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.

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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

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