Livin' On A Prayer
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Today, after all those years have passed by, we'd suggest that the band's real calling card has been longevity. Bon Jovi has had a staying power that few, perhaps, would have expected at the peak of fans' mania over Slippery When Wet in the mid-1980s.
Over the course of two and a half decades or rock stardom, the band has evolved significantly, all the while keeping its sound distinctly Bon Jovi.
We might say the same of the band's signature song, "Livin' On A Prayer."
Ironically, "Livin' On A Prayer" almost never made it onto a Bon Jovi album in the first place. After the band's first take at recording it, Jon Bon Jovi was dissatisfied with the sound and wanted to spike the song entirely. But guitarist Richie Sambora, with the help of some local New Jersey high school kids who gave the band's demos a listen, convinced Bon Jovi that the song was good enough to, well, give it a shot. (The band eventually released the original version as a hidden bonus track on its 2004 rarities box set; while the original version is clearly inferior to the single eventually released on Slippery When Wet—mainly because it lacks Sambora's distinctive talkbox effects on the intro guitar part—it's still got the bones of a massive hit. Good thing for all of us that Bon Jovi didn't actually abandon it.)
Having brought the tune back from the dead, the band reworked the final production—adding the talkbox, significantly rearranging the drumbeat, and altering and keyboard parts—into the now-familiar version released as the second single off Slippery When Wet. The rest, as they say, is history; that's the version that spent four weeks at #1 on the pop charts and continues to thrill audiences today.
But that wasn't the final chapter in the story of "Livin' On A Prayer." The band has actually reworked the song dramatically on several occasions since.
The first of those was probably the most consequential. In 1989, Jon and Richie performed on the MTV Video Music Awards. Armed only with their acoustic guitars, Bon Jovi and Sambora performed radically stripped-down versions of their hits "Wanted Dead and Alive" and "Livin' On A Prayer." The live audience, used to hearing Bon Jovi songs only in their full-band, stadium-rocking versions, was almost stunned, at first listening in near silence before ultimately giving the performance a rapturous reception. Jon and Richie's acoustic-only rendition of their two hits provided the inspiration for MTV's Unplugged series, which became a very popular phenomenon through much of the 1990s.
In 1994, perhaps looking to satisfy fans' desire to get ahold of recordings of the famous VMA performance, Bon Jovi released a new studio version of "Livin' On A Prayer" (called "Prayer '94") that closely resembled the stripped-down proto-unplugged version of 1989. Though it lacks the propulsive energy that makes the original so unforgettable, the reimagined "Livin' On A Prayer"-as-soulful-ballad of "Prayer '94" is a compelling song in its own right.
In 2001, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Bon Jovi performed in the benefit concert America: A Tribute to Heroes. It was the slower, more meditative "Prayer '94" version that they performed that night, befitting the nation's mournful mood in the wake of shocking violence.
In 2003, Bon Jovi revisited the song yet again, releasing another new studio version on the album This Left Feels Right, which was a collection of twelve reworked versions of Bon Jovi classics from the 1980s and 1990s. This third take on "Livin' On A Prayer" followed the basic arrangement of "Prayer '94," but added softer instrumentation and, most radically, turned the vocals into a duet between Jon and the British singer-songwriter Olivia d'Abo.