Listening to R2’s ‘Sounds of the 60s” this morning, I realised to my shame that I had no memory of ever before hearing the original Beach Boys’ version of “Break Away.”
Why? Because in the mid 80s I discovered the beautiful (British) jazz-tinged Harvey and the Wallbangers acapella version and had played it hundreds of times. The cover was magnificent, because it heightened the greatest beauty of all Brian Wilson originals — the sweet harmonies. Like the Zombies, featured below, they were classically trained to value interpretation. I’ve been musing on why I love cover versions for The Spectator and why they deserve more respect. Did anyone slag off Shakespeare for “covering” Hamlet or “sampling” Holinshed? Do make sure you scroll all the way down to view/hear all the clips, especially Strawberry Switchblade. Feel free to add your own suggestions…
I’ve probably seen between six and 12 versions of every great Shakespeare play. Cover versions are what highbrow theatre and live classical music are all about. But in pop music, with the rise of the singer-songwriter, the respect accorded to the Brill Building of professional songwriters declined through to sneering at the Monkees, the mockery accorded to Stock Aitken Waterman’s Hit Factory and the horrors of the X Factor theme shows.
Interpretation is all. If I had to come up with my desert island discs, they would probably be mostly covers. (Though not Kylie Minogue’s SAW-produced ‘Locomotion’.) Here, rather than the most famous cover versions (e.g. ‘Twist and Shout’ by the Beatles), I’ve offered up a selection of less obvious examples worthy of further study.
Top of the World – Shonen Knife
The greatest cover version of all time in my mind, and recorded for a Carpenters cover album. It’s an interpretation that dared to be greater than the original, but could not have existed without it. ‘Top of the World’ was the Carpenters at their worst – sickly, rather than rich, with a Eurovision-level tune. Shonen Knife found the punk anthem hiding within – and there’s that delighftul Japanese pronunciation of the chorus, too. If only Karen had lived long enough to do a Tom Jones and perform it with them in a post-ironic way.
From Russia with Love – Natacha Altas
This 1997 cover off the ‘Shaken & Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond Project’ album, has all the ingredients the original title track by Matt Monro lacked: genuine Asia Minor mystery, fiddly little Arabic flourishes in the vocals, and those excellent electronic sonar pings underpinning the whole rhythm. I actually would like them to have a go at overlaying this onto Robert Brownjohn’s iconic dancing woman opening credits.
‘Spanish Harlem’ – a Romeo and Juliet / Westside Story kind of story romance – was written in the Brill Building by a young Phil Spector and Jerry Leiber in 1960 for Ben E. King just as he left the Drifters.
Spanish Harlem – Ben E. King
Technically this is not a cover version, I suppose, but there’s no question the song was to be re-recorded by a range of artists. With his magnificent voice, King’s version is sweetly unpretentious and oozing with Spanish guitars, marimba and drumbeats. It’s a song from an era when songs lived a life of their own, but blossomed under the stewardship of a careful interpretation. It also made New York districts seem sexy and mysterious in a way Britain never managed. (Not even in Pulp’s ‘Sheffield: Sex City’.) I used this song to teach my kids about metaphors and similes.
Spanish Harlem – Aretha Franklin
A bigger hit, Aretha Franklin’s 1971 version is feminism incarnate. I imagine her in a suede tassled tunic top, sashaying down the streets.
Spanish Harlem – The Mamas & the Papas
Apparently, the lyrics to ‘Spanish Harlem’ can be traced back to a medieval Czech folksong. It translates perfectly to southern California in 1966.
I Call Your Name – The Mamas & the Papas
Like The Mamas and the Papas’ sublime ‘Twist and Shout’, Mama Cass’s blowsy vocals and that honkytonk tone give their cover the feel of it being sung in a bordello. It works because it is nothing like Lennon’s brilliant rock-y version.
Summertime – The Zombies
A song from the Gershwin show about the seething passions of black Americans in the steamy southern US, performed by five middle class white boys from St Albans. Why does this work? Because it’s transformed with love and intelligence into a bluesy ‘60s swing version, and because of Colin Blunstone’s breathy vocals. Proof of the value of a cathedral choir and grammar school education.
Summertime – Sarah Vaughan
The climbing violins; that rich voice: total class. I discovered this at the same time I discovered Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. As Tracie Turnblad said to Link Larkin in the original Hairspray, ‘I wish – I wish we were dark-skinned.’ British Ad men used it to sell Pimms in the 1980s.
Summertime – Fun Boy 3
Three boys who understood in 1982 that the power of ‘Summertime’ was having the guts to make it your own. This is ‘80s, frosted, spike-coiffed, ska-tinged perfection.
Sorrow – David Bowie
This was previously recorded by The Merseys (formerly The Merseybeats), a generic Beatles copycat band of their era. But, on Pinups, his album of covers Bowie changed it into a sophisticated piece, restructured with strings and guitars. It’s like a John Donne poem about a love affair dominated by jealousy and emotional cruelty. I used to play it to my daughter when she went through a phase in which she was fixated on Alice in Wonderland, as it’s about a girl with ‘long blonde hair’. A very bad girl.
House of the Rising Sun – Nina Simone
Once you’ve heard Nina Simone’s angry rolling waves of piano, the Animals’ version sounds quite quaint. This makes me think of the film of Walk on the Wild Side (Laurence Harvey, Capucine & Jane Fonda in a New Orleans brothel). It’s also excellent to run to on a treadmill.
Since Yesterday – Strawberry Switchblade
This is a 1985 cover of Sibelius’ 5th symphony (specifically the Swan-call motif). According to a Radio 4 documentary, it’s one of the most popularly sampled pieces of classical music in the pop repertoire. (Sinitta and Leonard Bernstein in ‘On the Town’ are among the other cover artists.) Strawberry Switchblade remained big in Japan, but were one-hit wonders in Britain despite – or because of – their Scottish punk root background. With their ludicrous name and outfits, they epitomise the greatest glories of ‘80s pop for girls of my Smash Hits generation.
Til There Was You – The Beatles
This tune from The Music Man, found on their second album, With the Beatles, is the only Broadway song the Beatles ever recorded. This video recording enables you to see Paul McCartney doing his finest ever Dirk McQuickly impression at the Prince of Wales theatre on Nov 4th 1963. Cynics might see the seeds of the worst McCartney sentimentality sown within – but ‘World without Love’ was to come next, written for Jane Asher’s brother in Peter and Gordon. And ‘I Will’ (from ‘The White Album’) is a lovely companion to Lennon’s ‘Julia’. However, ‘The Frog Chorus’ lay beyond.
And one cover disaster…
David Bowie – God Only Knows
Mess with a perfect song at your peril. Orchestrated on a grandiose scale with those inappropriate super deep vocals, this oddity on Bowie’s 1984 Tonight album is completely misjudged, adding pretentiousness where Brian Wilson’s original gave us high-pitched, sweet grandeur..
Which brings us back to where I started this morning, with the Beach Boys’ Break Away. I recommend you check out one of the undervalued glories of 80s Britain: Our own Harvey and the Wallbangers.
You can read the original post on the Spectator Arts Blog here.