I expect a bit of a kicking here, or at the very least, a couple of sniggers from some of you lot at the back. But I make no apologies for featuring Over The Rainbow on Plain Or Pan. Why should I? For some it’s perhaps considered sentimental, syrupy, sepia-tinted old tosh, forever associated with a film that seemed to be on eternally every Christmas. For the rest of us it’s rightly been placed as the classic amongst classics. The Recording Industry Association of America have it at Number 1 on their Songs Of The Century list. Granted, this list is compiled from a very parochial view of what is considered ‘classic‘ and anyone of us here could easily go through the list and argue its merits or otherwise (No Elvis! No Beatles! No Dylan!) but that would be churlish. Over The Rainbow is there for a reason, that reason being it is an undeniably brilliant song.
It’s most well-known for having been sung by Judy Garland in The Wizard Of Oz. Famously, it was nearly cut from the film, depriving the audience (and Judy) of a bona fide signature tune. Judy’s version is all little girl lost vocals and sweeping strings, pathos pouring out of it like tears from a glass eye. But you knew all that already. What you might not know is that there are even better versions than Judy Garland’s…
In 1959, Sweet Gene Vincent, when he wasn’t recording rockabilly classics tackled Over The Rainbow with a subtlety and touch you might not’ve expected from a recognised rock ‘n roll bawler. All shoop-shoop-shoop brushed drums and understated end-of-the-prom guitar playing, C’Mon Everybody this is most definitely not. I like Gene’s version for his almost-crooned vocals (“skies are bluu-uue!”), but especially for the tinkling keys that play behind it all. It reminds me of the ice cream van on Saltcoats beach. Which is a good thing, obviously.
My absolute hands down favourite version of Over The Rainbow is by another old rock ‘n roll bawler. You may be surprised to learn that Jerry Lee Lewis cut his version not in the ’50s, or ’60s, or even ’70s. It wasn’t until the ’80s that the old Killer had a go at it and unlike a gazillion other tracks from this era, you can’t tell. It sounds like it was recorded onto 4 tracks in Sun Studios or somewhere similar, there’s not a sniff of a drum machine or synthesizer or digital production to it. Which is also a good thing. Jerry brings to the table a lifetime of guns, gals and no regrets and his clip-clopping version is just about as sublime as it gets. Jerry’s reverb-drenched phrasing (a bit like Bob Dylan’s more recent vocal approach if you’re interested), his loose, funky, bluesy piano playing, replete with those trademark sweeps up and down the ivories, the James Burton-esque guitar riffing, the pseudo-gospel choir, the just-on-the-right-side-of-soppy string arrangement…..I could listen to this version all day long. And I think I just might.
Shhh! The Trashcan Sinatras sneaked their version onto the end of their Zebra Of The Family compilation LP. Fearing heavyweight publishing bills and more visits from wee men seeking money they didn’t have, they thought it best to leave it uncredited and to limit it to no more than 20 seconds long. Terrific, late night/early morning at Shabby Road feel…
Next time on Plain Or Pan. Some Stooges. Or Motorhead. Or Husker Du. Or maybe not.