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There are two types of cover version, the homage and the takeover. The homage is respectful, even forelock-tugging (think of any of the covers of that sickly secular hymn “Imagine”, for instance) although the subtext is immodest. I too am blessed with greatness, the coverer implies. My version of “Imagine” establishes me as a person of stature and principle. John Lennon’s spirit is safe in my hands.
The takeover is a cover that radically reinterprets the original song. Otis Redding’s “Respect” was a cheerfully sexist R&B number about a salaryman returning home and demanding “respect” from his wife (“Hey little girl, you’re sweeter than honey/And I’m about to give you all my money”) until Aretha Franklin gave it a feminist twist and made it her signature tune. Respect, Redding learnt, is a two-way street.
The covers on Mark Ronson’s album Version are emphatically in the takeover tradition. Ronson, a voguish hip-hop DJ and producer, stretches the original material so far out of shape that it almost ranks as mockery. Radiohead’s “Just” is disconcertingly transformed into a brassy party tune, like a terminal depressive breaking into a funky strut. Coldplay’s “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face” morphs into an acid-jazz instrumental and Britney Spears’ “Toxic” is given a zesty hip-hop makeover.
The most dramatically unfaithful of Ronson’s covers is his version of The Smiths’ “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”. The original is a distillation of everything that made The Smiths great: sublime guitar-playing by Johnny Marr, brilliant lyricism and vocals from Morrissey. It is both arch and affecting, a song that addresses heart and mind alike.
In Ronson’s hands, “Stop Me” is reimagined as a peppy Motown number, with drums pattering out a most un-Smiths-like dance beat and strings adding a kitsch aura of drama to the song’s story of love and betrayal. It is sung by an Australian R&B singer called Daniel Merriweather, whose florid delivery is a world away from Morrissey’s plaintive style. Whereas Morrissey sounds like someone luxuriating in self-pity (“I still love you, only slightly less than I used to,” he sighs), Merriweather comes across as a man in the grip of a grand passion. The ambiguity of the original is lost. It becomes a straightforward love song.
Yet there is a point to Ronson’s cover. By placing “Stop Me” in a tradition of black pop music, he obliquely comments on Morrissey’s views on race and music. “Reggae is vile,” the singer once said; rap music, he added uncompromisingly, is “a great musical stench”. So this soulful takeover of “Stop Me” does what Aretha Franklin did when covering Otis Redding: it demands respect.
■Johnny Marr is at number one in the US charts for the first time. Having failed to find a settled role for himself since The Smiths split up in 1987, the guitarist has joined the band Modest Mouse on their new album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, which is at the top of the album chart this week. Fans of The Smiths hoping for a return to the grace and light of his old work will be disappointed, however. There are delightful touches throughout the album – a soaring riff on “Fire It Up”, a deft, liquid solo on “Florida” – but they are more like cameos than a central element of the songs, whose jerky rhythms and roared vocals rarely allow him the space to take flight.
The cliché of the rock guitarist is of an egotistic monster battling with the singer for ownership of the music. But Marr has always seemed an unshowy, generous musician. He was the perfect enabler for the narcissistic Morrissey, but he is too modest for Modest Mouse.