Chances are pretty good that if you haven’t heard tell of Cornershop, you’ve likely heard their huge, worldwide hit, “Brimful of asha”, bolstered in large part by the fabulous remix by Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook. The original version of that track appeared on Cornershop’s third album, 1997’s “When I was born for the 7th time”. The album was released just past the apex of the Britpop craze and though neither their sound, style, politics, or ethos necessarily matched up with others from the scene, they were still lumped in with that lot simply because they were there. It was likely thanks to their appearance in the British music magazines I was in the habit of purchasing when I had the coin, and the aforementioned ubiquitous hit, that I purchased the album on CD during my final days of university*. And though I did like a lot of its tracks, it took me a few years to really appreciate what Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres were doing. There was so much going on here – psych, funk, rock, dance, ambient, and traditional Indian music – and the culmination of all this was summed up in this fun cover of The Beatles’ “Norwegian wood (This bird has flown)”.
The original, I’m guessing, needs no introduction. Recorded way back in 1965 for the album “Rubber soul”, “Norwegian wood” is widely considered to be one of the first instances of ‘Raga rock’ and was also highly influential on the burgeoning psych rock movement. The song was written by John Lennon, apparently about an extramarital affair, with contributions from Paul McCartney, its composition inspired by the folk ballads of Bob Dylan. But it all really came together when George Harrison added a touch of sitar, an instrument he had just recently discovered and had started to learn, and all of a sudden, we had our first Western rock song to feature the Indian traditional stringed instrument.
So, in fact, it’s quite compelling that Tjinder Singh, whose band name was a play on the stereotypical vision of Indian immigrants in England, would choose to cover this particular track. Reportedly approved by both Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono, his cover translated the words to Punjabi, upped the sitar focus, and in a sense, whether intended or not, reclaimed the use of the instrument and shone a spotlight on his heritage.
It’s never a fair game to try to rank a cover against a Beatles original but I definitely think Cornershop’s version of this track is worth your time. What are your thoughts?
*”When I was born for the 7th time” eventually wormed its way deeply amongst my favourites of 1997, one of the greatest years for music (in my opinion), and landed on my top ten when I counted them down a couple of years ago.
For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.