Covered: “September Gurls”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original. If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

As the calendar switched to September today, the first song that popped into my head was Big Star’s classic “September Gurls” (sorry Earth, Wind & Fire–you will get your moment to shine on the 21st).  Though I never figured out the meaning behind the distinction between December Boys and September “Gurls”, I would argue that Alex Chilton’s bittersweet romantic ode to a lost love is close to being a perfect pop song.  Not only is the song filled with memorable melodies, including the immortal hook of “December Boys got it bad”, but it also features those sweet, chiming guitars that helped influence a generation of musicians into creating what would become known as “jangle pop”.  However, as is the case on the rest of Radio City, the secret weapon is the booming drums of Jody Stephens, who provides both a powerful foundation as well as brilliant and precise fills.
It is no surprise then that over the years since its first release that “September Gurls” has inspired numerous cover versions from a diverse group of artists.  Its straightforward chord progression and simple rhythm make it an easy addition to a band’s setlist, and the relatable subject matter and unforgettable melody makes it a natural crowd-pleaser.  Most versions tend to be faithful to the original, like this beautiful acoustic performance from Brendan Benson, but there are moments and opportunities that allow for an artist to add a personal touch or two.  For instance, though The Bangles’ cover adheres closely to Big Star’s version, the fact that the song is sung from a woman’s point of view changes the narrative dynamic of the lyrics, and the generally slick production tips off what decade their version was performed.  The Dum Girls provide another example, as their straightforward take nevertheless manages through a few slight modifications to bear the imprint of the group’s trademark sound, namely the heavy use of reverb and a switch to a classic garage rock drumbeat.

The version that sticks out the most in my mind, however, is the ragged version that The Replacements would bust out from time to time at their shows.  The wear and tear in Paul Westerberg’s voice is perfect for the longing that shines through the lyrics, and there is a certain restrained ferocity in the band’s attack that enhances the emotional pain inherent in the song.  Structurally, the band does not do much to alter the song, with any changes being purely incidental.  Instead, what sticks in my mind is the vitality of the performance itself, and how it is a perfect example of the ability of The Replacements to be the best bar band in the planet on any day of the week.  It seems impossible to top the original, but at least The ‘Mats show the way to make a memorable version of a new standard.

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