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Nov 17

WILL YOUNG – “Light My Fire”

Popular44 comments • 3,381 views

#929, 8th June 2002

will young fire It’s hardly unusual for a reality TV star to try and cement their precarious fame with a cover version. Will Young’s puckish take on “Light My Fire”, a cover of Jose Feliciano’s cover of Jim Morrison’s signature come-on, is particularly well-taken. His verse delivery is enjoyably arch, keeping a distance between himself and the hoary material, but he gives enough of an impression of losing himself in the chorus for it not to be a total mickey-take. The overall impression is of an unusually honest take on contractual obligation – “I know this is how the game is played, and I’m going to play it, but I’m not going to con you, so let’s make this as fun as we can.”

Which, if you’re a gay Marxist politics graduate who’s just won the love of the nation on a TV game show, is probably about as truthful and sensible a take on this rock monolith as could be hoped for. “Light My Fire” is ridiculous, like many Doors songs, but unlike many, it’s not just ridiculous: it’s also resilient. For the surviving Doors, this, more than anything else they wrote, is their pension. Within months of release, there were covers, then dozens of covers, latin and pop and soul and reggae covers, and they kept coming, though Will Young’s version sits wryly near the end of the line.

Listening to these covers is an education in how flexible the song is. On Inner Circle’s version, the digital reggae beat steps up the urgency, leaving the singer gasping and blue-balled. Shirley Bassey sings it as a challenge – light my fire… if you can. Al Green is Al Green, wandering smokily between the lines of the song, turning it into the ad libs. Minnie Riperton’s version is a breathy tease. Julie London sounds wistful and half-asleep. Erma Franklin, her version recontextualised on an album called Obama Victory Music, makes it a bracing call to arms. For Jackie Wilson it’s a soul man’s plea. Massive Attack, to the frustration of countless listeners, rub its mud over the face of their Protection LP with a live fragment where Horace Andy can barely remember the words.

What’s interesting to me is how little any of these covers owe to the original, beyond the solid-gold tune. They’ve all seen the huge potential in Morrison’s song without actually wanting to follow him down the interpretive path he’s laid out. Perhaps that isn’t surprising: Morrison plays the song cataclysmically straight, turning seduction into an primordial battle of man, desire, the elements – his growled command to “set the night on fire!” casts sex, or rather, Jim getting his rocks off, as a cosmic imperative.

If you’re a very handsome rock star you can make this Dionysian stuff work, at least to the point where you unleash the actual snake onstage. But it’s also a narcissistic dead end, with no real sense Morrison’s singing this stuff to anyone. (The funniest part in the album version is when he tetchily comes back in with “the time to hesitate is through” after his band has just held up proceedings with an enormous organ solo). With time and distance, the Lizard King’s whole persona doesn’t feel like a groundbreaking rock development, but a final spasm of the mid-century artistic cult of the Great American Man, the bloated inheritor of Hemingway, Brando, Kerouac.

In other words, the cover versions are a response not just to the greatness of the song, but to its cornier aspects, the ways its fervent masculinity was already out of date. This started with Jose Feliciano himself, whose seductive Latin routine is (frankly) just as corny but also much more gentle and playful, more convivial than the original. Once Feliciano had opened the song out, everyone could take it and find more and more in it, and the Doors’ version was left standing, an impotent classic.

This is the risk you take when you invoke Oedipus – before you know it you’re a father yourself, and since his death Jim Morrison has played the role well, becoming the secret Dad of Dadrock, the lightning rod for a generation’s rebellious scorn about rock’s pomp, its pretension, its cock-out masculinity. I was no exception – my teenage derision for The Doors was a St Christopher’s medal as I explored the canon’s byways and thoroughfares. Like a lot of teenagers and their Dads, I’ve come to a position of wary respect and accommodation: that organ solo is pretty rocking; “Peace Frog” is weird and great; loads of acts I do like are madly in debt to Jim, and so on.

But it’s still no surprise I enjoy Will Young’s joyfully absurd version a hell of a lot more than I enjoy The Door’s gloweringly absurd one. The arrangement – borrowed from Feliciano, canned and smoothed out – is feeble, but Young’s performance is a lot of fun. It’s the sound of someone exploring what his voice and persona can do, and what his public will enjoy, with delightfully exaggerated “mi-yahs” and “pi-yahs” deftly undercutting the lyric’s monumental tendencies. “Light My Fire” is no classic, but as a showcase for its singer and a pointer to his future, it’s more confident and sparky than anyone might have expected.

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Comments

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  1. 31
    Mark M on 23 Nov 2017 #

    Re30: The Doors are hardly unique among their peer group in a) cranking out lots of music in a short space of time* and b) having something of an audience 50 years on. Some would argue that the second part of that is precisely the problem: we’re blighted by the Baby Boomers and their legacy.

    I don’t think any of us are arguing that there aren’t a lot of people who like The Doors. Emphatically, there are a lot of people who like The Doors, many of them – I suggest on purely anecdotal evidence – Dutch or Italian. What I don’t see is why the fact that lots of people like The Doors proves anything other than lots of people like The Doors.

    As for the final part of your argument, predicting what anyone will or will not be discussing in (x) number of years is and always will be a mug’s game. (But as it happens, there’s certainly plenty of nostalgia for ’90s and ’00s RnB so far…)

    *Don’t get me wrong: I fully applaud the work ethic and productivity of pre-1970s acts.

  2. 32
    lonepilgrim on 26 Nov 2017 #

    I used to run a trip to Paris from the early 1990s onwards for my A Level Art students and certainly for the first few years there was a demand from many to visit Jim’s grave so clearly The Doors retained some credibility with the yoof for a while.

  3. 33
    Ed on 27 Nov 2017 #

    @29 That’s a very good point. People sometimes talk about the pop canon as though it’s an immutable thing, like a university Great Books class, but in fact it is (was?) always changing to suit the needs of the moment. In 1985 the NME staff voted What’s Going On as the Greatest Album Ever, and it was clear that the taste-makers now wanted something quite different from The Doors’ gruff adolescent pomposity.

  4. 34
    AMZ1981 on 27 Nov 2017 #

    I suppose as fashions and tastes change; some classic bands go into to vogue and others out of it, and then things shift again. As a proud classic rock fan (who does his best to keep up with what’s current as well) now in his mid thirties I’ve found my own tastes chopping and changing depending on the cultural weather. At present the Beatles are not quite the touchstone they once were (at least not directly) compared to the Rolling Stones. Led Zeppelin I think are quite influential at the moment but at one point they seemed quite dated. Dire Straits were once the epitome of dad rock but many young guitarists now study their technique.

    The Doors are an acquired taste and there a few hugely influential bands who do nothing for me (my opinions on the Smiths would get me lynched in some quarters).

    One does try not to be snobby about other genres but I think most of us have seen the meme comparing Bohemian Rhapsody with a (non bunnied) Beyonce song. But I go off topic …

  5. 35
    Edward Still on 27 Nov 2017 #

    I don’t have much to say about this song, original or covers. I’ve tried but it just doesn’t speak to me on any level.

    I will say however that Takeover is absolutely, absolutely fantastic. There was a vogue for sampling heavy 70s rock riffs at the time, but this was by far the cleverest use of it (maybe a couple of early Kano songs come close for me). The threat of the rap was underscored by the dread of that yelping guitar perfectly. It really shows how a complementary production can elevate a song*

    *Just double-checked and it was indeed produced by Kanye West.. deal with that as you may.

  6. 36
    Mark M on 27 Nov 2017 #

    Re34: Like many (most?) internet memes, that B v Queen one seems to the people who share it a crushing win, but actually amounts to nowt more than ‘Hey, this is the team I support and because I support them, we’re the best.’

    Re33: To me, any cultural canon = a list of stuff that is utterly defined by the tastes and politics of the time it is assembled but that its compilers delude themselves is carved in stone and represents some totally non-existent timeless qualities. Even in the case of Shakespeare, who has probably been in more than he’s been out over the centuries, the plays that are considered his best have varied wildly over time.

  7. 37
    EPG on 28 Nov 2017 #

    There’s no outside the canon and Popular is an attempt to preserve a canon from a decade ago: broadly, womens’ voices controlled by men, from ABBA to Sugababes and who knows thence but Beyonce fits well. Now we know that ten years later, the kids prefer soulful boys like the Drakebiebersheeran continuum, but maybe e-commerce just means men who write have given way to girls who buy. As for this song, I didn’t know this song existed. It’s the last #1 before the first #1 I bought at the time of its oneness.

  8. 38
    Tom on 28 Nov 2017 #

    EPG: This is a bit unfair, if only that the filter of the project doesn’t let that many women’s voices *uncontrolled* by men through. When they appear – eg Madonna, Sinead, Kate Bush – I reckon they’ve been given a fair shake. (Of course you could say my choice to do this as a project at all is telling!)

  9. 39

    further to my suggestion that JM is less pompously serious than subsequent generations have taken him to be, in this letter telling a fan of his death, from a v.young danny sugarman (their teenage manager and later biographer):

    key line: “the soul of a clown”

  10. 40
    enitharmon on 6 Dec 2017 #

    The Doors’ cultural capital remains high in this household, where it never really delined. I don’t think I’m either a “noise egghead” or a “pop kid”, and I don’t think pop kids ever had much time for them, not when they were in their pomp anyway; subsequently I’ve encountered some surprisingly young folks keeping the vigil at Père Lachaise.

    Tom made his distaste for my favourite band known very early in this tale. That’s fine Tom, each to his own, and I guess you had to be there. That’s a long time ago now, and there’s not much left for me in Popular but I’m still here, feeling my age now and getting creaky, and looking forward to the tale eating its tail very soon now, unless this is something being approached asymptotically without ever arriving.

  11. 41
    flahr on 7 Dec 2017 #

    “the soul of a clown”

    “just like Pagliacci did / I failed to keep my penis hid”

  12. 42
    Ed on 11 Dec 2017 #

    I have just been watching on Netflix the Grammy-winning Doors documentary with narration by Johnny Depp, ‘When You’re Strange’. If you are someone who is pretty confident that a Grammy-winning Doors documentary narrated by Johnny Depp will be waiting for you in the Ninth Circle of Hell, I am not going to tell you you should watch it. In all honesty, it does not do an enormous amount to confound your expectations about what you’ll get from a Grammy-winning Doors documentary with narration by Johnny Depp.

    But what is clear from the early footage – before the drink and drugs took their toll – is just how deeply Morrison and the camera loved each other. And when you see him talk to fans, Sugarman’s lines about him being warm, gentle, clownish do not seem so crazy. Again, before the drink and drugs had really had a chance to do their thing.

  13. 43
    Lee Saunders on 16 Dec 2017 #

    Playing Dario G’s Carnival de Paris has led me to consider (again) how many World Cup tracks were released as singles here in 1998 (at least 15, I’m pretty sure). Compare that with 2002 where the number is vastly inferior. There’s the aforementioned We’re on the Ball, and also DJ Otzi’s Hey Baby remix but I can’t even think of anything else. Also compare the amount of World Cup compilations there was in 1998 to 2002.

  14. 44
    Lee Saunders on 3 Mar 2018 #

    I’ll mention this here as Ant & Dec were discussed here, and indeed Saturday Night Takeaway (not just because A&D had their biggest hit at the time when this was #1 but because the series began on 8 June 2002). The show celebrated its 100th episode tonight and was heavy on the 2002 nostalgia. The opening titles being those of the first series, Sophie Ellis-Bextor doing the viewers’ karaoke section, Win the Ads comprising the products from the ad break of the first ever episode, with the jackpot question being who performed on the first episode (Gareth Gates), among other things. My memory records 2002 pretty well and it was honestly a joy watching it.

    It did end with a variety-performance style End of the Show Show of Bring Me Sunshine. Reminded me of how Saturday Night Takeaway has now lasted 16 years, whereas The Morecambe & Wise Show sadly only managed 15.

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