Like most people in the music industry, I often get asked what my favourite song is. Of course, there is no definitive answer; comparing songs is pointless and arbitrary, but if I were to make a loose shortlist, this song would be in the running every time. And some, particularly those who know me from my local involvement in music, might find it an unexpected choice.
Why? I have, unjustly, I feel, been branded with this image that I’m not too fond of covers. Without going into too much detail, it came about through a rival promoter, intent on not letting the musical past grow old gracefully, doing their best to cast me in a bad light, to create friction or perhaps from their warped notion of self-aggrandisement that comes from trying to make everyone else look bad. You can imagine how many hours of sleep I have lost over this. (Hint: less than one.) The idea might have stuck, but nothing could be further from the truth.
I will add a caveat that most covers of well-known songs add little to the musical landscape. Still, occasionally they create something magical – Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah, This Mortal Coil’s Song To The Siren, Johnny Cash’s take on Hurt…and this.
But what, for me anyway, makes the lovely Kirsty’s take on the song so great is found in the extended 12″ version, (a cover and a remix…whatever next?) and although I have added the standard single video below, before I go any further, here’s the link so you can fully appreciate what I am talking about.
So, why do I like it so much? (And I will add at this point that I also love the Billy Bragg original.) Well, let me count the ways. It turns a gruff, blokey singer-songwriter tune into a piece of pop perfection. It has the audacity to open with 2 minutes of gracefully groovesome intro. She switched the narrative’s focus, sang it from the girl’s point of view, and even added additional lyrics. (The additional verse is now a permanent feature of the version that the Bard of Barking himself now plays, with a rousing “this one’s for Kirsty” before launching into it.) There are some beautiful arrangements, high-end basslines, shimmering guitars, the textured harmonies. And, as the intro falls into the song proper at around 1m 58s, you can hear the two most perfectly placed notes in the history of pop music.
If you are going to cover a song, this is precisely how transformative, imaginative and deft you should aim to be. If you can’t bring this much joy and revision to a song, perhaps it is best not to bother. Kirsty MacColl’s extended remix of A New England is, for my money, the most perfect pop song ever fashioned. It’s as simple as that.