Top 20: Ones That Got Away
By Classic Pop | October 15, 2021
We lift the lid on an alternate pop universe to tell the story of how these Top 20 hits could have turned out very differently if fate hadn’t intervened…
Creating great pop isn’t just about capturing lightning in a bottle and hitting a nerve among the record-buying public – it’s also being in the right place at the right time.
Music history is littered with what ifs and maybes; managers, producers and performers who overlooked the perfect song and missed out on the opportunity for a globe-straddling hit.
In Hollywood, stories are legion of stars’ clangers as they turned down major roles. Al Pacino could have been Han Solo; Burt Reynolds said noto ‘Cubby’ Broccoli when asked to replace Sean Connery as James Bond; how would Beverly Hills Cop have turned out with Sylvester Stallone playing Axel Foley, as was originally planned?
It’s mirrored in the pop world, with many artists relying on songwriters to provide them with material. Some of the biggest stars have dropped the ball by turning down gilt-edged classics-in-the-making. Let’s take a look behind the song selection process and imagine what could have been…
Hit Justin Timberlake
Miss Michael Jackson
Written by The Neptunes for Jackson’s 10th studio album Invincible, the self-proclaimed King Of Pop turned it down. Although the percussive elements in the arrangement sound like they’d be a perfect fit for Jackson, Timberlake made it his own and cemented the success of his debut solo album Justified on the back of it. Meanwhile, the bloated Invincible failed to live up to its title.
19 Waiting For A Star To Fall
Hit Boy Meets Girl
Miss Belinda Carlisle
Inspired by a falling star (literal not metaphorical) seen at a Whitney Houston gig at the Greek Theatre, Boy Meets Girl’s George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam submitted this to record executive Clive Davis to be considered for Carlisle’s 1987 album Heaven On Earth. Belinda recorded it but hated the finished version.
Read our interview with Boy Meets Girl here
Hit Whitney Houston
Miss Janet Jackson
Also composed by Boy Meets Girl’s Merrill and Rubicam, Janet Jackson was originally offered How Will I Know. When she rejected the song, Whitney Houston jumped at the chance to record this up-tempo dance-oriented track, by now with altered lyrics, hooking up with producer Narada Michael Walden. It followed tear-jerking ballad Saving All My Love For You straight to No.1 in the US.
Hit Olivia Newton-John
Miss Rod Stewart / Tina Turner
Thanks Olivia for saving us from the sight of Rod The Mod in a leotard – the Do Ya Think I’m Sexy leopard skin trousers were bad enough. It was a firm ‘no’ from Tina, too, and instead Newton-John jogged to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in the US, a position she held for 10 weeks. …Physical shifted two million copies in the United States alone.
Hit Britney Spears
Miss Janet Jackson
The Neptunes originally wrote this for Janet’s 2001 romance-filled album, All For You. Jackson went so far as recording a demo of the track but decided to pass it to Spears who was reinventing herself in a more sexually charged direction – no doubt influenced by Janet herself. Also intended for Jackson’s seventh studio LP was Boys – Spears took that on, too, for 2001’s Britney. Whoops, she did it again.
15 I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing
Miss Celine Dion
Approaching Alanis Morissette levels of irony, Celine Dion – the intended artist to sing the track by power ballad supremo Diane Warren – missed out on this when it was snatched at the 11th hour by hoary rockers Aerosmith for inclusion on the soundtrack to disaster flick, Armageddon starring Bruce Willis. Steven Tyler’s daughter Liv featured in one of the lead roles. The track went on to resurrect Aerosmith’s career.
Miss Cyndi Lauper
Although originally written for her by Gardner Cole and Peter Rafelson, Cyndi Lauper failed to even hear a demo of this track – in its first incarnation it was a rock’n’roll tune called Follow Your Heart. When Madonna grabbed it, she added a new bassline to make it more dancefloor-friendly.
Read more: Making Madonna’s Like A Virgin
Hit Pharrell Williams
Miss Cee-lo Green
Pharrell wrote this for CeeLo Green and felt Green’s version was superior to his own. Unfortunately, Green’s record label Elektra poured cold water on the idea for fear it would take attention away from the release of his Christmas LP CeeLo’s Magic Moment. A turkey of a business decision.
Miss Michael Jackson
Offered to Jacko as an instrumental for his Bad album by songwriter Patrick Leonard, this was Madonna’s first foray into Latin music. She wrote the lyrics but admitted: “I don’t know where San Pedro is. At that point, I wasn’t a person who went on holidays to beautiful islands.”
11 It’s Raining Men
Hit The Weather Girls
Miss Donna Summer/ Diana Ross/ Barbra Streisand
First offered to Donna Summer, the singer who was by now a Born Again Christian, turned it down claiming its lyrics were “blasphemous”. She then sent songwriter Paul Jabara a Bible the following day to show him the error of his ways. Diana Ross, and Barbra Streisand all rejected the song, too, only for The Weather Girls to finally pick up the track for inclusion on their 1983 album, Success.
10 What’s Love Got To Do With It
Hit Tina Turner
Miss Cliff Richard/ Phillis Hyman/Donna Summer/ Bucks Fizz
Penned by Brit songwriters Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, Sir Cliff was first to give this a swerve then Phyllis Hyman was baulked by Arista head Clive Davis. Donna Summer sat on it for a couple of years but Bucks Fizz went one stage further, with Bobby G recording lead vocals for it before it was beaten to market by Tina’s classic version.
Miss Britney Spears
Ms Spears was left neither shaken or stirred when first approached with the idea to record this for her fourth album In The Zone by the songwriting duo of The Neptunes, aka Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. While its double entendre-laden chorus could have been perfect for Britney in her saucy pomp, Kelis scoped it out as the lead single for her third album.
Miss Britney Spears
It never rains but it pours. Not only did Britney turn down Milkshake but, although it was composed with her in mind, her record label gave this the bum’s rush before she could check it out. Written by Jay-Z with producers Tricky Stewart, Kuk Harrell and The-Dream, Rihanna topped charts worldwide with Umbrella as it became one of the most played hits of the 2000s.
07 Don’t You (Forget About Me)
Hit Simple Minds
Miss Billy Idol/ Bryan Ferry
Simple Minds got a rare second bite of the cherry with the song that broke them in North America. Written for the band by Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff, Jim Kerr at first turned this down, preferring to record self-penned material. But when Bryan Ferry and Billy Idol declined, Kerr’s partner Chrissie Hynde twisted his arm. Done and dusted in three hours, it sent the band supernova.
Read more: Simple Minds interview
Hit Britney Spears
Miss Kylie Minogue
This strings-laden stunner could have been the centrepiece to Kylie’s 2003 album Body Language but it was not to be. When Minogue turned this away, Britney instantly spotted the potential of this dancefloor banger with a novel Bhangra twist. It became one of the most critically-acclaimed songs of her career, bagging a Grammy in 2005 for Best Dance Recording.
05 Call Me
Miss Stevie Nicks
Disco don Giorgio Moroder initially approached Fleetwood Mac’s Witchy Woman to write the theme song for 1980 movie American Gigolo. But Nicks had just signed a contract with Modern Records that prevented her from recording with Moroder. Instead, the producer turned up with the basic instrumental called Man Machine and Debbie Harry wrote the lyrics and melody.
Read more: The Lowdown – Blondie
Hit Britney Spears
The 90s pop landscape could have been oh-so-different if TLC had picked up on this controversial Max Martin-penned bubblegum pop classic for their FanMail album. Band member T-Boz explained: “Every song isn’t good for each artist. So I’m clear that it was a hit, but I’m also clear that it wasn’t for TLC. Was I going to say, ‘Hit me baby one more time’? Hell no!”
03 Golden Years
Hit David Bowie
Miss Elvis Presley
With Bowie existing purely on a diet of cocaine, milk and red peppers, he had some pretty crazy ideas during his Berlin phase (at one point he thought his swimming pool was possessed by the Devil). But approaching Elvis to record this brilliant track wasn’t far off the mark. The King declined, of course, and Bowie went on to take this into the US and UK Top 10.
Read more: Making David Bowie’s Let’s Dance
Miss Phyllis Hyman/ Mary Wilson
Another career gaffe from Phyllis Hyman. This feel good classic from 1983 was written by Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens of the pop group Pure Energy. Their pitch to Hyman was knocked back as was another approach to former Supremes singer Mary Wilson. Madonna’s producer ‘Jellybean’ Benitez spotted its potential and it became the Queen of Pop’s first hit.
01 Can’t Get You Out Of My Head
Hit Kylie Minogue
Miss S Club 7 / Sophie Ellis-Bextor
You lose some, you win some. Kylie may have missed out on Toxic to Britney but it beggars belief that one of the greatest pop songs of the millennium could have been left in the hands of S Club 7. A better fit would have been Sophie Ellis-Bextor, but she also turned on her high heels from this Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis co-write. The pair put the demo together in less than four hours. When it finally landed in Kylie’s lap, she was beside herself with excitement when she heard the initial version. Minogue explained: “I went to the EMI office. About 20 seconds in, I couldn’t even fathom what I was hearing. It just… did something. Then at the end of the song, panic set in. I was saying, ‘Are you sure we’ve got this song? Don’t tell me that we don’t! Is it secured? Can we have it?’ And we did! And that kickstarted a whole different phase in my career.” Reportedly a No.1 in 40 countries, the song struck big with worldwide sales of more than five million.
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