Cover me badly: The Ronettes ‘Be my Baby’

It’s no coincidence that motown (-ish) songs of the 60s are amongst the most covered songs in history and yet, the originals (or the endless cover-versions in that time-frame) hardly ever pale in comparison to the endless strain of interpretations by the most known and skilled of modern artists. It was a different time and there was a clarity to the music and execution that a lot of the cover versions unfortunately don’t share (even though there was often the pomp of orchestral background, the vocal delivery was precise and far from the pretentious exercises that artists like Mariah Carey introduced to the music scene).

That’s why they are so great – there’s a great melody that is not buried under vocal trailings, there are very strong voices (so incredibly strong that modern RnB – especially by male artists – for a very long time suffered from whistly breaths instead of the self-assured voices of Sam Cooke and Co) and there is a way of orchestrating that is pretty grand but hardly ever over the top (that, most RnB producers left to the less skilled producers who copied this style for the segregation-loving audience).

“Be my Baby” was originally performed by the Ronettes and written by the infamous Phil Spector along with songwriter duo Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry (you’ll find that quite a few of your favourite songs of that time were usually written by a female/male-songwriter duo). This song is layered like a wedding cake and I guess that the production team and especially the sound editor went crazy over it but it’s not overlayered (like, for example, Meat Loaf’s early 90s phase of cheesing all hell out of Rock and Roll). It’s a lovely song, especially if you can exclude all pop-cultural associations* and lo and behold, Darlene Love and Sonny & Cher provided background vocals for the original recording (mind = blown).

Now, I won’t get into the hundreds of cover versions of the song, in fact, I am only writing this because only recently I heard a version that is the perfect example of what’s wrong with a lot of modern cover versions (I actually wrote about it before but let me drive this point home again).

People, this is not how you do a cover song. You don’t spit in the face of the songwriters by transforming the melody so much that only the lyrics hint at the original. You just don’t. And there is so much of this going on nowadays, it makes me mad. Sure, a playful cover version that rearranges this and that is amazing and that even a highly altered interpretation can add to the original songwriting has been proven over and over again but this is just butchering a great tune, meandering along and turning a very clear song into bedspreads of sadness that go nowhere. And you can add the fact that way too many great peppy RnB-songs get turned into sad little puddles of misery by indie-bands. Why are you so miserable, indie-bands? What is wrong with you that you can’t feel joy when you listen to Ronnie Spector (aka Veronica Bennett) and instead want to channel funeral marches in your cover version? What went wrong in your life?

*Full disclosure: I hate “Dirty Dancing”. I watched the movie as a teenager and even though I loved the music (and back then, I could fall in love with movies solely for their soundtrack-choices), the movie itself held no appeal for me and the older I got, the worse the movie transformed (I experienced the same with “Pretty Woman”, by the way). It’s not even just a single thing that bothers me, it’s the whole movie, all character motivations, all character backgrounds, the actual lack of a proper story (there is none, there really is none), the very sad attempts at forced romantic moments and the fact that the female teenage character who falls for a much older guy is called – of all names in the world – “Baby”.

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