Versions

‘A Taste of honey’ Doctor Pablo & Dub Syndicate (North of the River Thames, ON-U, 1984) plus P. Desmond, S. Vaughan, C. Baker and others

Originally my intention was to write something extremely simple and short about this silvery-delicate cover by an English melodica player who took on the name Doctor Pablo when fronting the great Dub Syndicate on this 1984 ON-U release.

A release that is considered to be a kind of oddity in the Dub Syndicate catalogue, as Rick Anderson writes in his AllMusic review 

"This is one of the more curious entries in the always interesting On-U Sound catalog. Doctor Pablo is Pete Stroud, a British melodica player who fell in love with the "Far East" sound of pioneering melodica virtuoso Augustus Pablo and hooked up with label head Adrian Sherwood and his house band, the Dub Syndicate, to record an album of languid reggae instrumentals in a style closely based on that of his namesake. (Even the album title is a tribute: It's a parody on the title of Augustus Pablo's classic album East of the River Nile.)

What gives this album an added whimsical twist is the fact that two of the tracks are covers of popular British tunes -- there's an arrangement of the popular TV theme song "Man of Mystery" and a setting of the "Dr. Who?" theme. Others are more simply standard-issue instrumental reggae with featured melodica. The Dub Syndicate plays things a bit more restrained than usual, but its mighty rhythm section is as powerful as always, especially on the album's stand out track, a long and eerie Stroud composition entitled "Red Sea" (which would later be appropriated by Singers & Players as the rhythm for their equally powerful song "Moses"). Fans of the On-U label's signature sound should consider this a strongly recommended purchase, but newcomers may do better starting out with one of the Dub Syndicate albums or one of the compilations in the Pay It All Back series."

This piece of writing on 'A Taste of Honey' dub-version was going to be a quick continuation of my earlier ‘theme’ (see here) about explosions in 80s music; notice the classic, essential dub-explosion just before 1’40” (x2). Then to complicate things, all or some of my other favourites intruded in on it, forcing themselves to be included or at least heard. Sorry too for the sudden ending of the upload: pretty unfortunate.

Another writer with a different kind of mind might usefully tackle the question as to why pop music now is so concerned with originality - despite it being an era of sample-based recycling and reinvention and while there is a kind of relative stasis or lack of confidence about the act of creating music in itself. Never before has popular music been so self-aware and “complicated” in the French sense. Still, it would be unthinkable for a stream of artists to cover one song as was the case with “A Taste of Honey” through the 60s and into the 70s.

Dub artists always covered pop/soul songs, either in their entirety or splicing them up. And yet, returning to “A Taste of Honey” decades after its moment is kind of strange, but touching too. A vast contingent of popular singers covered the song in a relatively short period of time in the 60s: Barbra Streisand, Andy Williams, Julie London, Bobby Darin, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass among many many others.   

Three highlights though, Paul Desmond in 1965 and Sarah Vaughan

who does all kinds of unexpected things with her phrasing – unexpected that is for a typical singer, not for her such experimentation is an essential part of her gift.

And Chet Baker on his 1965 album Baby Breeze. Some criticise the version for the so-called “honky tonk piano” in the background that’s considered to be too loud and out of place, but I think it makes it, roughing up Baker’s early dulcet singing style. Another point of interest: how Baker slows the song right down, making it simpler and foundational like a folk song. It's really wonderful, I think.

To read more on Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughan, jazz and dub, follow the tags. 

Alternate versions: ‘Oh my lover’ PJ Harvey (Peel Session, 1991 & Dry, Too Pure, 1992) plus Nina Simone

To begin with the essential sweetness of this demo version …

Underneath one of the videos posted online someone had written how PJ Harvey had recorded this demo as a teenager to get her first record deal; she sounds so young here, her voice is noticeably different, lacking the magisterial nature of the final recorded version. What’s interesting is the way this youthful voice dilutes the ‘female masochistic-schtick’ critique that could be levelled at the lyrics, as what comes through is the giddy enthusiasm, the excitement, spinning in a lovely exuberance (that total devotion thing fed to women via a lifetime of fairy-tales of all kinds), it’s got total bounce.

Love the way she doubles her voice at the end, it’s so impressive on every level: song-writing, performance, creative vision. As for the recorded version that came out on 1992 debut:

From that opening moment, the intensity of it: this is just one of those extraordinary songs. Listen to that distorted bass/guitar and the unexpected phrasing of the drums. It is archetypal – a folk song transposed to the modern era, timeless. It reminds me of this similarly magical live 1969 performance by Nina Simone of ‘Black is the color of my true love’s hair’ for the same seriousness of intent, declaration: the strength of the woman’s voice.

Here’s the Peel Sessions version from 1991, which sounds almost the same as the recorded version, which further demonstrates the level of Harvey’s musicianship (she was born in 1969, so only was only 22-years-old or so at the time of recording). Check out this interesting video with Harvey speaking about her creative, song writing process put up in 2011.    

Coda:

Related article: PJ Harvey 'Silence' (White Chalk, Island Records 2007) published 27th February 2016

I have written a lot on Nina Simone on this site, go here to find all the references.   

Versions: ‘Why don’t we do it in the road?’ cover, Lowell Fulson/m (1969? single/Jewel Records, In a Heavy Bag reissue Sundazed Music, 2006)

Guitarist Lowell Fulson/m, who for ‘contractual reasons’ also recorded under the names Lowell Fullsom and Lowell Fulsom, is described as the ‘most important figure in West Coast blues in the 1940s and 1950s’ after T-Bone Walker.

I love the drums on this song, the way they splash while remaining controlled and the guitar sound, especially so rich and resonant and the determined OCD-nature of the vocals. There’s a kind of whiplash effect to the way he articulates certain words. 

Fulson’s 1966 song 'Tramp’ has been sampled by Redman (‘Time 4 Sum Aksion’), Cypress Hill ('How I Could Just Kill A Man’) and is said to be the inspiration for the Salt-n-Pepa song of the same name.  

‘Why don’t we …’ is, of course a cover by a certain English group released on their 1968 The Beatles, ‘the White album’ – to quote Wik: 

.. (the song) is short and simple; 1:42 of twelve-bar blues that begins with three different percussion elements (a hand banging on the back of an acoustic guitar, handclaps, and drums) and features McCartney’s increasingly raucous vocal repeating a simple lyric with only two lines   

The original eludes me online, but it is surely imprinted on our universal consciousness so no great loss, we’ll have to make do with this cover by a guy with an accent that is part Scottish-part Macedonian, or as it turns out Japanese, replete with trilling shriek effects, the bassline is nice though. 

This version, meanwhile, is described as a ‘funky version cover’ (no date, though my guess would be the 90s) by the Banana Ships, despite the Black (American) men in the video it seems to be another example of Japanese-fandom-weirdness (something residents of that nation definitely excel in) see the personnel listing: bass-Forii (Bible) Shinichiro/ Drums-Saito (AlrightDaiju) Vocal&Guitar-Ishiyama (Heifetz).

If you’re feeling brave, check out this Goth-excess from Lydia Lunch/Clint Ruin; the patron saints of the 90s underground scene and archetypal kohl-eyed star-crossed lovers, howling and writhing …

There is something about this song that attracts the ‘unconventional’ let’s say (even Meat Loaf covered the song on his two-disc album, Hang Cool Teddy Bear in 2010), I could go on adding increasingly stranger versions, many of them high on the histrionics, but will spare you. Having said that I like the Lowell Fulson cover, no games. 

Ballads for Two, Chet Baker & Wolfgang Lackerschmid (In-akustik/Inak,1986) plus live performance & interview  

1979 was an important year for Chet Baker, a period of great activity and development. Central to this were his recordings with German jazz musician/bandleader/composer Wolfgang Lackerschmid, best known for his work as a vibraphonist, but he also played other percussion instruments.

Ballads for Two, while continuing a longstanding jazz tradition of pairing two notable artists is a curious release, surprising even for Baker whose late work showed an impressive range and interest in experimentation. Such creativity also marked his earliest recordings, certainly. But the sheer virtuosity, the lyricism of Baker’s playing (and undoubtedly his pin-up good looks) has often come to obscure this side of his work.

Baker/Lackerschmid recorded two albums together in 1979: Ballads for Two and Baker/Lackerschmid with a band, guitarist Larry Coryell, bassist Buster Williams and Tony Williams on drums. Here's a review on Ballads for Two by Bob Rusch:  

'This was a record not so much of rhythm as of tonal coloring, pitch and reverberation. This was also an avant-garde Chet Baker, without gimmicks, just meeting an interest to expand and further develop: to invent, expand, create. This was also very beautiful creativity; art for art's sake. Wolfgang Lackerschmid played vibes in a manner owing itself more to Red Norvo and Gary Burton than Milt Jackson, and proved himself to be a creator and artist in his ebb and flow with the trumpeter. Bravos for both artists.'

This was a record not so much of rhythm as of tonal coloring, pitch and reverberation.

‘Dessert’ is a marvel in its expression of tender, difficult to express emotion and the way the music upsets our expectations

as is the cover of the standard, ‘You don’t know what love is’ with its deep vulnerability and imperfection. To get a sense of this, compare it to the classic rendition by Baker from the 1950s. Here’s a live performance that one listener claims was recorded in Norway, with this line-up: Chet Baker (tp) - Wolfgang Lackerschmid (vib) - Michel Graillier (p) - Jean-Louis Rassinfosse (b). 

And an interview from around the same time where Baker speaks in Italian about his struggles with heroin addiction and his music (with English subtitles).  

Versions/Live Recordings: 'Sunny' Bobby Hebb (Sunny, Philips, 1966)

Live performance from 1972, with Ron Carter

Written in the 48 hours after a ‘double tragedy’ in 1963 - the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and the murder of Hebb’s older brother, Harold who was stabbed to death outside a Nashville nightclub’ (source, Wik), ‘Sunny’ is one of those key touchstone tracks whose success has eclipsed all the other work by songwriter, Bobby Hebb.

Hebb claimed that he wrote the song as an expression of a preference for a 'sunny' disposition over a 'lousy' disposition following the murder of his brother and that his goal with the ‘optimistic’ lyrics was to express the idea that one should always ‘look at the bright side’.

All my intentions were to think of happier times and pay tribute to my brother – basically looking for a brighter day – because times were at a low. After I wrote it, I thought ‘Sunny’ just might be a different approach to what Johnny Bragg – from the Prisonaires -was talking about in ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain.’ 

Though if you listen to the Prisonaires’ track there is little obvious point of connection between the two: ‘Sunny’ appears to be a straight-up love song, while ‘Just Walkin’ is an expression of hopelessness. It was released on Sun Records in 1953, while the group was incarcerated in the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville – here is some info on the group that included one member on a 99-year prison sentence. They were given day release to perform across the state and became famous during their time. 

The dark inspiration for the song’s composition – the two murders – and the reference to the imprisoned singers fascinates me, as it disrupts what would arguably be the most common associations with the song, as a ‘simple’ expression of love and feel-good, light-hearted entertainment, aka Boney M groovin' & movin' in sequins. 

Without wanting to over-state this too much, I like to think that this song holds this complexity and depth – as code – within it; you can feel it in the live version above, with Ron Carter, where there is an element of threat, or menace in the way Hebb enunciates and the music builds. You can sense it in the lyrics too that strike me as surprisingly non-specific for a straightforward love song:

‘Sunny
Thank you for the truth you let me see
Sunny
Thank you for the facts from A to Z
My life was torn like wind-blown sand
And a rock was formed when you held my hand (oh, sunny)
Sunny one so true, I love you.

Sunny
Thank you for the smile upon your face
Hmm, sunny
Thank you, thank you for the gleam that shows its grace
You're my spark of nature's fire
You're my sweet complete desire
Sunny one so true, yes, I love you

‘Thank you for the gleam that shows its grace/You're my spark of nature's fire ..’ aside from being wonderfully poetic it sounds far from human, is Hebb encouraging us to think that he is, in fact, referring to something more abstract, without spelling it out in fixed terms. This notion bewitches me a little; pop transcendence, hidden in plain view.    

The raw intensity of the live acoustic performance is missing in the original recorded version that has a sweet self-exposure and vulnerability, in the way it starts and falls away from time to time. Hebb’s 1966 album is really consistent, with some equally impressive songs; see, for example, I am your man and You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Until You Lose It

Within the year and soon after, well-known artists were releasing their takes, most notably, Marvin Gaye and this superb version from the Stevie Wonder Live record – bassline paradise forming ...

'Sunny baby yeah ...'

Here’s Ella Fitzgerald/Tom Jones with the Welsh crooner tapping out the beat on a rocking chair, and even more surprisingly the film noir icon Robert Mitchum in 1967 offering his rendition as well. Jazz musicians also got involved in the celebration: notably, this classy and restrained Stanley Turrentine 1966 interpretation, but here is my preferred, as always, the passionate Les McCann exorcising spirits: 

Though the two versions that really strike me come from two non-Anglo women, first the Italian Luisa Casali – again from 1966  and this stunning rendition from Mieko "Miko" Hirota who has been called the "Connie Francis of Japan". Really love what she does here, encapsulating the erotics of the unhinged, while sounding completely committed.  

Versions: 'So in love' Shirley Bassey (Shirley, EMI/Columbia, 1961)

Held within the opening few moments of Shirley Bassey's 1961 version of the Cole Porter classic ‘So in love’ is an entire universe of feeling; it’s such an abundant and excessive sound. Often in my writing on music I laud the under-stated, the subtle and nuanced (the leaving space for shadows and contrast), but you can have both, as this interpretation makes clear.

Both a monumental, theatrical excess and also gentleness, uncertainty; see how Bassey allows words to collapse as she sings them, crumble in on themselves, to fall. Her accent – not really English, but seemingly from another century, another era – especially when she stretches ‘love’ or ‘darling’ or ‘joy’ the affect/effect is extremely sweet, but the highlight of her performance comes through in these famous lines:

So taunt me, and hurt me,
Deceive me, desert me,
I'm yours, till I die.....

Her voice sounds like it is quavering here, even if there is a boldness about it. Shirley Bassey can have, on occasion, a kind of harsh belting quality to her voice, but the combination of the musical excess and her ability to conjure up a kind of weakness, amid the sentiment, is quite beautiful to me.

While this music might seem exaggerated, on first listen – sometimes people use the adjective ‘melodramatic’ when describing it, I believe that its defining quality is the mix of intensity and pure feeling; the music is contrived, but the performance appears to be exposed.      

My second favourite version of this standard comes from Julie London (1965):

Sped-up, with a bossa nova vibe, it’s so quiet it’s almost as if she isn’t really singing it – the instrumentation is so light-hearted it goes against the desperate intensity of the lyrics (the ‘taunt me/hurt me’ part has a quivering sound, breathless) in a surprising way.

As you would expect the Dinah Washington take (1961) is imprinted with her distinctive style that is so extravagant. With its big band feel it sounds a little ironic; see how she emphasises words you wouldn’t expect (‘even’?), but there is no real intimacy here. Washington is stating it rather than expressing it. None of this is a criticism of Washington, I like her as an artist because she is so distinctive - and allows the timbre of her voice, her culture to come through in a way that was quite radical for her time - but she is singing it without any noticeable investment on her part.

Much the same could be said for Ella Fitzgerald's performance (small admission I have never really understood the veneration for Fitzgerald as a great, great artist; I can appreciate her virtuosity, certainly but always have the impression of distance when listening to her, as if she is keeping herself at a remove. She has been described as 'shy' perhaps this is what I'm sensing here, her desire to protect herself somehow. This version further reinforces this view, especially the unfortunate 'let's wrap it up here now boys' type music at the end).

Arguably the most famous ‘recent’ version is by KD Lang, released in 1990, which similarly has a kind of containment about it with the vocals and music kept at the same level. It’s a lovely dark performance, but once again I wonder how invested the singer is, how interested she is in mining the contradictory sentiments that sustain this song and make it so poignant.

(For those with a more obscure bent, have a listen to these two eccentric performances: Jane Morgan that maintains an almost ugly tone to her voice - one listener called it a 'schoolmarm performance', it is true it is far from erotic - but I like the solo piano part with its Latin inflections around 2’08” and then here is the original 1948 cast recording from the musical, 'Kiss me Kate by Patricia Morison, which is quite strange - to modern ears perhaps).