10 Explosive Live Versions That Are Better Than Their Originals

One of the highlights of Coachella 2014 was Arcade Fire inviting Debbie Harry up on stage for a special rendition of ‘Heart of Glass’ at Coachella. It was one of those rare moments when a live version trumps its studio recording. And it got us thinking – what other live tracks show up their original versions? The perfect live track has great sound quality, on-stage banter, crowd reaction, a palpable sense of time and place and just that something extra that you can’t quite put your finger on, the stuff that makes musicians rockstars and the rest of us mere mortals. Here are 10 tracks that fit the bill. Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

1. Aretha Franklin – Respect (live at Fillmore West, 1971)

Aretha arrives to an almost comic Blues Brothers style opening, minus the embarrassing dancing. The band are extraordinarily tight – with the soul queen backed by King Curtis (who was murdered by drug dealers on the steps of his apartment later that year). “I promise that when you’ve left here you’ll have enjoyed this show as much as any other you’ve seen,” announces Franklin 3.45 minutes in. Even if watching decades later on YouTube, she’s not wrong.

Track Highlight: (1.46) ‘Suck it to me’ at lightning speed: the ultimate tongue-twister.

2. Bruce Springsteen – Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out (live at Hammersmith Odeon 1975)


This recording captures a band coming out of the club circuit and sticking to its R ‘n’ B roots. Not quite the “heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-making –Le-gen-dary E – Street – Band!” but well on its way, and capturing a period where the boss hadn’t quite found the muscle of ‘Born In The USA’ but still carried an infectious groove and a lot of swagger.

Track Highlight: (0.15) Clarence Clemons attempting a moonwalk.

3. Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues (live at Folsom Prison)

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” This simple introduction sums up the incredible humility of Cash which continues throughout his performance. He performed for inmates from the late 50s and was the first to record on the inside in 1968. The song was written in 1953 whilst Cash served with the Armed Forces in Germany. He saw ‘Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison’ and was inspired to write the track, only travelling to Folsom 16 years later.

Track Highlight: “Come on Boys!” just before the instrumental, to both his musicians and the inmates

4. Joni Mitchell – Both Sides Now (on Miles of Aisles, 1974)

Joni Mitchell has recorded an endless amount of versions of this song but this live one returns to the stripped-down original, with the backing band L.A. Express lifting the track with a gentle ebb and flow. It’s more jazz-inflected than anything and foreshadows the direction she went with ‘Court and Spark’ in 1974.

Track Highlight: When the band drop in at 1.00.

5. Belle & Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister (Live at the Barbican, 2005)

The gentle opening of ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ leads into a stirring full band intro. The band are reserved, but the result is unfussy perfection.

Track Highlight: The strings and slide guitar at 5.15 leading into the vocal harmonies at 5.30

6. The White Stripes – Seven Nation Army (Under Great White Northern Lights, 2007)

For a song that had already become an anthem of a generation, the raw grit, power and Jack’s sweat-soaked energy rescue propel it towards something extraordinary. It’s their last gig, too, which makes it all the more historic.

Track Highlight: That crowd-clapping, out-of-time but weirdly endearing.

7. Pink Floyd – Comfortably Numb (Pulse, 1994)

It’s really Dave Gilmour’s guitar solo which makes this version so special, looking hilariously unemotional while the audience melt to their knees.

Track Highlight: David Gilmour.

8. Nirvana – All Apologies (MTV Unplugged, 1994)


No live performance list would be complete without at least one track from Nirvana’s epic MTV Unplugged sessions. The white flowers now seeming like more of a memorial tribute to Kurt than fancy decoration. It’s an incredibly focused and emotional performance from Kurt, ending with his mesmeric final whispers into the mic.

Track Highlight: The outro from 2.30 with the refrain ‘All in all is all we are’

9. Elvis – Suspicious Minds (Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite)

Wearing a custom-made shell suit which now adorns the walls of Graceland, Elvis truly shows his vocal power and showmanship to a global audience. His banter with the audience, kissing a girl on the cheek at 3.15, perfectly encapsulates his laid-back and cheeky attitude onstage.

Track Highlight:”Ok, thank you baby!”

10. Radiohead – Reckoner (From The Basement, 2008)

Radiohead performed the whole of ‘In Rainbows’ for the ‘From the Basement’ 2008 live video album and for many this is the highlight of those sessions. With an incredible groove, each member is completely absorbed in their own space whilst connecting with one another. Colin Greenwood’s bass playing is on another level.

Track Highlight: Jonny flapping his hands around at 3:38 before delving into his bass.