I love listening to cover songs, especially the ones that are so different from the original.
It’s like experiencing something that is so familiar, and yet so fresh and exciting. Sometimes it’s that sense of confusion that drives my curiosity to explore these cover versions.
Some critics may belittle cover songs arguing that playing other people’s music is less creative than making your own. I don’t see it that way. I see it as a different form of artistic interpretation when the song is performed live with a new rendition instead of a mere emulation.
A couple of years ago, I wrote the post “Same but different” about different covers for one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs “Make you feel my love”.
Today, I’m going to say a few words about another one of my favourites – Sir Elton John’s “Goodbye yellow brick road”.
A cynical hippie
The original was released in 1973. Elton was 26 years old at the time. Though the lyrics, written by Bernie Taupin, give a sense of melancholy and wistfulness, with the upbeat tune and Elton’s refreshing voice, one could imagine Elton’s telling a story of a young heart. A flower power hippie, who had had enough of this world, was seeking to be free from the mainstream life.
When he sings “So goodbye yellow brick road / Where the dogs of society howl / You can’t plant me in your penthouse / I’m going back to my plough”, it feels like as if this cynical fellow’s shouting out loud “Screw you all materialistic capitalists! I have a greater goal in life than this!”
The typical Billy the piano man
The two iconic “Piano Men” performed a duet of the song live 8 years ago in Madison Square Garden in New York. Though both would be considered as the most world-renowned soft-rock pianists/singer-songwriters in pop music history, their performing styles are very different.
As soon as Billy inserted his voice at beginning of the song by singing “When are you gonna come down? / When are you going to land? / I should have stayed on the farm / I should have listened to my old man”, his unique vocal style immediately emerged, and then gradually built up in the next verse “You know you can’t hold me forever / I didn’t sign up with you…”. On top of that, the rhythmic components featured in Billy’s music is distinctive both in his own songs and cover songs. This live performance of Elton’s classic is no exception.
The girl with a broken-heart
I have fallen in love with Sara Bareilles’s cover of this song. Just like Elton, Sara is also a piano-based singer-songwriter. Her piano, down-tempo rendition of this song creates a completely contrasting taste to the original.
Sara’s delivery of the song not only carries a different sense of disappointment towards the high life, but it also stirred up a deep sense of sorrow and loneliness, it is as if she was using her expressive voice to recite an evocative poem to her heartbroken self.
Even Elton once said he was “so blown away” by Sara’s performance of his song. He said, “I’ve never heard anyone sing one of my songs like that…when someone sings your songs they usually copy you and she made it her own…”
If you’re also blown away by Sara’s cover of the song, you may want to check out Sara and Elton’s live duet performance of Sara’s beautiful heartfelt song “Gravity” too. I’m sure you would also “fall another moment into the gravity” of this amazing performance just like I did.
A carefree Aussie
Elton has also praised Australian singer-songwriter Sarah Blasko who performed a cover of this song on Triple J’s Like A Version back in 2006. He also said, “whenever you hear something new that inspires from the young it makes you feel like you want to do that”.
Sarah’s beautiful acoustic rendition somehow reminds me of Doris Day’s “Que Sera, Sera”. Tinged with her Australian accent, Sarah managed to bring out the Australian carefree spirit through her breathy, husky voice and her unique vocal styling.
The harmony between the instrumental and vocal effectively builds up a light and airy feeling, which overpowers the heavy-hearted sentiment described in the lyrics. Especially in the sing-along chorus, where she sings “So goodbye yellow brick road/Where the dogs of society howl / You can’t plant me in your penthouse / I’m going back to my plough…”, it is as if she’s projecting her “Que Sera, Sera” attitude through her singing, telling us that she simply couldn’t care less about life anymore, and she’s decided to leave, whatever will be, will be.
A nostalgic retiree
43 years older, reaching 70 years of age, Elton performed this song again in 2016. For most people, as one gets older, the voice changes accordingly. In this version, though Elton’s aging voice registered lowered than the original, he’s still able to deliver quite an incredible performance.
Just like the original, this version carries a strong sense of cynicism, but unlike the original, the young arrogant Elton has now turned into a grumpy old man, who has experienced all kinds of ups and downs of life, and he’s tired of living.
With his now deep, low voice, Elton cries out “Back to the howling old owl in the woods / Hunting the horny-back toad / Oh I’ve finally decided my future lies / Beyond the yellow brick road”. For him, the purpose of life is no longer about revolving around money and success anymore, he’s yearning to return home, return to his roots, just to live a simple retired life.
Of course, these are just my interpretations about how I feel when I listened to these beautiful versions of the song.
Just as Scottish philosopher David Hume said, “Beauty in things exists in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.” (from Of the Standard of Taste)