli DJ played “Creep” and the song became an international hit. It eventually became a hit in America after it was added to an alternative playlist in San Francisco. The song—unlike anything else in Radiohead’s catalog—joined Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Beck’s “Loser” as alternative slacker-rock anthems in 1993. 

2. “Kiss” by Prince

Funk band Mazarati approached Prince for a song to complete their debut album. He sent them an acoustic demo of “Kiss.” Mazarati and Prince were both recording at Sunset Sound at the time. The band worked on the song with producer David Z. Then Prince took it back. He removed the bass and added his signature guitar part. Prince’s label, Warner Bros., thought the track was too sparse to release. This wouldn’t be Prince’s last battle with his record label. In less than 10 years he’d change his name to an unpronounceable symbol in protest of the record label’s ownership of his master recordings. However, Prince won this argument and “Kiss” became his third number-one U.S. single. It was added to his 1986 album, Parade. “Kiss” won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.

3. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

Kurt Cobain told David Fricke he was trying to write the ultimate pop song. Cobain was a huge Pixies fan and wrote a song using their quiet/loud format. Though Cobain thought the riff was cliché, he did present it to the rest of the band. As they rehearsed the song, the tempo slowed and Dave Grohl added his now classic Gap band-inspired drum part. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was born and all three members of Nirvana received a writing credit. Cobain’s friend, Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill, had written the following message on his apartment wall: Kurt smells like teen spirit. Hanna was referring to the teen deodorant brand but Cobain thought it was some kind of punk rock slogan. So he took the phrase and used it in the song lyric. The “ultimate pop song” became a Generation X anthem. The unexpected hit changed popular music. 

4. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones

When inspiration strikes, write it down. Or record it. Never assume it will be there when you wake up. Keith Richards woke up with a riff in his head. He reached for a cassette recorder and captured the guitar part that had jolted him from sleep. The next day, listening back, Richards heard the riff followed by almost an hour of snoring. The riff, initially played on an acoustic guitar, became The Rolling Stones’ defining song. The first recording of the song happened at Chess Studios in Chicago. A second version, what became the single, was recorded at RCA Studios in Los Angeles. Richards played through a Maestro fuzz pedal. He wanted to mimic the sound of horns and had planned on re-tracking the part using a horn section. He was convinced by the band and their producer Andrew Loog Oldham to leave it alone. Richards’ fuzzed-guitar part is considered one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time. 

5. “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson said he knew “Billie Jean” was going to be a hit when he wrote it. Jackson’s producer, Quincy Jones thought otherwise. Jones didn’t like the demo. He especially disliked the bass line. Jackson persisted and told Jones the song made him want to dance. Jones gave in but wanted to change the title. He thought fans would think the song was meant for tennis star Billie Jean King. Jones suggested a new title, “Not My Lover.” Jackson refused the change. His lyrics referred to groupies his older brothers encountered while performing with the Jackson 5. Jackson, too, had received a letter from a woman claiming he was the father of her child. “Billie Jean” was a smash hit and Thriller became the biggest-selling album in history. 

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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