Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
In honor of Eric Idle’s 71st birthday tomorrow, let’s pay tribute to his most famous song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Idle, of course, is best known as a comic actor and writer and a member of the Python troupe and not as a songwriter. However, this surprisingly happy tune, with deceptively dark lyrics, sung by Idle and a group of fellow crucifixion victims at the end of the film, has become remarkably popular. It was a parody of the peppy songs often featured in Disney movies, but over time its ironic underpinnings have been ignored in favor of its upbeat chorus and jaunty whistling (suggested by Neil Innes, who wrote most of the music associated with the Pythons).
A survey in the U.K. in 2005 picked it as the third most popular song that people wanted to have played at their funerals. It was picked up by supporters of the soccer team Sheffield Wednesday as a crowd chant, and it is now sung in the stands by fans of many other teams. Its message of optimism, even in the face of death, resonated with the British “stiff upper lip” attitude. During the Falklands War, the crews of the HMS Sheffield and HMS Coventry sang it while their ships were sinking. It was sung at Graham Chapman’s memorial service. And it is one of two existing Python songs used in Idle’s stage show Spamalot that was not found in the Holy Grail.
The song has been covered by Bruce Cockburn, Harry Nilsson, Art Garfunkel (for the soundtrack of the movie As Good as it Gets, in which Jack Nicholson also sort of sings a snippet), and Emilie Autumn (as a harpsichord instrumental), among others. But because of the wide public popularity of the song, we will focus not on the professionally recorded covers, but instead on versions posted to YouTube that haven’t been released commercially.
Video: Paulina Sinagra – Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (Eric Idle cover)
Some sunny day, there will be an exhaustive study of the prevalence of the ukulele cover in the YouTube era. The number of sweet covers of popular and unpopular songs, often performed by young women sitting in their bedrooms/dorm rooms/living rooms, accompanied only by a 19th century Hawaiian mini-guitar, is truly staggering, and it was hard to pick just one representative of the genre to discuss. This version, by Polish-born singer Paulina Singara (who currently lives in – where else? – Iowa), is a fine example and includes some overdubbed vocals and whistling. Sinagra’s cover is made all the more charming by her accent, which meanders from her native Slavic to the occasional stab at Cockney.
Video: Jason Waddell – Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (Eric Idle cover)
Waddell (who goes by his initials JAW, or, on YouTube, Jawmunji), is a talented fingerstyle guitarist from Western Australia. His version of the Pachelbel Canon in D has received nearly 3 million views. This pretty, acoustic guitar instrumental version of “Bright Side of Life” has elements of classical, jazz and folk, and it deserves more than the 1,500 views it currently has. If you like it, check out this solo electric guitar version version by pARTyzant, a Polish guitarist, who uses a slide on his right pinky to create a whistling effect. There is no obvious explanation for the popularity of this song with Polish musicians.
Video: McDombles – Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (Eric Idle cover)
Moving to another end of the musical spectrum, this version is credited to McDombles, a virtual cover band created in the video game Starbound. It appears to be the work of (at least in part) Andreas Jörgensen, a Swedish 3D artist who has mastered the tools available in the game to create an intergalactic touring band. If you are curious as to how it is done, go here, where you can also hear the McDombles’ cover of Pharrell Williams’ ubiquitous “Happy” and David Bowie’s classic “Space Oddity.” I’m not sure what language is being sung here, or even if it is a real language, but it is fun.
Video: Ian Waylan – Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (Eric Idle cover)
Ian Waylan is somewhat of an enigma. A keyboard player, he posted this single video on YouTube. His Facebook page shows one picture — a still from this video – one friend, affection for Queen and Jimmy Buffett, and no other public information. But his cover, which he describes as “a short, jazzy, almost semi-classical arrangement, with a touch of Hollywood magic,” includes some clever variations on the original theme, taking it in new directions without losing what Waylan accurately calls, the song’s “basic cheesiness.”
Video: Coconut Orchestra – Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (Eric Idle cover)
Some covers are faithful, some are not. Some are good, some are bad. But few have set Guinness world records. This sing-along version was recorded in 2007 by 5567 people (including the cast of Spamalot and Python’s Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam) in London’s Trafalgar Square, who sang and played along on coconuts. It set a record for, yes, the largest number of people playing simultaneously in a coconut orchestra, smashing the prior record of 1,789, set in New York. This event may hold the record for silliest record, a sentiment that the Pythons would undoubtedly appreciate. There is no record as to whether the coconuts were brought to London by laden swallows, either African or European.
Find out what the Romans have ever done for us by watching the movie on iTunes or YouTube, or buying it on Amazon. Or, if you would just prefer the Word, the soundtrack can be obtained on iTunes or Amazon.