Sunday, 16 March 2014

50 songs to take to my grave - #5: Different Drum

As I've said plenty of times, I'm a sucker for a great tune, and today's song has one of the finest melodies ever written. I mean seriously: What. A. Tune! It's also one that has been covered numerous times and while I can't claim to have heard all of them (or even most of them), I've yet to hear a really bad one. That, to me, is also a sign of a great song - one that is very difficult to do poorly.

Interestingly, my least favourite version of Different Drum is the original. Penned by Mike Nesmith (the Monkee with the hat), it was first recorded by bluegrass band the Greenfriar Boys in 1966. The true potential of the song however, wasn't unlocked until the following year.

The original felt melancholic, and when folk band the Stone Poneys, fronted by a young Linda Ronstadt, initially played it, it took the Greenbriar Boys version as its foundation. However, a new arrangement was concocted in the studio by producer Nick Venet and a group of session musicians. Ronstadt, who admitted to finding the new arrangement confusing, turned in a blinding vocal nonetheless and the song became a huge hit. To this day, when people talk of Different Drum, it's often referred to as a Linda Ronstadt song; hers is regarded as the definitive version.

The song's writer Nesmith recorded his own version in 1972, but it failed to live up to the Stone Poneys rendition, preferring instead to adopt an acoustic folk-country vibe. Subsequently, it has been taken on by all and sundry: soul legend PP Arnold did a lush strings-drenched rendition, while country singer Skeeter Davis, punk supergroup Me Too & the Gimme Gimmes, ex-Replacements singer Paul Westerberg, indie slackers the Lemonheads and 80s pop icon-turned-freak Pete Burns all gave it a go too.

My favourite version though was released in 2006 by Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs. Their first album together, 'Under The Covers Vol. 1' was a collection of cover versions of songs from the 60s. The standouts for me were their takes on the Zombies' Care of Cell #44 and, of course, Different Drum.  The harmonies are fantastic and Susie's voice is one to rival Ronstadt's. This song shines so bright when it's done well, but Matthew and Susanna add a real sparkle to the shine with the vocal harmonies that were lacking in earlier versions.


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