The Original Or The Cover: “Golden Brown”
Most often, the original song is best, but occasionally, a cover gives it a run for its money. This is about figuring that out.
The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” is one of the genuinely great songs. Recorded in 1982, the song by the British punk band is, as one would expect, harpsichord heavy. The song somehow manages to come in at a tight 3:28 while still feeling as though it meanders. The song works as a tribute to either a long-lost love or to heroin -- its author has claimed both -- and really those might not so be different given the enthusiasm and pain associated with each.
The original was released in 1982. It was accompanied by a hilariously awful music video.
Ridiculous visuals aside -- seriously though, music videos from this era reek of, “We have to put SOMETHING on video, but we have to do it very quickly!” -- the song somehow manages to drive hard on a foundation of a dueling harpsichord and keyboard combination, that most traditional of punk instrumentation.
The song has re-emerged from time to time since its original release. Most notably, at least to American audiences, it provided the background for one of the better scenes in 2000’s Snatch, Guy Ritchie’s extremely fun British crime movie. As a harpsichord-heavy track, the song exists as a very excellent curiosity, at least outside of the squarest circles of classical music fandom anyway.
Over the years, it has been covered -- Britain’s Omar did a version that manages to be particularly 1990s and particularly bad, all at once -- but never to any particular level worth listening to a second time, at least until Cage The Elephant made a run at the track on 2017’s Unpeeled. The live concert album predominantly features Cage The Elephant originals but in amongst its fewer covers is a version of “Golden Brown.”
It is an acoustic live version of the song. The band’s effort was supported by a strings section. The band took the fundamentally simple instrumentation of the original and blew it way out, really going all in on the idea that more is more. It is an odd trick which really, genuinely works.
If it seems unfair to compare an original studio version to a live cover version, well, yes, that does seem like the correct conclusion, but the internet is harsh and unforgiving, and we are not doing this experiment in laboratory conditions. So which one is better?
The original is cleaner, sleeker, and weirder. It really cannot be emphasized nearly enough that a (relatively) modern(ish) band not only chose to use a harpsichord in a listenable piece of music but genuinely made it work to incredible effect. That instrument does so much heavy-lifting that it probably asks other dudes at the gym if they even lift. The effect is beautiful and haunting all at once.
The cover is more organic and dirtier, perhaps owing to it being performed live, perhaps owing to the way in which the cover is constructed. Rather than relying heavily upon a single instrument, Cage The Elephant throws everything it can at the track. The result burrows deeper into the soul.
So is there a better version? No. They’re equally good, each in their own way, each one complementing the other, each one a first order earworm*. Is this the coward’s way out? Yes. But there is no reason to choose when any reasonable person can have both.
*All of this hemming and hawing aside, the wailing notes that begin at roughly 2:50 into Cage The Elephant’s performance are my favorite single moment of either version.