How Not To Do a Cover Version

I’d decided to put this thread on ice. “If you’ve got nothing good to say, perhaps it’s better to say nothing at all”, I thought.

Plus I was struggling to think of any more truly awful cover versions (suggestions welcome!)

But then when I was writing this week’s “Friday Night Music Club” one just fell into my lap.


Madonna – American Pie

Now. Don’t get me wrong. I love a bit of Madge, me. Whilst I might struggle to find much to love in her recent output, I cannot deny that for around twenty years or so, from say 1984’s “Like a Virgin” album onwards (and yes, I know there was an album before that), she was incredibly influential, released stone-cold classic after stone-cold classic (and, admittedly, a few clunkers), many of which I own, and which deservedly made her one of the most iconic and enduring pop stars in history.

But for me, her decision to cover “American Pie” marked the point where she began to go off the boil. It’s taken from the 2000 movie “The Next Best Thing” (nope, me neither) in which she starred alongside Rupert Everett. She won an award for it, it says here. Ah, it was a Razzie for Worst Actress though.

For a start her version is much shorter than the original, containing just the beginning of the first verse and all of the second and sixth verses, which does makes we wonder what the point was. The song’s meaning is puzzling enough as it is (the song’s composer would rarely elucidate: “You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me … Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.”) without slicing off over 50% of it. The NME, mind you, considered this a blessing, calling it: “sub-karaoke fluff” and adding “it’s a blessing she didn’t bother recording the whole thing.”

Play me the original though, and I’m reminded of when I was learning to play the guitar and shelled out on the sheet music for the song; back then I was working at a motorway café and after hours those of us who’d been on the late shift would end up at one of our houses, having a few beers and singing along to records (usually Simon & Garfunkel and The Carpenters, partly because they were the ones that most people knew most of the words to, and partly because there’s some fricking great tunes in there). Every now and then, when my parents were out of town, we’d end up at mine and I’d be coaxed into getting my acoustic out. Inevitably, I’d play this, on the condition that someone turned the pages of the music book for me. I would have been 17 or 18 then, without a care in the world. Great days.

Later, when I lived in Cardiff, we would end up of a Friday night in “Branningans”, one of those cheesy bar-come-clubs that attracts after-work groups, since they’re unlikely to play anything that such inevitably disparate groups could object to, and around 10:00pm every week the original of “American Pie” would get played, the shorter, single version. The first time it happened I was surprised – it’s not exactly a floor filler. But when you’ve been drinking since 5:00pm, 10:00pm is a significant point in the evening – it’s when you’re just bladdered enough to let your defences down enough to join in a mass communal sing-song. And let me tell you, if you’re going to indulge in a late night sing-a-long in public, you could do a lot worse than heading to Wales. Land of the song, see?

Anyway, this would have been around 2001-ish, and I can categorically say that not once did I hear the Madonna version being played, and there’s a reason for that: it’s just not as good, is it?

Judge for yourself. Here in all of it’s 08:36 glory, is the original version:


Don McLean – American Pie

More soon.