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20 live versions of songs that slay their studio counterparts

Peter Frampton

Going to live shows can be amazing, but it’s rare that a live version of a song is better than whatever a particular artist has already laid down on tape. (Production takes weeks, costs fortunes, and requires producers for a reason.) It happens, though, and when it does—when a live song surpasses its original version—it can be a magical thing. Below are some of our favorites, from widely agreed-upon classics to some more niche-friendly fare.

1. Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues,” off 1968’s At Folsom Prison

Though Johnny Cash first recorded “Folsom Prison Blues” (about the track’s title California penitentiary) in 1955, he didn’t actually go inside the prison until January 1968. That’s when, as part of his ongoing jailhouse outreach program, he recorded not one but two live shows there—one at 9:40 a.m. and one at 12:40 p.m., just in case the first one wasn’t up to snuff. The resulting live album, At Folsom Prison, was Cash’s 27th official release and, even now, is one of his best. Tracks like “Jackson” and “25 Minutes To Go” are rippers, but opener “Folsom Prison Blues” is the album’s true standout. Accompanied by a heap of jailhouse hollering and Cash’s stoic “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” introduction, the live track is pure catharsis. Cash gives the rambling song everything he’s got, an apt tribute to his audience, and the prisoners give that energy right back, having inspired both the track and Cash’s previous jailhouse performances. It’s a little unsettling to hear cheers after the line about how Cash “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” but if anyone would get the sentiment’s cold disaffection, it’s that audience. [Marah Eakin]

2. Elvis Presley, “Trouble,” from 1968’s Elvis

Elvis’ catalog of songs is vast, and for every iconic single like “Blue Suede Shoes,” there are a dozen mostly forgotten studio efforts like “Trouble,” a Lieber and Stoller tune from 1958’s King Creole, that, both musically and lyrically, pays homage to Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters. But the song was immortalized a decade later when Elvis used it to open Elvis, best known as the ’68 Comeback Special. He begins the special snarling the opening lyrics, “If you’re looking for trouble / You came to the right place,” running through a raw take on the song that hearkened back to his electrifying early recordings. It was a bold statement of purpose and a message to his fans—The Beatles may have pushed him off center stage, but The King still had some life left in him. [Mike Vago]

3. Kiss, “Rock And Roll All Nite,” from 1975’s Alive!

Although Kiss is not, musically speaking, a very good band, its members are performers par excellence. Kiss harnesses spectacle to maximum effect, rousing a crowd like few other bands can do. You can feel that energy on the live version of “Rock And Roll All Nite.” The track opens with a frenzied burst of cheers which continue unabated throughout the song, and the band feeds off of that energy. It’s almost impossible not to sing along with this one in the car, as you hear thousands of fans singing their hearts out every time the band hits the chorus. [Mike Vago]


4. Ween, “Poop Ship Destroyer,” from 1999’s Paintin’ The Town Brown

Paintin’ The Town Brown was Ween’s first official live album, although fans already had a busy occupation in bootlegging Ween shows on tapes for years. The collection captured the good, the bad, and the ugly, spanning eight years of the band’s formative, most productive decade. “Poop Ship Destroyer” appeared as the last track on 1992’s Pure Guava, the band’s third album and major label debut on Elektra. Guava’s “Poop Ship” is a somewhat forgettable, woozy, just-over-two-minute finale to the band’s breakout album. On Paintin’ The Town Brown, recorded at a 1995 Columbia, Missouri show, the song is jammed out to 26 minutes of heavy, sludgy, feedback-laden trippiness. Further epic live versions of “Poop Ship” helped establish the song as the band’s unofficial anthem. [Drew Fortune]


5. Talking Heads, “Life During Wartime,” from 1984’s Stop Making Sense

In December 1983, Talking Heads were still riding high on the success of their fifth studio LP, Speaking In Tongues, which contained the Top 10 hit “Burning Down The House.” To commemorate the tour behind the record, the quartet turned to director Jonathan Demme, who ended up filming the band during a three-night stand at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. The footage—which was eventually released as the film and album Stop Making Sense—produced several iconic versions of Talking Heads songs, including a funkier, squalling “Girlfriend Is Better” and a bare-bones take on “Psycho Killer.” Perhaps the most enduring song from Stop Making Sense, however, is an amped-up version of “Life During Wartime.” Thanks to the auxiliary musicians performing with the band—especially Parliament-Funkadelic keys wizard Bernie Worrell and one-time P-Funk member Lynn Mabry on vocals—the song boasts a brisker tempo and tighter grooves, both of which amp up the song’s hysteria. Frontman David Byrne’s vocal performance is also suitably unhinged; when he sings the last round of the chorus, he sounds like a desperate man grasping for sanity in the face of disaster. It’s nearly impossible to hear “Life During Wartime” today and not imagine the jogging-in-place moves unleashed in the movie during the song—a testament not only to Byrne’s physical fitness, but also to the tune’s vivacious, relentless pace. [Annie Zaleski]


6. Paul McCartney, “Maybe I’m Amazed,” from 1976’s Wings Over America

The song that McCartney himself cites as maybe his best was written and recorded during the waning days of The Beatles, and was included on his self-titled debut solo album—a collection of modest home recordings that critics back in 1970 largely dismissed. By the time McCartney released a live version of “Maybe I’m Amazed” as the only single from the 1976 live triple-LP Wings Over America, he’d had a string of post-Beatles hits, and the song already felt like a timeless classic. The Wings Over America “Maybe I’m Amazed” has the same basic arrangement as the McCartney version—the same loose piano, the same fiery guitar solo, the same intermittent drums—but the vocal performance is even more impassioned. (And McCartney gets plenty loud on the original.) What starts as a ballad almost becomes an anthem when it hits the halfway point. That steady build from sigh to shout has remained the model for how the song is supposed to sound. [Noel Murray]


7. U2, “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” from 1983’s Under A Blood Red Sky

One of the knocks against MTV in the early ’80s was that the channel made overnight stars out of young musicians who merely looked pretty on camera, whether or not they had any performing chops. U2 though broke through in the U.S. with a video that showed them onstage at Colorado’s stunning Red Rocks Amphitheatre, rousing a rain-soaked audience with a powerhouse live performance of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” a song about the violence in Northern Ireland. It’s a riveting clip, and around the same time that it went into heavy rotation on MTV in 1983, U2 released the live EP Under A Blood Red Sky, featuring another, equally energized “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” from the same tour. Album rock stations started spinning the EP version, complete with Bono’s beguiling intro: “There’s been a lot of talk about this next song. Maybe… maybe too much talk. This song is not a rebel song. This song is Sunday… Bloody Sunday.” When Bono finished talking and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. started his opening rat-a-tat, a lot of radio listeners were as ready to join the U2 army as those who’d seen Bono parade around with a flag in the video. [Noel Murray]


8. Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Free Bird,” from 1976’s One More From The Road

Every now and then young concertgoers will ask some old-timer why people shout “Freeeeee Biiiiird!” between songs. They’ll then hear the legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1976 double-live album One More From The Road, and its 13-and-a-half-minute version of “Free Bird.” The live track begins with Ronnie Van Zant asking the crowd at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, “What song is it you wanna hear?” Fans scream the title en masse, and then the band—one year before three of its members were killed in a plane crash—roar through a “Free Bird” that expands on both the bluesy wistfulness and the triumphant surge of the studio version. Lynyrd Skynyrd have too many popular songs to call any one their “signature,” but thanks to classic rock radio playing the live “Free Bird” in perpetuity, it’s become the song that audiences ask for by name—to anyone on a stage. [Noel Murray]


9. They Might Be Giants, “Why Does The Sun Shine?” from 1998’s Severe Tire Damage

They Might Be Giants have long been “just” a novelty act to its critics, and one of the biggest supports for that argument was the 1993 EP “Why Does The Sun Shine?” Consisting of 75-percent covers, including a cutesy version of the educational title track, it’s thoroughly inessential. But the best argument against TMBG as pure novelty is what the band did to the song afterward, changing the tinkly, mellow, adorable “Why Does The Sun Shine?” into a rollicking upbeat centerpiece of its live show. Officially collected on the 1998 live album Severe Tire Damage, the song is evidence of the band’s strength, flexibility, and ridiculously fun live shows. [Rowan Kaiser]


10. The Beatles, “Twist And Shout,” from 1962’s Live! At The Star-Club In Hamburg, Germany

The version of “Twist And Shout” on The Beatles’ first studio album, Please Please Me, is fine. It’s good, really. But it’s not the epoch-defining “Twist And Shout” that helped The Beatles take America by storm in the early ’60s. In the studio, this is a good rock ’n’ roll song. But live, it’s a runaway truck barreling downhill, destroying all in its path, as John Lennon’s voice starts big and somehow keeps building intensity from there. Perhaps Lennon ruined his voice in the process, but that just adds to The Beatles’ mythology as a goddamn kick-ass rock band and not just a question on a history test. The live version of the song is a disaster waiting to happen, a wall of words and guitar and drums and harmony and just awe-inspiring noise. [Rowan Kaiser]


11. Fleetwood Mac, “Landslide,” from 1997’s The Dance

Stevie Nicks wrote “Landslide” just before she and then-paramour Lindsey Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac, the band that would make them famous. The song appeared on the band’s 1975 eponymous release, featuring Nicks’ sweet, hopeful delivery of lines like “Time makes you bolder / Children get older / I’m getting older too.” More than 20 years later, “Landslide” resurged, as the band released a live version on 1997’s The Dance. The passage of a few decades shifts the song’s meaning completely. Now Nicks’ perspective is from an older woman looking back on her life, made all the more poignant by the fact that she’s accompanied on acoustic guitar by her lost love Buckingham. In the video, Buckingham barely holds back tears as the two reconnect on stage. “Landslide” has been covered by Smashing Pumpkins, Dixie Chicks, even the cast of Glee. But nothing can match Fleetwood Mac’s live version: She says the song’s for her father, but it’s impossible to ignore the mountain of emotion between Nicks and Buckingham as they revisit their romantic past onstage. [Gwen Ihnat]


12. Cheap Trick, “I Want You To Want Me,” from 1979’s At Budokan

The awesomeness of Cheap Trick’s At Budokan, the 1979 live album that put the band on the official rock map, practically ruined the non-live version of every song on it. This inequality is glaringly obvious on “I Want You To Want Me.” There’s a reason why the original barely gets any airplay: It’s too subdued, and tinny, and Rick Nielsen’s simplistic lyrics translate as sing-songy. Put the same song in front of that Budokan crowd, though, and watch it spring to life. As Bun E. Carlos kicks off with a drum riff, all the tameness that trapped the song in the studio is instantly cast aside. Packs of screaming teenagers answer Zander’s “Didn’t I didn’t I didn’t I see you crying” with “Crying! Crying! Crying!” Nielsen, obviously enjoying himself, tosses in not one but two fun solos. Just when those heights are reached, the band drops away everything but the vocals and Carlos, letting those screams take hold again. There are a lot of great songs on In Color (“Downed,” “Southern Girls”), but no need to listen to that version of “I Want You To Want Me” when the live one exists. [Gwen Ihnat]


13. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, “From Her To Eternity,” from 1993’s Live Seeds

While the more tender side of Nick Cave is always best served on record, there’s still no studio that can contain beasts like “From Her To Eternity.” Cave’s wail of sexual frustration about the girl next door sounds equally restrained on its 1984 album of the same name—so much so that CD reissues tacked on a 1987 live version, adding a rendition that feels just a hair more primal where the other mostly just prowls. But the definitive delivery of the Bad Seeds’ concert staple comes on 1993’s Live Seeds, which captured the group during its Henry’s Dream-era run of pure rock aggression. From the ominous rumble of Cave’s “I wanna tell ya about a girrrrrl” intro to the way he snarls like a rabid madman through the stalker monologue that takes up the middle eight, Cave has never sounded more desperate—or dangerous. Meanwhile, the band backs him up with a syncopated din of chords that, by the tone of things, may well have been played with a sledgehammer. The only way to top this version would be to have Cave screaming it from beneath your floorboards. [Sean O’Neal]


14. Nirvana, “About A Girl,” from 1993’s MTV Unplugged

A couple of performances from Pearl Jam and Queensrÿche aside, the gold standard for MTV Unplugged used to be Eric Clapton, softly weeping his way through “Tears In Heaven.” Opening those soft-focus doors to Nirvana—a band whose MTV appearances were littered with broken guitars—proved a tough sell even to Kurt Cobain. But any doubts over whether the group would translate were erased with the opening chords of “About A Girl,” the first of many lesser-known tracks and covers that Cobain chose to play that night, and the one that benefited the most from its acoustic reworking. Cobain had long talked about how “About A Girl” was a “risk” when it first appeared on 1989’s Bleach, its R.E.M. jangle a marked departure from the pummeling rock that surrounded it. But slowed and given space to breathe, its Unplugged performance proved a revelation—perhaps not least to parents who’d dismissed Nirvana as a bunch of noise, only to discover the sweet, Beatles-esque songs hiding underneath the racket. The subsequent success of “About A Girl” as the only single commercially released from the special gave it eternal life on the radio, where it remains the only version you’re guaranteed to hear. [Sean O’Neal]


15. Peter Frampton, ”Show Me The Way,” from 1976’s Frampton Comes Alive

Peter Frampton was only 26 when he leapt from utilitarian guitar player to release the double album Frampton Comes Alive, still the biggest-selling live record of all time. Of the album’s three singles, “Show Me The Way” was the most popular, hitting No. 6 on Billboard (besting “Feel Like I Do” and “Baby, I Love Your Way”). Frampton told The A.V. Club in 2001 that he realized his success came backward, with the live album kicking off his pinnacle: “Hardly anybody bought my studio records, but when I put it together live, it went through the roof. So go figure. It’s because I enjoy performing live so much. It’s a wonderful feeling.” Frampton’s obvious joy onstage certainly helped put Frampton Comes Alive across, as did his showier efforts, like the way he jumps on his guitar’s talk box (a gadget rigged up through a mouth hose) every single chance he gets. But the secret to Frampton’s mass appeal was that he was about the most romantic big-arena rocker out there. In “Show Me The Way,” he’s in full romantic bliss mode—“I wonder if I’m dreaming / I feel so unashamed / I can’t believe this is happening to me”—in front of a screaming crowd of thousands just as in love as he is. [Gwen Ihnat]


16. The National, “About Today,” from 2008’s Virginia EP

The National’s Virginia EP includes several live versions of songs the band performed on its Boxer tour, but none of the performances are as thrilling as “About Today.” Twice as long as the recorded version (originally from 2004’s Cherry Tree EP), the energetic and enigmatic live track renders the more staid original obsolete. The slow but steady build crescendoes to the point where the audience claps in time with the colliding instruments like a heartbeat. Not only does this version of “About Today” blow its recorded predecessor out of the water, it’s also a perfect example of how stellar The National is live—worlds away from the mumbly introspection that defines its recorded music. [Caroline Framke]


17. Robyn Hitchcock, “1974,” from 1998’s Storefront Hitchcock

In 1998, director Jonathan Demme decided to revisit the concert-film genre, using his adeptness at the genre—which he’d demonstrated with Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense—to spotlight another cult artist who had been teetering on the precipice of mainstream success: Robyn Hitchcock. Unfortunately, there was never much chance that a singer/songwriter with Hitchcock’s tendency toward lyrical eccentricity would suddenly start shifting platinum units, but Storefront Hitchcock did at least provide its leading man with the opportunity to introduce audiences to a few heretofore-unheard songs, most notably an ode to the “funky denim wonderland” known as the year 1974. A studio version of the track later turned up on A Star For Bram, a collection of outtakes from Hitchcock’s 1999 album, Jewels For Sophia, but it’s no match for the surprising poignancy that the stark acoustic rendering brings out in Hitchcock’s reflections on “[Monty] Python’s last series” and “Syd Barrett’s last session.” [Will Harris]


18. Morrissey, “Jack The Ripper,” from a 1992 Paris live show

Few musical artists have fan bases as devoted as Morrissey’s. But when it comes to “Jack The Ripper,” an ode to the notorious 19th-century serial killer, even the former Smiths frontman’s most faithful supporters tend to acknowledge that the song never quite took off in the studio. Not that he didn’t try: The version that appears on the B-side of the “Certain People I Know” single was recorded in October 1992 with producer Mick Ronson, but Morrissey actually took a second unsuccessful shot at it the following month in New Orleans, with Allen Toussaint producing. So Morrissey has chosen to use a live version of “Jack The Ripper” from a December 1992 performance in Paris whenever the song has popped up on rarities compilations. While he has a history of preferring to rewrite history whenever the opportunity presents itself, this is one time when even diehard fans aren’t complaining. [Will Harris]


19. Bob Seger And The Silver Bullet Band, “Turn The Page,” from 1976’s ‘Live’ Bullet

As heard on Bob Seger’s Back In ’72, “Turn The Page” sounds too mannered, too tidy to become the classic-rock standard for tour-bus weariness. But thanks to the double LP ‘Live’ Bullet, the song finally gained the properly bleary-eyed outlook. Playing the same venue that birthed part of Kiss’ Alive (Cobo Arena in Detroit), Seger and the Silver Bullet Band put enough sprawl into “Turn The Page” to suggest an endless highway drive, its verses punctuated with smoky instrumental fills. The contributions from saxophonist Alto Reed make all the difference. In the studio, Reed’s expressive intro is hemmed in, seemingly ending before it can begin. On ‘Live’ Bullet, however, he has room to wail, each take on the song’s distinctive riff a home movie of seedy diners, blurring landscapes, and another street light zipping out of view. [Erik Adams]


20. Bob Marley, “No Woman, No Cry,” from 1975’s Live!

While the version of “No Woman, No Cry” from 1974’s Natty Dread is almost comically thin and synthetic, Bob Marley’s live take in 1975 is lush and personable. That’s probably why it’s become the dominant version of the song, popping up on both 1975’s Live! album and the insanely popular Legend collection. Accented with audience chatter, a spot-on organ, and some crooning backup ladies, the live “No Woman” may have become an overplayed stoner cliché since, but for good reason—it’s really, really good. Listening with a set of fresh ears can do wonders for this old song. [Marah Eakin]


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