Friday, November 20, 2015

Carole King Covers: You've Got A Friend

It's possibly a fact that Ms King's best known song is in itself best known as a cover, namely the comforting and syrupy balm of James Taylor singing "You've Got a Friend", perhaps also "his" best known song. I don't know whether this can or could be proven as, with someone having a career stretching from being a Brill Building manufactured popsmith in the early 60s, to hippie chick troubador a decade later, to damn right, yes, she's still going with a bit of both and everything in between, it's difficult to work out. I guess it's in part generational, with the hepcats of '66 nodding sagely as the by then far and wigged-out Byrds phase their way through "Goin' Back", or the soulsters grooving to Aretha and "...Natural woman", so my generation picked up on "Tapestry", through her old friend and guitar slinger lifting a song from it as his break through single. But this isn't about sweet baby James, being more a tribute to some of the less well travelled versions. (Or is that so far travelled?)

I remain uncertain whether this is the worst thing I have ever heard or whether it is worse even than that, inescapably making me see the Muppets in my minds eye, so expertly do Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire channel Fozzie and Kermit. From the hideous patronising patronage of "contemporary" to the plodding singalongagramps of the performance, any nostalgic buzz for, say, "The Little Drummer Boy" evaporates.

Let's try something a bit more up-tempo, yeah, a James Brown influence:

Nooooooooo, take it off, take it away. Hideous even more than the old groaning above, is this supper club travesty really that Fred Wesley, those J.B.s? No wonder the album was "The Lost Album". I would.

Let's try again, some UK 80s indie, that'll be something, eh?

The Housemartins were the short-lived first band of Paul Heaton, later of "The Beautiful South" as here, and Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook. And this version of the song is awful.

I'm beginning to lose faith and falter here. I mean, how difficult can it be? Hell, premium cover version listings site, Second Hand Songs, lists 125 versions. OK, so the list includes everyone from Billy Ray Cyrus to Barry Manilow, and God knows who in between.

One more, some late 90's acid jazz:

Brand New Heavies were/are a UK originally instrumental band forming in the mid 80s, diversifying into a somewhat bland vocal hybrid between jazz, funk and nods toward hip-hop and dance music, with a string of sultry southern US vocal divas passing through their ranks, Carleen Anderson and N'Dea Davenport being perhaps the 2 best known, but with Siedah Garrett on the above, a minor hit in the UK. Tellingly, it was not even on the US copy of its parent album. I have to say it's the best of the lot I have found today, if purely by virtue of comparison.

So what's my point? Is it a good song? Well, I had always thought so, but maybe there is rather more of the Brill Building professional hit maker weave in "Tapestry" and "You've Got A Friend" than first hearing makes believe, hence the ease with which it sheds any credibility into a nylon leisure suit of schmaltz. And thus, maybe it is just the consummate interpretation skill of Taylor that embues it with any subtlety at all, although, to be fair, the original is pretty damn good too. Carole King was trained to write songs that would sell. 125 versions is a lot of versions and, by virtue of the names mentioned, hideous though to my ears, a lot of royalties. Success by any marker.

Finally, by way of a lift to my sorry conclusion, was it a fluke? Has the song got the capability of rising above it's apparent formula? Well, who better to give us that answer than the writer and the singer already mention, both here together, a mere 5 years ago.

Praise be! No fluke. Song good, interpretations vary............

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