As per my discussion of music mythology previously, a good alternate version of a song is a music nerd’s dream. “Oh man, you gotta hear this outtake version!”, “The demo is wayyyy better!” etc, etc. Sometimes it’s not quite cooked until after the album’s been cut and it gets worked over on the road or perhaps the line-up will change and offer a new angle to the song or it even just gets injected with a little more energy and suddenly you hear the song with new ears and realize what was in there in the first place. Listed below are five such songs for which I always have a ‘preferred version’.
Of course, ‘better than’ is one of the most subjective of terms, so I’ll explain some of my feelings towards it right up front: you can’t beat a good melody. Anything that uncovers, unclutters or enhances the melody of the song being sung is always going to raise it in my estimation – in most cases, the melody IS the point of song, and to improve that improves everything. Often, groups will get too interested in tinkering and lose the focus a little bit and only realize it later on down the road.
I’ve chosen ‘alternate version’ as opposed to saying ‘live version’, as I realized that some of these are done live in a studio (4), and two are just straight up studio re-dos of older songs (2 and 3), so the lines are a little blurred, to say the least, and I figured ‘alternate version’ would cover myself pretty nicely. All of these, however, are new performances of the songs by the original group/artist rather than covers or remixes (a list in and of itself!).
1) Talking Heads – Burning Down the House (Stop Making Sense)
Though I could easily include any performance from the phenomenal Stop Making Sense on this list, the huge “Burning Down the House” makes it on simply because the original song on its own sort of left me wanting. Yeah, you have the big group coming in on the titular line, but large parts are just sort of monotone and staccato, as, leading up to the chorus, Byrne recites each syllable exactly in time to the beat, with very little in the way on inflection. During the energy of the live show, however, the song gains just a little momentum and a whole bunch of energy – it’s going at a quicker tempo than normal. And it’s a little too fast for Byrne to do the lyrics staccato like in the original version, so he has to syncopate – and what a difference it makes. The build-up to the “burning down the house!” is so much livelier – this time around it really sounds like a party (“Three hundred *pause* sixty-five degrees!”)! That little touch in tempo gels the song together so much more nicely and trades any sort of clinical feel the original might have had. The tom barrage that opens onto the main section of the song, the synthesizer solo, Byrne’s frenetic strumming – they all shine like they didn’t quite get a chance to originally.
2) Peter Gabriel – In Your Eyes (New Blood)
Admittedly, this was actually the first version of the song that I heard. My reverence for the original, however, didn’t get very far. Though the melody and rhythm are very strong in the original version, the production, synthesizers and drum machines really do sound dated, which I find very distracting when listening to it – more like I’m hearing a relic of the era rather than concentrating on the important parts. On the appropriately titled New Blood, Gabriel goes back and literally orchestrates some hits from his back catalogue, without any traditional rock instruments present. Immediately, the song is given more gravity as a myriad of strings pick up the melody and swell as the chorus is reached, while the lack of drums creates a sense of spontaneity and the impression of the song being moved by emotion more than anything. Being played with classical instrumentation puts more focus on the melody and at once adds a sense of timelessness to the song. That sense was richly deserved all along, but the context needed to be changed in order to appreciate it.
3) Across the Universe – The Beatles (Let It Be… Naked)
There have actually been three or four versions of this song released, but this has gotta be the one. A beautiful acoustic track by John Lennon with psychedelic lyrics, this is the one version unadorned by wildlife noises, children singing along, and Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” behind it, stuffing every imaginable instrument in the background behind John and his guitar and creating more and more distraction. I find very much that less is more in this instance and the vocals and guitar say all that there really is to say about this track and anything else seems like a frill for the sake of it – even in the other versions, the core of the song sets itself apart at a distance from the rest of the noises. There are also two different speeds to the song, and this one is the slower of them, which allows the song to breathe a lot more and allows you to appreciate the trippy lyrics.
4) Radiohead – Give up the Ghost (From the Basement)
This may be an odd choice, as I listen to both this and the original version with the same frequency, but, for me, this “live in studio” version of the song gets a little more feeling out of it, for one simple reason. The song is based around looped vocals, each of which is double tracked. Because this is being recorded live, Thom Yorke has to do each part twice – you can hear each brick being put into place as more and more layers are added, as well as an extended coda with a little extra ad libbing by Yorke. You also get to spend more time with the song’s hypnotic rhythm and almost mantra-like vocals. Like #3, it is stripped of its ambient sound effects and you’re left with the plain message of the repeated “don’t hurt me/don’t haunt me” that heightens the already raw sense of vulnerability in the song. There’s also something charming about Yorke’s self-effacing “please tell me that sounded alright” after the song comes to a stop.
5) Simon & Garfunkel – For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her (Live 1969)
In the duo’s most plain and beautiful love song, the curious choice was made on the studio version to double-track Art Garfunkel’s voice, rather than have Simon sing along as was usual. The problem is that the double-tracking gets a little loose at the climactic moments in the song and, while sounding smoother, I find actually hides the accuracy and beauty of Garfunkel’s voice in what is surely one of Paul Simon’s best melodies. In the live version, Garfunkel still goes it solo, but no effects are put on his voice whatsoever, as it gently and sensitively carries the melody and crescendoes beautifully with just the right amount of trill. It also sounds less hurried, as they would have become much more comfortable with the song playing on the road for three years than when debuting it on the album. This version ends with something I always thought was interesting to hear on live albums – pure applause without a single person’s voice interrupting it.