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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Who Did It Better? Valerie

Who Did It Better? 

Is it true what they say? That love is better the second time around?

If so, I wonder if the same could be said of a song?

That's the question we'll be answering in today's edition of Who Did It Better?, as we take a look at a song which became a hit the first time out, only to become an even bigger hit the second time around! And that turnaround time? Just over one year!

Valerie is a song written by Abi Harding, Boyan Chowdhury, Dave McCabe, Russ Pritchard and Sean Payne, collectively known as the English indie rock band The Zutons.

The song appeared on the group's second studio album, 2006's Tired Of Hanging Around. It was inspired by an American friend of McCabe's, celebrity makeup artist Valerie Star, who had been arrested for driving under the influence.

In May of 2008, the band's lead singer, Dave McCabe, shared in an interview how the song came to be: "I could tell you I was inspired by gazing out across the Mersey or walking past Macca's old house, but the truth is I got the idea in a cab on the way to my mum's. The whole song was written before I got there, so twenty minutes, max." 

The Zuton's released Valerie as a single on June 19, 2006. It quickly found an audience, peaking at #9 in the UK, #8 in Scotland, #32 in Ireland, and #33 on the European Hot 100 Singles chart. It went on to be certified as a gold single in the UK.

Once the song became a hit in the summer of 2006, it found an unlikely fan in the form of Amy Winehouse. Producer/Recording Artist Mark Ronson is on record, saying Winehouse never listened to music written after 1967. However, Valerie proved to be an exception... and a timely one, at that. 

In early 2007, Ronson was cobbling together an album of cover versions: soul covers of guitar records. All the songs would feature a throwback sound based on the classic recordings of such labels as Stax and Motown. Winehouse, who seemed a perfect fit, was invited to contribute. However, finding a suitable song became a bit of a chore. Finally, she suggested Valerie, a song Ronson was initially reluctant to take on; he simply didn't think it was a good fit. "I wasn't sure how it would work, but she went into the studio and tried it. I loved it." Borrowing a beat from The Jam's 1982 song Town Called Malice, the pair were very pleased with the results.

Ronson's album, Version, was released on June 14, 2007 - almost one year to the date of The Zuton's release of Valerie as a single. The album entered the UK album chart at #2 on June 22nd. 

The Winehouse/Ronson collaboration ended up being the third single pulled from the album and was release on October 15th of that same year. Shortly after which... things got a bit confusing.

You see, in November of 2007, a deluxe edition of Winehouse's Back to Black album hit the market. And, lo and behold, on a bonus disc of material? 

A down-tempo version of Valerie

It seems Winehouse had recorded a jazzier, acoustic version for the Radio 1 program, Live Lounge and the powers that be wanted to include it as part of this bonus disc. The slowed-down version began competing with Ronson's version, which led to a bit of download confusion. However, in the end? It was Ronson's version that got all the radio airplay... and dominated the charts. 

The Ronson/Winehouse version peaked at  #2 on the UK Singles Chart, where it spent 19 consecutive weeks inside the Top 20. It also hit #1 in the Netherlands, #3 in both Germany and Ireland, #4 in Switzerland, #5 in Austria, and #39 in New Zealand. It went double platinum in the UK, triple platinum in Australia (where it wasn't even issued as a single) and gold in Germany.

Winehouse's solo version also charted: #4 in the Netherlands, #29 in New Zealand, #33 in Ireland, #34 in Australia, #35 in Austria, and #37 in the UK. It was certified a platinum single in the UK. When writing a career retrospective after Winehouse's untimely death, Rolling Stone magazine called Valerie Winehouse's only "notable recording" post Back to Black.  

And how did The Zuton's feel about all this success over shadowing their own ? McCabe once said, "I certainly have to try hard sometimes to not think about Valerie. The days it's in my head are when I have to put down the guitar and just forget about writing."

And that's the whole story.

Now? On to the competition!

The Song: Valerie

The Competitors: The Zutons vs. Ronson/Winehouse vs. Winehouse

Valerie - The Zutons

Valerie - Mark Ronson feat. Amy Winehouse

Valerie - Amy Winehouse

The Zutons

This is tight. Tightly wound. Like that 1970's vibe. That jangling guitar is tweaked way high on the mixing board. But that's okay, because McCabe's vocals are nice, earthy and and on the raw side. I really appreciate the grit he's bringing to this. 

The horns are mixed in the center; that's how close the whole production is... their indistinguishable, really, from the whole. 

Normally? I'd be begging for some space between instruments... a bit of air. But this is nice and tight, just like a bit of soulful pop rock should be. 

The chorus is a bit thick sounding. But it's also bringing a sort of Stax feel to the affair. 

Back to the verse, which I actually prefer over the chorus, and they are firing on all cylinders. Love the syncopation. It's got a bit of a bop to it. 

The backing vocals are fun. Really sweet. This is 1990's indie meets 1970's rock (think: The Rascals.) 

Overall, the production work is very clean and that compliments the group's great, natural energy. They don't sound overworked or rushed or jaded. It's very refreshing. 

It's actually that wind up that leads to the chorus which is creating the Stax feel. I do wish the chorus would soar a bit more. It's cut from the same cloth as everything else, but due to the lack of a melody and lyrics, the vocals should be arranged so that they take flight. 

These birds are very much grounded. 

The minimalistic third verse? Very creative. A lot of fun. 

It's a great song. Great production. Great fun. 

I like it very much.

Mark Ronson feat. Amy Winehouse

A little trap set opening, keeping it tight. Winehouse is in good form. This reminds me a lot of the sort of thing that Postmodern Jukebox has done; that whole stripped down, retro thing. Love that light piano work, the horn chart is lovely. 

I have to say, Winehouse is singing the fuck out of this. She even brings a lot to that slight chorus. Her phrasing is amazing. Adore her energy and attitude. Oh, my word... tubular bells. Wow. That works. Killer.

The breakdown works. Very lovely. A deft touch, those strings. Oh, I was afraid of that. They overstay their welcome, as far as I'm concerned. I wanted them to be all touch and gone. They make this feel like Glen Campbell circa 1968. 

No. That. That's wrong.

Hate the strings.

Too bad. Winehouse sounds great.

Amy Winehouse

So, I have to keep in mind this is a live recording. 

Not sure about that vibraphone sounding keyboard. The guitar work feels busy, but then it's also the only thing keeping this on track. Winehouse is singing too close to the mic? Her vocals are hooded and a bit mush-mouthed. I really miss the crispness of her phrasing found in the other version. 

The wind up into the chorus is nice. A nice balance all around.

Backing vocals are a bit thorny. 

Oh, this is growing on me. I love the space between the guitar and the keyboard. It's like they're on opposite sides of the singer. 

She is so present. And such a presence. What a lovely moment to have been captured. 

That guitarist is very clever. Perfectly-timed fills. 

This... definitely grew on me.  

The Verdict

All three versions have something to offer. I don't have much of a quibble with any of them. 

The Zutons are a lot of fun. Very fresh. Very tight. I wish they'd played more with the chorus, vocally and brought some interesting harmonies to light. 

Ronson nails it for the first three quarters of the song and then... those stupid strings. What is this? Galveston? It is an unnecessary layer of icing which nearly ruins the cake for me.

So, the previous two were so crisp. 

You get to Winehouse's stripped down version and I'm not expecting much. I typically merely tolerate such excursions. Artists keep feeling the need to do this sort of thing, but... I'm not that audience. However...

Guess which version takes this home for me? 

Winehouse... solo. 

That is a lovely moment to behold. It's concise. It's simple. It's earthy and very real. Not a false note in the whole thing - although the backup singers came on a little disorganized with their opening volley. It's such an intimate recording. Kudos to the guitarist. Very smart stuff. 

Yep. It's Winehouse's stripped down version for me. Very clever.

Which is not how I thought this was going to go, at all.

--- ---

And that's enough of me. 

Your turn. Leave your choice and thoughts in the comments section. I love a differing opinion.

That's all for now. Until next time...

Thanks for reading... and listening. 

Valerie - The Zutons

Valerie - Mark Ronson feat. Amy Winehouse


Mistress Maddie said...

Hands down....Amy Winehouse!!! She is so unique..everything she did was just incredible.

Sixpence Notthewiser said...

This is one of my all-time FAVORITE songs. Forever. And duh. It's Amy. This songs gives me all the feels and the first time I heard it it brought me literally to tears. Her VOICE!!! You have no idea how this song makes me feel.
Now I'm gonna be playing Amy Winehouse all day long.