Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
A few weeks ago, Cage The Elephant released a cover of Wreckless Eric‘s “Whole Wide World,” and a fine cover it is. Hearing it sparked a memory back to the late 1970s when the song was released by the fledgling Stiff Records (where Nick Lowe was the house producer) and became an unlikely “punk” classic. On the one hand, the song has given Eric Goulden a degree of lasting fame, and hopefully years of royalties, but on the other hand, it sadly has overshadowed Eric’s many other wonderful songs, written and performed as a solo artist, as a member of bands, and most recently with his wife, Amy Rigby, a great singer/songwriter in her own right.
According to Goulden, the genesis of the song was, as he wrote in the opening lines:
When I was a young boy
My mama said to me
“There’s only one girl in the world for you
And she probably lives in Tahiti…”
At the time he wrote the song, Goulden was in a relationship that he wanted to get out of, because she wasn’t the “one girl in the world” for him. While he walked the streets of Hull trying to avoid her, the song came to him, and he wrote the lyrics on an envelope, sitting on a bench. Returning home to finish the song, he found his girlfriend waiting for him, and broke up with her as he continued working on it. It is a relatively simple song, using only two chords, and its simplicity, and the earnest belief in true love that it stands for, has given it lasting popularity. Although you can’t ignore Eric’s charming, shambling performance, with his thick Cockney accent.
Although “Whole Wild World” never became a big hit, its reputation has grown over time. Mojo Magazine ranked it as the 36th best punk single of all-time, eight places ahead of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” Its reputation as a “punk” song is derived not from the typical hallmarks of that genre–it isn’t super fast, it isn’t anti-establishment or aggressive, and it isn’t angry. But it came out of Stiff Records, in England, in the late ’70s, and it does check off the boxes on the punk list of being simple, scrappy and authentic.
Both the song’s simplicity and its message has led to a slew of YouTube covers, and it has found its way into numerous movie soundtracks, most memorably as the one song Will Ferrell can play in Stranger Than Fiction, although when his performance causes Maggie Gyllenhaal to kiss him, the soundtrack reverts to the original version.
“Whole Wide World’s” cover history begins back in 1977, shortly after its release, when Wreckless Eric, along with Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and Larry Wallis embarked on a multi-city package tour in the U.K., fueled in large part by alcohol and likely other substances, ultimately memorialized in the Stiffs Live album. Late in the tour, Eric was close to collapse (the doctor who examined him reportedly stated that he’d never seen a young man in such bad shape), and dropped off the bill. Costello, in his honor, played “Whole Wide World” at two shows. Despite that nice gesture, Eric, consistent with his reputation as a prickly, difficult person, has often been quoted making disparaging comments about Costello.
The vast majority of covers of the song are relatively faithful to the original–in many cases, the singers even feel obligated to put on a fake British accent. It has been covered by some fairly well-known artists, including the reunited Monkees, The Lightning Seeds, the Wallflowers, Mental as Anything, Paul Westerberg and the Wedding Present–but we will try to move beyond those and present to you five good, different, covers (with, of course, more bonus covers beyond those already linked to in the introduction!).
Anna Oxa – Un Cielo a Metà (Wreckless Eric cover)
Although the sound of this cover, released in 1978 by Italian singer Anna Oxa, is surprisingly close to the original, it is sung in Italian (the title translates as “A Sky In The Middle”). Oxa, who is also an actress and television presenter, has had a more than three-decade career, which includes an appearance on this blog for her cover of “Because The Night” (“Notti per Due”). Want a foreign language cover not in a Romance language? Check out Finnish band Eppu Normaali’s “Nuori Poika” (“Young Boy”), also from 1978.
The Proclaimers – Whole Wide World (Wreckless Eric cover)
In 1988, the Proclaimers released their iconic song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” in which identical twin brothers Charlie and Craig Reid famously professed their willingness to walk 1,000 miles for their love. Apparently needing to up the ante, in 2007, the brothers released this cover, globally expanding their search area. If the two songs were able to generate offspring, it would sound exactly like this, with Eric’s Cockney accent replaced by the Reids’ Scottish burr.
Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside – Whole Wide World (Wreckless Eric cover)
Sallie Ford, North Carolina born and raised, cut her musical chops in Portland, and her sound fuses roots, rock, jazz, and soul. Her 2013 cover of “Whole Wide World” rocks, but with clear Americana and blues influences. Compare that version to this more stereotypical punk version by mostly forgotten New York pop-punk band The Prissteens, once compared to Blondie or the Go-Go’s as a result of their both having a female lead singer and a common producer in Richard Gottehrer.
The Bad Shepherds – Whole Wide World (Wreckless Eric cover)
If, however, you’d prefer a Brit-Folk version, check out the Bad Shepherds, a band formed by comedian Ade Edmondson, probably best known for his role as Vyvyan in the TV series The Young Ones. Using traditional folk instruments, they turn the song into something that might have been played by a later incarnation of Fairport Convention, or the Waterboys, particularly when they segue into a jig. The album on which the cover appeared, Yan, Tyan, Tethera, Methera!, may be the only album discussed on Cover Me with a title in an ancient Cumbrian dialect.
Bahamas – Whole Wide World (Wreckless Eric cover)
One characteristic that put “Whole Wide World” into the “punk” category was its edgy energy. This version, by Canadian guitarist Afie Jurvanen. who records as Bahamas, is neither edgy nor energetic. It is, instead, a sleepy, comfortable rendition, in the mold of Jack Johnson. In fact, this summer, Bahamas has been touring with Johnson, and you can hear them do a joint cover of “Whole Wide World” here (at 5:13 in the video). An alternative to depunkification was used by Jesse Hartman, recording as Laptop, who transforms the song into a brooding, blip-and-bloop-filled synth-pop tune.
Bonus Odd Cover: Amanda Palmer – Whole Wide World (Wreckless Eric cover)
Amanda Palmer, whose Wikipedia entry points out that she’s sometimes known as Amanda Fucking Palmer, is not your run-of-the-mill pop star; indeed, her career is filled with unusual and theatrical musical and performance choices. This video, which says that it is from “Jason Webley’s After Party” (Webley, a multinstrumentalist with an obsession with vegetables and the number 11, collaborated with Palmer in a band called Evelyn Evelyn), features Palmer on ukulele and vocals, Palmer’s husband, writer Neil Gaiman, and the Shook Twins on vocals, and director and musician Michael McQuilken on tambourine. It has the amateurish quality of the original, if not the edge, and sounds pretty much like it is–a singalong among friends, some of whom are actually talented musicians.
You don’t need to search the “Whole Wide World” for the song because it can be found on Amazon.