Cover Version Showdown #5

Dan Hill, “Sometimes When We Touch” – Tina Turner v Diesel

It’s probably due to growing up in the cultural shadow of the United States, but I will never not cheer the success of Canadian creatives. It doesn’t matter whether I personally think what they are doing is good – it only matters that other people do (though Bieber pushes the envelope on this support). So, critics can take all the shots they want at Nickelback, and I might even agree with some of them (though, honestly, this is so worn out): the band has sold over 50 million records, “How You Remind Me” remains a fantastic power ballad, and don’t get me started on my love for “Hero”, frontman Chad Kroeger’s duet with Josey Scott. Nickelback are Canadian and loved by millions, and the haters are just jealous knobs.

So, yeah, when Dan Hill was kicking major chart ass in 1978 with “Sometimes When We Touch”, I was very happy about that. Likewise, I was pleased when he did it again in 1987 with “Can’t We Try”. He’s Canadian and was briefly loved by millions, and . . . well, that’s all I need.

I think I owned the 45, but I wouldn’t have needed it because my mom had the album it came from. Her record collection was a mix of country and soft pop, and by the time Hill was getting attention for the song in late 1977 and the first half of 1978, I was already into my Gibb brothers-centric listening phase that would dominate the next year and a half.

Something about this song attracts bizarre cover versions. The most painful listen was from some guy named Vernon, who has over 4,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, and I would love to speak to just one of those people to ask, “Why?” (But do make sure to check out his version of “Every Breath You Take”, though it might be better if you don’t – let’s not encourage him.) Or musical genius Oscar Peterson, whose piano bar version is quite lovely but would have been better served by pretty much any singer besides himself (well, anyone besides himself and, of course, Vernon). Finally, we have former world boxing champion turned politician Manny Pacquiao, whose thin monotonous voice is overshadowed on the chorus by Hill, who, based on the video, can still somehow get worked up to sing this tune that has been part of his artistic life for a very long time.

But they aren’t all duds. There are lots of competently sung country versions, including one from icon Marty Robbins, who leaves out the histrionics and ends up with a recording that is very compelling for its subtlety. It clearly was noticed in Asia, with three female singers – Tracy Huang, Olivia Ong and Susan Wong – delivering lovely if uninspired takes (I like Ong’s voice best). Cleo Laine’s might actually be the cover that I found the most fun, but in the “Well, that was a wacky thing that I’m glad I tried” way, not in a “Let’s do that again” way. And reggae singer Eddie Lovette really takes ownership of the song, though it is in no way a reggae version.

(By the way, lest you, dear reader, ever question my commitment to this little musical and literary project of mine, know that I listened to every version of the song referenced herein, and a bunch more. Never doubt that I take my mission very, very seriously.)

But for a battle like this, you need heavyweights who can do justice to Hill’s original, and you’d be hard pressed to find two more potent voices than Tina Turner and Bonnie Tyler. Both were in rather fallow periods when they covered the song. After her 1978 hit “It’s A Heartache”, which had risen up the charts as Hill was headed down, Tyler’s next two albums were barely noticed, and she wouldn’t have another hit until 1983’s monster “Total Eclipse of the Heart”. Turner was newly divorced and finding her way as a solo performer, with her breakout coming the year after Tyler’s.

And yet, Tyler just doesn’t make the cut, because I don’t get any sense that she actually believes in the song that she’s performing. Say what you like about the high cheese content of Hill’s original, but you can’t tell me he doesn’t mean with all his person every word he’s singing. It wasn’t a hit by accident: from the gentle underlying piano to the tour de force of the final minute, with pounding drums, clashing cymbals and swelling strings, this was manufactured to take people from the dance floor to somewhere more private, and it’s Hill’s lost soul vocal that closes the deal. Bonnie sounds like it’s just another day at the office: it would take the operatic stylings of Jim Steinman to unlock her passion.

Tina, on the other hand, could make singing an instruction manual for your new toaster oven sound sensual. As a singer, she has one mode: give everything you have on every song. Where Hill is mushy and sentimental, Tina is weary and maybe a bit angry: when she sings “I’m only just beginning to see the real you”, it’s an accusation, and not Hill’s sense of wonderment at his lover’s depths. She howls and growls her way to an epiphany, and goes into full on “Proud Mary” mode by the end, triumphant over the confusing emotions that she’s feeling, which makes me wonder to what extent this may have been a declaration of her escape from the villainous Ike Turner. It just gets more interesting with each listen.

So who is this artist who beat out Bonnie Tyler to go up against Tina? Mark Lizotte, who was going by the name Diesel when he covered the song in 2001, has had a pretty decent career in Australia while making zero impact on the North American charts: but for searching out covers of “Sometimes When We Touch”, I likely would have never heard of him. And what a loss that would have been: his take on the song is revelatory. It’s a bluesy rock version, and unlike Hill’s desire for rapprochement with his faithless lover, Lizotte turns the entire song into an assault. Like all great blues songs, the artist is as disappointed in himself as he is in the evil woman who done him wrong, and he wants to punish her by punishing himself, by not walking away. It’s kind of twisted, actually, and twisted relationships are, again, a staple of the blues.

(Sidebar: searching for Diesel on Spotify led me to the Dutch band of that name and their 1980 hit “Sausolito Summernight”, which was fun to revisit.)

The Winner: Tina Turner

Was there ever any doubt with Tina Turner in the race? That voice is truly one of the great instruments of our times. Yet, Diesel made this a real fight. If you heard his version without any context, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be able to place it, and that’s about as good a way as there is to make someone else’s song your own. He has a deep catalogue that I’m looking forward to exploring, starting with “Americana”, with covers of greats like Springsteen, Cash and Dylan. I never think of Australia as foreign in the way I think of countries that don’t share a connection with a common Crown, but there is, of course, an entire world of artists who are barely known outside their borders, just as we have in Canada with, for example, Blue Rodeo. (But not, I was surprised to learn, Billy Talent, who are massive stars in Austria, Germany and Switzerland.) Discovering these “foreign” artists is one of life’s little joys.

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