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May 14

ALL SAINTS – “Lady Marmalade” / “Under The Bridge”

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#789, 9th May 1998

saintsbridge For the critic, cover versions present a seductively easy option, letting you frame the conversation and review with discussion of the original. This is a tempting choice because it’s something very obvious to talk about. But it also puts excessive scrutiny on any changes or new readings the cover artist makes, leading you away from thinking about the track as a whole.

On this single All Saints slashed apart both songs, taking liberties that might leave lovers of their originals fizzing and furious. Indeed, I have empirical evidence of that: when we played the All Saints album in the bookshop I worked in, a browsing skater dude came over when “Under The Bridge” was playing and angrily demanded we turn it off or he’d complain to the manager. The stated reason was that the original deserved more “respect”.

But I’m not sure ‘respect’ comes into it much – it’s too loaded a word, too full of implied status. Cover versions and remixes can be crass, seemingly thoughtless, with no apparent ear for the song they’re using – it’s a hazard of pop, and I just criticised Jason Nevins quite harshly for it. But whether that approach offends or thrills mostly boils down to whether you like the song as it was – I might respect “It’s Like That”, but I don’t think Nevins had any duty to do the same. He took some decisions about it, and for me they didn’t pay off.

That’s not a bad summary of this double-header, either. I think both these cover versions are bold, but not quite successful. Before thinking about them as covers, though, it’s worth rejecting the easy route for once and just considering them as songs – forget, since a lot of their buyers surely never knew, that “Lady Marmalade” and “Under The Bridge” had any other life.

From that perspective, this single is all about a flip in moods – one side playful and horny, the other drifting and vulnerable. All Saints obviously like that sort of contrast – the party-ready “I Know Where It’s At” was followed by the shattered “Never Ever”; the assertive “Bootie Call” by the paranoid “War Of Nerves”. Even the language keeps repeating: “Never ever have I ever felt so low” / “I don’t ever wanna feel like I did that day” / “I don’t ever want to feel pain”. Parties and rejections, one-night stands and loneliness, sex and insecurity – All Saints’ world isn’t a judgemental one exactly, but it’s as carefully balanced as a soap opera, every high matched with its low.

“Lady Marmalade” and “Under The Bridge” take their place in this drama. “Marmalade” is plain-spoken in a way the Spice Girls have never yet quite let themselves be: an anthem for girls out on the pull, its busy, overlapping hooks evoking the bustle of the club, its cheeky raps showing the band’s mischievous side. “Under The Bridge”, on the other hand, finds a lonely, single urbanite wandering her city, getting her emotional bearings back after some unspecified, awful event. Nellee Hooper produces – his lonesome, muted keyboards on the verses making for one of the most discreetly atmospheric number ones of a largely maximalist era, until the song swells with determination on the chorus: the singer may not know where she’s going exactly, but it’s certainly not backwards.

Both titles are mysterious, too: “Under The Bridge” is probably a reference to ‘water under the bridge’, the will to move on from a bad situation. “Lady Marmalade” might hint at breakfast in bed – titling as winkingly saucy as the “kitty-kat”s and “bedroom fight”s of the raps…

…But here my conceit has to break down: the titles are only mysteries because the group chopped out their context in refitting the songs. “Under The Bridge” loses its final verse, about taking drugs. “Lady Marmalade”, about a New Orleans call girl, gets completely taken apart, with a full rewrite on the lyrics leaving only stray bits of chorus intact. But viewing them as All Saints songs, not covers, makes it obvious why the edits were made. Songs about sexually confident women on a night out, and loneliness and resolve in the city, don’t need sex work and heroin to beef them up – would, in the All Saints context, have been actively harmed by that, made too specific. Anthony Kiedis’ comments about the All Saints version of “Under The Bridge” – essentially that the band were clean-cut girls who couldn’t possibly have understood the song – seem even more churlish now: rather than being silly pop stars who couldn’t understand the story, All Saints most likely understood the story all too well and opted to use the song to tell a different one.

Unfortunately, imaginative and thoughtful cover versions don’t always net out at ‘good’. Kiedis’ sneers may have been misplaced, but the “under the bridge downtown…” section All Saints cut out really is the peak of the Chili Peppers’ song (and possibly career), the sudden intrusion of falsetto backing vocals a chilling moment. Without a climax, All Saints’ version is rudderless, the group struggling to make anything out of weak, wandering verses and falling back relieved onto the chorus. “Lady Marmalade”’s faults are easier to spot – cutting up the chorus means leaning on the “voulez-vous couchez avec moi?” hook to an exhausting degree, so by the end even the band sounds sick of it. Meanwhile the singers just don’t have the brassiness to compete with Labelle, and the solution – Shaznay’s rapping – is more awkward than seductive.

But while these aren’t great covers, the ideas behind them are sound. And the single helped cement the group’s identity – at least some of the point is to signal to record buyers (and the newly judgemental Radio 1) that All Saints were the kind of band who did Labelle and Chili Peppers covers. Tasteful, in other words; eclectic, older-aimed than the rest of post-Spice pop. More credible, for sure – it’s just on this showing, that means more frustrating and drab too.

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