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.
In an era when synth-pop was what ruled the British roost, the opening guitar lick to the Smiths’ “This Charming Man” was an invigorating splash of cool, clear water to the face. The band’s second single, written for one of John Peel’s BBC radio sessions, began with Johnny Marr’s ringing introduction and kept up a bright, danceable pace, while Morrissey crooned lyrics (including a line nicked from the Laurence Olivier / Michael Caine movie Sleuth) that were coquettish, poetic, and different from anything on the charts. “Early Elvis would have approved of the music, [Oscar] Wilde of the words,” writes allmusic.com, “an audacious end result by any standard.”
“I wince a bit when I hear it now,” Marr later said. “It only tells the shiny side of the story, it in no way epitomizes what was good about the band in the long term. But God bless it though, it seemed to catch on with a lot of people.”
The footsteps were now there for thousands of bands to follow, almost single-handedly turning the country toward the guitar-based pop-rock that would dominate by the ’80s end. The bands that paid the tribute of covering “This Charming Man” often stuck close to the original template (learning the opening riff was a rite of passage for many young guitarists), but a few struck out on their own paths, and their results are worth dwelling on here.
The Defibulators cover is good.
The VV Brown cover is better.
And the Stars cover is best.
The Defibulators – This Charming Man (The Smiths cover)
Brooklyn’s Defibulators bring their alt-country chops to bear on their cover of “This Charming Man.” It’s remarkable how natural a fit the banjo and fiddle are for the song, and the relaxed air of the players brings in a welcome dose of sunshine. The lyric change to “a jumped-up country boy” is fun, too.
VV Brown – This Charming Man (The Smiths cover)
What makes VV Brown’s cover of “This Charming Man” so much fun is that it could have been how the song sounded in the hands of a vintage-’83 band. The sparkling synth line, the implacably fake drums – it’s as though the charming man dressed himself up for a come-as-you-weren’t reunion.
Stars – This Charming Man (The Smiths cover)
Stars’ electro-indie-pop take on “This Charming Man” lulls you with its hypnotic rhythm and Torquil Campbell’s soft, smooth vocals. Then they sample a measure or two of Marr’s opening riff, and it serves as just the right flourish, giving the song a bump of energy while letting it retains its smoothness. Speaking of smooth, there’s a great story about the night Prince hired someone to DJ a date. He sent his date up to ask the DJ what that great song was that he was playing. It was Stars’ “This Charming Man.” If Prince, a man who famously disliked cover songs, could be so taken by this one, it would be churlish for us not to do likewise.
The original “This Charming Man” can be found on Amazon.