You don’t need to have seen X Factor or The Voice more than once to have heard a judge unconvincingly assure a fretful contestant after a wobbly version of a well-known song: ‘You made it your own... you put your own spin on it.’
This spin usually amounts to nothing more than slowing down or speeding up the song, which often ruins the meaning of the lyric. It happened the other night when a teenaged female singer took Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun at a funereal pace.
Giving a fresh feel to a familiar song is no simple task. Once upon the 1950s and 60s, cover versions were more or less replicas of 45s that had already sold well elsewhere. The Byrds’ version of Mr Tambourine Man springs to mind as a mould-breaker, taking a Bob Dylan song with a sparse acoustic arrangement and giving it the full Rickenbacker/beat-group/harmony treatment. Jimi Hendrix’s singing and playing on All Along The Watchtower did something similar with Dylan, infusing an enigmatic number with a dramatic, almost apocalyptic feel. The Damned’s breakneck reworking of Help by The Beatles is another cover which reinterprets the original to memorable effect.
A handful of soul artists, looking to branch out into new markets, dipped their toes in the psychedelic waters circa 1970. Wilson Pickett covered Hey Jude and Born To Be Wild, and the Rotary Connection, featuring Minnie Riperton, lent their orchestral soul sheen to Like A Rolling Stone and Ruby Tuesday.
Even so, I would have said that the idea of a singer who cut his performing teeth as a James Brown impersonator not only covering a Black Sabbath song but transforming it into a genre-hopping, modern-day soul and blues classic was unthinkable.
That, however, is exactly what Charles Bradley has done with Changes, a song from a most unlikely source, the heavy-metal Brummies’ 1972 album Vol 4. The Screaming Eagle of Soul, as the 68-year-old Florida-born, Brooklyn-based Bradley is billed, first released it as a single on Record Store Day in 2013. It proved so popular that he made it the title track of his third album in 2016.
Changes is not in any way typical of Black Sabbath, being light years removed from Paranoid or War Pigs. In their hands, 45 years ago, it was a slow, mournful declaration of despair over lost love, a pretty tune reputedly written by the four original members after drummer Bill Ward’s marriage disintegrated. No one is thrashing his guitar or pounding the drums. Piano and mellotron, framing an echoey, forlorn vocal by Ozzy Osbourne, create an eerie other-worldly atmosphere, like Joe Meek on downers.
The lyric is deceptively mundane. Friends whose 13-year-old, guitar-playing son is in a band told me his own songs were ‘like Black Sabbath’ and I guess this is the kind of thing they meant. It starts with ‘I feel unhappy/ I feel so sad/ I lost the best friend/ That I ever had.’ Then comes the repeated refrain of ‘I’m going through changes.'
The final verse finds the narrator no closer to consolation. ‘It took me so long to realise/ That I can still hear her last goodbyes/ Now all my days are filled with tears/ Wish I could go back and change these years.’ In other words, teen angst and self-pity writ large. Osbourne and his daughter Kelly were able to take a cheesey duet version to No1 in the UK singles chart in 2003 on the back of the reality TV show about the family.
Bradley, who was not previously aware of Black Sabbath when the song was suggested to him, turns Changes into something more than sorrow at the end of a relationship. Ever since A Change Is Gonna Come, the momentous Sam Cooke ballad from the mid-1960s, the word ‘change’ in music has tended to be synonymous with civil rights. So Changes can be heard as a commentary on American society – from Trump and Obama to Black Lives Matter and much in between – as much as about parted lovers. The singer himself says he ‘gets emotional’ when he performs it because it reminds him of his recently deceased mother. He has since been stricken by stomach cancer, so he truly is going through changes of a profound nature.
The intro establishes a context for something timeless and meaningful. A sustained note on the Hammond organ generates a sense of anticipation before a fat bass, drums and tremolo guitar roll in and establish a sedate but insistent rhythm. Later come the beautifully arranged horns of New York’s Budos Band, Bradley’s Daptone Records stable-mates. They create the perfect platform for a majestic, mesmerising but characteristically rough-edged vocal, which builds towards a climactic title line complete with an anguished growl.
Charles Bradley has made Changes his own and, in doing so, single-handedly rehabilitated the concept of the cover version. Anyone who ever loved the Southern soul chops of James Carr and OV Wright, or the great Stax/Atlantic singers such as Otis Redding, will surely acknowledge its place in the pantheon.
Phil Shaw first wrote about music in Time Out from 1978 to '81 before concentrating on sports journalism with the Guardian and the Independent for 35 years. His collection of 7" singles stands at more than 2,000 and among his proudest possessions is a silver disc for penning the sleeve notes to the official 1998 World Cup album.