I heard this first cover on Chris Hawkins’s BBC 6 morning show (which I can’t recommend highly enough, by the way). It’s that rare kind of song that transports you to another place even while you’re frantically getting ready for work.
The original was written by Madness lead singer Suggs very deliberately in the style of Ian Drury (which explains why I misremembered it as a Blockheads song just now) as a sort of answer song to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. While ‘Teacher Leave Them Kids Alone’ was a war cry against posh boarding schools, Baggy Trousers was all about the anarchy of the local comprehensive. Suggs talks about why he wrote it here.
Manchester folk artist Little Sparrow and Robin Dewhurst (a University of Salford Professor of Music and the dad of Blossoms’s lead guitarist Josh Dewhurst) recently covered the song at the Kendall Calling music festival. It was only available for download for a week, but the file hasn’t been deleted so you can still give it a sneaky listen.
Seu Jorge’s interpretations of David Bowie, recorded for Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, are essential Sunday listening. It was tough to pick one; they’re all pretty amazing. In the album liner notes Bowie himself is quoted as saying, awkwardly but accurately: “Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs acoustically in Portuguese I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with.”
Live performances of the songs were recorded for the movie, but the full studio sessions were released a couple of years later.
Nothing Compares 2U
It’s not often that I would dare – or feel the need – to criticise Prince, but Sinead O’Connor’s musical genius rivals his and in this recording I reckon she tops him. Nothing Compares 2U was written by Prince for his side project The Family and featured on their self-titled 1985 album, but was never released as a single. It was made famous five years later by O’Connor.
O’Connor alluded to having a bad relationship with Prince after the song’s release but was reticent about it till a 2014 interview with Norwegian TV station NRK. In that interview she reveals that she had been ‘summoned’ to Prince’s house, having never met him before, where they had what she described as ‘a punch-up’:
‘He said he didn’t like me saying bad words in my interviews. So I told him to fuck off. He got quite violent. I actually had to escape out of his house at five o’clock in the morning. I was locked in the house, I had to escape. He packed a bigger punch than mine.
‘It’s funny now to think about it, but five o’clock in the morning I’m hiding behind a tree at Prince’s house, he’s driving down the hill … I’m spitting at him, he’s trying to box me. I had to ring someone’s doorbell, which was a trick my father taught me, to escape the fucker. I could run faster though because my father was a sprinter. And Prince had on the boots.’
Aaanway, back to the song. Prince’s version is full of unnecessary vocal flourishes, while O’Connor knows that her voice is so beautiful she doesn’t need them. The chorus refrain in The Family version borders on comical, and the strings hurt my ears. O’Connor takes this round with a knockout.
(Sidenote: This Hawaiian version from Forgetting Sarah Marshall is pretty badass too.)
The Hounds of Love
This is one of the most inspired cover versions ever recorded. It was the third single from Kate Bush’s 1985 album of the same name, which itself is often voted one of the best albums of all time. The Futureheads covered the song in 2005, and scored a UK top 10 hit.
In an Uncut interview the band reveals that Bush pretty much loved it:
Yeah, we got a message off her when we were on the farm, actually. I think we were busy up in the barn, or something, but she left a message on the answering machine. It went ‘Hello, Kate Bush here – just phoning to say I absolutely love your version of Hounds Of Love, we haven’t had a chance to meet yet but I hope we will, and hope you have a nice Christmas.’ Did we phone her back? (Laughs) No, we were terrified! We found out she was going to ring us, so every time the phone rang, we were like ‘You get it, you get it’. No-one wanted to speak to her, because … well, she’s a legend, isn’t she? What do you say to Kate Bush? I don’t know.
(Sidenote: Fans of medieval music or the classic British horror film The Wicker Man will be interested to know that The Futureheads also do a mean a capella version of Sumer Is Icumen In.)
Rocket Man was released by Elton John in 1972. Kate Bush, an Elton John fan since childhood, covered the song in 1991 as part of a tribute album, Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin.
Elton John’s version isn’t bad, but I have a weakness for songs that play around with gender, so I think hearing Kate Bush warble “I miss my wife” and “I’m not the man they think I am at home” is pretty awesome. Ultimately, though, the uilleann pipes in her version tip the balance.
This is an interesting one. There’s an old legend here that my mother told me about one day when we were listening to her old Carole King LPs. The Loco-Motion was written by King and her husband Gerry Goffin, who were hoping Dee Dee Sharp of Mashed Potato Time fame would record it. She turned it down, however, and they offered it to … their nanny.
The story goes that King and Goffin were amused by the babysitter’s quirky dancing style, and were aware that she could sing. She became Little Eva.
As cool as the 1962 original is, the droning wind section is quite dated, and it’s trumped by the funk and face-melting guitar solo of Grand Funk Railroad’s 1974 version. Kylie Minogue’s spunky debut single owes more to the latter, I think.
(Sidenote: King does an okay version of the song too.)
Two of Us
The best thing to come out of the otherwise excruciating I Am Sam was Aimee Mann and Michael Penn’s cover of Two of Us. (Michael Penn is Sean Penn’s brother, and is also married to to Aimee Man.)
There are about a million different recording of the song by The Beatles, but most of them seem to have been removed from YouTube (the vacuum being taken up by a million horrifying amateur covers D:). Mann and Penn’s version is more polished, which some people may not like, but I’m a sucker for harmonies and their’s are much more exacting.
The Way It Is/Changes
Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s jangly, 80s The Way It Is keyboard was famously sampled by Snoop, and apparently Wyclef, although I can’t seem to find that one. But it is Tupac’s version, which is more of a cover or even a reimagining, that stands out.
Bruce Hornsby version goes: ‘That’s just the way it is / Some things will never change’, and although it does add a tentative ‘Ah but don’t you believe them’ it’s bleak. Tupac’s version, on the other hand, despite equally gloomy lyrics, has the line ‘Things’ll never be the same’, and the injunction that ‘We gotta make a change’. After the intensity of Tupac’s version, Hornsby sounds a bit … lame.
(Sidenote: This Hornsby/Tupac mashup is worth a listen. 6.5 out of 10 maybe.)
Over the Rainbow
One 1988 morning at 3am a client called recording engineer Milan Bertosa at his Honolulu studio and asked if a guy called Israel Kamakawiwoʻole could come over to do a recording. Bertosa had never heard of him, so he said no. But the client put Kamakawiwoʻole on the line, and he was so well mannered that Bertosa changed his mind and agreed to give him some time, if he could make it over in 15 minutes.
In an interview with NPR in 2010, three years after Kamakawiwoʻole’s early death, Bertosa recalled their first meeting: “… in walks the largest human being I had seen in my life. Israel was probably like 500 pounds. And the first thing at hand is to find something for him to sit on. Then I put up some microphones, do a quick sound check, roll tape, and the first thing he does is ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ He played and sang, one take, and it was over.
“It was that special. Whatever was going on that night, he was inspired. It was like we just caught the moment.”
Kamakawiwoʻole’s version is technically a medley of Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World, but that shouldn’t exclude it from consideration. It is a moment of inspiration incarnate.