The Singer not the Song

On the subject of John Martyn, I have been informed (see comments) that he didn’t write ‘Rather Be The Devil’ but covered it.  I was curious to hear the original so I looked it up: it’s very different from Martyn’s version, being more of a typical blues number:

It set me thinking about how different a song can be when performed by different artists, and that led me to the original version of this number:

Like most people I knew Harry Nilssen’s cover but not this one, and there’s no comparison.  The Badfinger version is pleasant enough but plodding and dull; and when it comes to the chorus it just sounds plain awful.  Compare and contrast: the Nilssen number is utterly heartbreaking:-

All of which leads me to ‘Hallelujah,’ perhaps one of the most covered songs in the history of song, with so many versions that now is the time to call a halt.  Cohen himself said it had been covered too much, and some of the versions are saccharinely awful, showing scant respect or understanding.  There are some covers I admire, however, probably the best being Rufus Wainright’s:

All right.  That’s enough songs for today.

Kirk out

One thought on “The Singer not the Song

  1. Most people agree with you about Badfinger’s original version of Without You. However, I will defend it: like most people, I was already very familiar with the Nilsson version when I heard the original and I liked the way it was done as a ‘straight’ rock song, rather than a photo-power ballad. The song clearly had massive commercial potential, so it would have been picked up on sooner or later. Harry Nilsson was friends with the Beatles, whose Apple record label Badfinger were signed to, and he heard the song at a party given by George Harrison. The rest is history – but unhappy history: both of the songs composers died by their own hands (both hanged themselves), Pete Ham in despair at the management troubles the band was embroiled in, Tom Evans some years later because he never got over the loss of his writing partner. A bitter story..

    Nor did things end well for Harry Nilsson (a talented songwriter who had hits with other people’s songs): ‘Without You’ made him rich and famous and led him into the predictable mid-seventies thickets of drugs and alcohol addiction. His creativity crumbled and he died in 1994, a broken (and broke) man.

    As for Hallelujah….I agree: too many cover versions, too much bandwagon-hopping, too much mediocrity (and too many singers who jump in without having a clue as to the song’s meaning and would probably be profoundly disturbed if they did). Most people seem to like Jeff Buckley’s version, which gave the song ‘mainstream’ popularity, but I like this one by the American soprano Renee Fleming:

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