Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
I came early to the Bee Gees. For the barely teenage me they gave a plaintive, yearning sound to well-constructed ballads, with keening mid-range harmonies that totally belied their higher pitched ’70s second coming (which, incidentally, is where I left again). And never mind the earnest re-appraisals of their disco years – when is someone going to give a punt for their still-remarkable ’60s canon? Do we have to wait until the original Bee, Barry, last man standing and eldest sibling of the brothers Gee (Gibb), departs this earth? Whilst today I but celebrate this sole song, “New York Mining Disaster 1941.” Was there a mining disaster in New York in 1941? It seems not, but since when did the truth need to bother a decent song.
This is the song that started the Bee Gees down their yellow brick road – it’s reputedly the one which, when played by their staunch impresario/manager Robert Stigwood to Paul McCartney, led to their being signed to a recording contract. In turn it was their first worldwide hit, reaching #14 on the Billboard chart in 1967. And I dispute the latter-day dismissal given of it by Maurice, who didn’t write it anyway, it being the product of his twin, Robin and aforementioned elder brother Barry. (Maurice had suggested it was a deliberate rip-off of the Beatles, whereas the only Beatle link was to do with some duplicity in the disc jockeys of the day, making out it may have been actually by them.) It appears on their imaginatively titled first LP, Bee Gees’ 1st, and I commend it, along with later double concept album Odessa, as both dated but overlooked artifacts of a time blessed with more ideas and experimentation than is now remembered of the three toothy brothers from Melbourne, Australia (but actually all born in Manchester, England).
It’s an odd song, both thematically and in its notation, both of which have enabled it to resist a pigeon holing in its ’60s past, if also making it difficult to redefine. There are surprisingly few cover versions, outside carbon copies by other beat groups of the time, as was the way, the Sorrows and Herman’s Hermits being but two examples. I think it also no irony that the three I have chosen fall each, arguably, into the English folk canon, as the song does have a feel of an old broadsheet, passed down from generation to generation. And songs about grim pitfalls and fires are legion in that repertoire.
Of the three I’ve chosen, the Martin Carthy cover is good.
The Levellers cover is better.
And the Chumbawamba cover is best.
Martin Carthy is the epitome of an authentic English folk voice, an acquired taste to ears more attuned to the polish of more popular music, but who has steadfastly plowed the same furrow since, well, before the Bee Gees ever appeared in the charts, somewhere he has yet to visit. Brief forays into group work with Steeleye Span, various Albion Bands, Brass Monkey, and with his wife Norma (and, more recently, daughter Eliza) complement his largely solo output. Espousing anything beyond “trad. arr.” in his early years, he has been interpreting well-chosen covers not infrequently these days, from “Heartbreak Hotel” to “Cum on Feel the Noize.” He imbues the Bee Gees with a stark passion that convinces, if not appeals.
I am uncertain how well known this band may be outside the UK. Not very, I suspect, but they have kept a solid fan base going by attaching the style of Fisherman’s Blues-era Waterboys to an anarcho-crusty-punk/folk ethos. For those unfamiliar with the term “crusty,” it dates back to the UK miners strike of the early ’80s, wherein Margaret Thatcher’s government of the day crushed and killed the mining industry over here, at the same time abolishing much of the then-thriving travellers scene and their right to hold free festivals and gatherings. The scene was called “crusty” as its denizens appeared unwashed, with dreadlocks and dogs on strings. This song, I suppose, encompasses an interface between both doomed industry and doomed counter-culture. It isn’t necessarily typical of the Travellers’ oeuvre, but the hoarse vocal and violin interplay captures their general drift.
Yes, the one and the same Chumbawamba, the “I Get Knocked Down” hit makers, but nothing like that at all here. Possibly deriving from similar sources as the Levellers, a disaffected and alienated youth of the ’80s, emanating more from the squats, commandeered and occupied empty housing, of urban northern decay than the traveling circus that begat their counterparts. Musically more of the dance scene, Chumbawamba moved tangentially toward a folkier idiom, and had slimmed down to an acoustic five-piece by the time they covered this song. Always consummate vocalists, their a capella version leaps out and demands attention, removing anything superfluous from the purity of the melody. The band broke up in 2013, or thereabouts, but I live in hope of occasional folk festival reformation, perhaps at the one that the Levellers curate each year, Beautiful Days.
The Bee Gees’ original can be purchased on Amazon.