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10 Mega-Hit Songs That Nearly Didn’t See the Light of Day

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

What artists and musicians assume will be well received by the public doesn’t always prove to be popular. Conversely, what singers and songwriters hate about their musical output sometimes turns out to be a massive success! The public is a fickle mistress, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the recording industry. Some songs get a life of their own, rocket up the charts, and find lasting success despite everybody involved thinking the tracks would be forgotten, discarded, or dismissed.

In this list, we’ll take a look at ten of those songs. These ten singles were all so lowly regarded by the musicians who wrote, sang, and performed them that they nearly didn’t include them on their albums. But when they got there, they blew up and became runaway hits! Here are the stories of ten of the unlikeliest hit singles that nearly didn’t see the light of day. Thank goodness they did, though, because they gave us some great music!

Related: Ten Gender-Swapped Cover Songs That Altered the Meaning

10 Radiohead, “Creep”

Radiohead – Creep

Radiohead’s biggest hit, “Creep,” was written by frontman Thom Yorke when he was just 19 years old and studying English and fine arts at college. At the time, he was feeling a little stressed and very isolated, and he let it out on paper.

When it came time for Radiohead to record their debut album Pablo Honey, which would go on to be released in 1993, the song wasn’t considered edgy enough for the band’s look and style. Even more, the band didn’t like the song! Guitarist Jonny Greenwood tried to sabotage it by offering up a pre-chorus guitar riff that he thought made the song sound bad.

College radio stations absolutely adored the song, though, and soon, American fans all over were going crazy for the track. “Creep” crept up the charts in more than a dozen countries and saw sustained radio airplay and record sales, specifically in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

At various points since then, Yorke and the rest of Radiohead’s members have told fans how tired they are of performing the song at concerts, but it’s still a mainstay. Despite the band itself trying to sabotage its release and keep it away from the public, “Creep” turned out to be their biggest hit and rocketed them to worldwide fame![1]

9 Prince, “Kiss”

Prince & The Revolution – Kiss (Official Video), HD (Digitally Remastered & Upscaled)

In the spring of 1985, Prince was busily working on his album Parade at Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles. Also there at the time was a band called Mazarati, which had been formed by Prince’s bassist Brown Mark. During their recording sessions, the Mazarati folks asked Prince if he had an extra song they could record for their album. So, nearly immediately, Prince wrote and performed a one-minute quickie version of “Kiss” and recorded it with a cheap tape recorder lying around the studio.

Mark and a producer took the song and developed its funk groove over the next few hours into the sound that we know it as today. But when Prince heard the song, he was mad! He wanted to take it back right then and there—so that’s what he did. He promised Brown Mark a songwriting credit, and the deal was sealed.

Until Warner Bros heard the song, at least. They refused to release “Kiss” as a single, calling it too minimalistic for music audiences at the time. Prince knew what he had, though, so he pushed hard for it to come out to the public anyway. Just like you knew he would be, Prince was right.

“Kiss” reached the top spot of the American charts, sold more than a million copies, and even won him a Grammy. Unfortunately for Brown Mark, he never got the songwriting credit he was promised. He eventually walked away from working with Prince altogether.[2]

8 Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit (Official Music Video)

Nirvana completely pushed grunge into the mainstream with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but frontman Kurt Cobain was so unimpressed with the song in the end that he didn’t even want to release it. See, at the time the band was recording music for the album that would catapult them to fame, Cobain was listening to a lot of the Pixies’ music.

He was listening to so much of it, in fact, that he wanted to create a song that sounded like the Pixies just to see if Nirvana could come up with a pop music-like arrangement that would be popular with the masses. Well, that’s exactly what happened. But by the time they recorded the song, Cobain was already over it, and he wanted to trash it before it reached the world.

“I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies,” he said later. “I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band—or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”

Clearly, that worked for Nirvana in the end. But it didn’t work for Cobain, who hated fame and the popularity that came with it. He quickly came to resent not only the music industry but also fans’ demands that the group constantly play their hit single at every show they ever did.[3]

7 The Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”

Eurythmics, Annie Lennox, Dave Stewart – Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) (Official Video)

Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart had fallen on remarkably tough times before the Eurythmics catapulted them to fame. The pair had gone on an Australian tour in the early 1980s with a prior band, The Tourists, only for the group to break up in a cheap motel. The couple parted ways romantically after the end of their three-year relationship not long after, too.

When they returned to the United Kingdom, content to play music together even if their romance was dead, they only played small gigs to small crowds. Eventually, though, their luck started to change. They took out a bank loan, bought new music gear, and started playing around with synthesizers. Then, one day, Dave was goofing around with the then-new technology, accidentally happened upon a bass line, and then even more accidentally reversed it on the synthesizer.

Annie recognized its potential immediately and rushed over to help hammer out a song. And voilà! “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” was born. There was just one problem: record company executives hated it. The song had no traditional chorus like what listeners were used to, so record execs felt like a release would largely be panned.

Undeterred, Dave and Annie tried shopping it around on their own. As it turned out, a radio DJ in Cleveland, Ohio, loved the song and started playing it. Call lines lit up every night for it, and other radio stations picked it up to attract their own listeners. BAM! The Eurythmics were in.[4]

6 Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean”

Michael Jackson – Billie Jean (Official Video)

Michael Jackson knew that “Billie Jean” was going to be a hit as soon as he wrote it. The only problem was that his producer wasn’t so sure. The legendary Quincy Jones has an incredible ear for such things, and he thought the demo for “Billie Jean” was lacking.

For one, he really disliked the song’s bass line. He also hated the song’s title and was worried that music fans would think the track was about the tennis star Billie Jean King. But Michael Jackson persisted, telling Jones that the song was perfect as it was and made him want to dance—which, of course, would turn around and make everybody else want to dance, too.

Jones tried to compromise with Michael to at least change the song’s title to “Not My Lover,” but even that fell flat with the King of Pop. In the end, the legendary pop star got his way and convinced Jones to allow him to record the song as he wanted it and keep the title as it was in the demo.

And, of course, we know how things ended up for “Billie Jean.” This story just goes to show that sometimes, even legendary and incredibly talented music producers don’t always have their finger on the pulse of the public![5]

5 Smashing Pumpkins, “1979”

The Smashing Pumpkins – 1979 (Official Music Video)

Not long after their inception in 1988, the Smashing Pumpkins rose to fame and quickly became one of the bands that defined the rock music era of the 1990s. Their second album Siamese Dream brought them increasing mainstream success. And when it came time to work on album number three, they jumped in with both feet first.

Specifically, frontman Billy Corgan was excited to work again with the band’s producer, Mark Ellis, who was popularly known as “Flood.” See, Flood had really honed and developed the Smashing Pumpkins’ sound in those first two albums. But in album three, they hit a major snag.

Corgan loved the single “1979” and brought it to Flood with high hopes. But when Flood took the time to listen to it, he decided that he absolutely hated it. Flood made Corgan completely rework the song. He told Corgan that if it didn’t get reworked and completely changed, he would force the Smashing Pumpkins to slash it from their album and leave it on the cutting room floor of the studio.

Not wanting that to happen, Corgan spent hours re-jiggering the track to Flood’s liking. Finally, after a harrowing few days, Flood listened in on the new version and determined it had met the standards set by the band’s previous work. So, a hit was born![6]

4 Metallica, “Nothing Else Matters”

Metallica: Nothing Else Matters (Official Music Video)

Metallica rocketed to fame when they released their self-titled hit album, which was also known as The Black Album, in 1991. But they’d been touring before that. In fact, it was a 1990 tour that prompted frontman James Hetfield to write one song in particular that appeared on the 1991 album. That song was “Nothing Else Matters.”

It was about the band going on the road, and Hetfield very badly, missing home and the girlfriend he was dating at the time. He penned the ballad while on the tour bus, but he had low hopes for it. He felt like a hard rock band like Metallica couldn’t go and release a sappy love song or a ballad. They needed to be tough and aggressive with all their music, right? Wrong!

Despite Hetefield’s misgivings, he played the song for drummer Lars Ulrich. Upon hearing the track, Ulrich demanded they put it on The Black Album. Hetfield was extremely hesitant, and for a while, he tried to convince Ulrich and the other guys that it wasn’t the right fit for Metallica. But the band wouldn’t hear of it.

In the end, they won out. “I thought that Metallica could only be the four of us,” Hetfield recalled years later. “These are songs about destroying things, head banging, bleeding for the crowd, whatever it is, as long as it wasn’t about chicks and fast cars, even though that’s what we liked. The song was about a girlfriend at the time. It turned out to be a pretty big song.”[7]

3 Rolling Stones, “Satisfaction”

The Rolling Stones – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (Live- Ireland 1965)

The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was nearly never released, but a vote among band members finally convinced Keith Richards that it had to be a single. As the story goes, Keith Richards woke up in the middle of the night one evening with a simple eight-note riff rolling around in his head. He sat up in bed, reached for his guitar, flipped on a cassette tape to record the sound, and played out the notes before going right back to bed again. The next day, he played the recording for his bandmates—along with more than a half hour of his snoring!

Richards felt it was a weak riff. Maybe it was something they could use as an album filler track one day if even that. But the rest of the band heard something he hadn’t in its simple brilliance and immediately pressured him into making it a single.

Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. Keith grumbled about how overly simple the song was. Still, it proved to be a massive hit and one of the songs most instrumental in making the Rolling Stones one of the most legendary rock bands of all time.[8]

2 John Mellencamp, “Jack & Diane”

John Mellencamp – Jack & Diane

John Mellencamp may have landed at the top spot of the American charts for four incredible weeks in 1982 with “Jack & Diane,” but the song shouldn’t have been there at all. And if Mellencamp had stuck to his guns, it never would have made it out of the recording studio!

Originally, the rocker wanted to make the song about an interracial couple. “Originally, the line was that Jack was not a football star; Jack was an African-American,” Mellencamp revealed during an interview with the Huffington Post in 2014. “In 1982, when I turned the song into the record company, they went, ‘Whoa, can’t you make him something other than that?’”

Mellencamp balked at the request. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t really want to. I mean, that’s the whole point. This is really a song about race relationships and a white girl being with a black guy, and that’s what the song’s about,’” he recalled. “And they said, ‘No, no, no, no.’… So, anyway, through much debate and me being young, I said, ‘Okay, we’ll make him a football star.’” And that was that!

Record company executives, thinking an interracial relationship would be too scandalous to write about in the early 1980s, turned the song into a “little ditty” about a football star. And the public loved it! But would they have loved it as much had it been about Mellencamp’s original topic? We’ll never know…[9]

1 Taylor Swift, “Shake It Off”

Taylor Swift – Shake It Off

Taylor Swift was a remarkably popular country singer right around the time her fifth album 1989 came out. Studio heads at her Big Machine record label weren’t supremely happy with the album, though. And they specifically weren’t happy with “Shake It Off.”

They felt the track had far too much of a pop sound to be associated with Taylor, and for a while, they tried to persuade her to keep it off the album altogether. They hated the artwork of the album, the feel of the track, the sound of the music, and even the title of the single! They hated it all!

Of course, we know that Taylor’s push eventually won out. She insisted on “Shake It Off” being part of 1989, and it quickly surged to number one on the Billboard U.S. Hot 100. It also topped the chart in a ton of other countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Poland, Hungary, Mexico, and many more. It seems like Big Machine did well in finally giving in and letting Taylor have her way with what she knew would become a hit![10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen