Here in Australia, our national broadcaster’s Triple J radio station has a regular segment called Like a Version in which bands are asked to come and perform a cover of a song they like. Often (not always) the performance is acoustic and low-tech — the band’s sound stripped down to its essential elements. I find that the way a band approaches which song to choose and how to blend its sound and essence with their own, tells me more about how they think about and work with music than any interview, or album booklet.
The song, too, takes on a different life when it is transformed in this way. The more bands cover something, the more likely others are to do the same. This happens often in the Jazz world, not often enough in the Pop/Rock/Indie world, and startlingly rarely in the Classical. Indeed, the Classical music world, while existing almost solely on what are, technically, covers, implicitly forbids anything which goes beyond the very narrow spectrum of acceptable interpretations of a particular historical sub-genre. Classical artists like Nigel Kennedy or James Galway who dare to put their own spin on things, are all to often relegated to that special shunnery of being referred to as ‘populist’ or worse: ‘money-making’.
I find it intriguing that the process of remixing someone else’s work, so essential in Jazz, is anathema to the concert pianist; that the paragon of achievement, the perfect rendition of the composer’s intent which is so crucial to one genre, might be considered extremely bad form or even copying in another. When you look at the various cultural and historical factors involved in the development of differing musical genres, it is easy to see how this has come about. To me, however, the more interesting questions is why doesn’t it change?
At about the same time as I was delving into Everything is a Remix, Turin Brakes released his version of the chimney sweep’s song from Mary Poppins. I was so taken with his version and its stunning, slow-motion film clip (shot with startling precision and subtlety by Phillip Bloom), that I decided to track the various versions of this song and see what I could find.
Before I start talking about the song and its various covers, I should mention that I’ve pulled together a YouTube playlist where I’ve collected all the videos. There are too many to feature here, so if you want the full, one hour and twenty minute Chim Chim Cheree experience, you can go and watch it. I’m going to pull out the versions that I think are significant or interesting and talk about them in this post.
Believe it or not there’s actually a Wikipedia page devoted to this song. If you want all the details, you can go and read it. It will tell you, among other things, that the song was written by the Sherman brothers in 1964 for the Disney musical Mary Poppins — but you probably knew that, right? Here’s Richard Sherman talking about the origins of the song and its effect on the purpose of the chimney sweep character (Bert) in the narative.
And here he is talking about the evolution of the song’s harmony.
What I find interesting about all that is that Sherman has essentially presented two version of the song. The plonky, fast version and the slow, mournful version. Each version has a different implication for what the song is about.
As you saw from the first video, and you would know from watching the movie, Bert is a kind of narrator of the story. His role as a jack-of-all-trades means that he is always there, in various guises, watching, musing about and participating in the unfolding events. Chim Chim Cheree then, as Bert’s theme music, takes on a timeless quality. It puts the story into some kind of emotional context for us and ‘bookends’ the events as they unfold. This effect is achieved both in the song’s lyrics and in its harmonies. The slow, descending motif which Sherman illustrated in the second video above, and the choice of three-four time, combined with the whimsical but cryptic lyrics, all serve this purpose.
The plonky version features too, albeit without its original harmony. When sped up and with slightly different emphasis in the harmony, the song works just as well to underline Bert’s comical side. This kind of flexibility is song-writing at its best, and it’s a good example of why Sherman brothers songs work so well in musicals. Chim Chim Cheree exists to help us understand Bert’s personality, and his part in the narrative, just as Spoon Full of Sugar does for Mary or Feed the Birds does, in a roundabout kind of way, for Mr. Banks.
Interestingly, the two different versions of this song that we find in the movie (fast and light-hearted, and slow and mournful) are pretty good stereotypes of the way in which other musicians went about making covers.
First up, was John Coltrane, in 1965.
Edit: This video doesn’t exist any more. The one below is not, in fact the right version, but still gives you a flavour of what Coltrane did to the song.
In the same vein, we have covers by Howard Roberts, The New Christie Minstrels, Ronnie Alrdritch, Loius Armstrong (who changes the time signature) and Duke Ellington. More recently, here’s the Eric Alexander Quartet cover from 2009.
All these musicians have essentially taken the light-hearted road with their covers. They are fast, have lots of embellishment and use the song to riff over, each in their own way. As you’d expect, each cover has the signature of its performer. The John Coltrane version is very John Coltrane. Likewise with Satchmo and the Duke. What each of them produced gives us a window into they way they thought about the song, and where it might lead, musically. Being Jazz musicians, I suppose there might have been a greater desire to use the speed and energy of the fast version to create the kind of improvisation they favoured. I don’t know what someone like Miles Davis would have done with this song; perhaps he would have taken a different route. We’ll never know and, in any case, we’re now veering wildly off into speculation.
Taking a different route with the song, but still firmly in the Jazz realm, is Esperanza Spalding. She does plenty of energetic riffery, but her cover demonstrably has a different feel to the others. Her choice of a slower rhythm, her use of more sustained phrasing, and the quality of her voice itself, all give this cover a cooler, more mellow sound.
Then we have Joe Pernice in 2009. Here, we’re well and truly in the mournful, timeless category. It’s quiet, acoustic and unassuming, as though Pernice is just singing it to himself.
This brings me to my favourite cover of this remarkable song. This one is by Turin Brakes, and if you only watch one of these videos, it should be this one.
The music is masterful in itself. The choice of tempo, careful selection of lyrics, and pacing are beautiful to listen to. The slow, descending motif makes a return, as does the personal, almost lullaby-like sound captured by Joe Pernice (complete with guitar string slides and squeaks).
What makes this cover particularly striking however, is the way that it goes back to the songss roots. The film-clip to this version comprises super slow motion portraits of homeless people on the streets, shot beautifully by Phillip Bloom. The humanity, and the social commentary, so much a part of Bert’s character in the song’s original, is put squarely at the centre of our focus. The effect is quite moving. Turin Brakes take the simple, intimate sound of voice and guitar, and build it into a whirl of percussion and wailing Pink-Floyd guitar solos, introducing something that no-one else has yet put into this song: anger.
I don’t know about you, but I think this version actually surpasses the original. It somehow achieves a grander scale than the other covers – it’s epic in the full sense of the word. A perfect cover.
You can keep watching the playlist from there to see a collection of other versions of the song, ranging from semi-professional bands, to school choirs. If you’ve got other versions which I’ve missed, please let me know and I’ll add them in.