Crimes Against Music, No.1: ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ By Joe Cocker
IN 1968, the world of pop music was beginning to fragment, as ‘serious’ musicians were began to establish a new order. This sea change was symbolised by a single Beatles number: ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ – the ‘Ringo song’ from Sgt Pepper. When Joe Cocker released his cover version, the accompanying ad featured a cartoon Starr with a speech bubble that ran: ‘Hey Joe, don’t make it bad… Take a sad song and make it better.’ The contrast between the dapper drummer, pictured in his Carnaby Street clobber, and the wild-looking Cocker could not have been clearer. It was a graphic illustration of the divergent ‘pop’ and ‘rock’ sensibilities that had now emerged.
The Beatles’ version of ‘Friends’ managed to be all things to all people. The underground picked up on the drug references and interpreted the song as a display of countercultural solidarity. The disc jockeys, teenyboppers and mums and dads simply tapped their feet to its catchy tune.
It perfectly demonstrates the levity that prevented Sgt Pepper tipping into pomposity, with the jaunty arrangement and sardonic backing vocals nicely complementing Ringo’s deadpan delivery. ‘What do you see when you turn out the light?’ sing John and Paul knowingly. ‘I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine’, comes the poker-faced reply. The effect is nonchalant, witty, and slightly risqué. Like much of the Beatles’ best work, it has a lightness of touch and an irresistible charm.
Cocker’s version, by contrast, is heavy with a capital ‘H’. In place of playfulness and understatement he offers nothing but blood, sweat and tears. Stand well back as he pumps this diffident slip of a song full of steroids and turns it into the Incredible Hulk. It’s groundbreaking, certainly – but then so is a sledgehammer. And this was just the single: for a master class in overkill, witness the moaning, groaning, nine-minute version performed at Woodstock. This grotesque mismatch between form and content would not be rivaled until the 1990s, when a Janis Joplin sound-alike shrieked ‘whoaaaaaah Bodyfoo-oo-oorm!’ in praise of a sanitary towel. But Joe still wins hands down.
By ‘The Angry Red Tomato’
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