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.
Phil Spector had co-written a smash, and now that he was about to produce it, he had to get the right singer. Someone whose voice could blast through the thickest Wall of Sound he ever constructed. Fortunately, he had just the voice – he’d signed Ike and Tina Turner for the express purpose of having Tina record this one song.
While Ike was paid twenty thousand dollars to stay away from the studio, Tina worked. She was singing a non-R&B song for the first time in her professional life, and where Ike was always asking her to scream, Phil told her to stick to the melody. The sessions were grueling, causing Tina literal pain; after trying and trying to get it right, her blouse soaked with sweat, she said, “Okay, Phil, one more time,” then ripped off her blouse and let out an incendiary vocal that floored everybody. “It was like the whole room exploded,” her manager said.
“River Deep, Mountain High” cost $22,000 (in 1966 dollars) to make. The end result was huge, volcanic, echo overlayering echo and turning a tune into an achievement, quite possibly Spector’s greatest creation. It was also a flop in America, charting for only one week. The country’s taste in music had evolved away from what Spector did, a fact so devastating it drove him into (brief) retirement. But the song remained, an epic monument, impossible to forget even as it’s almost impossible to approach.
While what Tina and Phil did with “River Deep, Mountain High” overshadows any and all attempted covers, there are a few covers that got enough sunshine to cast shadows of their own. Of these…
The Erasure cover is good.
The Saints cover is better.
And the Flamin’ Groovies cover is best.
What makes the Erasure cover good is the sheer audacity of it. Who could imagine a Wall of Sound being replaced by a dinking and dunking Wall of Synth? Erasure showed they could on their 1988 album The Innocents, blipping and blooping their way through a techno-pop dance reading of “River Deep, Mountain High” that works far better than it has any right to. Its evident sense of humor helps – check out the super-echoed passage at 4:50. And kudos to Andy Bell for not changing the lyrics to suit his gender.
One of the founding punk rock bands – they released the first punk record outside the U.S., in fact – the Saints give “River Deep, Mountain High” an adrenaline shot of fierce energy, with only a tenth of the instruments used in the original. There’s even a little jam session thrown in the middle. The song transfers well to its new genre, offering a whole other kind of excitement for a new audience; it would be fun to know if a young music fan heard the Saints version first, then went back and found the original. I’d like to think that fan would be equally blown away.
The Flamin’ Groovies were vaguely auditioning to have Phil Spector produce them; nothing came of it, but one of their demo tracks, “River Deep, Mountain High,” was powerful enough in its rough form to stand up as great all on it own. Singing within a sound as muddy and murky as Spector’s production of the song was sometimes accused of being, Chris Wilson has to scream to make an impression. Scream he does, and by raising his voice to match the intensity of the music, he pushes the song over the top, from tribute to red-hot classic.
The original “River Deep, Mountain High” can be found on Amazon. The song’s recording was dramatized in What’s Love Got To Do With It (with Angela Basset expertly lip-synching Tina’s vocals), also available on Amazon.