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The Originals Vol. 2

September 2nd, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Roger Miller – Me And Bobby McGee.mp3
Kenny Rogers & The First Edition – Me And Bobby McGee.mp3
Kris Kristofferson – Me And Bobby McGee.mp3
Janis Joplin – Me And Bobby McGee.mp3

first-editionIt is odd when a legend of popular music ends up covering his own song. So it is with Kris Kristofferson who was commissioned to write Me And Bobby McGee by a record label boss.

The song”s first version was recorded by Roger Miller in 1969. His was a mid-tempo country-pop number, rather bereft of emotional engagement, an entirely misjudged drumtrack and, in the carnivalesque “la la la” part some ill-advised ’60s horns and some background whooping. It failed to set the world of music alight, making it to #12 in the country charts, and failing to dent the pop charts. Things could only get better. The next version was by the First Edition, featuring Kenny Rogers, who even in 1969 looked like your middle-aged uncle. If one doesn”t know that version, one can imagine Rogers performing the song in his languid way, the gravelly baritone drawing out all the gravitas of the lyrics. But imagination can be treacherous: the treatment here is light and quirky and much faster than one might think. A bit like Miller”s original.

The following year Kristofferson finally recorded it himself. Introducing a live version of it, KK seems unsure whether it is a country song or not, deciding that if it sounds like it is, then it must be. A couple of country types mucked about with it over the following few months, before Janis Joplin ““ a former lover and friend of KK”s ““ decided it was really a blues-rock number. Recorded just a few days before her death, Joplin is initially restrained before launching into a climax of screams and groans, as was her wont. Her take is not lacking in poignancy, especially given the circumstances, and many would regard hers as the definitive version, but ““ as with much of Joplin”s output ““ I distrust the notion that histrionics necessarily express true emotion. Indeed, Me And Bobby McGee is a country song; it tells a story whose narration requires no excessive emoting (especially if, as Willie Nelson claims, Bobby McGee is actually a guitar). In the space of three years, the song would be recorded 15 times.
Also covered by: Ramblin” Jack Elliott, Gordon Lightfoot, Bill Haley, Dottie West, Loretta Lynn, Grateful Dead, Hank Snow, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam The Sham, Olivia Newton-John, Charlie McCoy, The Statler Brothers, Lonnie Donegan, Gianna Nannini, Skid Row, Willie Nelson, LeeAnn Rimes, Anne Murray, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Alison Crowe, Dolly Parton & Kris Kristofferson, Arlo Guthrie a.o.
Best version: Kris Kristofferson nails his own song by delivering a tender, sadly resigned narrative of loss and freedom.

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Kingston Trio – Sloop John B.mp3
Beach Boys – Sloop John B.mp3
kingston-singersOne of the biggest Beach Boys hits was in fact an old Caribbean sea shanty about the ship John B which was sunk in a Barbados harbour in 1900. Borrowing from a 1935 recording titled Histe Up the John B. Sail, folk pioneers the Weavers first recorded it 1950 as The Wreck of the John B. But it wasn”t that version from which the Beach Boys borrowed their tune, but the 1958 take by clean-cut, stripey-shirted folk singers the Kingston Trio, who were the first to record the song under its now established title. The Kingston Trio”s version has an appropriate calypso lilt, giving it a lightness that invites a spot of finger-snapping.

One”s digits are safe from being used as a rhythm section in the hands of the Beach Boys, equally famous for their striped shirts (Pendeltones, fashion fans) before adopting the excessively hirsute line of appearance. Al Jardine suggested the song to Brian Wilson on to the song. Legend has it that Brian didn”t know the song, a myth peddled by Wilson himself. The great Kingston Trio fan Wilson of course knew the song “” there reportedly are tapes of a young Brian singing the tune with high school friends.

Wilson was initially reluctant to adapt Sloop John B., but eventually mapped out the complex arrangement within a day, one which made the Kingston Trio”s attractive version seem very dull indeed. Its recording and single release preceded the recording of Pet Sounds by a while; which might explain the misguided resistance to Sloop John C by many fans of the album ““ because it feels out of place on an otherwise coherent set. It was included at the urging of the Beach Boys” record company, Capitol, who apparently could not see much by way of hit singles on the groundbreaking album, other than the traditional Beach Boys sound of opener Wouldn”t It Be Nice. Sloop may be a cover version, but it is as autobiographical of Brian Wilson “” then under the thumb of his Dad-from-hell Murry and the hectoring Mike Love (who did not dig the Pet Shop vibe at all), and quickly disappearing into the world of drugs “” as any track on the album. The line “this is the worst trip I”ve ever been on” reflects the mind of the tortured artist; the desperation in the line “I want to go home; please let me go home” anticipates the growing frustration and alienation of Wilson, the genius who was being told how to arrange his music by the musical hack Murry and pressured to keep writing about surfing, girls and cars by cousin Mike “” a conflict that came to a head with the aborted Smile album.
Also covered by: Lonnie Donegan (as I Want To Go Home), Tom Fogerty, Roger Whittaker, Johnny Cash, Jimmie Rodgers, Dick Dale, Relient K, Okkervil River a.o.
Best version: You can”t get passed the harmonies of Brian Wilson”s arrangement, even though vocals include the loathsome Mike Love.

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Gladys Knight & The Pips – I Heard It Through The Grapevine.mp3
Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through The Grapevine.mp3
gladys-knightGladys Knight believes she has good reason to be pissed off. There Gladys and her Pips had delivered an excellent dance number with I Heard It Through The Grapevine, scoring a US #2 hit in 1967, and Motown”s best-selling single up to then. And yet, a fair number of readers will be surprised to know that the song was in fact not a Marvin Gaye original. One has to feel for poor Gladys, but Marvin”s version is flawless in every way. Released a year after Gladys” hit, it was at first just as an album filler. Marvin appropriated the song, investing himself into it so much that nobody can conceive of it as anything other than a Marvin Gaye number. Look at the list covers: would you really need to hear any of them in any way other than out of curiosity?

If you feel jaded by the song, as I once did, sit down and listen to it carefully again; I still find little surprises with every airing. Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, several Motown stars ““ including Marvin Gaye as well as Smokey Robinson and the Isley Brothers ““ tested for the song before Gladys Knight”s version was approved for release. If she had not been upstaged by Marvin (whose single release pipped, as it were, her Motown sales record), her version, not Marvin”s, would feature prominently on all those Motown compilations. Instead it is a neglected stepchild, a point of trivia. It deserves better, but how can it compete against one of pop music”s rare moments of absolute genius?
Also covered by: Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers, King Curtis, The Miracles, The Temptations, The Chi-Lites, Ike & Tina Turner, Young-Holt Unlimited, Ella Fitzgerald, The Undisputed Truth, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Earl Klugh, Average White Band, Joe Cocker, The Slits, The Flying Pickets, Ben Harper, Emmerson Nogueira, Michael McDonald, Kaiser Chiefs a.o.
Best version: I have made my case and hereby close it.

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The Nerves – Hanging On The Telephone.mp3
Blondie – Hanging On The Telephone.mp3
the-nervesIf it is not widely known that Blondie”s 1979 hit Hanging On The Telephone is a cover, then it probably is because the original performers, The Nerves, only ever released a four-track EP in 1976, which included the song. And having obtained it recently, I think it”s a very fine EP it is, too. The Nerves ““ a trio comprising songwriter Jack Lee, Paul Collins (who’d later join The Beat) and Peter Case (later of the Plimsouls) ““ were a heavy-gigging LA-based rock band which despite their extremely recording career proved to be influential on the US punk scene. The members of Blondie surely have were aware of the song. A year after The Nerves split, Debbie Harry and pals picked up the song and enjoyed a huge worldwide hit with it. The original hasn”t aged much: it reminds me of the Von Bondies or The Killers.
Also covered by: Mephisto Waltz, Scheer, L7, Germ Attack, Johnny Panic, Cat Power, Def Leppard, Girls Aloud
Best version: Much as I love Blondie, The Nerves”s original is superior. Though I”d like to hear Cat Power”s take.

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Bruce Woolley – Video Killed the Radio Star.mp3
The Buggles – Video Killed The Radio Star.mp3
bruce-woolleyThis slice of sci-fi flavoured nostalgia, inspired by a JG Ballard story, was co-written by Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes (then new members of horrible prog-rock band Yes) with Bruce Woolley. So it seemed right that it should be recorded by the two parties ““ the Yes contingent and Woolley ““ in 1979. The latter got in there first, with his Camera Club. It is a breathless version with much energy and a quite nice guitar solo at the end, but none of the bombastic detail which made the Buggles” synth-fiesta a huge hit. The Buggles version is sometimes considered a bit naff, which does great injustice to a catchy song which does everything that is required of a very great pop song. The video of the Buggles version was the first ever to be played by MTV. But the Woolley version is all but forgotten.
Also covered by: Ben Folds Five, The Presidents of the United States of America, Erasure, Jimmy Pops, Rocket K, The Feeling
Best version: The Buggles single is one of my favourite singles of the 1970s”¦

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James ‘Ironhead’ Baker & Group – Black Betty.mp3
Ram Jam – Black Betty.mp3
james-bakerMy latest greatest chum RH sent me this me. Black Betty is an old African-American folk song favoured by labour gangs. The recording here is the oldest in existence, preceding that by Lead Belly, who often is credited with writing it, by six years. Indeed, it probably dates back to the 19th century. This is a 1933 field recording made by the musicologists John and Alan Lomax in 1933 of the convict James “Ironhead” Baker and backing band of prisoners at Central State Farm in Texas. The Ram Jam version wasn”t even the first rockified adaptation. In 1976, a year before the Ram Jam hit, it was recorded by an outfit called Starstruck, which included future Ram Jam member Bill Bartlett.

Civil right groups boycotted the song because it was thought it insulted black women. Anthropologists are undecided what exactly a “Black Betty”, perhaps a rifle, or a bottle of whiskey, or a whip (as Lead Belly claimed), or a penitentiary transfer wagon, or indeed a prostitute. In the Ram Jam lyrics Betty clearly is a woman, probably of African-American heritage (from Birmingham, Alabama). But it”s difficult to see how they are offensive.
Also covered by: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (going back to the song”s roots as an a cappella blues), Mina, Tom Jones, Spiderbait (#1 in Australia in 2004, non-antipodean fact fans) a.o.
Best version: Oh, I bet ole” Ironhead would have loved to kick ass with the song as Ram Jam did.

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