I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Britain's Got Talent

On Wednesday, September 16, 2009, America's Got Talent pulled out their ace in the hole for their season finale performance. Her name was Susan Boyle, a web sensation since her appearance on sister-show Britain's Got Talent. The unlikely hero wowed the audience with her rendition of The Rolling Stones tune "Wild Horses," the first single from her debut album I Dreamed a Dream (made available in the U.S. by Columbia Records on November 23, 2009). Again, Boyle fans flooded YouTube, leaving Mick and Keith with a completely different song on their minds, a song titled "Not Fade Away." (Get it?)

I was first made aware of this situation by my friend Josh, who made the following post on Facebook. "Access Hollywood's poll question asks: Whose version of Wild Horses is better? The Rolling Stones or Susan Boyle?" Josh responded with another question: "Why are we having a third place match?"

What Josh's question brings to light is the fact that Susan Boyle is by far not the first musician to cover the song "Wild Horses," and she certainly will not be the last.Since its release on April 23, 1971, "Wild Horses" has been played by Elvis Costello, Neil Young, Guns N' Roses, Sarah McLachlan, Iron & Wine and Jewel, and that's just the short version of the list. For Josh, "Wild Horses" is at its best when performed by The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Sundays. Both renditions carry with them a controversy of sorts.

Often attributed to American alternative rock band Mazzy Star, the cover of "Wild Horses" in question is actually the work of The Sundays from their album Blind (Geffen, 1992). Mazzy Star has a history of getting credit for songs they didn't actually record. A brilliant cover of the Velvet Underground song "Sweet Jane" is also often attributed to this band. This song was actually recorded by Cowboy Junkies and featured on the soundtrack to the film Natural Born Killers (Interscope, 1994). This controversy is little more than a mix-up as a result of poorly tagged MP3s illegally downloaded on Lime Wire.

The real controversy involves The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Rolling Stones regarding who made the original version of "Wild Horses." The best known recording is clearly that of The Rolling Stones. As for The Flying Burrito Brothers, I'll admit that I had never even heard fo the band until reading Josh's Facebook comment. However much fame each band claims, the truth is that The Flying Burriton Brothers released the song "Wild Horses" in April of 1970, a full year prior to The Rolling Stones release.

It seems that Gram Parsons had a very close relationship with the members of The Rolling Stones. It's often said that he's one of the band's most significant influences. When Keith Richards and Mick Jagger wrote the song "Wild Horses" in 1969, this relationship allowed Parsons to hear the song long before the general public. "Wild Horses" was already too late for the 1969 release of Let It Bleed (Decca), and, as we now know, Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones) wouldn't come out until 1971. As a result, when Parsons asked his good friends if he could record this song for his 1970 album Burrito Deluxe (A&M), The Flying Burrito Brothers happened to be the band who first brought this song to the light of day.

The question of the origin of "Wild Horses" ought to be divided into two questions: 1. Who wrote the original song? and 2. Who released the first recording of the song? The answer to the first question is Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. The answer to the second is The Flying Burrito Brothers.

I would like to end this controversy by saying that "Wild Horses" is the child of The Rolling Stones. Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers, recognizing the magnificence of this song, recorded it as a cover. As a matter of logistics of album release, the cover was released prior to the original. A music fan of the 1970s would have had first contact with "Wild Horses" through The Flying Burrito Brothers, but the objective and passive ear of the universe remembers that the song originated with The Rolling Stones. Under oath, members of both The Rolling Stones and The Flying Burrito Brothers would have to attest to this same fact.

How would I rank these four performances of "Wild Horses"?
1. The Rolling Stones (1971)
2. The Flying Burrito Brothers (1970)
3. The Sundays (1992)
4. Susan Boyle (2009)
The versions by The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Sundays are amazing. I believe they will go down in history as a couple of the best cover performances of all time. Gram Parsons brings a simple, home-town feel to the song, a feeling that, of all the versions, seems most reflective of the times. The Sundays add a kind of depressed sexiness to the song that aligns them with the aforementioned Cowboy Junkies and paves the way for what English trip-hop trio Portishead has done in subsequent years.

As for Susan Boyle vs. The Rolling Stones, the thing that makes The Rolling Stones original the best is the same thing that makes the Susan Boyle cover the worst. A recent foray into the discography of The Rolling Stones revealed to me why The Rolling Stones are so amazing. Some would give credit to the creativity of Keith Richards, but I would like to suggest that his contribution was rather his ability to mimic his guitar predecessors as witnessed on Beggar's Banquet (1968, Decca) and Exile on Main Street (1972, Rolling Stones). The key ingredient in making The Rolling Stones great has always been the fact that Mick Jagger is not one of the best singers on the planet. As a result his honest, heartfelt openness gives "Wild Horses" something that Boyle's foray into professional singing cannot. While her piano arrangement is interesting and timely, it's Boyle's skillful singing that, in this case, works against her.

Britain's Got Talent? Of course they do. That's where The Rolling Stones hail from.

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