Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song
I remember the joy with which I first heard “Golden Brown” by the Stranglers. It sounded nothing quite like anything going on in the charts at the time: a harpsichord and a hypnotic, repetitive melody, played in peculiar and shifting, almost conflicting, time signatures. Then a gentle crooning vocal, singing about… well, what was it about?
It helped that I was already a convert to the Stranglers, the impressively and edgy not-quite-punks from Guildford, part of the stockbroker belt south of London. Not-quite-punks? Clearly older than their younger punk peers, and with an extravagant keyboard sound, redolent of Ray Manzarek in the Doors. Plus the drummer had a beard and, horror of horrors, the keyboards player a moustache, at least for a while. But the front men – Hugh Cornwell on guitar and vocals, and JJ Burnel on bass and vocal – were as impressively contemptuous and dismissive as any Johnny Rotten, spitting out aggressive lyrics and surly asides. For those then already a little too old to fully embrace the D.I.Y. ethic, and who had already large collections of music ahead of 1977’s Year Zero, they were an agreeable bridge between the cultures. And, as I discovered, a slightly scary live experience.
Another thing that set the band aside from their contemporaries was a willingness to progress and move on from the slash and burn of their initial barrage of releases. La Folie was their sixth album, and IT fully introduced the gentler aesthetic of their later work. Yes, there had been touches of this before: “Duchess,” the single from an album two years earlier, could almost act as a trial run for the concept, with a shimmery repetitive keyboard motif and gentler, slightly, vocals to their usual shouty sneer. Plus the band had always been keen on waltzes, famously electing to include at least one on each album, certainly in their first decade. (Strictly speaking, “Golden Brown” isn’t a waltz; it sounds like it should or could be, but try dancing to it!)
Drummer Jet Black and keyboardist Dave Greenfield were said to have concocted the “Golden Brown” melody, but one suspects Greenfield maybe was the inspiration for the actual tune, Black more the arrangement. Cornwell, already known for his dalliance with hard drugs, with an eight-week stretch in Pentonville Gaol for possession behind him, wrote the lyric and has stated it can be about what you want it to be about, citing either about a girl or about heroin, take your pick. This ambivalence was enough for the song to avoid an automatic ban by the BBC, famously (then) strict on any deemed inappropriate content within lyrics. That led to “Golden Brown” ascending to a number two position in the official UK charts, the height of the Stranglers’ sales. Strangely, it looks as if it didn’t even figure stateside, with the band similarly cutting little ever headway. I guess the notoriety and the wider knowledge of the song comes via its inclusion in films, notably Snatch and T2, the Trainspotting sequel.
There have been a lot of “Golden Brown” covers, a surprising number if you return to the apparent references therein, and from unusual and unlikely sources. The King’s Singers, anyone? Plus a number of disposable “novelty” versions by acts that never knew better, like the Wurzels, surely their first (and last) mention in these pages. Most, however, stick rather too firmly to the written structure, the melody, whether transcribed to alternative instrumentation, and to the style of the vocal delivery. Where that melody is so iconic, it takes both some nerve and some courage to reinterpret. I believe this small selection achieves that. Given the strictness of how a cover is defined here at Cover Me, frustratingly I find myself unable to include any of the myriad live versions as performed by the solo Hugh Cornwell, pleasing acoustic renditions that still remain part of his repertoire, decades after bailing from the band. Likewise his pitch in with a mariachi band, a good enough version to transcend any intent at a deliberate piss-take. By the same token, I have neither heard nor seen the post-Cornwell band play their versions, as various replacement singer/guitarists have come and gone: like many erstwhile fans, without Cornwell, they ceased to exist for me, something I am now finding and feeling a tad harsh.
Hope & Social featuring Duke Special – Golden Brown (The Stranglers cover)
OK, this is a weird one, possibly requiring a few listens. Hang on in there, though, don’t lose interest as the swapped vocals cut across the “percussion”, as the brass then suddenly lifts it to a whole new unexpected, exhilarating and uplifting. The genesis of this was based on the premise of a group of disillusioned musicians in Yorkshire, UK, trying to rediscover joy in performance, with an essentially unstructured financial approach to their trade, any revenue forthcoming at the whim of the listener. This comes from their Crypt Covers project, whereby the idea was to fully fashion an album worth of songs, one song a day, covers chosen at random from a previously prepared longlist. All from scratch, and with added guest involvement. Here the guest is Northern Irish maverick, Duke Special, as famous for his dreads and eye-liner look, as he is for his neo-vaudeville performance.
Keziah Jones – Golden Brown (The Stranglers cover)
Perhaps the video gives away immediately which side of the lyrical consensus this comes from, arguably belying Jones’ experiences as a busker on the streets and subways of Paris and London. Nigerian by birth, he absorbs the influences of Fela Kuti, with a percussive slap style on his battered guitar. A light voice injects a little more soul than in the original, but it is the arrangement of the guitar and handclaps in the ascendant, with a background wash of organ chording, ahead of a near wah-wah break on what sounds like the same old acoustic, if amplified. If uncertain to start with, by the end, like me, you will be playing it again.
Liset Alea – Golden Brown (The Stranglers cover)
Liset Alea is a singer with Nouvelle Vague, old hands at deconstruction, with this near-discarding the core melody of the instrumental backing, relying on the vocal to herald the tune, over a muted gallic gypsy vibe, viola adding hints from the original, becoming more overt as the track builds and the guitar becomes more to the fore. By the time the la-la-las come, it has become a heady swirl, reminiscent of an illicit hookah party. Far and away the least “strangly” of the versions. I had some difficulty finding the exact provenance of this, uncertain whether it is a solo work or the band we most closely associate Alea with. It seems not to appear on any Nouvelle Vague releases.
Omar – Golden Brown (The Stranglers cover)
Not quite sure how, maybe the drums, but this sort of swings. The orchestral arrangement and the tubular bells fight in the opposite direction, gilded with burbles of synth, but somehow it melds, Omar scatting away merrily in multi-tracks. A completely schizophrenic take which should miss on all levels, it triumphs in ways outside my understanding. It suggests that Omar himself played the bass, less surprising when one learns he has a classical background, at the Guildhall School of Music in London. This was ahead of becoming a a niche superstar: massive in UK soul and R&B circles, little known outside.
The Jolly Boys – Golden Brown (The Stranglers cover)
So what is this, if not novelty? Hmm, possibly, but when it is done this well and this convincingly, surely it can rise above such a slight? The Jolly Boys are a real band, in existence since 1945, and one of the few existing standard bearers for the style of music called Mento, an acoustic amalgam of African and European music popular after the Second World War, and which was clearly a precursor to ska and reggae. Their name is said to have been given by Errol Flynn, an enthusiastic devotee of the band and the parties they played at. Clearly time has taken its toll on membership, and this recording, a late bid for worldwide recognition, comes from 2010. Original member Derrick ‘Johnny ‘Henry, on rumba box, a form of marimba, is joined by longstanding associate, Albert Minott, on vocals, both of whom have since died. A delightful centerpiece to a delightful album of similar interpretations, Great Expectation.
(This piece was directly informed by the April 5 death of Dave Greenfield, in the above photo with ‘tache and shades, stalwart of the Stranglers’ keyboard heavy sound. In hospital with heart problems, he picked up COVID-19, which was sufficient to push him off the edge. Disavowing the Doors influences, he himself preferred to think he was carrying on the sound and pedigree of Rick Wakeman and the ex-Deep Purple maestro (the late) Jon Lord. Not bad for an old punk! The farewell tour of the Cornwell-free Stranglers, due for this November into December (and for which I had a ticket, trying to make up for my earlier stated prejudice), seems unlikely to materialize. R.I.P., Dave.)