Wednesday, May 14, 2003

I recently heard the originals of two different songs for which I'd only ever heard the cover versions. More to the point, they were cover versions that left me wondering why anyone had chosen to cover them. If "Last Kiss" isn't the worst song Pearl Jam ever recorded, it's certainly the worst that ever got radio airplay. I assumed that Jimmy Barnes was to blame for the INXS travesty "Good Times" since he was the unknown variable with that otherwise predictably great band.

In both cases, the originals sounded little like the versions I knew.  Frank J. Wilson's take on "Last Kiss" was clearly of its era. It's early '60s doo-wop and so clearly part of the teen tragedy subgenre of  that period it is the title track of a compilation of songs about dead young lovers. The subject was depressing, but the rendition was upbeat. In contrast, Pearl Jam's stab at it was maudlin and morose, which only pointed out the weaknesses in the songs lyrics. "Oh, where, oh, where can my baby be?" just doesn't cut it at a lethargic tempo.

INXS and Jimmy Barnes retained the Easybeats' revved-up pace on "Good Times," but like Pearl Jam's version of  "Last Kiss," the most notable thing was how inane the lyrics are. "We're gonna have a good time tonight/Rock and roll music's gonna play all night." Yeah, right. The '80s version from the Lost Boys soundtrack had big '80s production. But the original had big '60s production, which was an entirely different animal.

These examples pointed out the difference between a great record and a great song. After hearing the originals of "Last Kiss" and "Good Times," I could understand the appeal. But it both cases it was the total package that made them successful: the compositions themselves as well as the arrangements. What the cover artists failed to realize was that the songs wouldn't hold up with an overhauled production style.

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