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Nov 17

WILL YOUNG – “Light My Fire”

Popular19 comments • 1,107 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.

6

Comments

  1. 1
    Riffit on 12 Nov 2017 #

    God, I thought I would enjoy listening to this given that it was on my beloved and clearly seminal Brit Awards 2003 CD as a youth, but it’s so boring! I thought before reading this review that it was a rather random song to cover until now being aware of a Jose Felicano version.

    The next Pop Idol-related #1 is actually REALLY good as well as sadly forgotten in the years succeeding its release, and Will Young’s next solo (and last! – no prizes etc…) #1 is great at what it sets out to do. This however, while being tastefully produced, is nothing more than pointless and just plays into the laziest criticisms given to the musical output of Simon Cowell’s enterprise. Songs like this are why the public perception of music from reality TV shows hasn’t really risen above contempt ever since.

    3

  2. 2
    lonepilgrim on 12 Nov 2017 #

    I think we’ve put the boot in to ole Jim before but (for me) some of the more interesting aspects of The Doors are the veins of Lounge and Musical Theatre that run through their work and which most versions of LMF (including this one) tend to reveal more obviously. Without the tension added through Morrison’s Gothic posing the song, in Will Young’a rendition, becomes a bit twee.

  3. 3
    Tommy Mack on 12 Nov 2017 #

    Doesn’t really change anything but I think Robbie Krieger rather than Jim Morrison wrote Light My Fire (though like most Doors’ songs it was credited to all four members.)

  4. 4
    Ed on 12 Nov 2017 #

    I guessed that this latest entry might have been delayed by Tom needing to wrestle with the mighty legacy of The Doors ;-)

    Worth remembering amidst all the condemnation of Jim and his crew as hoary old rock bores: they were a pop band at first, just as much as – and in exactly the same way as – Adam and the Ants or Wet Wet Wet. LMF and the follow-up both went to Number 1 in the US. Greil Marcus in his Doors book – not one of his best, TBH – explains how initially he and all his serious head friends hated the Doors as inauthentic pretension for teenage girls.

    Tom’s point about Morrison as the end of a particular line of American masculinity is a great one, but I am not so sure that it has disappeared from popular culture. It’s all over hip-hop for a start, and Jay-Z – who sampled The Doors’ Five To One to brilliant effect on Takeover – is the outstanding example.

    It’s also a great point about the song being ridiculous / resilient. The Oliver Stone movie – a perfect match of director and subject if ever there was one – really amps that up in its take on the performance of this on the Ed Sullivan show:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61m_Dm44RHA

    The actual performance was much more restrained:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2euBN3gbKc8

    Not that that clip is any more preposterous than most of the rest of the movie.

  5. 5
    Tommy Mack on 12 Nov 2017 #

    #4 – I remember laughing like a drain when I finally saw the real performance, so tame! Jim’s already looking pretty rough, too.

  6. 6
    flahr on 12 Nov 2017 #

    Was he a politics student and a Marxist or a student of Marxist politics?

    I don’t like this. The vocals sound rather monotonous and yawpy to me and I don’t feel the sense of fun in their fruity ‘-yeeeerrrrr’ moments that Tom seems to; same with the ‘I’m mad, me’ adlibs towards the end. Then the string arrangement is horrible, twee and prissy.

    The sin of rhyming ‘fire’ with ‘fire’ is all on Ver Doors though, the bastards.

  7. 7
    AMZ1981 on 13 Nov 2017 #

    One thing I think hasn’t been mentioned so far is that Will Young had performed Light My Fire during the TV series he eventually won and it was very much his show stopper. It is extremely important to see this release in context; at the time Will Young was still considered a surprise winner and the interest was very much focused on the runner up. Obviously we have to park much of this until the next bunny bar one but it’s pretty obvious where the time and attention was being lavished. Light My Fire feels like an afterthought; the winner we didn’t really want needs a follow up single – well he made a good stab of Light My Fire so let’s run with that. And thankfully for all concerned it’s no disaster as it plays to Will Young’s strengths and lets him mark time for now.

    It’s good to be able to discuss the Doors, a band who blow a little bit hot and cold with me depending on my mood. They were a slightly more conventional band than the legend would have you believe, particularly when separated from the wider Jim Morrison story. Yes, he was not afraid to break the boundaries on occasion (most notably on The End) but much of their material is more mundane psychedelic pop that gained a harder edge on their last two albums as prog morphed into heavy metal. Indeed their unique selling point was arguably having a singer who took his vocal style from the crooners of the 40s and 50s. They were also remarkably prolific, even by the standards of the time, which is why the quality control was a bit erratic.

    If you discard the lengthy organ break in the Doors’ Light My Fire (which I think was only on the album version at the time, for all that it’s the most widely heard version now) then that version and Will Young’s version aren’t as horrendously different as rock fans would like to believe. Jim Morrison and Will Young possibly wouldn’t have recognised much in each other but when singing Light My Fire they were both distinctive (and gifted) vocalists giving a fine performance of a strong song.

  8. 8

    marcus’s stated reason the o/g rockwrite kru despised the doors — bcz artificial pop for gurls — clashes interestingly with the fact that the noiseboys (certainly tosches, i think also meltzer) argued that only the doors were carrying on what had been good abt the mid-6os explosion, where rock-as-a-whole had (by 1970ish) diminished and betrayed it. i’ve always tended to assume this is bcz the doors live were funnier and more self-mocking than they have subsequently seemed (since this wd be a noiseboy virtue)

    (of course meltzer also wrote the pioneering passage on why pop for screaming gurls is a good thing not bad — bcz it generates the screaming: it’s the passage where he cites existentialist theologian martin buber lol) (and also meltzer liked to cite big-name philosophical authorities to buttress claims abt pop in a way that deliberately undermined and explored the absurdities of the philosophy — so maybe he just felt that morrison was doing much the same) (and that the joke has been lost on those who came after)

  9. 9
    James BC on 13 Nov 2017 #

    One of a select few number 1s to be very clearly a cover of a cover. Robson and Jerome might have been the first, but the numbers increase a fair bit from about this point on.

    Further to comment #2 about the Doors having elements of musical theatre, I find Light My Fire a bit reminiscent of Mack The Knife, with its repeated short lines with the same simple tune. Mack swings better though.

  10. 10
    Lee Saunders on 13 Nov 2017 #

    #1 I saw you mention this Brit Awards 2003 CD on another thread. That album was a seminal album for me as a 5 year old too.

    Which I was too excited to leave unmentioned until I get home from college later but I’ll have another listen to LMF when I do. Recall it being a transitional record for Will, a transition which nonetheless receded hereafter until his second album.

  11. 11
    Riffit on 13 Nov 2017 #

    #10 Ha! Glad to see I wasn’t the only person it left an impact on. Although, looking at the wonderful pop confectionaries that made up the tracklist, how could it not have been downhill from that point onwards…

  12. 12
    Lee Saunders on 14 Nov 2017 #

    #11 With the exception of the Brits 2004 CD I certainly became less interested with later volumes

    Re-listening to Will’s LMF, I’d have to say its my favourite version of the song, which I generally don’t care for at all (The Massive Attack version particularly bothers me, seeing as its a not-very-good cover at the end of an album I otherwise think is remarkable, a la Heat Wave, Downtown and Fuel My Fire). I guess what I mean by transitional in my other comment is that Will sounds more comfortable with the muted style here than on his previous single, and given that he was familiar with the track already I guess that’s a given. Almost a year and a half in Popular years though until he comes back with another track I like.

    6 is about right.

  13. 13
    Lazarus on 14 Nov 2017 #

    All those cover versions, and no mention of Amii Stewart, whose proto-HI-NRG,* (to my mind) thrilling, fast paced disco version (tacked onto, for some reason, ’137 Disco Heaven’) hit the Top Five in 1979. Hers was the biggest hit with the song until Will came along, and it’s possible that in ’79 I was only familiar with her version, not the original. But by 2002 I knew the Feliciano rendition too, and recognised that Will’s was just a note-for-note copy, perhaps the most pointless cover since Shola Ama’s soundalike retread of ‘You Might Need Somebody’ five years earlier. Of course the youngsters buying this wouldn’t have even heard of Jose Feliciano, never mind heard his record, which to my mind this made it all the more cynical. Which is why I can’t go to more than a 4.

    *the next single, ‘Jealousy’ is even more so, and would have sounded right at home in the spring of 1984. But didn’t crack the 40 unfortunately.

  14. 14
    Shiny Dave on 15 Nov 2017 #

    While Cowell acts could usually be quite fairly be derided as chart-gaming mayfly fanbase affairs, it’s worth noting that every Will Young #1 managed multiple weeks atop the chart. That amusingly gives him as many multi-week #1s as Westlife, who went 4/14 at adding a second week to their chart-topping runs.

    #13) Speaking of songs called “Jealousy,” Will Young’s 2011 release by that name might be one of the most underrated pop tracks of the decade, an infuriating earworm that nags rather like the feeling of jealousy itself. Went to #5, essentially acts as a one-off fluke post-real-popularity hit, and no wonder given how good it was.

    This isn’t nearly as good as that, but it is an interesting one in the context of a Cowell game show winner. After all, those shows are built around tactical song selection, and adding enough to stand out from the competition without actually threatening the whole narrow Cowellian hegemony. Performing an old rock chestnut by Xeroxing a laid-back Hispanic* guitar arrangement seems to fit that description perfectly, somehow simultaneously mundane and clever. I’d forgotten that it was actually something he did in the show itself until reading comment #7, but it completely makes sense, because it’s exactly the sort of performance that wins you Cowell shows.

    And it’s theft from a source the target audience won’t have come across at all – which seems oddly characteristic of turn-of-the-millennium pop at this point, actually. We see it in the oldies covers more generally, but we see it in original material (B*Witched stealing from psych-era Beatles), ersatz I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Covers (“Stomp”), and a song from the depths of a megastar’s archives being remixed to the point of essentially being a radical cover (the next bunny).

    * To be exact, Feliciano is Puerto Rican. Has there been a charity single organised for Hurricane Maria relief? You’d think there’d be an opportunity to do so, given that two Puerto Rican artists just had an enormous global hit (bunnied, of course, its run at the top ironically split up by the appearance of a Cowellian charity record), and I can’t possibly imagine private charity, for all its usual weaknesses, doing a worse job of it than the United States government at this point…

  15. 15
    Ed on 15 Nov 2017 #

    There is indeed a charity song for Puerto Rico, organised by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and it’s terrific.

    Almost Like Praying: https://youtu.be/D1IBXE2G6zw

  16. 16
    AMZ1981 on 15 Nov 2017 #

    Let’s not forget that every album Will Young has released has gone top 2 at least and the two most recent topped the chart, despite a four year gap between them. He is something of a fanbase concern, to be fair (but then again who isn’t) but you’d struggle to think of a comparable artist who has maintained a ten year plus following. I’ll say this as well; maybe I don’t move in the right company but does anybody actually know any Will Young fans? I must admit I’ve never actually met one but you do kind of need fans to top the albums chart.

  17. 17
    Lazarus on 15 Nov 2017 #

    What an odd coincidence that Jose Feliciano (with Jools Holland) should turn up on the One Show just now. In leather jacket and rock star shades, he looks nothing like I’d have expected.

  18. 18
    Tommy Mack on 16 Nov 2017 #

    Played this back to back with Jose Feliciano’s version. I can see why you’d prefer Will’s version to The Doors’ original but you’d have to be mad to prefer it to Jose’s, it’s margarine to his butter.

    Also, I’m reminded that I don’t love Will’s voice. The thinness doesn’t bother me but there’s a slight whine that really grates on me (although I realise on this one, he’s possibly imitating JF’s nasality)

    3 or 4 for me. Inoffensive but pointless.

  19. 19
    ThePensmith on 18 Nov 2017 #

    #16 – I’d call myself a Will fan. Although a good friend of mine from uni is an even bigger one than I am, and has been to all his tours/met him several times. So they are a strong breed! Of course once we get to the 2003/2004 bunnies, we meet two bands who are the dictionary definitions of fanbase concerns, albeit none the worse for all that.

    As Amz1981 has rightly pointed out context is everything to this bunny, because this was one of Will’s show stopping performances on Pop Idol and one that arguably won him the whole series. Another of them – his version of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ – is a B-side on here too, and the moment I became a fan of his.

    I have to say the only version of ‘Light My Fire’ I’d heard before Will’s was that by Mike Flowers Pops that got to #39 in June 1996 in a double-a-side with their version of Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Please Release Me’. It was an early Woolies bargain bucket purchase made by my mum when I was not even 7, so I can be forgiven somewhat. But needless to say it was piffle. Will’s version on the other hand is a solid 7 for me.

    In fact much of his first album went for a pleasant but classy easy listening vibe that suited him down to the ground. The Cathy Dennis/Burt Bacharach collaboration ‘Lovestruck’ on it in particular is a thing of beauty.

    This also, after a quick check to confirm, hit number one the week that he performed a version of ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace (he appeared along with fellow 19 Management labelmates S Club 7 in their last performance with Paul Cattermole until 2014, and a post-Virgin drop, pre-second album of 60s gloriousness Emma Bunton, who Simon Fuller had just recently signed up again as a solo artist. She was meant to perform ‘2 Become 1’ according to David Sinclair’s ‘Wannabe’ book, but did The Supremes’ ‘Baby Love’ instead).

    There was a brief hype made over the fact that Will released this the same week Pop Idol’s hosts Ant & Dec released ‘We’re On the Ball’ for the 2002 World Cup. It got no higher than it’s #3 entry point, and crashed out the charts almost the second that England were knocked out by Brazil. Still, we only have to wait another 11 years to discuss them here (Ant & Dec, that is, not England)…

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