Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Valerie – Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse)

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I had reservations about picking a tune so newly-lodged in my mind for the Monkeys Tunes (great idea, by the way – reviewing single songs). Ever-mindful of the ‘o.k computer fallacy’ (where Q readers voted radiohead’s then latest album as the greatest album of all time), I was more inclined to pick something sure to stand the test of time.

But then again, this is a tune that almost immediately provokes a number of questions that, in themselves, make it worthy for discussion – plus, I’ve a sneaking suspicion that in years to come some version or other of this Zutons song will still, rightly, being played (like O.K Computer).

The main question the song begs relates to authenticity. Prized, almost above all-else, in criteria for evaluating a ‘serious’ artist, sincerity or ‘keeping it real’ has become a weighty millstone around the neck of modern rock. You might not be able to sing brilliantly; you might not be able to write a sophisticated bridge; you might not even – god forbid – look the part, but as long as your song is sincere you’re liable to be taken seriously by someone somewhere. Is this a good thing?

The first version of this song that I heard was on the BBC Radio One live Lounge album. A bluesy admirably drawled-out version by the Diva Amy Winehouse. Now, the first time a song sticks in your head, that particular version has an automatic head-start on any other – as I find out to my detriment when it took me years to displace Gary Moore’s pompous bombastic version of the Yardbirds Shapes of things in favour of the immensely superior earlier version by the Jeff Beck group (with the much-maligned Rod Stewart singing his soulful heart out).

So the second version of the song was always going to have a hard time competing, even though it came from the original authors of the song, the Zutons, performing a live version on the self-same BBC album. Not a bad version of the song, with plenty of space, and cracked vocals oozing world-weariness from the Liverpool band. When weighed with the other versions bouncing around, though, this version of the track sounds uncomfortably like a busking band (albeit a good one) making a decent stab at it.

The third version was the actual studio version by the Zutons, which strangely swings more than their live performance – in particular the guitar punctuates the melodic bass line allowing the song to pulse and swell. The band get, in a sense, to reclaim their work.

It’s at this point that we finally get to the version chosen above all others, as this Monkey’s tune – and it’s down predominantly to the role of producer Mark Ronson. From the opening drumbeats, this is a song ramped up into an entirely different and better context. The beats could be straight from The Supremes You can’t hurry love, but this is no pastiche. He takes an earnest indie love song, and through crystal clear ’50s beats and the extraordinary voice of Amy Winehouse (finally channeled into something worthy of it) manages to make something that sounds current, captivating, and just the right side of edgy. The gender confusion of Winehouse singing throws out questions:

“‘Cos since I’ve come on home, well my body’s been a mess
And I’ve missed your ginger hair and the way you like to dress
Won’t you come on over, stop making a fool out of me
Why won’t you come on over Valerie, Valerie.
Valerie, Valerie?”

How do we interpret Winehouse’s voice? Should the song then be read as a call to herself? Should it be taken as a Lesbian love song? Should it be taken as a simple example of brilliant technicians performing a role? We’ll take this song, obviously written by a man for a woman, and get a woman to sing it convincingly with 100% soul, just to show you we can. The singer as performer and actor, and take your authenticity and shove it. ‘

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of big-producers, who can take a song and wrap it in their trademark sound. If I had a Papal dispensation, I’d round up the Mutt Langes and Timbalands of this world and dispatch them to a console-less pit. Ronson will probably get on my nerves just as much, should he continue to be flavour of the month (though he’s done an admirable job of improving Maximo Park’s apply some pressure, a song I already loved). In the meantime, though, let’s celebrate the crafted elevation of a good song into a brilliant one. Its a credit to all involved.

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