14 June 2009


A few days ago, Paul Witcover blogged something rather odd which he found through YouTube: Luciano Pavarotti and Lou Reed singing a duet of Mr Reed's song “Perfect Day.” You know the song; it's the one from the heroin overdose scene from Trainspotting. Mr Witcover said:

One of the most bizarre collaborations I've ever seen. I seriously thought I was watching some kind of animatronic horror show. Or that the Burger King guy was going to leap into the frame at any second...

As I've mentioned before, these kinds of contrasts are among my favourite things about pop culture. And to that point, there's something else which I stumbled across thanks to Mr Witcover: an advertisement for the BBC featuring “Perfect Day” with a host of famous singers each stepping in to sing a single line. Dig it:

Now having been a teenager in the ’80s, I have vivid memories of how the All Star Pop Song is a seductive but generally bad idea, which Tina Fey just recently mocked on 30 Rock. Yeah, it's overblown, schmaltzy, and just plain weird, but the BBC “Perfect Day” kind of charmed me.

Evidently I'm not alone, as a UK Independent article about the history of “Perfect Day” says ...

The film first appeared on 20 September [1997], deliciously unannounced. There was Lou Reed, looking like a leather jacket, singing the first line of a song that is deeply loved but not widely known. When his voice stumbled, on the suitably antiquated line “Drink sangria in the park”, his place was taken by Bono from U2, defying the critics with the same soulful ease that he brought to the Band Aid record 13 years ago. You wondered if it was a trailer. It just kept you hanging on.


It left you with a warm feeling, and the hope that you might bump into it again (the Sunday Times even printed a transmission schedule, which rather missed the point). Arty but uplifting, subtle yet populist, this was the public-information film for people who don't like public-information films.

The BBC received “a massive response” by post, telephone and — the contemporary clincher, the new touchstone of democracy — e-mail.

At the risk of making too much of a little pop video, it reminded me of one of the best productions of Shakespeare I've ever seen, a rendition of The Tempest. The program listed the actors on one page, the characters on another, without linking the two because the characters were attributed to props: a staff for Prospero, a shackle for Caliban, and so forth. Whichever actor held the relevant prop performed that character, and they handed the props around frequently during the play so that each actor got to squeeze in at least a line or two as each of the major characters. What was fascinating about the performance was that each of the actors did a significantly different interpretation of the characters, so you'd get wise Prospero, egocentric Prospero, absentminded Prospero ... often showing up in the course of a single scene. I don't know how it played for other folks in the audience, but as The Tempest is my favourite of Shakespeare's plays it was a feast for me.

Now allow me to bring in an old observation of mine about the surprisingly thought-provoking documentary The Aristocrats.

Since all of the comedians were telling variations in the same joke, you would see vividly what it was that made each comedian's voice their own.

“Perfect Day by Various Artists” doesn't do that, exactly. You don't get enough of each singer's voice to be brought to a new realization about that voice. But because their voices are so different, as with that performance of The Tempest there's a kind of commentary on the different ways you can read the original song, which then points toward the question of what it means to make a cover version of any famous pop song.

This works because many of the voices are deeply familiar: there are big pop stars like Bono and David Bowie, plus several cool surprises I won't spoil for anyone who's reading but hasn't watched the video yet. So in a single verse those voices bring with them a richer meaning than they could ordinarily hope to express in just a few moments.

Which brings me to Hank Handy's breathtaking “Beatles Mash-up Medley.”

It's a work whose effectiveness depends profoundly on the familiarity of the Beatles. An ordinary mash-up — say, Blondie/The Doors “Rapture Riders” or Storm Large and the Balls doing Abba-Gadda-De-Vida — charms with the craftiness with which it conjoins two different songs into a graceful whole. Handy's “Medley” does something else, shuffling more than 40 songs together, with as many as five songs at a time layered on top of one another. If the source material were anyone less ubiquitous than the Beatles it would devolve into mush, but because practically every chord invokes the memory of the song it came from instead there's a pleasure that comes from having all those songs summoned up for you. So too “Perfect Day:” just a few seconds of David Bowie is enough to stir up the bits of my brains that have Bowie tucked into them.

So then my final thought about that “Perfect Day:” it makes me want Mr Bowie to do an entire album of Lou Reed and Velvet Underground covers right now.

Update: The BBC brings us a sort of a sequel to “Perfect Day”, with the Beach Boys' “God Only Knows”. It has less voices familiar to a geezer like me, but I think that's probably as it should be.

1 comment:

Mom said...

This is my favorite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zslKYY6wECs