The other day, I was listening to music at random via digital media player and Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" popped up. Not the version used on the album, but an alternate take, released a few years ago on the "No Direction Home" soundtrack (Scorcese's documentary on Dylan.) I'd heard it before but now that I have a place to put these random thoughts for all to see, it sparked a pretty cool topic. This particular alt.take was not too far removed from what eventually made the cut, but it's very cool to listen to the small differences, in this case the slide guitar in the beginning isn't as "right on" and there's no whistle between verses. The whistle isn't a classic referee whistle, that would've just been stupid...but its one of those siren whistles, that makes a "WHEEEEEEEEeeeeeeee" sound, and it's such a key component to this song. It's actually comical, in theory and reality because as the story goes, Dylan just took it from someones guitar case and incorporated it. DIGRESSION: Those late 60's Dylan sessions are one of those "if you could go back in time and witness anything..." type of things for me (also, Bruce Springsteen at The Bottom Line in the "rosalita" days as I like to refer to them, and a Beatles session for sure, definitely late 60's when they were at the height of their genius.) I'd have loved to be in the room when Al Kooper snuck behind the organ for "Like A Rolling Stone" and actually made a Dylan song better.
ANYWAY, back on topic, WHAT IF, this version made the record? Understandably, there are obvious answers:
A. IF this was the chosen take, production would have been stepped up and it would have come across better post mixing and yadda yadda yadda.
B. It WASN'T chosen because that's what makes the artist who they are...knowing which take is best to release, although not the case for everyone. I'm sure mistakes have been made in this regard, we just don't always know about it.
C. It's all relative, and we'd love the alternate take version as if it were the original and the original would likely blow us away as an alternate take when it's released 30 years down the line.
I'm not about to get that involved in the philosophy behind it, because then the innocence of "what if" is lost...although over a few drinks I'd happily immerse myself in a deep discussion.
I thought I'd do weeks of research for this post, but then I remembered how much I'm annoyed by research. So instead, I scanned my iTunes for all the alternate takes I own. Turns out I have a ton of Dylan, not a whole lot else. So I'll drag out this post a little longer with a couple of tracks to get you interested and toss out an open request for any great alternate takes of popular songs that I'm either not aware of or don't own. PLEASE, I can see this becoming a new distraction obsession for me...
I won't get too heavy with the Bob stuff, but in contrast to the Highway 61 I mentioned above, on the same soundtrack is a version of "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" that is COMPLETELY different. NOW, the "what if" question becomes legit. This version is straight up dirty, electric Chicago blues compared to the album cut that has a more crisp sound, acoustic guitar and upright piano in the forefront. If this were on the record, well, it might have been just silly because the arrangement for Tombstone Blues which precedes "ITALTLITATC" is of a similar style, but IF it were, maybe the track listing would have been different, or maybe Tombstone Blues would have been arranged differently. It's all too "Back to the Future" for me, but not quite as dangerous as Marty running into his future self, in that I'm not sure his history would have change much had these songs been a tad different...maybe Dylan was a poor example. BUT!!!
...what about THIS Bruce Springsteen alternate take (NOTE: I can't say if this is authentic or not, because it's YouTube and no mention of being official, but it sure sounds cool...)
Even though it sounds almost the same, there are subtle enough differences that maybe could have prevented this from being the epic, anthem it is? "Born To Run" is big, start to finish, and that's how we know it. This is still big, but the verse is taken down a notch with an almost rockabilly feel (which I LOVE) and that builds into an interesting background vocal and string arrangement (which I don't really love) but the big moment that bothers me is the major breakdown towards the end. Right before the big 1, 2, 3, 4! the strings make it a little TOO 70's, almost an A-TEAM theme song vibe. Phil Spector was pretty magnificent, aside from all of his mental issues, the man was a powerhouse and you can still hear his 'wall of sound' in action, but imagine if this cheesy string arrangement made the final cut. This is the record that put Bruce on the map! THIS is the Marty McFly situation...If this were released, Bruce might have been teetering less on the Epic and more on the Cheese...In theory, he might have been on the brink of becoming....*GASP* Bon Jovi?!?!?!... Let's just take a moment to thank the powers that be.
Keeping with my "if you could go back in time and witness anything..." vibe, my last example will be The Beatles. From Anthology 2, I count it among "alternate takes" because it's labeled as "Strawberry Fields Forever (Take 1)" but I imagine it's sole purpose was to listen and see what else could be messed with... The reason it still appeals to my new love for Alternate Takes is because it allows you to enter their minds. This version is practically untouched by the "mastery" of Abbey Road, lacking the vocal effects, the backward sounding instruments, the whole acid vibe isn't there. "Take 1" is just a song, "Strawberry Fields Forever" becomes a complete work. And damn, that process from "Take 1" to "final product" is an amazing thing...sigh.
Finally, without going in depth, more of a mention so you'll listen to it.... "A Day In The Life" also on Anthology 2. Listen to the album cut, and listen to this. I don't know which part is final take as far as vocals go, but the track sounds as though it was pretty complete. This is one of my favorite Beatles recordings of all time. If anyone is like me, and cares to have that look into the creative minds, there's a great book by Abbey Road engineer Geoff Emerick, called "Here, There & Everywhere" and it's a phenomenal account of The Beatles most creative time, from someone who was there. At times a little biased in favor of Paul, but who cares, it's still an amazing read and this song in particular is a really cool story, especially the final piano chord at the end.
In closing, again, if anyone knows of some great alternate takes...please post a comment, send an email, singing telegram, whatever.