I just finished Simon Goddard’s The Smiths: Songs That Saved Your Life, an excellent, highly detailed run-through of every song in the beloved band’s catalog. For someone who’s always enjoyed the Smiths but has never been truly obsessed with them, the book opened my eyes to just how much there is to obsess over about in their music: literary references in Morrissey’s lyrics; Motown melodies in Johnny Marr’s guitar lines; the production differences between alternate takes; label conflicts; UK tabloid controversies; internal band strife; and comprehensive concert, radio, and television appearances. I can only imagine the pride I would have had from discovering a single lifted line from one of Morrissey’s favorite plays; being presented with scores of them is both impressive and overwhelming.
This deluge of information encouraged me to touch base with my friend Jon, who does qualify as a Smiths obsessive. After he asked me what my top five Smiths songs are and I opted to hold off answering until I completed the book (at which point I begrudgingly limited myself to “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before,” “Hand in Glove,” “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” and “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”), I posed the same question to him. Naturally, he threw his hands up in the air at the impossibility of answering. But I’ve been friends with Jon long enough to know that “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want,” a b-side for “William, It Was Really Nothing” that later appeared on the compilations Hatful of Hollow and Louder Than Bombs, would make his short list. He’s mentioned his fondness for the yearning, mandolin-accompanied ballad more than any other Smiths song.
Jon’s not alone in his love for “Please…,” one of the most oft-covered songs in the Smiths’ repertoire. When I saw the number of artists cited on Wikipedia who’ve offered their own renditions of the song, a brilliant/terrible idea popped into my head: track down these covers and convince Jon to listen to them with me. Understandably, he approached this project with trepidation—“I’m sorry I ever brought it up, I’m sorry I ever found out about this band, they may have shaped my life and all….”—knowing that it would test his fondness for the song (and perhaps our friendship as well), but fortunately he caved.
A note on the selections: this list is not comprehensive. My foremost apologies to the scores of acoustic guitar renditions floating around YouTube, but two conditions needed to be met for inclusion: either the song has garnered a proper release or the band is familiar enough for us to endure a muffled live recording. An obvious third condition—I must be able to find the cover in short order—excluded big names like the Decemberists, Franz Ferdinand, and OK Go.
Let’s see if enduring the following eighteen covers can make good men go bad. The band name links to the YouTube or MP3 of the song, when available.
The Dream Academy [YouTube]
Who: A decidedly ’80s English folk band (i.e. they had fruity keyboards to go with their acoustic guitars).
Where: An instrumental version was featured in the art gallery scene of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but the Dream Academy released a vocal version of the song as a single back in 1984.
Jon: Morrissey seems more butch now.
They just hit the flanger pedal, which they just bought. If it’s new, it must be good, right?
The song should be ending now.
S: When you were in England, did you step into a lift and hear this version?
J: It’s pretty lame to cover the song the year it came out, right? Did Morrissey ever chime in on this?
S: Yes, Goddard’s book mentions that it was included in the interval tape on the Smiths’ 1985 tour of Scotland. Also, in a 1988 interview, Morrissey said, “I liked the Dream Academy version… Everyone despised it and it got to number 81, which is nearly a hit."
What amazes me about this cover is that no matter how dated Smiths records sound in terms of production values, it could have been much worse in terms of keyboard usage/sounds.
The Halo Benders [YouTube]
Who: A collaboration between the baritone Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening and the noticeably higher register of Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch.
Where: Included as a b-side on their 1995 single for “Don’t Touch My Bikini.”
J: (Audible sound of disgust when Calvin Johnson’s voice comes in.)
Terrible? Terrible. Why should Calvin Johnson be too cool for school on a Smiths cover? Didn’t he try to live out a Smiths video in Portland, Oregon? Don’t you remember that bit from Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life?
S: If you could have a mute Calvin Johnson plug-in, would you like this version?
J: No, this was still before Doug Martsch learned to sing on key. It’s still a terrible version.
Everything that Doug Martsch does, I try to figure out what J. Mascis did ten years earlier. In this case, Dinosaur Jr.’s cover of “Just Like Heaven” wins.
I need to have a cleansing cigarette after that.
S: You’re going to go through a pack and a half.
Who: The nu-metal band who openly enjoy The Smiths, Drive Like Jehu, Hum, and Jawbox, thereby making it acceptable for indie rockers to listen to a nu-metal band.
Where: Originally appeared as the b-side to their first single, 1995’s “7 Words,” subsequently reappeared in a remixed version on 2005’s B-Sides and Rarities and 2011’s Covers LP.
S: I’m waiting for this to get a lot worse, considering it’s from 1995.
J: The shredder pedal on the solo is bad.
S: This is not a crowning achievement of guitar tone.
J: This is what it has going for it: It seems like a true love letter to the song. But the guitars are a problem. The Deftones are a litmus test for people who liked Hum for all of the wrong reasons. I can’t really knock them too hard. The guy’s got an interesting voice.
S: I feel like at the end of this we’ll look at this fondly.
J: (Audible groan)
Who: A long-running Italian pop/rock band that started as contemporaries to The Smiths in 1984, reformed to record this cover in 1997, and then finally called it quits in 2009.
Where: There Is a Light That Never Goes Out – A Tribute to The Smiths, a compilation of primarily Italian bands.
J: Goddamn a wah-wah pedal.
S: Like the Dream Academy version, this underscores why the song should be under two minutes.
J: They make the Dream Academy version sound butch.
Third Eye Blind [.mp3]
Who: A ’90s modern rock band whose ubiquitous singles (“Semi-Charmed Life,” “Graduate,” “How’s It Going to Be,” “Jumper”) haunted alternative rock radio when I was in high school. Singer Stephen Jenkins once compared his group’s independent mindset to Fugazi.
Where: Recorded at their show at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club from October 11, 1997, the height of their infamy.
S: Do you think this guy ever got what he wanted?
J: Blake Schwarzenbach you mean?
Sounds like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
S: They are in Boston.
J: This is clearly the definitive version!
S: It was mercifully short, at least.
Hootie & the Blowfish [.mp3]
Who: The little-known early band from Burger King pitchman Darius Rucker.
Where: One of fifteen cover songs on their 2000 Scattered, Smothered, and Covered album, which revisits the group’s bar-band origins.
S: That’s Hootie’s voice, alright.
J: (Bursts out laughing) Jesus Christ! Even though I don’t hear any drums, I still want to punch the drummer for this. It sounds like a radio DJ singing, just horrible.
S: Are you regretting your decision to participate?
J: (multiple sighs). Jim Neighbors could do a more soulful version of that song.
Who: You know, that British band who sounded like an alt-metal version of Radiohead for a while, then shifted into prog-glam overdrive. Either the greatest or worst band in the world, depending on which of your friends you ask.
Where: Included as a b-side on the second of two CD5s for the double a-side single “Hyper Music”/ “Feeling Good” (2001), the latter of which was elected in 2010 by readers of NME as “the greatest cover song of all time.” A likely story!
J: Thinking of Muse makes me mad I couldn’t get through Guitar Hero 3.
Is this Thom Yorke’s cousin’s band? This song always needed a more muscular version. It sounds like Weezer with a fake Thom Yorke singer.
S: When we complain about the Smiths’ drum sounds, this is what they should have been going for?
J: Well, the production’s better.
Who: An excellent British rock group who also originated in Manchester, England. I’m particularly fond of their sophomore album, 2002’s The Last Broadcast.
Where: Performed the song for BBC’s Re:Covered program(me) in 2002.
J: This band is the Level 42 of today.
S: Why is that drummer doing so much?
J: He’s recording the tracks for the next song. Maybe he’s playing Rock Band.
S: That was a reasonable version. If you like Doves, you’ll be happy to hear this cover.
J: Boring, but not bad.
Vitamin String Quartet [YouTube]
Who: A string quartet that churns out classically arranged versions of songs for practically every artist/group around. Seriously, Dr. Dre, Ke$ha, Saliva, Sum 41, Jet—the list goes on.
Where: 2003’s The String Quartet Tribute to the Smiths, obviously.
J: This version accompanies flowers and a white dress walking down the aisle.
S: I was thinking it would be great for a bris.
J: The EQ with the violin cutting through your eardrums is perfect. It makes me want to go back to the Third Eye Blind cover.
Who: A London-based indie folk group on Matinee Records who released one LP back in 2003 called The World Can Wait (hardly equaling the confident outrage of the Smiths’ The World Won’t Listen).
Where: Included on Matinee Records’ 2004 Smiths tribute album, Romantic and Square is Hip and Aware.
J: This is the problem with the Smiths: they appeal to people who have no balls who also think Morrissey has no balls. “This is my ball-less band.” That’s not Morrissey at all.
S: I nodded off there for a minute. This one lacks both balls and a pulse.
Who: A buzz band from NYC trafficking in ’80s nostalgia whose biggest musical accomplishment was placing a song on The O.C.
Where: The cover-filled soundtrack for Sky High (2005), a live action Disney film about a super-powered high school.
J: I saw Elefant when that dude was dating Lindsey Lohan. Seven people were in the audience and he insisted on berating the closest member to the stage. If any ladies were in the audience and wanted Chlamydia, I bet they got it.
This is going to be good. It’s going to have Jeff Garber production. Tremolo pedal.
S: This guy’s British affectation is beyond irritating.
J: He’s from Enga-land!
S: Every time I hear the mandolin section, I think about how perfect it was the first time around.
J: Oh great, comes around for another chorus. Sounds like the auto-tune was set to “I have a heart and it’s on my sleeve.”
What a bad version for such a good movie!
Who: A contemporary British folk group.
Where: The soundtrack for the widely acclaimed 2006 film This Is England, which explored the skinhead youth culture in England in 1983.
J: This guy won American Idol, right?
S: I have a feeling this is going to be excruciatingly long at 3:43.
J: It’s off-key Sting with asthma.
This is a leftover Gerard Butler cover from P.S. I Love You.
S: Now that dude has some balls.
J: Wait, he’s feeling it now.
S: This is passable and probably fits well in the movie.
Josh Rouse [YouTube]
Who: An alt-country/folk singer.
Where: Apparently on a promo-only disc called Reel to Reel V3.4: Nettwerk Covers (2007).
J: I think PBS gives away his CDs when they have a fundraiser.
S: Wow, his voice is annoying. Too high/reedy.
J: Nobody likes Steve Earle.
S: You know what would make this version better? If Calvin Johnson added baritone vocals in the right channel.
J: I bought this four-track and I’m going to use it!
Amanda Palmer [YouTube]
Who: The lead singer of the Boston-based Dresden Dolls, who play a dark brand of cabaret punk.
Where: Performed at Club Academy in Manchester on October 6, 2008.
J: From the YouTube still, it looks like Amanda Palmer is riding on a hobby horse.
I’d rather watch a Sarah McLachlan commercial for abused animals.
S: This song desperately needed overbearing piano embellishment.
J: At least Meatloaf’s vocal was good when he was dramatic. I want to do a monologue over this about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
She & Him [YouTube]
Who:The pairing of actress/singer Zooey Deschanel and indie folk singer/songwriter M. Ward, otherwise known as the most adorable thing ever.
Where: Part of the soundtrack of Marc Webb’s Smiths-loving 2009 film (500) Days of Summer, which starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel.
S: Jon, tell me your thoughts on (500) DOS.
J: I don’t know if I can give my quick thoughts on that film. [Editor’s note: Jon loathes (500) Days of Summer more than anything since Nothing but Trouble.]
I thought I liked M. Ward a lot but not enough to enjoy this.
S: I’ll give him credit for the instrumental composition of this version, which is one of the best we’ve heard, but her vocal affectation is still too irritating.
J: It’s so precious.
Kaki King [YouTube]
Who: A talented guitarist who’s slowly transitioning from instrumental compositions to more pop-oriented songwriting.
Where: Along with a number of other Smiths covers, it’s part of her live repertoire, and this particular version was recorded at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn on February 9, 2010.
S: At the beginning of this song it looked like she was doing the guitar version of the Doves’ drummer’s over-activity.
J: This is the best version to watch if you want to know how to play this song.
S: She needs to sing louder. This is all guitar.
J: She can belt it, right? Her vocals were barely there on this song. She’s a good guitar player, though. For a girl.
Who: A DC-based band that draws from both layered indie pop and the guitar rock more typical to their home city.
Where: Included on their 2011 Bedbedbedbedbed 12” (which just came out, so no .mp3), a precursor to their upcoming (and downright excellent) Young People’s Church of the Air LP.
S: I like Deleted Scenes, but they have a tendency towards too many production tricks, and this is a good example of that. Nice vocal obscured by stuttering loops.
J: My copy’s all screwed up. Too many pops and clicks. Just a bad encode.
S: Is there anything to this version beyond production tricks?
J: This is pleasing no one.
S: The end is nice. The aesthetic finally went somewhere. I feel like the payoff was worth hearing an eighteenth cover of the song.
Jon: I feel like I’m a better friend now.
Sebastian: That’s entirely true. What versions stuck out for you?
J: Overall I think we’ve learned that “Please, Please, Please” is a bad song to cover. If you took the vocals off the SIANspheric version, it would good. The instrumental version of Dream Academy from Ferris Bueller is fine. The Deftones version is passable, same with the Doves.
S:The Doves is the best straightforward version. I agree with you on the other highlights, as well. In general, I appreciated when bands did something different with the song (SIANspheric, Deleted Scenes in particular) as opposed to a rote folk version.
If we’d done this a few weeks ago, I could have used it to wish you an “Unhappy Birthday.” How long do you think it’ll take before you can listen to the original again?
J: Six months to a year, provided you don’t send me any more covers.