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The life of a song begins with its conception, gestation and birth, and for some this can be long and painful: it took Leonard Cohen an elephantine two years to complete “Hallelujah”. Other songs seem to pop, almost fully formed, into their creators’ minds: Gary Barlow has said that the Take That hit “Back for Good” took him 15 minutes to write, while Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” famously came to him in a dream. Likewise “Always On My Mind” was dashed off by American country musician Wayne Carson at his kitchen table in 10 minutes (though he had some help later with the bridge from Mark James and Johnny Christopher).
That was in 1971; since then, more than 300 artists have covered this simple, achingly poignant and instantly memorable song, with its immaculate lyrical couplets (“Should have/could have”; “Hold you/told you”).
This alone is testament to the potency of Carson’s composition. But the song has another kind of power: it has survived the stress-testing process of being covered in radically different genres — among them unadorned country, power-balladry and electropop.
The first versions were recorded in 1972 by Brenda Lee who played it straight as a country-pop song, and Gwen McCrae (wife of George “falsetto” McCrae), who brought a soulful quality to her vocal performance. Then along came Elvis. Recorded in March 1972 at RCA’s Hollywood studio, Elvis’s version took “Always On My Mind” to a new level: in a word, it was big — huge, tonsil-rattling vocals, a grandiose strings-and-brass arrangement.
Although it was initially released as the B-side to “Separate Ways”, Presley’s rendition became an instant worldwide hit, its lyrics gaining added poignancy from his recent separation from his wife Priscilla.
And that could have been that, had it not been for Willie Nelson. A decade later he revived the song so successfully — it won him three Grammy awards — that there is now a widespread misconception that he wrote it. Nelson took the song back to its country roots, his almost casual vocal delivery steeped in wistful world-weariness.
Five years later, in 1987, the UK’s ITV television network was planning a programme to mark the 10th anniversary of Elvis’s death. The electro-pop duo, the Pet Shop Boys, chose to cover “Always On My Mind” for the show. Once more, the song displayed its flexibility: over a pulsing high-energy beat and splashing synths, and with singer Neil Tennant’s fey vocals floating across this throbbing wall of sound, their version was a world away from the histrionics of Elvis or the careworn voice of Willie Nelson.
Still, it was a triumph — so much so that the duo recorded it, and later that year the single went on to occupy the coveted Christmas number one slot.
Last year, in a poll conducted by BBC Music, the Pet Shop Boys’ version was voted the “best cover version of all time”. Careful listeners will also notice that the Pet Shop Boys’ version has a twist on the original: at the end of the chorus, they added an extra chord, a B-flat. Tennant said that the chord “makes it far more like a pop song”.
For devastating simplicity, though, perhaps the best rendition of “Always On My Mind” came from Nelson, on the BBC’s Wogan chat show in 1982 (available on YouTube). His recorded version had had a full backing band but here he was on his own, plucking “Trigger”, his trusty, battered nylon-strung guitar, his voice woody and resonant with regret; the perfect man for a perfect song.
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Photographs: Getty Images; Marc Sharratt/Rex Features