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The 10 best alternate takes of classic songs

Before we get into the brilliance of some of the alternative versions assorted below, it seems pertinent to point out that there is also something slightly frustrating about them. It’s like your housemate declaring they’re going to get a takeaway when you’ve already eaten—why wasn’t this new exciting proposition in place all along, could I have been enjoying this masterpiece for years, and perhaps most importantly is this new alternate mix LP boxset really worth cashing out for?

Nevertheless, there is a beauty to them too. As Tom Waits once said, “I like my music with the rinds and the seeds and pulp left in – so the bootlegs I obtained in the 1960s and ’70s, where the noise and grit of the tapes became inseparable from the music, are essential to me.” Whether it’s the sort of early demos he is referring to, or a classic revisited with fresh ears, there is a romanticism to be found in foreign mixes. 

From the majesty of John Lennon’s shredded vocals laid bare to a dreamy David Bowie ditty and a bop to put a smile on your face by Nina Simone, we’ve curated some of the best alternative versions of classic songs. What’s more, you can hear them all with freshly piqued ears in the playlist at the foot of the rundown.

Enjoy, with just a touch of ‘what could’ve been’ in the mix. 

10 of the best alternative versions of classic songs:

‘Sound and Vision’ (2013 Version) – David Bowie

When Bowie offered up the first version of ‘Sound and Vision’ on Low, it seemed that ambient music could never be bettered. However, he offered up an alternative version in 2013, and he may well have achieved that feat. If the original is an odyssey, then this is a hymn.

I’m not saying that it is better than the original, merely that in the right moonlight it manages to eclipse it, and that must make it just about the greatest alternative version of a song ever. The cloud nine dreaminess is as embalming as fresh sheets, and it whisks you off to a beautiful starry place in an instant. A lullaby to a baby and a balm to a troubled mind alike, this gets the mobile hanging over a dismal day moving with a twinkling sense of affinity.   

‘I Want You’ (Outtake) – Bob Dylan

There is a monumental undertone to hearing Dylan’s first immortalising of a song in acetate, and when it’s a Blonde on Blonde classic, that moment of ether coaxing alchemy is elevated to strangely spiritual heights. In subsequent years, the song has gone down as a classic, but for my money, it has never sounded as good as this first time slipping out of Pandora’s box. 

This version of the song, the first take that Dylan and the band laid down, is much rockier with a sweetly sustaining organ sound. As well as providing the first take of the track we also have Dylan providing a quick rehearsal of the song. Recorded in the early hours of a March morning in 1966, a 24-year-old Bob Dylan steps up to the mic to record a purring sultry classic. “‘I Want You’,” he responds when asked to name the track, and the rest, as they say, is ancient history. (NB YouTube version below sadly 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 give a punchy pace to proceedings, but the gentle precession of Turner and James Ford’s arrangement for the Submarine soundtrack is a dance across an old ballroom that kicks up dust like starshine. The reverie of this romantic composition allows the depth of the words therein to take root. 

Drenched with imagery, there is something about the aged feel of this anthemic sound shaking hands with references to the ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ that just seems so fitting. Turner has rarely been more beauteous in his entire back catalogue, and this soaring piece of sonic poetry proved that he can do it all. It’s the song form of a favourite novel that sits on the shelf and offers itself up, once again, when the time is right for it to catch your mood.

‘Bookends’ (Single Mix) – Simon & Garfunkel

Perhaps the ultimate short and sweet song, somehow Simon & Garfunkel capture infinities with a few chords, sparse strings and a bouquet of perfectly picked words. Simply put, music doesn’t really get more beautiful than this—and I’ll keep that praise as short and simple as the song. As Simon declared: “It’s actually very difficult to make something both simple and good.”

As Jack Savoretti proclaimed when we recently spoke to him: “For 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 songwriting, I think Paul Simon is the king,” he says. “‘Bookends’ is just a masterclass. The simplicity of it is like a conversation with an old friend.”

‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (Naked Version) – The Beatles

‘Don’t Let Me Down’ is a deep, dirty, lowdown thing at the best of times. Lennon’s voice is as shredded and roar as the guitar work that partners it, and without any of Phil Spector’s pompous overtures, it rips through like a flash of booze on a fresh wound.

The song is a “genuine plea” in Paul McCartney’s eyes and that naked vulnerability should be met with the same raw treatment. As ‘Macca’ mused, “[Lennon is saying to Yoko Ono] I’m really stepping out of line on this one. I’m really just letting my vulnerability be seen, so you must not let me down.” And boy can you feel that emotional fragility in the gruffness of grooves of this naked version. Without the aftershave of sonic embellishments, you can really smell the booze on the acetate, so to speak.

‘Ain’t Got No –  I Got Life’ (Hair Musical Version) – Nina Simone

With several versions of this song out there, you can settle on the wrong one and miss out on the bop of the definitive take. The presence of a musical gives the song a zip and fizz befitting of the message contained therein. Simone shares the joy of simply living with absolute affirmation. 

Simone herself faced some mightily tough circumstances in her life, but in this short boon, she explodes with exultation gracefully and offers up a toe-tapping jam that never misses a beat or skips a note. In short, the song rides home happily close to perfection.

‘The Killing Moon’ (Transformed Version) – Echo & The Bunnymen

It’s a song that Ian McCulloch said was co-written by God, which you might argue is comical, but aside from any sniggering, it has always had a bit of dark solemnity to it in my ears. The swirling welter of emotions is as obscured as petrol in a black puddle, that sort of iridescence that looks like a highstreet asphalt galaxy, but one of sentiments in the spin is definitely some dark, dense, almost-unknowable feeling. 

Thus, this orchestral version is a fitting transformation of the song. Slowing it down to a night-time drive and allowing the flurry of strings to bring lightness to the brood of a naked piano gives the song an encompassed feel. This is the version you go to when walking the dog on a November evening or drunk in the kitchen after a night out.

‘To the End’ (La Comedie Version) – Blur, Françoise Hardy

Is there anything Françoise Hardy wouldn’t improve? The star waltzed onto this track, took it to the Riviera, gave it a Saint-Tropez tan and had it sipping a cocktail with the grace of Jean-Paul Belmondo in a heartbeat. This is one of the museum-quality artefacts on this list that I am, indeed, happy to assert is better than the original. 

What’s more, there is something about the grandeur of this take that captures the meaning of the song. It tells the tale of a relationship that has failed to overcome a hurdle. It is not quite a breakup song, it is the bit after the bitter end, and the soaring strings and sunshine give it a sense of cathartic release. It is still bittersweet, but the sense of a new leaf is whisked home as more of a homily on love thanks to the reflective refrain of Hardy. 

‘Seven Wonders’ (Early Version) – Fleetwood Mac

In this early version of ‘Seven Wonders’ Stevie Nicks’ voice sits a little higher in the mix, and more of Nicks is never a bad thing. The flourishes are less saturated and the rolling force of the thunderous pop pushes things along with a sense of seamless spontaneity. Quite why they thought there was any point in a ‘Later’ version after this is a mystery? Especially considering it’s shorter, which simply makes it less of a good thing.

The song itself is simply Fleetwood Mac doing what they do best and laying down something that doesn’t have a single hair out of place. There are rules and patterns to music, there are structures to obey, and Fleetwood Mac breeze through them as though they are as simple as a dot-to-dot to reach 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 it tragically happens, his last farewell to the world. Amid the recent 50thanniversary L.A. Woman reissue is a Sunset Sound Demo version of the track where the bass rattles with the riotous earthly depth of a subterranean army of moles undergoing a mutiny. The reissue is worth it for this demo opus alone.

The song has a freshly born nakedness to it and while the stormy atmosphere might go amiss in the mix, it is replaced by the trembling 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 damn eardrums, the rasp of Morrison’s husked voice, you name it, it clings to it – like a wrapper to a boiled sweet that has sat in your pocket for too long. It’s sticky rock ‘n’ roll goodness that could summon rainclouds to the desert at the right decibels.

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