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We’re One, But We’re Not The Same: Artists Reinterpreting Their Work

Most of the music in my collection has one arrangement, one production and sound. Sometimes a particular piece may be performed live, but even then, the performing artist usually sticks close to the studio interpretation. If The Rolling Stones are playing “Satisfaction”, for example, it’s going to sound quite close to the way they recorded it in the studio in 1965. So, if I start singing a few bars of a familiar tune, like “Shake It Off”, most people are going to hear what it sounded like when originally recorded in their heads.

Sometimes, however, there are exceptions, and those are some of the gems of my collection. Sometimes an artist will radically reconceive his or her notion of what a song should sound like in different takes of a recording. These can be eye-opening—or perhaps, I should say ear-opening—moments for listeners.

To take a few examples, let’s start with the Beatles. The take of “I’m Looking Through You” which showed up on Rubber Soul was an acoustic guitar-based tune with a hint of country poking around its bouncy rhythm and close harmonies. Paul’s vocal is straightforward, tinged with just a hint of bitterness and resentment; but on the whole it’s a jaunty song, made for a singalong.

However, the original take, released on the Anthology 2 collection some thirty years later, reveals a very different direction. The middle eight has vanished, and the tempo slowed to a chunky blues. Paul sounds a lot more pissed off, and the arrangement, heavy with electric guitars and a pounding organ, drive home his anger. The mood is one of sadness mixed with a desire for revenge. Perhaps it was left on the cutting room floor because it was too intense; however, it remains one of the best Beatles outtakes.

Bob Dylan also did this to great effect with his song from Blood on the Tracks, “Idiot Wind.” This album version was an epic of fire and brimstone, Dylan’s voice sneering and vengeful.

But Dylan was coming from a different place when he recorded the original take, backed only by Tony Brown on bass guitar. The tempo has slowed, and ache and regret illuminate the lyrics and his vocal. When I first heard this on The Bootleg Sessions: Vol. 1-3, my jaw dropped in amazement at the difference, and my heart broke at the beauty and sadness (to quote the Smithereens).

It isn’t just alternate takes, though. Sometimes a remix can make a vast change in a song. Listen to the difference between the original recording of Pete Townshend’s hit, “Let My Love Open The Door”, and its E.Cola remix.

Or sometimes an artist can reinterpret a song live. Again, Dylan is probably the best known example of this; bootlegs are filled with his rearrangements of his classics. My favorite is Bruce Springsteen’s acoustic take of “Born To Run.” It gives the song a new gut-wrenching punch.

What are some of your favorite reinterpretations of an artist’s work? Or is there a cover version of a song which gives it an entirely new meaning and feel? Please share!