Sometimes an artist writes a song whose chord sequence and melody line seem far better suited to another artist. I’m not talking about conscious pastiches of another act. That’s something else altogether. I’m talking about songs that that feel like they’re merely being “looked after” by the people who wrote them until their rightful owner finally comes to claim them. Once in a while this actually happens and it’s very pleasing. If you listen to Snow Patrol’s version of Run now, it merely sounds like a demo for the pneumatic power balladeering of Leona Lewis’s version. Badfinger’s Without You was tantamount to an S.O.S. sent from that moment when an abandoned lover surveys the debris of their broken relationship and can barely recognise themselves amongst it. The only problem was that it only sounded like that when Harry Nilsson did it. Here are ten more songs that are hard to listen to without imagining them being sung definitively by someone else.
WHO RECORDED IT: STATUS QUO
WHO SHOULD HAVE RECORDED IT: TEENAGE FANCLUB
“She wears denim wherever she goes/Says she’s gonna buy some records buy the Status Quo.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Teenage Fanclub’s The Concept references the Quo. After all, the Concept appears to be grown in a petri dish from the same raw ingredients that gave us Status Quo’s ballad of the band: careworn melancholia, the sense that pop will always be there to sweeten our self-inflicted misfortunes. When you play the Quo version in your mind, it somehow jangles in a way that is only actually hinted at when you hear the record. And Francis Rossi’s voice, while fine, surely isn’t a patch on what Norman Blake – kindly pastor of all our post-C86 yesterdays – would have brought to the song.
SONG: HAPPY NATION
WHO RECORDED IT: ACE OF BASE
WHO SHOULD HAVE RECORDED IT: LAIBACH
Ace Of Base’s 1994 single Happy Nation saw Linn Berggren positing the idea of a utopian nation-state “where the people understand/And dream of perfect man.” What could she have possibly meant by this? What kind of “perfect man” could she be alluding to? Hard to say, although it was easy to leap to the wrong conclusion if you had read about founding member Ulf Ekberg’s spell in the 80s with neo-Nazi rockers Commit Suiside [sic]. Still, there’s barely a soul alive who hasn’t cringed at the actions of their younger self – and Ulf was no exception. He apologised when news of his past emerged. And yet, you couldn’t help but wonder what he was getting at with lyrics like, “Ideas by man and only that will last/And over time we’ve learned from the past/That no man’s fit to rule the world alone/A man will die but not his ideas.” Perhaps the most musically intriguing aspect of Happy Nation though is austere choral intro complete with angelic voices singing in Latin. Just as sharks can smell blood from miles away, Slovenian rockers Laibach are usually pretty good at sniffing out the potentially totalitarian ambiguities in certain pop songs. They’ve done it in the past with Opus’s Live Is Life, Europe’s The Final Countdown and – in German – with Queen’s One Vision. Quite how Happy Nation has eluded them is utterly mystifying.
SONG: TOO LATE FOR GOODBYES
WHO RECORDED IT: JULIAN LENNON
WHO SHOULD HAVE RECORDED IT: SPIRITUALIZED
As with Happy Nation, Casio reggae was the Trojan horse into which Julian attempted to smuggle a heartfelt address to his deceased dad. A shame really, because if you prize the notes, chords and lyrics of Too Late For Goodbyes from the horrible arrangement and production, you can better apprehend its latent emotional power. “Ever since you’ve been leaving me/I’ve been wanting to cry,” sings Julian on the first verse, “Now I know how it feels for you/I’ve been wanting to die.” Alas, the problem with Too Late For Goodbyes is that poor Julian had no taste. Without the arty, avant-garde upbringing that Yoko conferred upon his half-brother, Cynthia’s son simply didn’t know what to do with his own song. And neither did anyone else by the sound of things. But that doesn’t make Too Late For Goodbyes, at its essence, any less of a lament. Its desolate sentiments are accentuated by the drone-like repetition of two repeated chords: C and B flat major, implying heavy sedation, lulling you into a place where it feels like nothing much is going to h appen. Which makes the sense of reveal on the shift to E flat major when he sings “much too late…” all the more stark. These are all tropes which would be far more deftly handled by a band of lysergic psych-rock voyagers. I’m plumping for Spritualized here, although Spacemen 3 would obviously suffice or, at a pinch, Six Organs Of Admittance.
SONG: MY CAMERA NEVER LIES
WHO RECORDED IT: BUCKS FIZZ
WHO SHOULD HAVE RECORDED IT: THE FUTUREHEADS
As a Eurovision-winning group comprised of two men and two women, Bucks Fizz garnered inevitable comparisons to Abba. Also in common with Abba, the Fizz struggled to find a song that might relieve them of their Eurovision albatross. The Land Of Make Believe was their Mamma Mia – the chart-topper which meant that, even if they weren’t cool, some critics would cede them a grudging respect for their staying power. A few months later, My Camera Never Lies appeared and it was precisely the sort of song for which some music journalists invented the term “new pop.” Fashioned by the steady hand of demon popsmiths Andy Hill and Nichola Martin, My Camera Never Lies laced the longing of its killer chorus (“…because there’s nothing worth lying for”) with just the merest frisson of knowingness (“Click!Click! Click! Aaah!”) – its insidious appeal borne out by its slow ascent to number one. Even at the age of 11, My Camera Never Lies struck me as not the sort of song you’d expect a group like Bucks Fizz to do. That doesn’t make it any the worse for that. But 25 years later, when I heard the jerky staccato pop of The Futureheads – in particular, Decent Days & Nights and Meantime – I couldn’t help but find myself wanting it to turn into My Camera Never Lies.
SONG: BICYCLE THIEVES
WHO RECORDED IT: PALE FOUNTAINS
WHO SHOULD HAVE RECORDED IT: MARC ALMOND
This is no slouch, of course. Before Shack heralded a more back-to-basics approach for the songs of Michael Head, The Pale Fountains’ second album …From Across The Kitchen Table shot for the stars. Jean’s Not Happening and Bicycle Thieves were perfect pop melodramas telescoping you in on watershed moments in the stories of their protagonists. At around the same time, Marc Almond was moving away from Soft Cell, looking for musical settings that mirrored his growing confidence as a truly great torch singer. Ugly Head from his 1984 solo album Vermine In Ermine. And his definitive reading of Cher’s A Woman’s Story showed how far he’d come. He would have been a shoo-in for Bicycle Thieves too. When the music stops and Michael Head sings, “Why-why-why-why-why…” it’s a great Pale Fountains song, but it would be a perfect Marc Almond song.
SONG: THE WINNER TAKES IT ALL
WHO RECORDED IT: ABBA
WHO SHOULD HAVE RECORDED IT: MARK EITZEL
Although the last-days-of-disco beat is doing its very best to disguise it, The Winner Takes It All is a song about being tired. About the emotional exhaustion that takes hold once you’ve finally been tossed alone by love’s crashing waves onto a place to which you thought you would never return. Perhaps that’s why it sounds like a Mark Eitzel song to me. After all, this seems to be the default place from which so many Eitzel and American Music Club songs transmit. I once wound up at dinner with him and a assortment of mutual friends. I tried to plant the idea in his head, but he didn’t see it. Sigh.
SONG: THE NEVER-ENDING HAPPENING
WHO RECORDED IT: BILL FAY
WHO SHOULD HAVE RECORDED IT: PET SHOP BOYS
With the emotional centrepiece of his feted 2012 comeback Life Is People, Bill Fay has written a supercharged Europop anthem in the making. Does he know it? Of course not. And if you pointed it out to him, I suspect he’d look at you like you’d just shat in his wardrobe. Which is fine. After all, The Never Ending Happening is plenty beautiful as it is. Accompanied by piano and cello, Fay’s cracked, careworn timbre addresses the most fundamental topic any song can hope to address. Consciousness itself. “Nightfall stars sun rise again/Birdsong before the day begins,” he sings, before acknowledging that even consciousness can come at a price: “For some it’s like tightrope walking/Blindfolded and shaking/On either side fear and pain.” The Never Ending Happening is literally life-affirming – that’s clearly what it’s here to do. For all of that though – what with the 45 degree ascent of its minor chord sequence, what The Never Ending Happening does is so Europop, so poppers o’clock, so lifetime gold privilege pass at G.A.Y., so “VACANCY: SLAMMING 125 BPM RHYTHM – APPLY WITHIN”, that it seems perverse not to let Pet Shop Boys have a tilt. Because their version of Always On My Mind has made us all a little more pop-literate, the result would be gloriously predictable. A tearful dancefloor epiphany waiting to happen.
SONG: LOVE IS A WONDERFUL COLOUR
WHO RECORDED IT: THE ICICLE WORKS
WHO SHOULD HAVE RECORDED IT: TAKE THAT (IN 1993); ONE DIRECTION (NOW)
Boy bands of one kind or another have always existed, but in a post-Take That world, there’s a particular sort of pop song that wouldn’t truly make sense if handled by any other sort of artist. It needs to work on the dancefloor, but it also requires sentiments that, when imparted by the sincere-faced hottie on the group staring straight into the camera, will light the touch paper of national teenage pandemonium. Back when Ian McNabb wrote The Icicle Works’ only top 20 hit, no-one would have really known what you meant if you spoke about a “boy band.” Love Is A Wonderful Colour came in the thick of a run of hits enjoyed by psych-loving Liverpool post-punk bands. Others included The Teardrop Explodes, Echo & The Bunnymen and The Lotus Eaters. But listen now and there’s something pulling it in a distinctly boy band direction, and it happens right at the end of the song – on the “take my confidence to guide you/through the fallen hope inside you” outro. In pop terms, bolting that bit onto the end of Love Is A Wonderful Colour was the equivalent of bringing on Gareth Bale with five minutes to go. But in the boy band makeover of Love Is A Wonderful Colour, that’s the bit that will go at the very beginning – no drums, just five harmonies and that I’ll-do-anything-for-you gaze to camera – then straight into the main body of the song in unrelenting 4/4. Not only is this the song’s ultimate destiny, but I think Ian McNabb could probably do with the cash.
SONG: AIN’T THAT ALWAYS THE WAY
WHO RECORDED IT: PAUL QUINN
WHO SHOULD HAVE RECORDED IT: RICHARD HAWLEY
In one sense, it’s a bit harsh to have this in here. After all, there’s nothing really wrong with the original recording – written by Edwyn Collins for the debut solo single by former Bourgie Bourgie frontman Paul Quinn. Unlike the records that Edwyn made around the same time for Orange Juice, there are no concessions to 80s production techniques. Released on Swamplands – Alan Horne’s attempt to replicate Postcard with major label backing – Ain’t That Always The Way aspires to a pre-Fabs ideal of croon-age classicism and pulls it off superbly. Quinn’s treacly baritone is almost miraculous coming from a voice of such tender years. In an ideal world though, he would have come to it after another decade and 10,000 Gitanes. Back in the 80s, Richard Hawley was also making records (with fey indie triers Treebound Story) – no doubt secretly aspiring to what Collins and Quinn achieved on Ain’t That Always The Way. But with a hare lip and cleft palate, he had convinced himself that he could never carry off the tarry, pompadoured world-weariness of a song like that. Twenty years later, it was hard to imagine Hawley making music that didn’t sound like that. So I guess he doesn’t need to claim Ain’t That Always The Way – but, if only to draw attention to a tragically overlooked gem, I’d be very happy if he did.
SONG: STEAMHAMMER SAM
WHO RECORDED IT: INTAFERON
WHO SHOULD HAVE RECORDED IT: BLUR
Heard once on Max Headroom; never forgotten. Steamhammer Sam was the third and final single by 80s art school pop aspirants Intaferon. Quite how a song this catchy stalled 37 places shy of the top 40 is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it had something to with the fate of the song’s protagonist, who lost the will to live after being laid off from his job as a foundryman. I’m not sure if Intaferon frontman Simon Fellowes intended Sam to be a metaphor for what happened to Britain under Thatcherism, but there’s no doubt that hindsight has compounded the poignancy of his tale. At the time of Steamhammer Sam’s release, Britain still had a manufacturing industry. The National Coal Board had yet to announce the pit closures which precipitated the miners’ strike and British Steel was still British. But set aside all of that, and it’s still a great story sitting snugly inside a brilliant pop tune. With its insistent boom-crash beat and haunted music hall ambience it’s also exactly the sort of narrative to which Damon Albarn aspired during the giddy commercial peaks of Parklife and The Great Escape. So much so, in fact, that when I listen in my head, it’s his voice and not poor Simon Fellowes – now as forgotten as Sam himself – that I hear leading us into the song’s demented pub-style singalong coda.