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"Livin' on a Prayer" epitomizes the pop-metal sound that pushed Bon Jovi to the top of the rock universe in the mid-1980s. The production is both slick and loud, with the sharp edge of distorted guitars blunted by melodic hooks and rich keyboards. Beyond that, the song is distinctive in a couple of additional ways.
First and foremost, it's famous for Richie Sambora's use of an unusual talkbox effect in the song's primary guitar riff. A talkbox is an electronic device—essentially a tube plugged into an amp and speaker—that allows a guitarist to "speak" notes through his mouth. In the opening bars of "Livin' on a Prayer," when Sambora's guitar almost seems to be saying "a whoa whoa, a whoa whoa," that's actually Richie Sambora shaping his guitar's notes into "whoa" sounds using his mouth.
"Livin' on a Prayer" was the first song on which Sambora ever used the device, which previously had been regarded mostly as a musical gimmick, not very widely adopted by other rock artists after its prominent use on Peter Frampton's 1976 album Frampton Comes Alive! (Frampton later began selling his own custom-designed version of the device, called—naturally—"the Framptone.") Sambora's play on the talkbox on "Livin' on a Prayer" may well have been its most successful use ever.
Aside from the song's unique talking guitar, the wall of sound upon which "Livin' on a Prayer" starts with a hard-driving rhythm section—Tico Torres' crashing drums and Alec John Such's pounding bassline. David Bryan opens the song with a long (15 seconds), atmospheric keyboard note, which then gives way to tempo-driving short tones on the backbeat through the rest of the song.
In the second half of the song, Sambora mostly abandons the talkbox in favor of more traditional, acrobatic electric guitar solos. And Jon Bon Jovi's vocals—multi-tracked in the chorus to sound like a roaring choir—fill out the mix in fine form.
What is Bon Jovi's calling card? Over the years, you could have made a strong case for a wide number of possibilities: In 1984, a fresh new take on heavy metal. In 1988, an unstoppable arena-filling brand of hard rock. In 1997, a fierce determination to stay true to themselves despite changing tastes in pop music. In 2007, an unlikely new blend of hard-rocking country (or countrified hard rock).
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 the soulful ballad "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 12 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.
Jon Bon Jovi grew up in the blue-collar industrial town of Sayreville, New Jersey, a little less than an hour's drive down the New Jersey Turnpike from Manhattan. By the time Bon Jovi rose to international superstardom in the mid-1980s, working-class towns like Sayreville—the towns that made up the so-called Rust Belt, America's old industrial heartland stretching from New York around the Great Lakes—had been facing hard times for more than a decade.
In the 1970s, the American economy ground to a halt for everyone; in the 1980s, after a brutal recession from 1981 to 1982, things picked up dramatically for white-collar professionals and investors in the stock market. But blue-collar workers were mostly left behind in the boom years of the Reagan Era; the old factory jobs that had once offered high wages to even unskilled workers were gone, and they weren't coming back.
The ongoing struggles of blue-collar workers in America's fading heartland provided lyrical fodder for a whole genre of rock music in the 1980s. Bruce Springsteen (like Bon Jovi a proud son of New Jersey) was probably the pre-eminent figure in this genre, bringing his powerful storyteller's instinct to hard-luck tales of ordinary folks in songs like "The River," "Atlantic City," and "My Hometown." Other artists, like Indiana native John "Cougar" Mellencamp, mined a similar thematic vein in their own music. Bon Jovi's music usually fell outside this subgenre of working-class rock anthems, but Bon Jovi's roots weren't really much different from Springsteen's or Mellencamp's.
And despite all the fame and fortune, Bon Jovi never forgot where he came from. In many ways, "Livin' on a Prayer" might be seen as Jon's take on classic Springsteen…but with a distinctive Bon Jovi twist, of course. The archetypal story of Tommy and Gina, young lovers struggling to make it through hard times, could fit easily into any of a dozen Springsteen songs. (And the line in the first verse about Gina "working for her man, she brings home her pay" bears an almost uncanny resemblance to a line in Springsteen's "Reason to Believe.") As in many of Springsteen's songs, it's the small lyrical details—the union out on strike, the six-string put in hock, Gina crying in the night—that give "Livin' on a Prayer" its emotional power.
When the song moves out of the verses and into its famous chorus, of course, the band mostly moves out of Springsteen/Mellencamp territory and moves into a musical space more fully and uniquely Bon Jovi. But the workingman's blues of those verses give the story of Tommy and Gina its heart and soul. Interestingly, Tommy and Gina were not, despite their almost archetypal nature, entirely fictional characters. They were based on real people Bon Jovi knew back in Sayreville. While introducing his famous unplugged performance of the song at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards, Jon said:
You see, when I grew up in New Jersey we had a couple of buddies of mine who thought we were going to rule the universe. What happened one day is, as we grew up and got out of high school, one of them actually got a scholarship to go play baseball. And me, I was in the bars playing, writing songs. And he got a phone call one day. And it was his girlfriend; she said she was pregnant. Now he had to hang up those cleats, he had to retire the baseball glove. And all these years later, I guess all he has left is that dream. So a long-distance dedication: the names have been changed to protect the innocent. This is for anyone who ever felt like Tommy and Gina. (Source)