One of my favorite holiday songs is the John Lennon/Yoko Ono song, “Happy Christmas (War is Over).” I even had the record album single version of “Happy Christmas” with the image of John sitting on the couch, crossed legs, and his mullet style haircut when I was growing up. While I appreciate that “Happy Christmas” is not really a holiday song so much as a protest song, I was born after the Vietnam War and only loosely had a grasp of what an unpopular international war was like.
And anyway, I liked the song. What’s wrong with a song that you like? So many Christmas standards are beaten to death that it’s hard to really find songs that you aren’t sick of after the second go around.
So when I was in a popular, Muzak-laden eatery today in Manhattan and the familiar line began, “…so this is Christmas…” I was pleased. But there was something wrong with this mix; it was very briefly before I heard exactly what it was. John Lennon was now Adam Levine.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Maroon 5. I even follow Adam Levine on Twitter. But really, some Christmas songs just shouldn’t be covered. “Happy Christmas” is one of those songs.
The Maroon 5 version of “Happy Christmas” has none of the same jangled energy and urgency that the Lennon original has. For the Maroon 5 cover, there is a simple piano line which accompanies Levine’s vocal at the beginning. Enter a plucking guitar and a low string section; maybe just a single string accompaniment. But the Maroon 5 version of “Happy Christmas” is obviously a showcase for the Levine vocal.
What makes the Lennon version of “Happy Christmas” so strong is exactly what makes the Levine/Maroon 5 version so poor, in my opinion. The intensity in the Lennon vocal and all the accompaniment start strong and only get stronger. In Lennon’s original, by the first chorus there is underscoring from Ono and the children’s choir, the strings, sleigh bells, and choir bells are all ringing, there is guitar, there are drums, there is the chant of “War is Over” – the whole of the song is really quite striking.
Levine and Maroon 5 on the other hand never get this song going. I’m sure the band would credit their own inspiration, reverence for the original or some other pious bit of nonsense, but this is the reason that some songs just shouldn’t be covered.
When a good band does an average to poor cover version, where do you go from there? The “Happy Christmas” original is so closely tied to a period in history and is just so well done to begin with; why would you try and one-up that?
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