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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Who Did It Better? The Show Must Go On

Who Did It Better?
The Show Must Go On

Today we take a look at another song written by someone else that Three Dog Night managed to spin into gold. They were very successful at doing this sort of thing. In fact, I have another four examples lined-up; featuring songs, written by other artists, which they helped popularize. Include this one, and Shambala, which we visited earlier in this series? That makes for a total of six.  

The Show Must Go On was written by Leo Sayer and David Courtney. The opening motif quotes Julius Fučík's Entrance of the Gladiators which is commonly associated with the circus big top. Hence, in the early days of his career, Sayer frequently performed the song dressed as a Pierrot clown. He even made an appearance on the Muppet show in clown drag.

Sayer recorded the song first, for his debut album entitled Siverbird. Released as a single on November 2, 1973, The Show Must Go On entered the British charts on December 15th and would go on to peak at #2 in early 1974 - thus becoming Sayer's first major hit. The song would also hit #3 in Ireland in January of 1974.

While Sayer's version was peaking in England (and failing to gain traction stateside), Three Dog Night, who was busy recording their next album, Hard Labor, decided to put their own stamp on the song, with Chuck Negron taking the lead vocal.

TDN's version was released by the band as a single on March 16, 1974. It would peak on Billboard's Hot 100 at #4, while also reaching #2 in Canada, making it  their seventh (and final) Gold Record and last Top Ten hit. Their version also reached #11 in the Netherlands and #12 in Germany.

While Sayer was undoubtedly grateful for the song royalties and additional attention, he did take issue with the TDN's version. As written and performed by Sayer, the last line of the chorus is "I won't let the show go on", but Three Dog Night decided to change it to "I must let the show go on", something Sayer was none too happy about.

Another  interesting tidbit? That intro? Many AM stations edited down or lopped it off completely. It simply ate up too much air time. 

Well, there's the background. Now, on to the competition.

The Song: The Show Must Go On
Competitors: Leo Sayer vs. Three Dog Night

The Show Must Go On - Leo Sayer

The Show Must Go On - Three Dog Night

Leo Sayer
The British have always had a love for dancehall music, which is very similar to what Americans term vaudeville. From the moment I hear the creeky hurdy-gurdy sounds of that familiar circus theme, I think: Monty Python. And at 39 seconds? That is a generous intro, so I can see why radio stations where loathe to include it. That scratchy banjo and Leo's silly old man vocals also feed right into a traditional dance hall sound. He relaxes his throat a little once he gets to those high ooo's and I like his tone much better, but then reverts back once he starts the second verse. 

This is a very odd song... like a time piece. Oh, dear... we are scatting? It makes me think of street corner buskers and hobo shoes. Those strangled vocals, combined with the song's theme about a life misspent make Leo sound like a 100 years old. However... that falsetto of his, on the other hand? So pure. Once we reach the faded verse it becomes apparent that this song is more of a performance piece than a pop record. I guess that helps explains the whole Pierrot clown schtick. Love the acoustic piano close. Classic. Fitting.

I should let you know... I think the world of Leo Sayer. His voice is amazing Over the years he has sung so many different styles. His is a very versatile instrument. Here, he sticks to the schtick. Thankfully, the song doesn't overstay it's welcome. However, it does show you how different pop music was back the early 70's. Such performance or story songs where kind of all the rage... Cher's Dark Lady and Half-Breed. Helen Reddy's Delta Dawn and Angie Baby. Vicki Lawrence went to #1 with The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia. Even Diana Ross got in on the trend with Last Time I Saw Him. The songs all adhere  to a type of vaudevillian/British dance hall esthetic, and The Show Must Go On feels right at home among them. 

Three Dog Night
TDN cuts ten seconds from that intro - good move and then moves right into the song, full blast, no pause. Negron's vocals aren't nearly as nuanced as Sayer's. It's a very straight-forward reading, one minus all the dramatic textures Sayer works with. It's most noticeable when it comes to those ooo's. Negron barrels right through though them, utilizing the same voice he started with, while Sayer, if you recall, softens his approach enough to employ his head voice. While the TDN group vocals certainly change things up a bit, adding a bit of warmth while introducing a different texture, I don't think they work well. It feels a little too MOR/elevator muzak for my taste. The crowd noise (great idea) is ineffective, but I do love that penny whistle. 

Hmm... instead of scatting, TDN opts to reintroduce The Entrance of the Gladiators. Interesting choice. It works. Oh, dear... those group backing vocals continue to bother me. They're like glaze on a cookie... unnecessary. The group then doubles down on the hurdy-gurdy sound with the faded verse. This is where you really start to notice the tempo. TDN's is  very driven. There's no breathing room. Sayer's, on the other hand, is a carefully timed performance with lots of dramatic pauses. In the final chorus the group vocals do fall into place, adding a lot. I wish they'd saved them and only utilized them during the last chorus. Very effective. And then back to Entrance of the Gladiators, as a sort of play-off. Curious choice. 

The Verdict
It's a toss up. I appreciate Three Dog's Night straight-ahead approach. Theirs is the pop single for the American market, for sure. But those early backing vocals and their inept attempt at including the crowd noise in order to create atmosphere detracts. Also, Negron's vocals are all cut from the same clothe. They feel strained and lack color.

Sayer may overplay his dramatic hand on occasion, but I am a sucker for theatrics. Also, his falsetto? To die for. The dance hall esthetic is a bit ripe, but as schtick goes... his works.

I give this one to Sayer. 

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Okay. Your turn. What do you think? I love hearing your opinions. Leave it all in the comments section. 

Until next time...

Thanks for reading. 

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Oh, I thought for fun, I would include performance videos - so you get even more of a sense of their contrasting approaches. 

The Show Must Go On (Live) - Leo Sayer

The Show Must Go On (Live) - Three Dog Night


Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Very theatrical, don't you think? I think I have heard the TDN version but was not aware this was a Leo Sayer song. And he was in the Muppet Show?
I love it when you pull apart songs this way. They make so much more sense when you explain those subtle changes in voice (head voice!). After you tear apart a song, I never listen to it the same way again.
And I think I like the TDN version better? I think it's because I already know it....


anne marie in philly said...

three dog night. and I H8 circus music (that shit at the beginning) and I H8 circuses.

Jimmy said...

I give it to TDN. Harmony makes it less hokie.

Hot guys said...

Think I've never heard any of these versions, honestly 🤷‍♂️

whkattk said...

I gotta leave this one to you. Wasn't familiar with the song until now, and have to say the intro turns me right off. 🤷‍♂️

Anonymous said...

I thought when I saw the heading it was about the 1991 sang of the same title by Queen. LOL