Cover Versions of #1s – Nick Cave & The Villagers

The final two covers for the week, and we’re slowing the pace, ending on a chilled note…

‘The Carnival Is Over’, by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – 1986 album track

(Originally a #1 in November 1965, by The Seekers)

I didn’t have much positive to say about The Seekers’ two 1965 #1 singles, the second of which was the dirgey ‘The Carnival Is Over’. But if you want someone to take a dirge, and make it even gloomier, yet make it completely their own, then look no further than Nick Cave. Based on an old Russian folk song, and given some sixties-folk lyrics by Dusty Springfield’s brother Tom, it sold a million for Australia’s biggest band of the decade. Fellow Aussie Cave and his Bad Seeds recorded it for a covers album twenty years later – ‘the song sort of haunted my childhood’, Cave has been quoted as saying. (Until five minutes ago, I had no idea that Boney M had also recorded a version… And I had no idea that Boney M had ever sounded so miserable. Nobody can make this tune sound fun!)

‘The Wonder of You’, by The Villagers – 2017

(Originally a #1 in July 1970, by Elvis Presley)

Despite being described as an ‘indie-folk project’ on their Wikipedia page, and despite it sounding ready made for a Starbucks playlist, I have liked this version of ‘The Wonder of You’ by The Villagers ever since hearing it on the soundtrack to HBO series ‘Big Little Lies’. It is the polar opposite of Elvis’s bombastic version – lo-fi and intimate, with just a hint of old-style rock ‘n’ roll around the edges. In the show, it soundtracks an abusive husband getting flung to his death down a flight of stairs during an Elvis-themed PTA night at a primary school… (I mean, if that description doesn’t make you want to watch something, then I don’t know what will!)

I hope you enjoyed my second annual cover versions week. Normal service will be resumed in a few days, with our 377th chart-topping single.

206. ‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers

Another dose of easy-listening, faux-folk from Australia’s biggest band? (That wasn’t a question – you’re getting it whether you like it or not.)

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The Carnival Is Over, by The Seekers (their 2nd and final #1)

3 weeks, from 25th November – 16th December 1965

I just about managed to see the positive side of The Seekers’ first number one, ‘I’ll Never Find Another You’, for all it’s tweeness. But I think I’ll have to draw the line here… The term ‘dirge’ has cropped up once or twice in recent entries – The Beatles experimented with it in the background on ‘Ticket to Ride’, while ‘I Got You Babe’, for all its cuteness, was propped up with a pretty flat bass rhythm. ‘The Carnival Is Over’, though, is A Dirge, plain and simple.

The beat plods, the backing vocals are lifeless. You can almost picture the coffin being lowered into the ground. You start wishing they’d just get on with it… Say goodbye, My own true lover, As we sing, A lover’s song, How it breaks it my heart to leave you, Now the carnival is gone… Judith Durham, the lead singer, is once again on fine Sunday school teacher round the campfire form. Don’t get me wrong, she sings it very well; but it’s painfully proper.

It’s a song about two lovers, Pierrot and Columbine. Has Columbine fallen in love with a traveller? A handsome stranger who set up camp for a week or two? It’d have to have been a sailing carnival, thanks to the line about ‘harbour lights’… So maybe not. Or is ‘the carnival’ a metaphor for love, a love that’s no longer? Though the carnival is over, I will love you ‘till I die…

This record follows the same formula as The Seekers’ first #1, in that it was written and produced by Tom (brother of Dusty) Springfield. The melody was borrowed from an old Russian folk song, and once you learn that you think ‘Yes!’, this tune would make complete sense when bellowed out by a sturdy serf, gathering hay on the steppe. Not so much as a hit single in 1965. Yes, yes, yes it’s part of the folk-rock movement that’s become huge this year, but it’s a spectacularly lifeless song. You just want to shake them by the shoulders and tell them to liven it up a bit.

Apparently Springfield was inspired to write the lyrics after seeing the Rio carnival. Which seems hard to believe, as this record doesn’t exactly scream samba and piña coladas on the beach. In the bridge, there is an attempt at livening things up, with a nifty Spanish guitar riff. But that’s it. Plus the bridge also has a line about kisses ‘sweet as wine’, which is a metaphor I’ve never understood, what with most wines not being sweet at all. It should be ‘sweet as sherry’ is all I’m saying.

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And so we plod to a close. That’s that for The Seekers at the top of the UK charts. They would have three further Top 10 singles before splitting in 1968. They’ve reformed twice since then, and still perform to this day, minus Durham who retired in 2013. They were huge in their homeland, and were even voted ‘Australians of the Year’. I can see why, too, what with US and UK acts dominating since the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, it’s always nice to feel a local connection to a successful artist.

One more thing to say about ‘The Carnival Is Over’ – it was a spectacularly high-selling record. Late 1965 seems to have been a high point for record sales as, after Ken Dodd’s ‘Tears’ had become the 3rd best-selling single of the decade, this disc also did well over a million. At last count it was sitting at No. 30 in the best-sellers of all time list. Not bad for a dirge. I’m clearly in the minority…

188. ‘I’ll Never Find Another You’, by The Seekers

For the first time in a good nine months – since The Four Pennies’ bland ode to ‘Juliet’ – do we arrive at a #1 single that I have never heard before. This is how it used to be, of course, in the pre-rock days – before rock ‘n’ roll came along, with all those famous songs in tow. Almost every post was a step into the unknown…

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I’ll Never Find Another You, by The Seekers (their 1st of two #1s)

2 weeks, from 25th February – 11th March 1965

Speaking of rock ‘n’ roll, and the fifties and all that… The opening chords of this latest chart-topper sound a lot like ‘La Bamba’. A mellower, more folksy version of the Ritchie Valens hit to be sure, but they’re there. It’s a promising opening… that lasts until the singers open their mouths…

There’s a new world somewhere, They call the promised land, And I’ll be there someday, If you could hold my hand… Several earnest, fresh-faced voices chime together. I’m getting strong Christians-round-a-campfire vibes… I still need you there beside me, No matter what I do, For I know I’ll never find another you… Or maybe proto-hippies, the first feelers of a movement that will go full-on mainstream in a couple of years? The lyrics sure do sound like they could be about joining a commune (‘The promised land’?)

Not quite. This record is, though, our first slice of sixties folk-rock. The gentle guitars, the clear vocals, the tambourine that gets a good shaking in the background… It’s a genre that I don’t think was ever quite as popular in the UK as in America, where Peter, Paul and Mary, The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel and, of course, Bob Dylan were big, big stars. But we’d had fair warning of it – remember back in 1961, when the collegiate folk band The Highwaymen scored a surprise #1 with their version of ‘Michael’ (Row Your Boat etc. etc.)? They were from across the pond, too.

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I’m not convinced by this song, to be honest… There’s something a bit cloying about it, a bit happy-clappy. And the lead singer – Judith Durham – sounds kind of like a Sunday school teacher gone rogue. Plus the lyrics don’t really go anywhere – it’s just a long list of what she can do with her man by her side… When I walk through the storm you’ll be my guide… and I could lose it all tomorrow, And never mind at all… etcetera and so on. It’s not terrible; but it’s the worst number one for a while. Probably since ‘Juliet’, the last chart-topper that I’d never heard of… And in its defence, we’ve just enjoyed the highest-quality run of #1 singles in British chart-history, and it would be unfair to completely write a record off just because it doesn’t hit the heights of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ or ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.

I am, for example, a sucker for those yearning chords that pop up time and time again in folk-rock. See lines like You’ll be my someone, Forever and a day… Or If I should lose your love dear, I don’t know what I’ll do… The first song I ever loved – I’m reliably informed, as I was too young to remember – was ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’, which I would sing anywhere and everywhere as a toddler, driving everyone around me to the edge of insanity. And ‘Puff’’s got plenty of those yearning, minor-key chords in it. Who knows – maybe I’m a folky at heart?

Of course, all that stuff I just spouted about ‘I’ll Never Find Another You’ being an all-American slice of hippyish folk is undone by the fact that The Seekers were Australian, and that the song was composed by British songwriter Tom Springfield (brother of Dusty – who keeps cropping up via other people’s songs – when will she appear on her own merits?) But hey. It sounds American, and was definitely influenced by American folk-rock artists of the day, so we’re claiming it for the Yanks.

To finish, I’ll return to the pre-rock days that I mentioned at the start of the post. Back then, as Vera Lynn, Dickie Valentine, Winifred Atwell et al were jostling for attention at the top of the charts, the word I reached for more often than most was ‘twee’. And that’s what this is: the twee-est number one single we’ve had in a long time. Altogether then, grab the marshmallows and back round the campfire for another singalong!

Catch up with this handily compiled playlist!