Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Having a band more successful than your own court your bass player and attempt to entice him with money so he will join their ranks is not a universal human experience.
You know what is?
Being cheated on.
Welcome to the most beautifully ambiguous, arguably homoerotic slab of pub-soul ever to rise to the top of the pop charts: Ace’s infectious evergreen 1974 megahit “How Long.” The song was written by lead singer and keyboardist Paul Carrack, best known for his impressively productive stints in Squeeze and Mike & the Mechanics (as well as for his supremely soulful voice). He’s explained endlessly that “How Long” is about the attempted recruitment of Ace bassist Terry “Tex” Comer by a more successful band. But the song’s lyrics about parting ways are juuust the right amount of vague to allow for lots of romantic projection. Which is to say, to Carrack the song may be about Tex, but to the rest of us it mostly sounds like the heartbroken and bitter lament of a jealous, duped, and about-to-be-dumped lover.
According to Carrack, Ace were good friends with The Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, a group who had a record deal and were getting booked for support slots on major tours and doing quite well…especially compared to Ace. At some point SB and Q’s bassist became ill, and as they had a myriad of commitments to fulfill they hit up their Ace mate Terry “Tex” Comer to step in temporarily. They liked him so much they sought to make the arrangement permanent, and they began dangling the possibility of a better wage if he joined the fold. Ultimately they were unable to persuade Tex to join and he returned to Ace (see what I did there, “How Long” fans?). Of course the whole incident turned out to be a blessing, providing the inspiration for Ace’s first (and only) hit as well as helping launch Carrack’s incredibly prolific career.
“How Long” is one of those old school ear worms that can be committed to memory after one listen, right down to its opening boom ba boom bassline. Of course, once you know the story behind the song, you can bask in its use of the best rock ‘n’ roll trope ever and the catnip notion of every teenage fangirl in pop history (me included): an inter-band bromance going awry. John loves Paul. Nigel Tufnel loves David St. Hubbins. Sigh. One more thing–I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Carrack’s fabulous vocal performance, his stretching of the “ohhh’s” as the song progresses being particularly swoon-some, as is Phil Harris’s fabulously angsty guitar solo. Yes, “How Long” is one beautiful barnacle of a song.
I have to admit it is somewhat inaccurate to call this piece this Five Good Covers. It’s closer to five okay covers. I wish there were five brilliant covers or at least one transcendently brilliant one that rivaled the original, but as of this writing, well, none of the existing ones quite hit the heavenly heights. Maybe this whole essay is really a wish and a plea to the universe that this sweet ‘n’ bitter, acidic yet soulful miniature pop masterpiece will somehow attract more musical disciples. That said, there are some genuinely sweet “How Long’s” alive in the universe. Come meet the sweetest. Boom ba boom.
Rod Stewart – How Long (Ace cover)
Yes, Rod looks exceptionally pale and bleary-eyed in this cheap, one-take video. Even his hair seems slightly wilted. And this cover, from 1981’s platinum selling Tonight I’m Yours, does have that faint scent of “we need one more track to complete the album” about it. That said, Rod’s voice was still in fine fettle at this point in his career, and it is still a treat to hear him let it loose quite soulfully as the song progresses. He even throws in some fun and whispery little acapella ad-libs during the coda for the hell of it. Jim Cregan’s crying, glittery guitar solo is dirty, beautiful and super-foxy. Speaking of which, the “How Long” solo is a surprisingly malleable and resilient thing that lends itself exceptionally well to re-interpretation. In other words, stay tuned for some real scene stealing…
Bobby Womack – How Long (Ace cover)
You know everybody’s got their own way of doing anything, like you take this particular song for instance, it’s been done by many but I gotta do it my way…
–Bobby Womack’s spoken intro to his 1971 cover of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”
No one could disrespect a song with more joy than Bobby Womack. From “Sweet Caroline” to a ten-minute version of “(They Long To Be) Close To You” that begins with a monologue about the record company not thinking that he was commercial enough, there is honestly nothing quite like hearing an innocent soft rock song get Womacked™. I imagine that in the’70s, every time Bobby was within earshot of an AM radio, his restless mind went into overdrive. He would immediately think “I can do this better,” grab his guitar, then run like hellfire to the studio to make things right. His 1976 recording of “How Long” bears the usual stamp of a Bobby redux, changing words to accentuate his viewpoint (“girl you’re blowing your reputation!”), funking up the arrangement, and wailing on parts where there was no wailing before. Womack covers always sound like they are in a rush to get where they’re going, which is part of what makes them so across-the-board fun and yeah, just plain kooky. Never boring, always 100% invested, that was Bobby, bless him forever.
Danny Williams – How Long (Ace cover)
Flange me, baby. With his light mellifluous voice, Danny Williams was often referred to as “Britain’s Johnny Mathis.” On his 1977 cover, he keeps things pretty neat and clean vocally, enunciating each word with the clarity of a Broadway performer but avoiding any over the top histrionics. As far as “How Long” performances go, this one’s pretty laid back…until you get to the guitar solo in the bridge, that is. I couldn’t track down the credits so I have no idea who performed it, but all hail to them; as “How Long” solos go, it is as awesomely out there as it gets. It sounds like a not-too-distant cousin of Lee Ritenour’s legendary solo in the Brothers Johnson’s fabulous version of Shuggie Otis’s “Strawberry Letter 23” and chews up every bit of available scenery. Points too for the weird synth that keeps poking into the proceedings, adding to the quietly adventurous arrangement.
Ronnie Dunn – How Long (Ace cover)
Ronnie Dunn is half of superstar country duo Brooks & Dunn. Since joining forces in 1990, they’ve scored 20 number one country hits as well as a dozen platinum albums. That’s pretty impressive though, I confess that when it comes to Kix (Brooks) & Ronnie (Dunn), I only ever think of one thing: the national anthem of line dancing, their 1992 megahit “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” (which was actually a cover of a song by Asleep At The Wheel). “Get down turn around go to town,” yup. The duo broke up in 2009 to embark on solo careers, but as is the way with these things, have subsequently reunited. This hasn’t stopped them from kicking out their own individual albums, which brings us to Ronnie Dunn’s 2020 cover project Re-Dunn (yeah, you get it). The album contains songs that Dunn loved and performed back in his pre-fame days on the Texas-Oklahoma bar circuit, and it’s full of AM radio chestnuts by the likes of Pure Prairie League, the Eagles, and (you guessed it) Ace.
In an interview with Music Row website, Dunn explained his songs choices this way; “I went to 13 schools in 12 years, so I was always moving. The one constant that will trigger a memory of one of those places is a song, like dating someone my junior year in high school and ‘How Long’ was a hit. Every song on the record is like a memory.” He later added that it was one of his top five favorite songs ever. Maybe all this explains why his version of “How Long” is as good as it is. Ronnie is feeling it, delivering a resolutely fine and dare I say soaring vocal. But just as cool is the lengthy and genuinely fabulous AOR style guitar solo by the brilliant Brent Mason. No doubt about it, it’s a good-Dunn. (Please forgive me, but I had to do that.)
Lipps Inc. – How Long (Ace cover)
Okay, so there is a relatively well-known and lengthy meme attached to this, and I don’t think you should go near it. But if you are a believer in the old adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and/or a glutton for punishment, then please by all means watch this. While you do that, the rest of us are just gonna park ourselves on the bench here, watch the bags, and consider Lipps Inc.’s 1980 version of “How Long.”
Lipps Inc. were essentially a studio project anchored by musician/producer Steven Greenberg and singer Cynthia Johnson. They are best known for the weird and sticky disco classic “Funkytown,” which we dug into a bit here. “How Long” featured on the group’s tragically titled sophomore album Pucker Up and achieved some modest success, getting as high as the #4 spot on the U.S. Dance chart.
There is something genuinely appealing about the synthesized and spare electro approach on this version. It really does evoke late nights at Studio 54 and people gathering in back rooms to share in the uh, marching powder. And Cynthia’s singing on the last verse is seriously fierce and fine. You know, now that I think about it, maybe that meme did serve a higher purpose. I mean, it really does make you appreciate the lush blipped out charms of the Lipps version a whole lot more. Free the cow now.