Rediscovering the Demo Tapes
A new George Harrison album dropped last week called “Early Takes, Volume 1” and, for the first time, you can hear the demo versions of some great Harrison songs. “My Sweet Lord” is clean and clear and vibrant. “All Things Must Pass” still has the genuine sting of reality and acceptance that came to define the ultimate end of his life.
I am a tremendous fan of these “discovered demos” of songs from great musicians because you get a raw glimpse of their creative process. The demo recordings are always rough, authentic and not meant for public consumption — and that’s why I love them so much. You get to listen to secrets from the past.
There are two “Sondheim Sings” volumes of private demo tapes from his musicals. The demos consist of Sondheim sitting behind a piano and singing. He’s a great lyric talent. He’s no great singer, though, and that’s what makes listening to the demos so unapologetically delicious. He made these recordings for himself and, perhaps, some financial backers. The fact that we get to listen, too, is a celebration of life.
Another demo favorite of mine is Barry Gibb’s “The Guilty Demos” consisting of all the songs he wrote and produced Barbra Streisand’s “Guilty” album. Barry sings all the songs to help lead Barbara in phrasing and harmony. Listening to Barry sing, “Woman in Love” is a magical experience. There is no doubt Barry Gibb is one of the greatest songwriters and producers alive today.
Cy Coleman was a friend of mine and I miss him a lot. Listening to the demo album for his “Barnum” musical is a great gift he left us. Cy sings all the songs and plays the piano. Did you know “Barnum” started as this Jazz album? I like this version — this originating schema — of what the Broadway Barnum songs were supposed to be instead of what they ended up becoming on stage. Perhaps the musical would have even more depth and resonance today if the original Jazz reflections had been more faithfully reproduced on the live stage?
Stephen Stills is another massive musical talent and his “Just Roll Tape” album is a gem. The entire album is Stephen singing and playing his guitar. You get to listen to the original versions of his hit songs. Memory matters and this album is monumental.
Crosby Stills and Nash also have a demo album. “Love the One You’re With” from 1970 will ring in your ears with authentic nostalgia that cannot be matched by popular music today.
I love demo tape albums because they teach us the hard-to-define artistic process of creating something from nothing. You can hear sparks of ideas and what thrives and what dies and what oftentimes become something else. Demo tapes allow you access to the center of The Big Bang!