Magazine article The Spectator

The Strange Potency of Bad Music

Magazine article The Spectator

The Strange Potency of Bad Music

Article excerpt

A lesson is learnt. Good music, as we hear it, tends to be ours and ours alone. But bad music is everyone's: we all suffer together. Last month I related the harrowing tale of a recent family holiday in St Ives, where my girlfriend and I, while not buying beach balls in a tourist-tat emporium, happened to hear Neil Diamond's singular version of the Hollies' 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother'. With customary lack of restraint, the old schlockmeister transforms a simple pop song into a full-blooded Broadway show-stopper. You have to hear it to believe it. It drips with goo and phoney sentiment. But it's so vile you can't ignore it. My girlfriend and I stood and listened all the way to the end, while our small children created havoc in the multicoloured-bucket-and-spade section.

And I have to admit, it got me thinking. There's so much mediocre music around vast oceans of the stuff, pouring out of pubs and restaurants, turned up full on TV ads, blighting films and documentaries and my street in north London (which has become a rat-run for morons with expensive car-stereo equipment) - but genuinely bad music is a much rarer beast. It's more distinctive; it's many times more memorable. Put it this way: Diamond's version of 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother' has stuck with me ever since, to the extent that some time soon I may actually be compelled to buy it.

So I opened the discussion to Spectator readers. What's the worst cover-version of a decent song you have ever heard, by an artist or artists who should have known better? I disallowed records by the likes of Westlife, who mutilate good songs as though commissioned by Beelzebub himself. They know no better, and their perma-tanned managers become billionaires on the proceeds. No, I had in mind real singers and real bands, who probably thought what they were doing had real merit. Neil Diamond sounds so pleased with his rendition you can imagine him hanging his head at the end, waiting for the applause. (A tomato on the snoot would have been more appropriate.) I had about 80 emails and letters, many of them long and closely argued. People feel strongly about this. They suffer together.

A dozen people, for instance, nominated Paul Young's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. Ian Curtis of Joy Division recorded the original, which was about the disintegration of his teenage marriage. Not long afterwards, he committed suicide. Paul Young's weedy, shallow reading a few years later might have sent a few listeners over the edge as well. With horrible synthesised drums and a gloopy bass (probably played by someone with rolled-up jacket sleeves), this gutless travesty lay in wait for anyone who unwittingly bought that first album. Where is Paul Young now? I heard that his mullet had been saved for the nation, but let's hope that his records haven't.

Another lesson to be learnt from this exercise: nothing ever changes. Bad coverversions are as old as pop music itself. Several correspondents nominated Elvis Presley; someone had it in for Peggy Lee; while Charles Verrall still hasn't forgiven Cilia Black for 'Anyone Who Had A Heart' and 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling': 'How I rejoiced when the Righteous Brothers leapfrogged her to the top of the charts.' Rupert Morgan had a good one: Frank Sinatra's swinging demolition of 'Mrs Robinson', which comes close to invalidating the rest of his remarkable career. …

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