Original Sin

I’ve been in and around music for a hell of a long time – certainly most of my adult life. Over the years, I’ve developed some ideas about quality, permanence, ability and relevance. I’ve tried to be discriminating you might say. But above all, I do love music. And I love musicians and what they give to the world. That’s why, mostly, I don’t buy into the bagging of musicians when they’ve aged and no longer have much to say, much that’s worth hearing. I guess most of these old boys and girls have only ever had one job and that’s the only one they know. Whatever. I don’t have to buy their new albums, not even for old time’s sake. I did write an earlier blog on this subject which focused on Rod Stewart.

So, that’s one bugbear. There is one other and it’s about covers. A few months back I got into a discussion with friends about Jimmy Barnes and his recording of ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’. This great song was first recorded by Percy Sledge in 1966. It was written by Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright who were part of The Esquires, Sledge’s band at the time. The majority opinion in the room was that Barnes’ version was better than Sledge’s original. I took issue with that for two good reasons, as I saw it. Firstly, Jimmy Barnes cannot sing and he slaughtered this fine ballad like only a character from one of Billy Connolly’s Glasgow pub stories could. Secondly, accepting that my opinion in the matter of talent may not be universal, no cover can ever be ‘better’ than the original. You can prefer it – but it can never be better. There can be no besting of being first, being original, having uncompromised integrity. I can admire a good forgery, perhaps be taken in by it – but it is still just a forgery. Something that exists only by dint of an earlier original that inspired or provoked imitators. Having got that off my chest, I’ll happily admit to admiring many cover versions of great songs. And I’m happy for them to co-exist alongside the originals. It doesn’t need to be an ‘either/or’ decision. Al Green’s ‘Take Me to the River’, for instance is a fine example of Green’s coy juxtaposition of sensuality and spirituality. But when David Byrne and Talking Heads took the song on, lust and religion were thrust together in one pounding, insistent punk-fuelled rhythm. Genius. But not better.

There are also many examples of cover versions that have superseded the original to the point where the original is all but forgotten. The cruel irony for some of these songs is that, often, the original is infinitely superior to the cover. I’m not going to make a list but if you’ve got this far you may like to check out Gloria Jones’ 1964 recording of ‘Tainted Love’ which ought to obliterate all memory of Soft Cell’s 1981 cover. An even better choice would be Bessie Banks’ 1964 recording of ‘Go Now’ which is several light years distant from the 1965 version which became a hit for the Moody Blues – a band whose music, I might add, should have been consigned to the Atlantic’s Puerto Rico Trench years ago.

In closing, I need to pay tribute to my all-time favourite cover of a great original. ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ is one of Paul McCartney’s greatest songs and covered by The Faces on ‘Long Player’.  Macca has acknowledged that his own live performance of this great ballad was influenced by how Rod and the Faces performed it. Not better. Not either/or. Just great.




4 responses to “Original Sin

  1. Maybe, covers trying to replicate the original, means that those who do this are merely actors with technical skills. ‘Versioning’ or revisioning is far smarter – much great jazz relies on it – the individual creative input of the artist/musician, either on existing music, or better still, on original composition, is what moves the musical world forward. But where does James Last fit into all this ?

  2. I agree that interpretation may be both authentic and valuable. It may also lead to a better understanding. But James Last is the piece of God that passeth all understanding.

  3. Hey Jools – thanks for that. I hoped you’d approve.

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