Saturday 31 December 2016

The Pengest Version

Cover versions needn't be rubbish. The alchemy that makes a song great involves a confluence of so many different factors: artist, style, production, time, its relevance to current affairs, etc., that it is statistically improbable that the original version of every song should always be definitive. However, the paradigm remains intact - modern humans seem hard-wired to expect that the song's authors will produce the ultimate interpretation. It's enough to make Roland Barthes spit.

It wasn't always so, of course. The people to blame, if you are the sort of person who likes to bear grudges, are the pioneers of Rock 'n' Roll. People like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly were all self-contained creative hubs, a new breed of recording artists in an industry that had previously been dominated by softly crooned versions of Tin Pan Alley-penned standards. When this was adopted by the early movers and shakers in 1960s popular music - particularly by Bob Dylan and The Beatles (ironically, both extremely adept cover artists) - their contemporaries noticed how much more money they were making and the 'write-it-yourself, play-it-yourself' model became set in stone. Capitalism, there.

2016 has been such a stark, uncertain and frightful year for so many people that the prospect of 2017 being a pale facsimile is enough to make the hole in your arse heal over. This was when my mind turned to cover versions, I guess: looking for examples of when history looked at the past and made it better.  As ever, I took to Twitter and asked other people to do my work for me. The resulting list of cover versions of songs better than the originals was, yet again, pretty weighty and will be presented at the bottom of this post for the completists among you.

However, this time I have cast democracy aside and cordoned off a perfect ten. Complaints, as always, to the usual place. Your mum.

10. Saint Etienne - Only Love Can Break Your Heart

Written and first recorded by Neil Young, initially released in 1970.

It is still, just, 2016 and therefore let it first be said that Neil Young is a great artist and long may he reign, but his falsetto heavy version of Only Love Can Break Your Heart is really quite weedy compared to the version released by Saint Etienne twenty years later. Saint Etienne turned Young's slow-punctured balloon into a fully fledged tornado with the judicious application of breakbeats and syncopated piano. The overall effect is to switch the tone from a lachrymose, introspective after-hours bar singalong to a defiant and dubbed-out Poll Tax riot.

9. The Communards - Don't Leave Me This Way

Written by Gamble, Huff and Gilbert. First recorded by Howard Melvin and The Blue Notes, initially released in 1973. Most famously recorded by Thelma Houston and released in 1977.

A classic example of 1970s soul when it was first released in 1973, Thelma Houston re-energised the smooth yet stodgy Howard Melvin original into a huge disco floor-filler in 1977, where it also became an enormously significant anthem for both gay rights and AIDS-awareness. However, neither version can compete with the Hi-NRG version released by The Communards in 1986, a song so bursting with passion and intent that it leaves the previous versions looking ponderously sedate. It also features what is, surely, the greatest ever House music-inspired piano break to be played on record by a licensed clergyman.

8. Soft Cell - Tainted Love

Written by Ed Cobb. First recorded by Gloria Jones, initially released in 1964.

Tainted Love was, in common with the majority of the songs that are now deemed to be bona fide classics of the Northern Soul genre, a largely forgotten recording. It failed to chart in either the US or the UK, where the record buying public at large seemed immune from its urgent, pounding rhythm. Gloria Jones was better known as Marc Bolan's girlfriend and ill-fated chauffeur by the time Soft Cell made the song a huge hit in 1981. Rather than speeding it up, they slowed it down, giving the song space to breathe. Despite this, it retains all the urgency and feeling of the original. Contrary, too, is the warmth that radiates from the recording in spite of the ice and glass of Soft Cell's electronic style.

7. Joe Cocker - With A Little Help From My Friends

Written by Lennon/McCartney. First recorded by The Beatles, initially released in 1967.

Originally the second song on The Beatles' magnum opus Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, its charm, humour and richness was nevertheless completely derailed by Joe Cocker's ferociously powerful rendition, released the following year. Just watch the video. No-one is telling me that Joe Cocker doesn't need more help from his friends than Ringo Starr. But what really sets this version apart is the addition of the full orchestration of American Soul music. Where The Beatles version is perfectly formed and calculated, Cocker's is the roaring, desperate effort of a disparate collective which all somehow keep pulling in the same direction. The overall effect is little short of shattering.

6. Johnny Cash - Hurt

Written by Trent Reznor. First recorded by Nine Inch Nails, initially released in 1995.

This song was, overwhelmingly, the popular choice from my straw poll on Twitter. The original version, suffused with the hollow angst of Generation X, proved to be completely inadequate next to the heartfelt 2003 interpretation by Johnny Cash, reaching the end of his days but completely undimmed as a creative force. The enduring legacy of a cultural giant, its accompanying video has been known to completely overwhelm people of any number of certain ages.

5. The Jimi Hendrix Experience - All Along The Watchtower

Written and first recorded by Bob Dylan, initially released in 1967.

Many people will tell you that every Bob Dylan song is better if someone else is performing it. These people are, almost always, completely mistaken. However, there's no denying this one, released in 1968: even Dylan himself freely admitted that his version couldn't hold a candle to it and he has used Hendrix's arrangement when playing the song live ever since. Dylan's will-o-the-wisp, downstated and bucolic Biblical fable is transformed into a swirling, whirling dervish rock anthem by Hendrix's unique guitar heroism, simultaneously the meat of his sound without ever overwhelming it. Telegraphing the bit where your solo is about to drop is for suckers, kids.

4. Sinead O'Connor - Nothing Compares 2 U

Written by Prince. First recorded by The Family, initially released in 1985

The original version of this song, all sparse instrumentation and peculiar harmony singing by one of Prince's many pet project groups, The Family, is bloody awful. This time, it took some pasty white people to add some genuine soul to a song. Sinead O'Connor's version, which was number 1 in the UK for four weeks at the start of 1990, is completely definitive: all that remains of the original is the stupid abbreviations in the title. Brilliant, bold and defiantly beautiful, it came complete with its own iconic video. What's not to like? Prince, of course, hated it and O'Connor's first meeting with the tiny velvet genius predictably ended in fisticuffs.

3. The Slits - I Heard It Through The Grapevine

Written by Whitfield & Strong. First recorded by Gladys Knight and The Pips, initially released in 1967. Most famously recorded by Marvin Gaye and released in 1968.

There is no denying the fundamental power of Marvin Gaye's recording of this song. It is, quite rightly, considered one of the peaks of the Motown Records story and of its sound. Lushly orchestrated and powerfully delivered, it is one of the great single records of all time. But then along come The Slits, the chaotic "girl group" of the British punk era. Their interpretation of the song was the first thing that they ever recorded in a proper record company studio and it is possessed of a potency that defies easy description. Ari Up's vocals are packed with the confidence and attitude that only being seventeen years old can bring; Viv Albertine's clipped guitar and yelping, discordant backing vocals are endlessly beguiling and fun; Tessa Pollitt's bass turns a soul classic into a skanking uptempo dub bonanza. The fact that they all hum all of those tricky orchestral parts, rather than finding someone to play them, just seals the deal. A swaggering, energetic and life-affirming piece of work.

2. Pet Shop Boys - Always On My Mind

Written by Christopher, James and Carson. First recorded by Gwen McRae, initially released in 1972. Most famously recorded by Elvis Presley and released in 1972; also by Willie Nelson and released in 1982.

A country music standard, Always On My Mind's various versions have produced a series of masterpieces. Elvis Presley's interpretation was voted his greatest ever song in a poll done for ITV in 2013, while Willie Nelson's lush, yearning iteration won him a Grammy. The Pet Shop Boys' rewards were rather more prosaic: Christmas Number 1 in 1987 and now, the number two position in this list. This is not to diminish their electronic pop reading in the least. Simply put, it is one of the most magnificent pop songs ever recorded. Neil Tennant's distant, dispassionate vocal imbues the song with additional power and meaning; while Chris Lowe's layered, upbeat and punchy accompaniment cuts the traditional meandering orchestration through to the quick. The best bit? The theremin break, of course.

1. Aretha Franklin - Respect

Written and originally recorded by Otis Redding, initially released in 1965.

So complete is Franklin's hold over this song that many people don't even know that it is a cover. Otis Redding's scudding, energetic version was quietly establishing itself as a soul standard when Aretha came along in 1967 and completely reinvented it. Where Redding's song was a demure plea from a browbeaten husband, Franklin's was an unashamed statement of intent from women everywhere. Nearly 50 years have past since it was first released and they have done nothing to dim the importance or relevance of her message, nor tarnish the brilliant urgency of her delivery. Aretha Franklin, herself a talented songwriter and musician, has never been bettered as an interpreter of other people's work. A genuine landmark in the development of human culture and civilisation, it should probably be the National Anthem.

So, there you go. Some proof, if it were needed, that the second verse doesn't need to be the same as the first. I wish you all a happy, prosperous and peaceful 2017.


As promised, here is the full list of songs that you considered to be better than the originals. I can vouch for some of them, the others I'll leave up to you to decide:

Alien Ant Farm - Smooth Criminal
Amy Winehouse - Valerie
Bahaus - Ziggy Stardust
The Beatles - Money (That's What I Want)
Blondie - Hanging on the Telephone
Buddy Rich Big Band - The Beat Goes On
The Cramps - Surfin' Bird
The Damned - Eloise
Depeche Mode - Route 66
Dickies - Paranoid
Dinosaur Junior - Feel a Whole Lot Better When You're Gone
Dubstar - Not So Manic Now
Foo Fighters - Baker Street
The Four Tops - Simple Game
Frankie Goes To Hollywood - Born to Run
Gary Jules - Mad World
Grace Jones - Love is the Drug
Guns 'n' Roses - Live and Let Die
Happy Mondays - Step On
Incredible Bongo Band - Apache
The Jam - David Watts
Jane's Addiction - Sympathy for the Devil
John Cale - Hallelujah
Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah
Kevin Rowland - Thunder Road
The Kingsmen - Louie Louie
Lawnmower Deth - Kids in America
Loop - Cinnamon Girl
Marc Almond & Gene Pitney - Something's Got a Hold of my Heart
Michael McDonald - Baby I Need Your Lovin'
The Mike Flowers Pops - Wonderwall
The Mock Turtles - No Good Trying
Nadasurf - Love and Anger
Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood - You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling
Nirvana - The Man Who Sold the World
Prince - Just My Imagination
R.E.M. - Toys in the Attic
Ray Stevens - Misty
Reigning Sound - Stormy Weather
Robert Wyatt - Shipbuilding
Ryan Adams - Wonderwall
Sid Vicious - My Way
Sonic Youth - Addicted to Love
Sonic Youth - Superstar
Stereophonics - Handbags and Gladrags
The Pixies - Head On
The Pretenders - Stop Your Sobbing
Therapy? - Isolation
Toni Basil - Hey Mickey
Tricky - Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
The Wildhearts - Understanding Jane
William Shatner - Common People
Young@Heart - Fix You

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Favourite films

Six weeks ago, I asked Twitter what the song they most disliked was. The response was overwhelming. As an indication of what I mean by this, consider the following fact: my use of social media is not usually the start of a chain of events wherein I am asked if I want to appear on Australian television.

Quite undeterred, last week I asked Twitter what, in a free space with no judgement, people consider their favourite film to be. Not the one that they think is the best or the most artistically worthy; the one that they love above all others and could watch again and again, regardless of time or situation. While the uptake on this query was distinctly more manageable, I did nevertheless receive a fair number of responses and (with just a couple of exceptions) there was very little duplication. The result was a respectably girthy list of films. 

I'm confident, thanks to the number of titles and the variety of theme and style, that there is bound to be something in there for everyone to wallow in when you aren't having the best of days. Say, for instance, if your mum died and then Donald Trump was elected President of Earth a week and a half later. That is just an example scenario off the top of my head, I am sure there are as many iterations of shit days as there are movies.

Without further ado, here is the list. It is presented in alphabetical order and, as with the Kryptonite Songs before, the annotations are mine and do not represent the views of the BBC. There will inevitably be spoilers, so that's your warning for that. 

As always, if you think that your favourite comfort blanket movie is missing, you can add it in the comments below.

Sigourney Weaver, having survived the initial trauma of battling with an alien, ends up on an exomoon that is positively teeming with them. Terrifying chaos ensues.

As Good as it Gets
Crabby author Jack Nicholson finds his humanity from looking after his gay neighbour's dog, before copping off with the only waitress in his local coffee shop who will still speak to him.

Back to The Future
Maniac scientist Christopher Lloyd converts a Delorean motor car into a nuclear-powered time machine. Consequently, Michael J. Fox almost has sex with his own mum.

Two women become friends as children and then remain friends throughout their adult lives, until one of them dies of cancer.

Beverly Hills Cop II
Upon discovering that the chief of police who he infuriated in the first film had been shot by a gang of jewel thieves, Eddie Murphy returns to Los Angeles to solve the case, something seemingly beyond every police officer in the whole city.

Blazing Saddles
Wanting to build a railroad through a town of recalcitrant frontier types and hopeful that their innate racism will force them to flee, Harvey Korman sends a slave due to be hanged in to be their new sheriff. Chaos, farting and Hitler ensues.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Outlaws Paul Newman and Robert Redford are forced to flee to Bolivia to escape the old bill.

A teenage boy who works as a golf caddy to pay for his college education falls under the spell of messianic golfer Chevy Chase after he is entered to play in a golf tournament. Gophers ensue.

Con Air
US Marshall Nicolas Cage is trying to get home aboard a prisoner transport plane when Ving Rhames, John Malkovich and Mykelti Williamson break free and cause havoc.

Laura Linney travels to Africa to find a millionaire's son and his diamond expedition team, but instead discovers that they have somehow taught gorillas to talk.

Die Hard
Bruce Willis travels to Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to meet up with his estranged wife for the holidays, only to find himself the sole line of defence against a group of highly-organised terrorist thieves.

Die Hard with a Vengeance
Bruce Willis is singled out by the leader of a terrorist group at large in New York City and forced to play a game of Simon Says while they rob the Federal Reserve.

Double Indemnity
Insurance salesman Fred MacMurray is convinced by Barbara Stanwyck that they should do away with her wealthy husband and pocket the payout. Unfortunately his mentor Edward G. Robinson smells a rat.

Dumb and Dumber
Two complete idiots stumble into a kidnapping plot, completely unbeknownst to themselves. They instead try to cop off with women while urinating and defecating freely.

Ghostbusters (1984)
Four idiots establish an extermination service for supernatural entities, quite coincidentally at the exact moment that a Sumerian demigod tries to take over the universe via an apartment building in New York City.

Grosse Point Blank
Professional assassin John Cusack returns to his home town to attend his school reunion and cops off with Minnie Driver despite the attentions of hitman Dan Aykroyd.

Groundhog Day
Crabby TV weatherman Bill Murray finds himself forced to live the exact same day over and over again until he is able to find the strength within himself to stop being such a mard arse.

Hard Target
Jean-Claude Van Damme hunts down a rogue Vietnam veteran who hunts homeless people for sport in New Orleans and kicks the shit out of him.

Harold and Maude
A suicidal 20-year old man meets a fun-loving 80-year old woman at a funeral and they get off with each other.

High Society
Socialite Bing Crosby still has the hots for his ex-wife, Grace Kelly. Unfortunately she is engaged to be married to John Lund. When newspaper reporter Frank Sinatra arrives to cover the wedding and also falls for Kelly, the three men all try and win her hand.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
Staggeringly, the McCallister parents manage to leave their child on his own over the Christmas period yet again, allowing Macauley Culkin to meet Donald Trump and re-engage his blood feud with crooks Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.

The new police chief of a small island community beloved of holidaymakers finds the preparations for Independence Day seriously stymied by the arrival of an insatiably hungry great white shark.

La Haine
When French police brutally beat a young Arab in Paris it sparks a riot. The victims three friends try to deal with their feelings about the issue, until they find a gun.

Local Hero
Sent by Burt Lancaster to buy out a small Scottish village, oil executive Peter Riegert is forced to reconsider his life choices after he meets all the inhabitants.

Lost In Translation
Craggly, pissed off movie star Bill Murray meets discontented newlywed Scarlett Johansson in Tokyo and the two form an intimate bond.

Mary Poppins
Horrible parents Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber appoint a new nanny for their horrible snot-nosed children and it turns out to be Mary fucking Poppins. Magical shindigs and universal suffrage ensues.

Midnight Run
Joe Pantolino engages the services of bounty hunter Robert De Niro to locate mob accountant Charles Grodin. The seemingly simple job is complicated when it turns out that both the mob and the FBI are also on Grodin's trail.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Hercule Poirot's journey home on the Orient Express is severely disrupted when a fellow passenger is murdered and an all-star cast of Hollywood superstars are all suspects.

Muriel's Wedding
ABBA-loving social outcast Toni Collette dreams of getting married but her overbearing father won't even let her out on a date. When Collette meets fellow dweeb Rachel Griffiths, the pair move to Sydney and chase their dreams.

A bookshop owner from the titular area of London finds his life changed forever after a chance meeting with the world's most famous film star, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is, himself, Hugh Grant.

Once Upon a Time in the West
Rail baron Gabriele Ferzetti is after the land around the town of Flagstone so sends Henry Fonda to scare off the owner, which he achieves by killing him and blaming it on an outlaw. Things are further complicated by the arrival of Jason Robards and Charles Bronson. As they would be.

James Fox is forced to flee after killing a rival in self-defence, winding up at the house of a washed up rock star, played by Michael "Mick" Jagger. Drugs ensue.

Point Break (1991)
FBI agent Keanu Reeves infiltrates a gang of infamous bank robbers who wear the masks of US Presidents to do their job and discovers that they are in fact a group of beach bum surfers led by Patrick Swayze who rob banks for the thrill alone. 

Robocop (1987)
Omni Consumer Products win the contract to run crime-fighting cyborgs in a dystopian city of Detroit, luring police officer Peter Weller into a fatal confrontation so that they can use his body to test their technology. Unfortunately for them, Weller learns the truth and kicks some ass.

Saving Private Ryan
Army Captain Tom Hanks is sent behind German lines after the D-Day landings to locate Matt Damon, who has been ordered home on compassionate grounds following the death of his three brothers. Absolute bloody hell ensues.

Kevin Spacey puts Gwyneth Paltrow's head in a box and does six other equally bad things, pursued by mismatched New York detectives Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman.

Simple Men
Flat broke New York crook Robert Burke is out of options so finds his philosophy graduate brother Bill Sage and the two embark on a cross-country mission to find their father, a professional baseball player-turned-terrorist kingpin.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
William Shatner is brought face to face with old enemy Ricardo Montalban, leading to an intergalactic showdown. KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN ensues.

The Big Lebowski
A layabout tries to seek compensation for the fact someone has urinated on his rug, while increasingly strange and annoying people prat about all around him.

The Family (2013)
Mobster Robert De Niro enters Witness Protection after grassing up all his Mafia cohorts and is relocated to a town in France, where FBI handler Tommy Lee Jones tries forlornly to keep De Niro and his family out of mischief.

The Goonies
A bunch of insufferable little pricks go on a quest to discover what the X marks on a treasure map they have found. Alas, some criminals have had the same idea.

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
Hapless detective Leslie Nielsen accidentally foils business tycoon Ricardo Montalban's plot to assassinate notable public figures using hypnotic mind control techniques, while simultaneously romancing Montalban's secretary, Priscilla Presley.

The Princess Bride
Princess Robin Wright falls for her grunt farmhand Cary Elwes, but is betrothed to marry a Crown Prince. However, after she is kidnapped by the unlikely unit of Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin and André the Giant, she is able to follow her heart's desires.

The Shawshank Redemption
A man wrongfully imprisoned for murdering his wife discovers how to make chess pieces from rocks, that the prison governor is an arsehole and, eventually, how to escape from the nick.

The Thing (1982)
A scientific expedition to Antarctica is damn nearly spoilt by the emergence of a shape-shifting alien life form which is hungry for delicious human flesh. Abject terror ensues.

The Untouchables
Mafia kingpin Al Capone (Robert De Niro) has his bootleg alcohol empire disrupted by the arrival of unimpeachably scrupulous FBI prohibition agent Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner), determined to bring about Capone's demise.

Thelma & Louise
Meek housewife Geena Davis joins her spunky and independent friend Susan Sarandon on a weekend fishing trip. However, when Sarandon kills a man who tries to rape Davis at a bar, their holiday turns into a cross-country flight from the FBI.

Young men explore their sexuality while also defending the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise with state-of-the-art fighter jets.

Top Secret!
Pop star Val Kilmer travels to East Germany to perform at a music festival but finds himself romantically entwined with  Lucy Gutteridge, who it turns out is an agent in the anti-government resistance.

Uncle Buck (1989)
A family emergency forces parents Elaine Bromka and Garrett M. Brown to leave their children in the care of Brown's shambolic brother, John Candy, who is forced to curb the worst of his dissolute bachelor ways to care for the needs of his niece and nephew.

Wayne's World
TV executive Rob Lowe tries to take Mike Myers and Dana Carvey's public access show to commercial television. However, the pair discover that success is not all they bargained for, particularly after Lowe steals Myers' musician girlfriend Tia Carrere.

Where Eagles Dare
Allied soldiers attempt to rescue a general being held at a fort in the Bavarian Alps. However, once they parachute deep into enemy territory, they discover there is a traitor among their number.

In 1969, two penniless out-of-work actors from London go on holiday to an uncle's cottage in Penrith; where they drink heavily and one of them nearly gets bummed.


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