Here is a subject that has been much on my mind of late: song titles that were proposed and often printed on record sleeves or the records themselves, yet somehow never proved definitive. I therefore set out, in this post, to get some much-needed answers as to why a lot of iconic tracks through the course of rock history (at least nine!) were subject to very different monikers to the ones they eventually ended up with. It is fascinating to consider how these songs might have fared had some of these alternative names stuck!
1. ‘Not My Lover’ (1983) – Michael Jackson
Let’s kick this thing off with an absolute killer tune, penned by Michael Jackson himself, that would become one of the biggest-selling singles of all time, with its accompanying MTV-smashing video. The story goes that hotshot producer Quincy Jones, when working on the Thriller album in 1982, really dragged his feet over the song, complaining that the intro was too long, that he didn’t like the bass line, and that it was generally weak. He further disliked Jackson’s proposed title, concerned that listeners would think he was being offensive towards the bespectacled tennis player Billie Jean King on the topic of a female fan claiming that he had fathered a child with her: ‘She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one, but the kid is not my son’. However, Jackson gave short shrift to Quincy’s idea that the track should be called ‘Not My Lover’, while at the same time trying to get a producing credit on the track, consequently creating a rift in their working relationship. And history suggests that Jackson was of course right, seeing that ‘Not My Lover’ was a naff title, potentially robbing the song of much of its emotional impact. The tune therefore became famous as ‘Billy Jean’. Not sure what Billie Jean King did in fact make of it all though!
2. ‘Hold on! I’m A Comin” (1966) – Sam and Dave
Heading in a 60s soul direction now, the eminent songwriting duo at Stax Records, Isaac Hayes and David Porter, gave an astounding song to Sam and Dave in 1966 that they originally named ‘Hold on! I’m Comin”. This was reasonable enough, you would think, seeing how the lyrical content concerns a fellow offering support, quite innocently, to someone in need (‘Lean on me, when times get bad’). But on its release, FM radio stations objected to the title, considering it ‘suggestive’. Stax founder Jim Stewart subsequently thought that the more Southern-sounding ‘Hold On! I’m A Comin” would negate any sexual connotation and got Sam and Dave to re-record and re-release the song with this new handle printed on the disc. All pretty ridiculous stuff, eh? Such a disc, however, which is unique to early U.S. releases of the song, now makes for an excellent collector’s item!
3. ‘Al Pacino’s Waiting’ (1984) – Bananarama
When the scruffy Bananarama girls originated a corking pop tune in 1984 that centred on the solace to be found watching a favourite film star on the silver screen, they were very close to calling it ‘Al Pacino’s Waiting’, thereby name-checking the acclaimed Italian-American actor then riding high on the success of the Scarface movie. The song is pretty dark stuff in the way it details the concerns of a female protagonist tormented by the threat of sexual predators to the point of paranoia: ‘A walk in the park can become a bad dream / People are staring and following me / This is my only escape from it all / Watching a film or a face on the wall’. But the trio eventually realised that the line ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting / Talking Italian’ scanned better than ‘Al Pacino’s Waiting / Talking Italian’, so they went with the Raging Bull and King of Comedy star instead. There is some talk around that they were actually forced to change their title because Pacino wouldn’t approve the use of his name, but this is unlikely. In any case, one wonders if ‘Danny DeVito’s Waiting’ would have worked so well!
4. ‘Theraflu’ (2012) – Kanye West
Interestingly enough, the controversial American hip-hop star Kanye West adopted one of Bananarama’s early song titles when he named his album Cruel Summer in 2012, from which the track originally named ‘Theraflu’ was taken, later to become ‘Way Too Cold’ and eventually just ‘Cold’. The song basically sees Kanye venting his spleen over a great number of personal issues and women problems that have seemingly made him ill, whereupon he calls upon the healing effects of the famous flu and chest-congestion medication (known as ‘Lemsip’ in the UK): ‘(Uh, uh, uh, uh, uh) Get the Theraflu / Uh, uh, uh, uh) Get the Theraflu’. The problems he speaks of address the flack that he seemingly gets from making an awful lot of money as a black man, as well as his messed-up girlfriends: ‘Can’t a young nigga get money and more? Tell PETA my mink is dragging on the floor / Can I have a bad bitch without no flaws / come to meet me without no drawers?’ Unsurprisingly then, the company who make Theraflu, called Novartis, took exception to his title, with a representative stating: ‘We in no way endorse or approve of the references or use of the image and likeness of Theraflu in this manner’. Kanye was therefore forced to change the title of his song on legal grounds.
5. ‘Once I Had a Love’ (1979) – Blondie
When Deborah Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie originated a track, in 1975, destined to become a disco smash, it was a fairly unremarkable demo called ‘Once I Had A Love’. They re-recorded it in 1978 as a pop record, though it still didn’t really work, being quite basic and slow. However, legend has it that when they were finishing work on their third studio album, Parallel Lines, in 1978, producer Mike Chapman showed an interest in the song that had up to this point never found its true sound, persuading the writers to give it a contemporary disco flavour – when it became known as ‘The Disco Song’. It was then that the band added some electronics and drum machines, while synchronising the beat with real drums – all under the influence of the pioneering Italian-born disco producer Georgio Moroder. At the time, it was completely out of the question for a new-wave rock band to ‘go disco’, yet in the process a UK number one record called ‘Heart of Glass’ was born, helped to the top spot by Harry looking absolutely amazing in her asymmetrical silver dress in the accompanying video, which many believed to have been shot in Studio 54. The title change was worthwhile, as it just sounds very disco, with connotations of a glitterball, perhaps – much more so than ‘Once I Had A Love’, anyway!
6. ‘Buddy’ (1992) – The Lemonheads
Evan Dando, a renowned indulger of recreational stimulants, penned a song that he titled ‘My Drug Buddy’ in 1992, including it on the Lemonheads’ most acclaimed album It’s A Shame About Ray. It was (and still is) a wondrous song that features his frequent collaborator Juliana Hatfield, and one that does indeed appear to condone the use of companionable drug taking, particularly when it details the act of leisurely making a telephone call from a phonebox to a drug dealer: ‘She’s coming over / We’ll go out walking / Make a call on the way / She’s in the phonebooth now / I’m looking in / There comes a smile on her face / There’s still some of the same stuff we got yesterday’. Despite this, in the first pressing of …Ray, the title ‘My Drug Buddy’ was printed quite openly on the artwork. However, it was after the Lemonheads’ first taste of chart success with their grungy take on Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’, and that track’s added inclusion on the album, that the record company decided to print it simply as ‘Buddy’, for commercial reasons, apparently because radio stations wouldn’t play it otherwise. Newcomers to the song might think, therefore, that the true title of the song is ‘Buddy’, but they would be quite, quite wrong.
7. ‘Killing Them Softly’ (1995) – The Fugees
Moving into hip-hop territory once more, when The Fugees reinterpreted a tune in 1995 made famous by Roberta Flack in 1973 called ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song’, they originally titled it ‘Killing Them Softly’. This was for the reason that they didn’t perceive their record, on the topic of being emotionally moved by a blues singer in a bar, to be a straight cover, after having reworked it so much. Nevertheless, the by-now elderly songwriters Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel refused them permission to retitle the song, which was still essentially the one they had written about being emotionally moved by a blues singer in a bar. The Fugees can’t have been too bothered in the long run, though, as in 1997 their recording, now dubbed ‘Killing Me Softly’, bagged them a Grammy Award for best R&B performance. But you’ve still got to wonder what the two nice old gentlemen behind the song made of Wyclef Jean’s idiosyncratic vocal contributions to the remake (‘one time’, ‘you got the lyrics?’, ‘yo’, ‘my man on the bass’, etc). Interesting, too, is the fact that the title ‘Killing Them Softly’ now refers to a 2012 motion picture about a group of unhappy assassins during hard times, in which Brad Pitt’s character can only murder people at a distance, a technique he calls ‘killing them softly’. But I don’t know whether director Andrew Dominik has acknowledged The Fugees in this regard. I just don’t know.
8. ‘Let’s Spend Some Time Together’ (1967) – The Rolling Stones
When the Stones went on the Ed Sullivan show in January 1967, following in the footsteps of both Elvis and the Beatles, they were forced to amend the title of their current release ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ (a double ‘A’ side with ‘Ruby Tuesday’), or else be turned away. Sullivan, a pillar of the American establishment, reportedly spoke to Jagger himself about his concern that the song condoned casual sex amongst the youth, shared by many radio stations. “Either the song goes or you go,” he told the singer, a pillar of the anti-establishment. Jagger reached a compromise with the presenter, however, and changed the song’s title to the tamer ‘Let’s Spend Some Time Together’, though he did roll his eyes suggestively when he came to perform his live vocal. The episode foreshadowed The Doors’ appearance on the programme in September ’67, when Jim Morrison was requested to smile more and sing the key line on ‘Light My Fire’ as ‘girl, we couldn’t get much better’, instead of ‘girl, we couldn’t get much higher’. He refused, to his eternal credit, singing his original lyric with added ferocity. So he can, as a result, be considered much more rock ‘n’ roll than Jagger!
9. ‘The Void’ (1966) – The Beatles
This is perhaps more Beatles myth than anything else, but it is said that John Lennon had in mind the title ‘The Void’ when composing the game-changing psychedelic gem that would end up as the final track on the group’s Revolver album in 1966, featuring innovative use of tape loops and a modified vocal recorded through a Leslie speaker. Lennon is believed to have adapted the lyrics for the song from Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or perhaps even from the source material itself. He reportedly lost his nerve, however, when it came to naming the track, which deals with very lofty subjects concerning Eastern mysticism and the idea of the ‘ego death’: ‘Turn off your mind / relax and float downstream’. So he opted, in the end, for another of Ringo Starr’s famed malapropisms, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, as he had done for ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ just two years earlier.
10. ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ (1984) – The Special AKA
After the death of ANC leader Nelson Mandela in December 2013, I was reminded of the Special AKA’s jubilent protest song from 1984 that called for his release from prison under the brutal South African apartheid regime. I further recalled that the song, written by Jerry Dammers, was originally titled ‘Nelson Mandela’ but by the force of popular opinion became known around the globe as ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, in honour of the song’s repeated refrain. This is consequently the official title of the 1988 remix of the song (see above), and is furthermore why many people believed this to be the name of the actual man! Mr Free Nelson Mandela, if you will!
11. ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)’ (1997) – Green Day
A funny one to finish with, because, as many people seem to have forgotten, the official title of Green Day’s massive hit of 1997 – and subsequent wedding favourite! – was, in fact, ‘Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)’. The ‘Good Riddance’ bit relates to the fact that Billy Joe Armstrong wrote lyrics that essentially constitute a break-up song, exploring the conflicting and confusing emotions that usually accompany a relationship breakdown, while offering encouragement and support: ‘So make the best and don’t ask why / It’s not a question, but a lesson learned in time’. Despite such subtleties, the tune has become universally known simply as ‘Time of Your Life’, with popular opinion deeming it a song to mark a new beginning between a bride and a groom. And so, with the new unofficial moniker, the song has become one of the most misunderstood tracks of all time. Let’s stick to the proper title, people, please!