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The Beautiful South were one of my favourite groups in the first few years of the 1990s. I’ve already written on these pages a number of times about how I wrote all my first year university papers to their third record, 1992’s “0898”. So of course when their fourth album hit the shelves here in Canada in 1994, I was right there to purchase a copy of the CD. I noticed a big difference in the sound right away. Gone were the shrill, childlike backup vocals of Brianna Corrigan, who I later learned left the group before recording sessions began, and these were replaced by the richer hued voice of Jacqui Abbott.
This change was most evident on track four, “Miaow”’s second single, a cover of “Everybody’s talkin’”, on which she took on lead vocals and the inimitable Paul Heaton slid to backup duties. I recognized the track from the first listen because it was super faithful, in sound and in feeling, to one my father enjoyed and that would see the volume pumped up in the car whenever it made the appearance on oldies radio. I’m talking about Harry Nilsson’s version, of course, which I thought until recently was the original. It was his cover that made the song what it is, its appearance on the “Midnight cowboy” soundtrack giving Nilsson his biggest hit. It was a jangling and rambling yearning to be somewhere, anywhere but there, exhausted but hopeful, not letting all the talking heads get you down. It’s the kind of song that rings true with musicians and songwriters, which is likely why it’s been covered by hundreds* of artists.
I only learned that it was originally written and recorded by folk singer/songwriter Fred Neil a few years before Nilsson did it when I sat down to write this post a week or so ago. I had to change tack for obvious reasons but I loved learning about how this songwriter I’d never heard of wrote this classic tune and recorded it in only one take just so that he could finally go home. His original is austere, hints at plucking and strumming, a shadow and inference of the fuller sound we are used to with the many covers. It’s good, perhaps even great, it’s just not what I’m used to.
In closing, I’m realizing that I may not have made such a strong case for The Beautiful South version but I do very much love it. It’s always made me happy. So I can’t in conscience pick the original here but I’m definitely curious to check out Fred Neil’s other work.
*One of these was the lovely, mellow rendition by Luna, which I also considered including on this list.
For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.