You can’t un-remember the shape of lines in famous songs. Try to say “I did it my way” without drifting into Frank Sinatra mode. When you find yourself pausing for a moment after “it“, you’re answering to Frank, not English punctuation. There is no comma. Your memory of the ‘right’ way, Frank’s way, shapes your mouth and your breath.
William Shatner tries, valiantly, to reshape the words of Rocket Man; to give them a conversational feel. But the memory of Elton John’s original tugs William towards it, especially once the music starts up around him. Memory shapes mind. Mind shapes the mouth:
Reverence (or antipathy) for the original, “correct” intonation makes it harder to breathe personality into your own cover version. You find yourself mimicking the original, without intending to, or you try so hard to sound ‘different’ that you lose all emotional honesty.
A cover version should build on the original, respect the original, but be, well, original.
Like this, perhaps:
Maybe it’s not fair to use William Shatner as an example of a performer shackled to the original pattern of a line. After all, as he says: he didn’t rehearse, and never expected the world to see his Rocket Man or to remember it for so long:
Chris Elliott, one step removed from Elton John, is free to play with the words of Rocket Man, stepping in and out of William Shatner’s version easily. Comedy lives in contrast:
This is what Kate said about her musical choices:
“I was really knocked out to be asked to be involved with this project, because I was such a big fan of Elton’s when I was little. I really loved his stuff. It’s like he’s my biggest hero, really. And when I was just starting to write songs, he was the only songwriter I knew of that played the piano and sang and wrote songs. So he was very much my idol, and one of my favourite songs of his was ‘Rocket Man’.
Now, if I had known then that I would have been asked to be involved in this project, I would have just died… They basically said, ‘Would we like to be involved?’ I could choose which track I wanted… ‘Rocket Man’ was my favourite. And I hoped it hadn’t gone, actually – I hoped no one else was going to do it… I actually haven’t heard the original for a very long time. ‘A long, long time’ (laughs).
It was just that I wanted to do it differently. I do think that if you cover records, you should try and make them different. It’s like remaking movies: you’ve got to try and give it something that makes it worth re-releasing. And the reggae treatment just seemed to happen, really. I just tried to put the chords together on the piano, and it just seemed to want to take off in the choruses. So we gave it the reggae treatment. It’s even more extraordinary (that the song was a hit) because we actually recorded the track over two years ago. Probably just after my last telly appearance. We were quite astounded when they wanted to release it as a single just recently.
BBC Radio 1 interview, 14 December 1991
By the way: when you sing a cover: do you want to sing a photocopy of the original? Or do you want to breathe in the original and breathe out your own, personal interpretation of the original? Each type of cover has its place. Homage and development have equal value. It’s your choice
© Sing Better English, 2016