Monday, 20 July 2015

Odd Songs #001: Bette Davis Eyes (She's Got...Greta Garbo Stand Up Thighs)

She's got Bette Davis Eyes:

(The Kim Carnes version from 1981 is the hit version and the one that most people will know; I think it's the definitive version, too, although the original by Jackie DeShannon is really interesting for other reasons, of which more later).

I've thought about this song an uncommon amount of times this year, for some reason (there was a cover version by Kylie on the radio a few months back for some charity thing, I think that might have been the initial reminder). Not that a reason is needed, it's a fantastic song. Anyway, the aforementioned line - "she got...Greta Garbo stand up thighs, she got Bette Davis eyes" has been one of my favourites out of all Pop for ages now and it turns out that I've misheard it all along. It'll just have to be my favourite mondegreen from now on.

The actual line is "She's got Greta Garbo's standoff sighs, She's got Bette Davis eyes", according to all the lyric sites and listening to the song again, I'm not sure how I've misheard it all these years. Coincidentally, I heard the Jackie DeShannon version earlier this year and it turns out there's another line - "She's precocious, and she knows just, What it takes to make a pro blush" - that has changed from the original, too ("what it takes to make a crow blush" as originally written, must either have been mistranscribed or deliberately changed when Kim Carnes came to record her version).

As the song has a lot of great lines, I wondered if there were any other changes from the original. So, to YouTube!

Here's the original version, written by Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon, performed by Jackie DeShannon in 1974 (brace yourself if you've not heard this before, it's musically very different to the Kim Carnes version, although fans of polka piano are in for a treat):

Jackie DeShannon definitely sings "Greta Garbo's standoff sighs" too. Damnit. Sorry Jackie, I think my line is better.

As for the "what it takes to make a crow blush", on consulting the authority that is Wikipedia, it's an old American midwest saying that may not have been familiar to whoever arranged the Kim Carnes version. I don't think I buy that story, I think it's much more likely that it was deliberately changed.

I say that because I'd've done the same. The original line, although I'd not heard it before, does make sense in the way these folk sayings do; it will be hard to tell if a crow is blushing, because it is already jet black (well, that's my interpretation). But in the context of the song - "she's pure as New York snow", "she'll tease you", "she'll unease you", "she's precocious", and so on - "what it takes to make a pro blush" is more apt. It fits the atmosphere of the song better.

I think Kim Carnes voice lends "make a pro blush" a real earthiness and I reckon that was why it was changed; it sounded better and would make perfect sense to listeners.

It's all around a great job as cover versions go. It's recognisably the same song, but the arrangement is so radically different that it's virtually a rewrite (Bill Kuomo, who wrote and played that distinctive synth line on the Kim Carnes version, should have got a part songwriter credit if you ask me). It's the very exemplar of how to do a cover version. Well done Kim! (and all others involved etc. etc.)

What other covers are out there, I wonder? Well, there's the afore-noted Kylie version:

A perfectly workable hi-NRG version, but it's obviously a cover of the Kim Carnes arrangement (including the distinctive synth line). Also to be noted: Kylie seems to have be inhaling helium in parts of this song. Hey, I'm not judging, just sayin'.

Taylor Swift does a version (to be honest, I think Taylor Swift can do anything if she wants to - it'll turn out she's some sort of superpowered alien or something):

Here she is doing a live version (well, that's what the audio is, dunno what significance the still picture has) and it is of course another cover of the Kim Carnes version. Someone must've gone back to the original, surely?

But what's this? HOLD THE PHONE! Alvin and the Chipmunks do a cover:

Well, that was as awful as expected. What was the fucking point of that, Alvin? That was just a straight speeded-up version of the Kim Carnes arrangement with even sillier voices than on the Kylie one. It actually sounds a bit sordid and creepy, especially Alvin's singing on the last few fading lines.

Seems there's someone called Dean Ray. Yeah, news to me. Anyway, he was on the Australian X-Factor and he looks a bit "rock" (black leather jacket, rock hair, plays own guitar). I wonder what his take on the song will be?

Oh. He just does the synth bit on acoustic guitar. Some unnecessary vocalising. Actually this might be even creepier than the Chipmunks' version.

There's loads more covers; Brandon Flowers has been doing it at gigs for ages and there's seemingly a never-ending stream of self-recorded sensitive acoustic people that I've never heard of having a go at it. But hang on...

...Gwyneth Paltrow does a version??

Actually that wasn't bad. Nothing new in terms of adding to the (Kim Carnes) arrangement, but a decent enough vocal. I can't tell if her mis-timing the first line is deliberate or not, maybe that was part of the performance (in whatever film this was) or maybe she genuinely did just start half a beat too early.

Seems nobody uses the Jackie DeShannon arrangement at all now, though, which is a bit of a shame. Even the piano covers are covers of the Kim Carnes arrangement. Well, apart from this one, I don't think it's based on anything in either arrangement:

That's called the Aphex Twin approach to cover versions, I think.

Anyway, enough of Bette Davis and her eyes for now. It's made a nice change to write about something light. Yeah, gonna do some more stuff like this. Don't worry, you don't have to read it.

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