Sunday, December 21, 2003

A music post - what a novelty

I was reading an article in one of the papers (The Times, I think) recently discussing cover versions of songs. In particular, it said that most cover versions are cover versions of great songs, and that the remakes are often just carbon copies or pale imitations of the originals. What had clearly inspired the article was Westlife's cover version of Barry Manilow's "Mandy", which is one of those similar and fairly bland remakes. The article went on to suggest that there are one or two instances where a cover version is recorded quite differently from the original and is better. An example given was Joe Cocker's cover of the Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends". The writer suggested that the Beatles' version was uninteresting, but Cocker's slow, more emotional version was quite moving. I don't think that at all - I think it is just horribly overblown. Also, Sinead O'Connor's version of Prince's "Nothing Compares to You" was listed as a beautiful remake. I agree with that one - it is an utterly beautiful song and O'Connor's interpretation is just about perfect - but it is one of those instances where the original was completely obscure. There are a lot of such cases with Prince songs: at one time there were an enormous number of successful songs which were remakes of obscure songs written by Prince and originally recorded either by him or his proteges.

While my all time favourite cover version is actually is a Prince song, it is actually the precise reverse of this. "When Doves Cry" was probably Prince's biggest ever hit, but I didn't care for it. A lot of people did, but I found it a bit of a dirge. I like Prince's music, and I did at the time, but I didn't really care for this song. However, the version of the song sung by Quindon Tarver and a boys choir on the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann's film of Romeo and Juliet is in my opinion just amazing, mainly because Tarver's singing is so extraordinary. I think it is utterly beautiful. However, it was not released as a single, and was not even included in the original soundtrack CD of the film. (Tarver's performance of "Everybody's Free", which is almost as good, is on the CD though). When the film and the CD were unexpectedly large hits, a second CD was released, which did have the song. I don't have the second CD, and I really must get it. The use of music in that film is outstanding, but presumably its relatively limited budget meant that there were fairly serious restrictions in what Luhrmann was able to do in terms of releasing it on CD. It may be simply that the fee that needed to be paid to Prince was too large to affort it for the first CD. Once the film was a hit, these issues went away. (The other thing that happened was that Luhrmann and his friends put out a CD called "Something for Everybody", which included the full version of "When Doves Cry" as well as the intriguing mix of "Everybody's Free" and a spoken rendition of a comic article in the form of a mock graduation speech written by Chicago Tribune journalist Mary Schmich, which evolved together into a (hit) song called "Everybody's Free (To wear sunscreen)").

What brought these thoughts up for me, however, was the new Christmas number one. In Britain, the number one single at Christmas is a huge deal. Sometimes it will be a song with a festive theme, and sometimes just an ordinary song. A Christmas number one will sell a number of times as many copies as a number one at any other time, and there is a huge amount of publicity. One of the storylines in the recently released film Love Actually is about this. An effort was made to promote the song in that movie, "Christmas is all Around", as a real Christmas number one, but it didn't really work. And there have been lots of cyncial pre-Christmas records released for this purpose. In this era of Pop Idol, a group of people from that show released a version of John Lennon's "Merry Xmas (War is Over)", which was just one of those bland uninteresting clone type covers. Favourite for much of the week was another of these: "Christmas Time (Don't let the Bells End)" by The Darkness.

However, there was an interesting outside chance, which was a single of a cover version of "Mad World", originally performed by Tears for Fears, but in this case covered by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules. I am not quite sure how this came to be released now, because the song was recorded for the soundtrack of the movie Donnie Darko, which was released in Britain more than a year ago, and in the US more than two years ago. This film uses music as well as Romeo and Juliet and I commented on this when I saw it. This particular cover is I think better than the original - it is beautiful, slow and haunting and works perfectly with the dreamy quality of the film. (This is one case where the original is none the less very good). And, somehow it got released just before Christmas in the UK this year, and it came through as an outsider and actually succeeded in being the Christmas number one. People went past all the cynically made stuff and actually bought the CD of the best song.

Of course, there is another thing that Donnie Darko has in common with Romeo and Juliet, which is that it was relatively low budget and the filmmakers were quite restricted in what music they could put on the soundtrack CD. While the film includes wonderful stuff from Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, and original Tears for Fears recordings (as well as the cover version), the CD is the orchestral score along with the cover of "Mad World". It's a terrific CD, but it is an incomplete record of the music in the film. I would like to hope that the success of this cover of "Mad World" would allow director Richard Kelly to go back and release another CD with the rest of the music as happened for Romeo and Juliet, but this is not likely. The fees from the music are likely high, and (unlike Romeo and Juliet, which was a mainstream hit) Donnie Darko is still only an interesting cult film. Although, one reason why the song has risen in prominence may be that the film has been a substantially bigger hit on DVD than it was in the cinema.

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