East Doncaster, 1976
It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong – Voltaire.
Everything in music depends on context: Just like how note values depend on staves, like instrumentation and arrangements are shaped by shifts in culture, and how every song is white noise without an underlying bed of silence.
David Bowie’s album Pin Ups contains a cover version of The Easybeats’ Friday on My Mind. Indeed, every song on this LP is a cover. But when this 14-year-old first heard this record, he assumed they were all Bowie compositions. And here comes the heresy that Voltaire alludes to: To these ears, these covers trump the originals. Here Comes the Night, See Emily Play and, yes, even Bowie’s recording of Friday on My Mind, are the superior versions.
For that last statement alone, I should be hung, drawn and quartered. Run out of the country with my citizenship revoked. Subject to some sort of cultural Royal Commission.
[My bewigged inquisitor clears his throat and the rest of the panel stand to solemn attention]…
“Stephen Andrew, you have stated that David Bowie’s version of Friday on My Mind is superior to [He pauses for effect] The Easybeats’ version of Friday on My Mind. Are you serious in your claim? How do you justify such an outrageous declaration?”
Well, your Honour, I’m back in my teenage mate’s house in the tame wilds of East Doncaster listening to a borrowed copy of Pin Ups. It’s a revelation. The sleeve is alluring, confusing and stunning. Bowie and Twiggy, both topless, made up and masked, stare right at us with intense, androgynous, indecipherable expressions. They appear to want something from us, but what? We are desperate to discover whatever is going on behind those faces.
So we listen. Really listen. We listen in a way and with a level of engagement we will find impossible to muster when we get older. We are pursuing, stalking and hunting down the music. Sometimes we listen so intently that we just sit, cross-legged on the floor, and gaze fixedly at the speakers. We’re so open to it all it’s no wonder that Friday on My Mind made such an impression.
As we listen we hear a glorious, glam, double-tracked attack; instruments in piercing unison. The band are fantastic, the playing frenetic and the end of most songs are bolted onto the beginning of the next. To draw breath one has to gasp. It doesn’t sound like a collection of songs written by a bunch of different writers. It sounds like one long, tailored song-suite of razor-sharp coherence.
I bet the Germans have a single word to describe… the way an initial impression of a song can imbed and impress itself on one’s consciousness with such intensity that any version heard subsequently, even if it’s the original rendering, is bound to sound like a pale and inferior imitation. The initial experience creates and becomes the genuine article. Context conquers content.
The Easybeats, to me back then, were unheard of; possibly some sort of simple tool to prepare vegetables, or maybe a lowly ranked sports team. Or not. I didn’t have a clue. And, who knows, maybe I still don’t. Nowadays, I could sing you two dozen Easybeats tunes that I love and hold close to my heart. But their version of Friday on My Mind isn’t one of them as it will always sit in second place to Bowie’s cover. By necessity.