Cover Me: Elton John & Two Rooms (Elton John Cover Compilation)

Cover Me: Elton John & Two Rooms (Elton John Cover Compilation)

Back in 1991, an album called Two Rooms was released.   It was a tremendously successful compilation "celebrating the songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin (Elton's co-songwriter for many, many years)."  The album was so successful, it spawned countless imitators in the genre.  The trend of cover albums still goes on today.  In Two Rooms, artists ranging from Eric Clapton to The Beach Boys to Hall & Oates covered John/Taupin songs.  Which were better - the originals or the covers?

Cover Me: Elton John & Two Rooms (Elton John Cover Compilation)

The album featured 16 songs, opening with Eric Clapton's version of "Border Song" and closing with George Michael's version of "Tonight."  Some versions were great.  Some have become merely relics of 1991 (i.e. Wilson Phillips and "Daniel" and Oleta Adams "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me").  Below, we'll go through the album from start to finish, playing the cover first.  Then we'll play either Elton's original version or a superior Elton version, like "Tonight" from his live Melbourne Symphony album.  Let us begin, yes?

1.  "Border Song" 

What do you think?  Here you have the same song, yet they sound almost completely different.  Clapton turned a Gospel-tinged tune into a New Orleans-style funk fest, complete with horns and bluesy piano.  

Grade: A+

2.  "Rocket Man"

Here's another example of a smart, established artist taking the original tune and making it her own.  Kate Bush added a Reggae element to her version, as well as some intense backup vocals in the chorus.  Her performance with the ukelele in the video is fun too.  Because she took a song we've heard so many times and turned it into something else, we grade her version...

Grade: A

3.  "Come Down In Time"

We added an extra special FREE BONUS!!!! version of "Come Down In Time" for you, in which both original artist and cover dude perform the song together.  Unfortunately, their combined version doesn't match up with the original or Sting cover.  That said, the song itself is beautiful and sad and gorgeous.  Sting ran with it and stripped down the song, turning in a version with one voice, one piano, and standup bass.  That's him on bass, by the way.  Again, we have another successful cover.

Grade: A

4.  "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting"

Ahh, they couldn't all be great.  By 1991, The Who were running on fumes (even with a still-living John Entwhistle).  From Roger Daltrey's vocal to Pete Townshend's guitar, to the Who's Next-era sequencer, all the elements are here for a tremendous cover.  But it just sounds forced, confined, as if the band was doing what they'd think we'd want to hear as opposed to what they'd want to play.  That's never a good mix.  A cover by The Who of this song would have worked better in 1973, when the song was written and while the band was still full of energy and booze and a desire to rock.  Points go to the arranger (the guess here is Townshend) for including a snippet of "Take Me To The Pilot."  But by then, it's too little too late.

Grade: B

5.  "Crocodile Rock"

The Beach Boys successfully turned a not-great Elton John semi-novelty song and into a complete disaster.  They destroyed it, not in a good way.  If The Who were tired by 1991, when Two Rooms were recorded, The Beach Boys were comatose.  Disgraceful.

Grade: F+

6.  "Daniel"

Let's give Wilson Phillips a little credit.  First, their version of "Daniel" was better than what The Beach Boys gave us (and we still wish they'd take it back).  Second, think about this: "Daniel" is a soft rock staple.  You probably don't run home every day after work to play the song on your stereo (does anyone even own a stereo anymore?).  You may not even change the station, or ask that it be changed, when you're in some retail establishment and it's playing Hits of the '70s channel over its soundsystem.  You recognize the song as a mellow '70s tune.  

By the time Wilson Phillips got to it, at the height of their popularity, they were churning out songs in a similar genre, sort of a light pop sound.  Today, a Wilson Phillips song is only played or thought of on Flashback to the '90s! weekends.  "Daniel" works only because they treated it the same way they treated any of their other songs: a quiet, over-harmonized, over-produced mish mash.  It's fair.  It's not great.  But, then again, that describes the original song, doesn't it?

Grade: B-

7.  "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word"

Do you notice the trend here?  Take a Classic Rock artist, i.e. The Who or, in this case, Joe Cocker, and give him free reign to interpret an Elton John song any way he sees fit.  Now, considering Cocker had done amazing cover versions during his career like "The Letter," "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window," and "With A Little Help From My Friends," you'd think he'd take an Elton John song and completely make it his own.  Unfortunately, either Cocker was tired out by '91 or the song just didn't lend itself to a true Joe Cocker redo.  Either way,  Cocker loses points for both lack of effort and poor song choice (we sound like American Idol judges now, don't we?).  

Grade: C

8.  "Levon"

Recorded when Bon Jovi, the band, was at its height of popularity, and Jon Bon Jovi, individual, was giving a solo career a crack (refer to his Young Guns II soundtrack work).  So this artist was a great choice by the Two Rooms producers (one could say the same about Wilson Phillips and even Sinead O'Connor).  How does solo Bon Jovi do?  This song would possibly have been a better choice for Joe Cocker.  In fact, it'd be neat to hear what Cocker could have done with this when the song originally came out (1971) and Cocker was in his prime.  

Here, Jon Bon Jovi is in his prime and he gives you what you'd expect from solo Jon Bon Jovi.  It's not quite as powerful as what the full band could have done, and his voice overcompensates a bit.  But, to his credit, solo Jon Bon Jovi gave us all he had.  It probably worked a little bit better then too.  Today, not as much.  Good choice.  Good try.  It's just closer to what The Who churned out for this compilation than what Clapton did.

Grade: B

9.  "The Bitch Is Back"

 

Same formula of Classic era artist covering classic song.  There's something about Tina though that makes this version special.  Her vocal is 100% passion.  She has become the "bitch" in this song, and probably has that type of personality, or needed it in order to compensate for all she went through while married to a not-very-nice Ike Turner (he was cruel to his woman he beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved).  Great song choice by Tina and great performance.  

Grade: A

10.  "Philadelphia Freedom"

By 1991, Hall & Oates were done as recording artists.  Kaput.  Their massive '70s & '80s success basically stopped dead in its tracks after their 1990 album Change Of Season.  They simply had fallen out of favor with audiences when it came to purchasing their recorded music.  Yet, the duo hadn't necessarily changed.  Their talent remained.  "Philadelphia Freedom" was the perfect choice for these guys because it was an homage to their hometown.  If you'd never heard the song before, you could have imagined that this was a Hall & Oates song.  You wouldn't have thought it was the best Hall & Oates song, but it fit right into their style.

Grade: B+

11.  "Your Song"

Ohh, Rod.  Here's an example of a guy who could have, and maybe should have, followed the Tina Turner path and continued showing off his raspy voice through Rock song, impassioned versions of Rock songs.  Instead, he followed the Joe Cocker path and turned in this.  He'd hit it big with a similarly styled "Forever Young" two years earlier and fell in love with either that success.  He became a Soft Rock star and, on the way, lost so much credibility as an artist.  "Your Song" is partially to blame.

Grade: C+

12.  "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me"

Oleta Adams was, and is, a talented artist.  She can truly play piano and sing with both power and gentility (what chu think of that word?).  The success she received from 1989 onward was deserved after she spent years in Kansas City clubs working on her craft (check out her song "Circle Of One" from 1990 and her work with Tears For Fears on "Woman In Chains" in 1989).  Here, she submits a workmanlike version of a classic Elton John song.  It's very good.  My bigger problem is her presence on the album.  She was still in the "developing artist" mode; in fact, she never became the superstar PolyGram wanted her to become.  Not because she wasn't good enough.  She just didn't have the look and the style of a huge pop star.  That's not her fault.  That's just because she played to her strengths, which were not strengths of the huge artists of that era (see Wilson Phillips).

Because this was a PolyGram/Polydor compilation, her appearance smells of a cheap promotional opportunity.  Oleta loses points because of her record company, not because of anything she did.  Too bad.  She's always deserved a little bit better.

Grade: B

13.  "Madman Across The Water"

If you are a giant Elton John fan, you know this song.  If you are the casual fan who only knows the hits, this song is completely out of left field.  Because of that, Bruce Hornsby deserves our respect.  He could have followed the ideas of the others artists on this compilation and very easily performed "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," for example.  Instead, he totally took the album, and us, in a different direction.  

Listen to Hornsby's version of the song, then listen to the original version by Elton.  It is a disturbing song in that the chords and rhythm are so different from the melodic, straightforward songs he and Bernie Taupin turned out.  "Madman Across The Water" is Elton John's Sgt. Pepper wrapped up into one song.  It's long, but in the perfect sense.  It's loud.  It's quiet.  It's controlled chaos.  If you were putting together a compilation of off kilter songs by pop artists, this would be up there along with "When The Music's Over" by The Doors or "Last Time Forever" by Squeeze (check that one out now, while you're in this mood).

Grade: A+

14.  "Sacrifice"

You want to give Sinead O'Connors version of "Sacrifice" a bad grade.  She's just never been the most likeable person.  Yet, she has to get some credit here for two reasons.  The first is because of the song she did NOT do.  In the liner notes on the album, she offered this simple sentence: "I can't believe no-one did 'Candle In The Wind.'"  That's funny because it's so true.  Ten bucks says both Rod Stewart and Joe Cocker tried and came to their sense somewhere along the way.  Sinead didn't do the song on the album.  Nobody did.  Which was all the more fitting when Elton performed his own re-do of the song 6 years after Two Rooms in honor of Princess Diana, who died in '97.

The second reason Sinead gets credit here is because this is lightweight Elton John (he and Bernie Taupin wouldn't agree with that line, see HERE how much they love the song).  It had just been a hit for him in '89 and was still getting airplay on your light FM stations.  So for Sinead to choose it was, not risky (risk is betting $100 million on the possibly bad investment; risk is fighting back when you're being mugged), but almost a setup for failure.  She really had to bring something different to the song to make it work.

She did.  Stripping down a ballad isn't too easy, but she did it.  The song is her voice and an electric piano.  That's it.  The song itself is still not the greatest Elton/Bernie tune, but it's better because of Sinead O'Connor.  And because of that, she gets an...

Grade: A-

15.  "Burn Down The Mission"

Phil Collins was riding high in 1991.  He was a gigantic star, churning out hits for both himself and Genesis and touring around the world.  He makes sense to be on this compilation, although one wonders now what it would have been like to hear Genesis cover something, like "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" off of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.  In fact, the only song on Two Rooms off of that epic Elton John album was The Who's tired version "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting."

Collins does a good job of making "Burn Down The Mission," which was originally more an album cut than a hit single, into a Phil Collins song.  The electric piano sound was the same sound he'd used for his cover version of "A Groovy Kind Of Love," which had been a #1 hit in 1988.  The horns followed what he'd been doing in his solo and Genesis work.  Nice job, albeit still a little on the Soft Rock side.  But by '91, Collins was ten years removed from his Face Value days of tremendous creativity and originality (even though, ironically, one of the best songs on that album was a cover of a Genesis song).  "Burn Down The Mission" is classic Phil Collins, although definitely not his best work.

Grade: B+

16.  "Tonight"

I never liked how Two Rooms closed with George Michael.  Yes, in 1991, Michael was one of the world's top stars.  Wham! and its sugary pop was long gone.  Michael had become a very serious solo artist, and incredibly successful, first with his Faith album and then with Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1.  He was releasing big hits and even refusing to appear in music videos, like "Praying For Time," so his music could be in the foreground, not his looks.  Ironically, his "Freedom '90" single featured 5 supermodels instead of George Michael.

Indeed, by 1991, George Michael had a professional relationship with Elton John.  They recorded a live version of "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me," which would come out just five weeks after the release of the Two Rooms album.  And they'd originally performed the song together as early as 1985 at Live Aid.  The Elton John/Bernie Taupin/George Michael connection was there.

So what's wrong with closing the album with George Michael's version of "Tonight"?  The song was recorded live and features the full 2+ minute introduction.  It's truly an epic Elton John/Bernie Taupin track, a much better choice for Michael than "Daniel" or "Candle In The Wind" would have been.  It's just...  George Michael didn't deserve it, not yet.  Wham!'s first hit had come in 1983, eight years before Two Rooms came out.  But Clapton, The Who, Rod Stewart, The Beach Boys (even though what they turned in was the worst song on the album by far) and Tina Turner had been around since the early-1960s.  Phil Collins was a bigger, and more respected, megastar who'd been around more than a decade longer (decades, if you include his small role in The Beatles' first movie, A Hard Day's Night, in 1964).  Sting was just a English and just as good looking, and Regatta de Blanc had come out 5 years earlier than Wham!'s first hit.  Almost all of these artists deserved to close the album.

Not George Michael.

Then again, you have to actually care.  Did/do most people care who closes out a compilation album?  Most probably not.  In that case, the suggestion would be to appease the people who do care.  Close it strong, but close it with a truly deserving artist.  (And that doesn't mean open the album with George Michael either.)  While Phil Collins is buried, sort of, in Track 15, George Michael gets the special treatment of the final track on the record.

Similarly, Jon Bon Jovi didn't deserve to open or close the album.  Bruce Hornsby didn't deserve it either, nor did Sinead O'Connor or Wilson Phillips or Kate Bush or Hall & Oates (although they would have deserved it more than George Michael or Jon Bon Jovi).  Not when you have those other artists, i.e. Clapton & The Who, almost carrying the album.

Now, who knows if artist contracts got in the way?  Atlantic Records might have said Phil Collins was not allowed to open or close the album or else they wouldn't give permission to allow him to participate in the first place.  It's dumb, but very possible.

Suggestions for the perfect Two Rooms album?  Open with The Who.  Include Genesis with the song suggestion above instead of Phil Collins.  Cut out The Beach Boys and Oleta Adams and Wilson Phillips.  Tell Cocker to cover "Empty Garden (Hey, Hey Johnny)," Elton's tribute to John Lennon; which could be great and would pay homage subliminally to Cocker's early success covering Lennon/McCartney songs.  Tell Rod Stewart to do "Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters."  Enlist Michael Jackson (he was still alive) to sing "Harmony" with Diana Ross (which would be the unexpected, as audiences would first think these two should have done "Don't Go Breaking My Heart.").  Finally, get Paul McCartney on board to record "Bennie And The Jets" live.  Then close with McCartney and throw George Michael somewhere in the middle.

Hmm...  An idea for a Two Rooms Two?

George Michael's "Tonight" Grade: B+

Two Rooms Overall Grade: B+

What do you think?  Let us know, would ya?

Dave Philp is Assistant Professor of Music Management at William Paterson University and Chief Organizer Guy of YouChoose, a live events music fundraising and social media company that has raised many, many thousands of dollars for non-profit causes. Join the good fight and help change your corner of the world by visiting YouChoose now: http://myyouchoose.com/. To sign up for our email newsletter, click HERE. Mmkay?