Marcus Berkmann

The strange potency of bad music

Marcus Berkmann investigates the strong feelings invoked by atrocious cover-versions

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A lesson is learnt. Good music, as we hear it, tends to be ours and ours alone. But bad music is everyone's: we all suffer together. Last month I related the harrowing tale of a recent family holiday in St Ives, where my girlfriend and I, while not buying beach balls in a tourist-tat emporium, happened to hear Neil Diamond's singular version of the Hollies' 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother'. With customary lack of restraint, the old schlockmeister transforms a simple pop song into a full-blooded Broadway show-stopper. You have to hear it to believe it. It drips with goo and phoney sentiment. But it's so vile you can't ignore it. My girlfriend and I stood and listened all the way to the end, while our small children created havoc in the multicoloured-bucket-and-spade section.

And I have to admit, it got me thinking. There's so much mediocre music around – vast oceans of the stuff, pouring out of pubs and restaurants, turned up full on TV ads, blighting films and documentaries and my street in north London (which has become a rat-run for morons with expensive car-stereo equipment) – but genuinely bad music is a much rarer beast. It's more distinctive; it's many times more memorable. Put it this way: Diamond's version of 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother' has stuck with me ever since, to the extent that some time soon I may actually be compelled to buy it.

So I opened the discussion to Spectator readers. What's the worst cover-version of a decent song you have ever heard, by an artist or artists who should have known better? I disallowed records by the likes of Westlife, who mutilate good songs as though commissioned by Beelzebub himself. They know no better, and their perma-tanned managers become billionaires on the proceeds. No, I had in mind real singers and real bands, who probably thought what they were doing had real merit. Neil Diamond sounds so pleased with his rendition you can imagine him hanging his head at the end, waiting for the applause. (A tomato on the snoot would have been more appropriate.) I had about 80 emails and letters, many of them long and closely argued. People feel strongly about this. They suffer together.

A dozen people, for instance, nominated Paul Young's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. Ian Curtis of Joy Division recorded the original, which was about the disintegration of his teenage marriage. Not long afterwards, he committed suicide. Paul Young's weedy, shallow reading a few years later might have sent a few listeners over the edge as well. With horrible synthesised drums and a gloopy bass (probably played by someone with rolled-up jacket sleeves), this gutless travesty lay in wait for anyone who unwittingly bought that first album. Where is Paul Young now? I heard that his mullet had been saved for the nation, but let's hope that his records haven't.

Another lesson to be learnt from this exercise: nothing ever changes. Bad cover- versions are as old as pop music itself. Several correspondents nominated Elvis Presley; someone had it in for Peggy Lee; while Charles Verrall still hasn't forgiven Cilla Black for 'Anyone Who Had A Heart' and 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling': 'How I rejoiced when the Righteous Brothers leapfrogged her to the top of the charts.' Rupert Morgan had a good one: Frank Sinatra's swinging demolition of 'Mrs Robinson', which comes close to invalidating the rest of his remarkable career.

A common factor in atrocious cover-versions seems to be a complete lack of understanding of what the song is about and what the songwriter is trying to do. Chris Holmes nominates Willie Nelson's 'Graceland', one of Paul Simon's most personal songs (which is saying something). 'But Nelson charges in... it makes me want to take my gun and track down whoever had the idea.' People feel strongly about this sort of thing. Simon Banton believes that Duran Duran should have been tried at The Hague for their version of Grandmaster Flash's 'White Lines'.

Some nominations are obvious. Michael Bolton's 'When A Man Loves A Woman'. The grim terror that was Phil Collins's 'You Can't Hurry Love'. Simply Red's 'Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye', which was the main reason, I remember, that I didn't buy their greatest hits.

What tempts singers to such follies? Dolly Parton recently had a go at 'Stairway To Heaven' – an obviously disastrous move after Rolf Harris's definitive interpretation. But perhaps we should forgive Dolly, who has endured a long and difficult life. As well as the plastic surgery and the vast number of unemployable relatives who rely on her for their crust, she has had to suffer Whitney Houston singing 'I Will Always Love You'. Dolly's original was delicate and touching. The Human Foghorn's version blighted the lives of millions. There can be no forgiveness.

Other nominations lean towards the obscure. Paul Brummell suggests 'Twist And Shout' by the Mamas and the Papas. 'Twist And Shout', of course, is best remembered as a high-octane floor-filler. 'The Mamas and the Papas reinvent it as a low-voltage hippie number. They sound as though they are just waking up.' He also recommends Mungo Jerry's 'Sur Le Pont D'Avignon': 'with Ray Dorset exclaiming "Everybody's dancin'!" by way of a chorus.'

There are serial offenders. 'I would like to nominate Bob Dylan covering Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer",' writes Dominic Marsh, explaining that the old groaner 'double-tracked his voice in order to sing both vocal parts slightly out of tune'. It's very funny, and you can find it, along with other suggested tracks from his awful Self-Portrait album, on

Even more frequently nominated was Bryan Ferry, for Lesley Gore's 'It's My Party' (which, according to Guy Walters, 'made him sound like the Alison Steadman character in Abigail's Party'), for 'Amazing Grace' on Taxi ('so bad as to be mesmerising,' says Stuart Mott), and three times for 'Sympathy For The Devil', which I am certainly going to have to hunt out. One song, 'Nobody Does It Better' from the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me, was nominated in two different versions: one by Julie Andrews, the other a live bootleg by Radiohead. Which pretty much sums the whole thing up.

My thanks to everyone who wrote to me, and the winner of the new Grandaddy CD is Mark McLaughlin, whose loathing of Paul Young's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' made me laugh out loud. And the most nominated song? None other than Madonna's emetic 'American Pie', chosen by 15 correspondents. The old trout wins another prize. Never has she deserved one more.