Before we get into the shine of some of the assorted alternate builds below, it seems apt to point out that there’s something slightly frustrating about them too. It’s like your roommate saying he’s going for takeout when you’ve already eaten – why wasn’t this exciting new proposal in place from the start, could I have enjoyed this chef- work for years, and perhaps most importantly is this new Alternate Mix box set LP really worth cashing in on?
Nevertheless, there is also a beauty to them. As Tom Waits once said, “I like my music with the rinds and seeds and pulp left in it – so the bootlegs I got in the 1960s and 1970s, where the noise and grit of the tapes have become inseparable from music, are essential tome.” Whether it’s the kind of early demos he’s referring to or a classic revisited with new ears, there’s a romance to foreign mash-ups.
From the majesty of John Lennon’s shredded vocals laid bare to a dreamy ditty by David Bowie and a bop to make you smile by Nina Simone, we’ve picked out some of the best alternative versions of classic songs. Plus, you can hear them all with freshly pricked ears in the playlist at the bottom of the countdown.
Enjoy, with just a touch of “what could have been” in the mix.
10 of the best alternate versions of classic songs:
‘Sound and Vision’ (2013 version) – David Bowie
When Bowie offered the first version of “Sound and Vision” on Down, it seemed like the ambient music could never be bettered. However, he came up with an alternate version in 2013, and he may have pulled off that feat. If the original is an odyssey, then it’s an anthem.
I’m not saying it’s better than the original, just that in the right moonlight it manages to eclipse it, and that has to make it pretty much the best alternate version of a song ever. . The reverie of cloud nine is as fragrant as fresh sheets, and it takes you to a beautiful starry place in an instant. A lullaby for a baby and a balm for a troubled mind, it makes the mobile hang over a gloomy day in motion with a wink of affinity.
“I Want You” (excerpt) – Bob Dylan
There’s a monumental nuance to hearing Dylan’s first immortalization of a song on acetate, and when it’s a blonde on blonde classic, this moment of ether-cajoling alchemy is elevated to eerily spiritual heights. Over the next few years the song became a classic, but for my money it never sounded better than that first time it came out of Pandora’s box.
This version of the song, the first take Dylan and the band created, is much rockier with a smooth, sustained organ sound. In addition to providing the first take of the track, Dylan also provides a quick repeat of the song. Recorded in the wee hours of a March 1966 morning, 24-year-old Bob Dylan takes the mic to record a sultry, purring classic. “’I Want You’,” he replies when asked to name the track, and the rest, as they say, is history. (NB The YouTube version below is unfortunately not available on Spotify for the playlist).
“Piledriver Waltz” (solo version) – Alex Turner
The suck it and see version sees the ensemble cast of the Arctic Monkeys provide a punchy pace to the proceedings, but the gentle precession of Turner and James Ford’s arrangement for the Submarine the soundtrack is a dance in an old ballroom that kicks up dust like a starburst. The reverie of this romantic composition allows the depth of the words to take root.
Soaked in imagery, there’s something about the aged feel of this anthemic sound shaking hands with “Heartbreak Hotel” references that feels so fitting. Turner has rarely looked better in his entire catalog, and this soaring piece of sound poetry proved he could do it all. It’s the song form of a favorite novel that sits on the shelf and offers itself, once again, when the time is right for it to capture your mood.
‘Bookends’ (Single Mix) – Simon & Garfunkel
Perhaps the ultimate short and sweet song, Simon & Garfunkel somehow captures infinity with a few chords, sparse strings, and a bunch of perfectly-chosen words. Put simply, the music doesn’t really get any prettier than this – and I’ll keep this eulogy as short and simple as the song. As Simon said, “It’s actually really hard to make something that’s both simple and good.”
As Jack Savoretti proclaimed when we spoke to him recently: “To me, Elvis is the king of rock, Sam Cooke is the king of soul, James Brown is the king of funk, but when it comes to write songs, I think Paul Simon is the king,” he says. “’Bookends’ is just a masterclass. Simplicity is like a conversation with an old friend.
‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (Nude Version) – The Beatles
“Don’t Let Me Down” is a deep, dirty, low thing at the best of times. Lennon’s voice is as jagged and roaring as the guitar work that accompanies it, and without any of Phil Spector’s pompous overtures, it rips like a bolt of booze over a fresh wound.
The song is a “true plea” in the eyes of Paul McCartney and this naked vulnerability should be treated with the same raw treatment. As ‘Macca’ thought, “[Lennon is saying to Yoko Ono] I’m really going out of line on this one. I really let my vulnerability show, so you must not let me down. And boy can you feel that emotional fragility in the rough grooves of this naked version. Without the aftershave sound embellishments, you can really smell the alcohol on the acetate, so to speak.
“I have no no – I have life” (Hair Musical version) – Nina Simone
With multiple versions of this song, you can settle for the bad one and miss the bop of the final take. The presence of a musical gives the song a zip and fizz worthy of the message it contains. Simone shares the joy of living simply with absolute affirmation.
Simone herself has faced extremely difficult circumstances in her life, but in this short bonanza she gracefully explodes with elation and delivers a toe-tapping jam that never misses a beat or skips a note. In short, the song happily borders on perfection.
‘The Killing Moon’ (Transformed Version) – Echo & The Bunnymen
It’s a song that Ian McCulloch says was co-written by God, what you might say is comical, but aside from all the snickering, it always had a bit of dark solemnity in my ears. The swirling mass of emotions is as obscured as gasoline in a black puddle, that kind of iridescence that looks like a galaxy of high street asphalt, but one of the feelings in the spinning is definitely a dark, dense, almost unknowable feeling.
So this orchestral version is a fitting transformation of the song. Slowing it down to a nighttime drive and allowing the flurry of strings to bring lightness to the brooding bare piano gives the song an encompassing feel. This is the version you go for when walking the dog on a November evening or drinking in the kitchen after a night out.
‘To the End’ (La Comédie Version) – Blur, Francoise Hardy
Is there anything Françoise Hardy wouldn’t improve? The star waltzed to this track, took it to the Riviera, gave it a Tropézien tan and made it sip a cocktail with the grace of Jean-Paul Belmondo in the blink of an eye. This is one of the museum-quality artifacts on this list that I am, indeed, happy to report is better than the original.
Plus, there’s something about the grandeur of this take that captures the meaning of the song. It tells the story of a relationship that failed to overcome an obstacle. It’s not quite a breakup song, it’s the soon after bitter end, and the rising strings and sunshine give it a sense of cathartic release. It’s still bittersweet, but the sense of a new leaf is driven home as more of a homily on love thanks to Hardy’s thoughtful chorus.
‘Seven Wonders’ (first release) – Fleetwood Mac
In this early version of “Seven Wonders,” Stevie Nicks’ voice is a bit higher in the mix, and more Nicks is never a bad thing. The flourishes are less saturated and the rolling force of thunderous pop pushes things along with a sense of unflinching spontaneity. Why did they think there was interest in a “later” version after it was a mystery? Especially considering it’s shorter, which just makes it less good.
The song itself is simply Fleetwood Mac doing what they do best and laying something that doesn’t have a single hair out of place. There are rules and patterns in music, there are structures to obey, and Fleetwood Mac walks through them as if they were as simple as a dot to dot to pop perfection.
‘Riders on the Storm’ (sunset sound demo) – The Doors
As one of the greatest songs ever written, “Riders on the Storm” was the culmination of Jim Morrison’s atmospheric reverie and, as tragically happens, his final farewell to the world. In the middle of the last 50eanniversary Wife reissue is a Sunset Sound Demo version of the track where the bass resonates with the tumultuous earthly depth of an underground army of moles undergoing mutiny. The reissue is worth it just for this demo opus.
The song has a freshly born nudity and while the stormy atmosphere can go wrong in the mix, it’s replaced by the shaking walls that seem to cage the sweltering rendition. It is, in short, one of the greatest bass sounds you will ever hear. It clings to everything – the drums, your own eardrums, the hoarseness of Morrison’s raspy voice, you name it, it clings to it – like a wrapper to a boiled candy that’s been in your pocket too long. It’s sticky rock ‘n’ roll that could summon desert rain clouds at the right decibels.
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