Dec 092022
 

One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.

Mad World

You break something down to its most basic parts and people just react.–Michael Andrews, 2003

The Californian composer Michael Andrews and his childhood buddy Gary Jules scored the most unlikely UK Christmas #1 in history with their cover of “Mad World” in 2003. Listeners raised a lot more questions than glasses of eggnog. Where were the sleighbells, the snow allusions? Where was the Christian message of peace, à la Cliff Richard? The children’s choir? The cloying sentimentality? The song had none of these things. Instead, it had a stripped-back sound, a quiet mournfulness, and some distinctly unfestive lines laid bare. One was: “Went to school and I was very nervous / No one knew me, no one knew me.” Another was: “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.”

In fact, the song was basically about a depressed kid.

It wasn’t just about a depressed kid; it was even more about a depressed kid than the original. And this was likely the key to its greatness and, amazingly, its Yuletide success.
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Oct 072022
 

One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.

“I didn’t screw it up, did I?” Kurt Cobain, November 18, 1993

The Man Who Sold the World” is a David Bowie narrative song concerned with, not the anguish of spaceflight, but the anguish of a fractured personality. Yet few people noticed when it was released in 1970 on the poor-selling album of the same name, as the singer struggled to follow through on the success of his “Space Oddity” hit of 1969. It wasn’t released as a single. And it was soon vastly overshadowed by the mighty glam-rock chart attack that came of Bowie doppelgangers Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane: “Starman,” “John, I’m Only Dancing,” “The Jean Genie.”

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Sep 162022
 

One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.

Puttin On The Ritz

If you’re blue, and you don’t know where to go to
Why don’t you go where Harlem flits?
Puttin’ on the Ritz

Spangled gowns upon the bevy of high browns
From down the levy, all misfits
Putting’ on the Ritz

That’s where each and every lulubelle goes
Every Thursday evening with her swell beaus
Rubbin’ elbows

Come with me and we’ll attend their jubilee
And see them spend their last two bits
Puttin’ on the Ritz

When Irving Berlin wrote those lyrics in 1927, he was writing about the fad of the day, where poor black people would get dressed to the nines and parade up and down Harlem’s Lenox Avenue (which today is also known as Malcolm X Boulevard). Berlin used the word “lulubelle,” which was a slang term for a black maid, and Thursday was traditionally the maid’s day off. It was a gentle satire with a remarkably intricate rhythm, and while it didn’t coin the phrase “putting on the Ritz,” it certainly did popularize it.

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Jun 032022
 

One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.

Close to You

You know that old TV and movie trope where the shy wallflower with “potential” gets a makeover and is miraculously transformed into the coveted bombshell? Think of the Carpenters’ 1970 cover of “(They Long to Be) Close to You” as the sonic embodiment of that notion. Okay, it’s more of a get a new hairstyle, dress cooler but leave the glasses on version because you know, this is the Carpenters we’re talking about here, but you get the idea.

But seriously, when it comes to angst-ridden, idealistic love ballads about unrequited desire and quietly lustful appreciation, they don’t get much better than “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” Written by the legendary songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, “CTY” (let’s just call it) is that contradictory but always revelatory musical combination of sugary and majestic, cut from the same frothy, infatuated, occasionally eye-rolling cloth as Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” while eliciting “Dancing Queen”-levels of respect for its production and execution. From Richard Carpenter’s iconic opening piano flourishes to sister Karen’s towering vocal (understatement), it expertly straddles that line between non-threatening pap and soul-crushing tearjerker with consummate skill (’tis the eternal mystery-magic of the Carpenters).

The duo so completely inhabit the song, which is to say they freakin’ own it, that it is easy to forget they were not the first artists to record it. No, the first “CTY” out of the gate wasn’t even by an actual musician, but by a hot and debonair actor playing a doctor on a TV show. Yup, welcome to the glorious state of pop music in the USA in 1963.
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