Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry famously described cover versions as the “found objects” of recording art, ready-mades as it were, for the musician(s) to attach their name like Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal sculpture. Sadly, many cover versions end up also as filler or as lazy statements of hero worship.
There is also another curious aspect to cover versions which is when they cross borders and enter into another culture or language. This can often be amusing as well as insightful, especially when the song “belongs” so closely to a particular artist or country.
One man who should know more than any other about cover versions is Frenchman Claude François. Born in Egypt to Italian and French parents he has the sad notoriety of having died in his bathtub at the age of 39 trying to straighten a loose light bulb. In 1967 François and Jacques Revaux penned a hit called "Comme d’habitude" (“As usual”). However, it took a re-write from Paul Anker, in English, to transform the song into “My way” immortalised by Frank Sinatra, but apparently the most covered song of all time (my bet would have gone for the Beatles “Yesterday”). Famous interpreters include Elvis, Shirley Bassey, U2 and Robbie Williams and more. The most infamous version is perhaps Sid Vicious from the Sex Pistols, although the loudest (available) version is by French death metal group Mütiilation.
But Claude François is no stranger to covering songs himself, having filled his albums and sets with a vast array of “ready made” tracks throughout his short carrer. Perhaps one of the most unusual of all of these is his 1977 hit “Je vais a Rio” (“I go to Rio”) which was a cover of the hit originally penned by Peter Allen and Adrienne Anderson, which became the former’s signature song. The two videos are also fascinating, with the lonely Allen nonetheless enjoying himself while performing a striptease, whereas the plucky François lives the Fench stereotype by wooing a bevy of beautiful and busty women. Importantly here, François also sports a lovely mullet haircut not far away from that worn by Johnny Farnham (see below).
And speaking of covering famous Australian hits, I am reminded of a bus journey I had many years ago in the centre of Greece. Something on the radio caught my ear. At first I didn’t recognise it for the language, but once the chorus broke it became clear what it was: a Greek cover version of John Farnham’s “You’re the voice”, originally penned by Andy Qunta, Keith Reid (of Procol Harum fame), Maggie Ryder and Chris Thompson (ex Manfred Mann) in 1986 and released on John Farnham’s massive “Whispering Jack” album. The original video does nothing to dispel the myth that all Australian men had mullets during the 80s and that there is a reason why bag pipe solos aren´t often used in popular music.
Greece (X factor) version (starts around 1 minute)
John Farnham original: