Cover Version Showdown #3

Queen, “Somebody to Love” – Anne Hathaway v MxPx

When my first marriage broke up, my nine-year-old daughter, who loved “The Princess Diaries” and “Ella Enchanted” (I can’t recall if we had let her watch ”The Devil Wears Prada”), told me I should date Anne Hathaway. It’s sort of awesome that my daughter – who clearly couldn’t see what a complete mess I was – thought that me dating a movie star was not completely implausible. Aw, children. We will never know how that might have turned out – I didn’t have Anne’s number at the time – and things have gone just fine for us both: Anne won an Oscar, and I, in my usual sort-of oblivious way, found my soulmate. But that alternate timeline is worthy of “Everything Everywhere All at Once”, or at least “Remedial Chaos Theory”.

I still haven’t seen Anne’s award-winning turn in “Les Miserables”, but parents of adolescent girls had long known she could carry a tune. The “Ella Enchanted” soundtrack was mostly covers of popular songs, and Anne showed she had chutzpah to spare by taking on a track originally sung by Freddie fucking Mercury.

Oh, Freddie. If he isn’t among your 10 greatest singers in rock history, I want to know who crowds him out of your personal selection, because I will take that person’s best track and crush it with Freddie’s 30th best. Queen are sort of overrated as a band – they made a lot of great singles, but the deeper cuts on their albums are pretty unmemorable – but that takes nothing away from the brilliant lunatic at the mic stand. Pick a random Queen hit and be rewarded by the dexterity of his instrument. Too bad the movie about his life is complete garbage (love the sequence about the making of “Bohemian Rhapsody” though).

Anyway, “Somebody to Love” is way down on my list of favourite Queen songs. (“Bohemian Rhapsody” will always be at the top, but in recent years “Don’t Stop Me Now” – shoutout to the rest of the band on backing vocals: they always have amazing harmonies – and “I Want to Break Free” have given me a lot of pleasure.) But there is certainly an argument to be made that it’s Freddie’s best individual performance. His voice switches gears on a dime, low then high, quiet then loud. I love the way he sings the “everybody wants to put me down” line at around the 1:44 mark, and he really does sound a little mad when he sings “crazy”. There’s a lot of repetition in the song: it feels like it’s going to end about a half dozen times, but it goes on and on and on, way past the point when it should finish up, but Freddie and the lads still hold your attention. 

And little Anne Hathaway took that on? Did her people try to talk her out of it? They should have – there’s no better way to highlight the frailties of your own voice by covering a Queen song. Maybe she was under a spell, like her character in the film. Was “Ella Enchanted” really a documentary? “Here, Anne, put on this old-timey outfit and act like you’re a rock star.” Zing! And you find yourself way out of your depth but go for it anyway because you have no choice.

There aren’t a ton of versions out there – professional musicians really know better, but Troye Sivan does a weird sort of dirge-like gloom monster meets teen idol version that isn’t as completely horrible as that description makes it sound. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus really believe in the song, but, yikes, the lead singer is pretty dreadful. And the season one cast of “Glee” did a decent job of butchering it into submission, which was pretty much what happened weekly on that show for long after most of the world stopped caring.

For Anne’s competition, I chose MxPx, a pop punk band that I sort of recall (I erroneously thought they had a track on the “American Pie 2” soundtrack). At one point they were considered Christian punk, which is a thing I did not know existed but am now dying to dig into. It sounds exactly like you’d expect – sped up, sung in a yelling monotone, completely lacking in subtlety. Which is sort of the smart play: if you love Queen and know you can’t compete with Freddie – because who can? – then you need to make your own path through their songs. 

And then there’s Anne. Strangely, though most of the “Ella Enchanted” soundtrack is on Spotify, this song has been pulled (Anne’s people trying to protect her too late, perhaps). Thankfully, the movie clip is preserved for the curious on YouTube. Somehow, it’s worse than I remember. Her voice is strong enough, but there isn’t a lot of colour or nuance, and the cover is so committed to trying to sound like the original that it’s doomed to failure. Only a lunatic goes head on with Freddie.

The Winner: MxPx

This was a tough one. I wanted to reward Anne for her nerve, but it just isn’t a very good record: if you’re going to be slavish in a cover, you need to be a powerhouse, and that just doesn’t describe my almost-girlfriend. But MxPx, sometimes for the worse but often enough for the better, make the song their own, and I like it more with each play. It’s sort of a stacked deck – I owned that “American Pie 2” soundtrack because I love pop punk – but it’s still an honourable effort in tribute to the master, and that gets them over the top. Anne will have to make do with her Oscar and the sweet memories of our near miss for now.

Cover Version Showdown #2

The Rolling Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – Devo vs Cat Power

My image of The Rolling Stones was formed by a comment I read comparing their appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to The Beatles’ edition. This came at a point where I still loved the boys from Liverpool while the Stones were barely on my radar. The writer said that while the Beatles wanted to hold your hand, the Stones had something more adult in mind. This was a reference to “Let’s Spend the Night Together” – infamously rewritten to “let’s spend some time together” for the show – but the idea of a bunch of sex-hungry wild boys stuck in my head. Why I didn’t immediately beg my mother for money to buy their records is beyond my present-day comprehension.

I don’t know when I first heard “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction“, but it sure feels like it’s always been a part of my listening exper­ience. It is one of those songs that everyone seems to know the chorus to without actually having paid all that much attention to the verses. Count me among those until recently, although I did recognize that there was a lot more happening there than the title would suggest. It is, of course, about sexual frustration, but it is also about being frustrated with the world in general and its commercialism specifically. It’s also about fitting in, about wearing the right clothes and smoking the right cigarettes. It is both cynical and idealistic in that way that only the very young would even dare to try and pull off. And, yes, Mick, Keith and company were once very, very young. That is sometimes forgotten since they’ve been in our lives in one form or another for over 55 years.

It, of course, opens with that all-time Top 5 riff from Keith. Mick slides in, loose and carefree at first, calm on the I-can’t-get-no’s, then getting amped up. A lot of shit is bothering Mick, and he needs to tell us about it. As the verses roll along, he becomes more impassioned, but he never completely loses his cool, pulling back just in time. It’s like when Zuko and Kenickie get caught up in the moment and hug in “Grease”, then quickly act like they didn’t just show some genuine human emotion. And throughout it all, Keith and company roll along, the comb sliding through the greased-back hair of life (I’m stretching this metaphor to its absolute limits, I know).

Picking the contenders gave me a wealth of options. Should I pit the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin against a fellow R&B master in Otis Redding, or, for the greatest mismatch since the 1992 U.S. basketball Dream Team decimated Angola, have her take on Page-3-girl-turned-pop-star Samantha Fox? What about Fox against fellow dance pop hottie Britney Spears? Or maybe borderline paedophile Jerry Lee Lewis matching up with mid-60s celebrity sons trio Dino (Martin), Desi (Arnez) and Billy (okay, they didn’t all have famous parents)? In the end, because I prefer covers that put a unique spin on the original, I went with quirk versus cool.

For the former we have Devo, an all-time quirk great. Their take on the song is a sort of robotic funk. If you have ever wondered (and let’s be honest here, we know you have), what a horny robot would sound like, well, I give you Devo. The vocal is something of a monotone, and at first it seemed to me that he never really gets worked up, because that is just how shit goes. Then I realized he is always worked up, with that slight rise on “satisfaction” suggesting it’s a bit of a fight to keep things together. The song has a rhythm that keeps you off balance, and the monotony of his voice and the song’s tone gradually wear you down. In the end, no one really feels satisfied.

Satisfaction seems besides the point in Cat Power’s dreamy guitar-only acoustic take: she doesn’t sing the chorus, so the key word never passes her lips. It’s a sultry and world weary take on the song, slowed down and sluggish, played late in a sweaty bar as last call approaches. You are forced to pay attention to those oft-overlooked verses, and, as if to hammer home the point, the last verse is sung twice, slightly modified, and then ends in the middle. There is no catharsis, and the song just drifts off.

The Winner: Cat Power

The Devo version is fun, but Power’s take has more of a pull than even the original, because you never get that jolt from the chorus. There is no satisfaction, but it’s pretty clear Devo isn’t satisfied either. Devo’s reads as resignation, while Power’s is a more adult acceptance, and maybe more about someone who has control over the situation, as well as a clearer understanding of why things are the way they are, and thus maybe a better chance of fixing them. More importantly, of course, is that I think her piano bar version opens the song up, shows new tones and levels, while Devo’s, while an absolute reinvention, doesn’t really tell you anything new about the song, only about the performer. That Power somehow does both puts her in the winner’s circle this time around.

Cover Version Showdown #1

Prince, ”Darling Nikki” – Foo Fighters vs Rebecca Romjin Stamos

Prince is on the front page of this site, but I haven’t written about him yet. His debut album was released in 1978 and he first received Pazz and Jop notice in 1980, after which he was a regular for much of the following decade. So, when I decided to start this series, I went looking for a Prince song. And, in “Darling Nikki“, I found, like a gift from the gods, Rebecca Romjin (formerly Rebecca Romjin Stamos – does it bother Jerry O’Connell that she didn’t change her name for him, too?). You know, model Rebecca Romjin. Actress Rebecca Romjin. But a singer? She has exactly one song on Spotify – this one. Her music career is so obscure that it doesn’t even warrant a mention on her Wikipedia page. Yes, please, I’ll have that one, thank you.

As for our other contender, the Foo Fighters are a band I am certainly familiar with, and have occasionally enjoyed, without actually paying even the tiniest bit of attention to. Dave Grohl is one of the coolest guys around (and I love Nirvana), but I have never once consciously played one of their songs. Seriously – not a single time. I have to strain my mind to remember any titles (I’m not going to check this – they have one called “Learning to Fly”, right?), and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone in my circle say they can’t wait for the next Foo Fighters record.

But first, let’s check in with the champion. In 1984, Prince was at the height of his powers, with “Purple Rain”, the Oscar-winning film and Grammy- winning album. There are so many great options coming out of that album. Lydia Loveless does a killer version of “I Would Die 4 U”. “Purple Rain” filtered through Dwight Yoakam will make you forget it didn’t start out as a country song. And Susanna Hoffs does a lovely “Take Me with U” that I think I like more than the original.

But “Darling Nikki” was contro­versial. Tipper Gore completely lost her shit when she heard what her 11-year-old daughter was listening to. (It doesn’t seem to have harmed her too much.) Back when we were still buying CDs, those “Parental Advisory” stickers could be traced back to that moment when Tipper met Prince. Thanks in part to this song, Luther Campbell was arrested in June 1990. A butterfly flaps its wings.

Anyway, the song itself kicks ass, like pretty much everything good on that album. (I love Prince but all songs are not created equal.) “Let’s Go Crazy” rocks harder, but “Nikki” has Prince’s most impassioned vocal outside of the title track. 40 seconds in, almost every straight man listening wishes he could meet a girl like Nikki, and is terrified of what might become of him if he did. Prince has no such concerns – he jumps right in. In the movie, it’s a revenge song when his lover abandons him for a rival impresario (Morris Day just does not get talked up enough). Nikki uses the narrator, and moves on, leaving him a changed man.

And what of Ms. Romjin? How the hell did this become the one song she seems to have ever recorded? It comes from an album so obscure that it also is absent from Wikipedia: “Party o’ the Times: A Tribute to Prince“. The artists involved who I’ve heard of were way past their best before dates when this came out in 1999: Heaven 17, Missing Persons, Gary Numan, Information Society. Ice T is the closest thing to someone with a functioning music career, and he hadn’t made a great record since 1991’s “O. G. Original Gangster” (which I owned on cassette and played, and played, and played some more). Yet, for all the strangeness of this project, the presence of Rebecca takes first place.

So, how did she do? Pretty great, actually. It’s less raunchy musically, and her vocal is cool, sultry, casual, with that girl-on-girl air that makes it more risque – this was 1999 after all. It’s sexy AF without even trying all that hard, and I really wish she had sang more. Maybe the Romjinaissance that’s coming with her extended foray into the “Star Trek” universe will make this happen.

The Foo Fighters version is more faithful to the original, but it is unmistakably their song. It rocks harder than Prince did, and while Grohl roars like His Purpleness, it isn’t sexy, it’s pained. Prince came away from the encounter a new man – Grohl sounds like she left him a mere husk of what he was.

The Winner: Rebecca Romjin

No one outdoes Prince, except maybe Sinead O’Connor or The Bangles – and it’s telling that he gave those songs to others rather than release them himself. “Darling Nikki” is no exception. And the Foo Fighters do a respectable job in making it their own, but the bar is high when a band is already so accomplished. I put on Romjin’s version expecting a travesty, and was instead delighted. It’s faithful, yet also personal – my definition of a perfect cover version. That the source is so unexpected only adds to the delight.