The Original: Quintessential New Order at the height of its ‘80s Electro Alternative Dance-Pop powers. With the thumping drum machines, the waves of synths, Peter Hook’s slinky bass, Bernard Sumner’s lyrics that combine melancholy and ecstasy at the same time. The track has been a dance club staple ever since it was first released in 1986.
The Cover: Take the sheet music from New Order’s version and remove everything except the chord progressions. Play the song on acoustic guitar with a single plucked melody line and arpeggiated chords, accompanied by a female vocalist.
I can’t stand MTV unplugged. It’s not that I don’t like acoustic music per se. On the contrary, it’s much of the best music ever made. It’s just that the idea of taking Rock and Pop songs and making them more “intimate” and “real” by swapping out the electric instruments for acoustic ones, for the most part, bugged the hell out of me, and it didn’t help that MTV created an entire show dedicated to doing just that and the show became so popular that technically the show is still going on even though MTV stopped playing music years ago.
In those broadcasts, perfectly good electric-powered songs became limp, soggy, and wimpy, like if Charles Atlas willfully turned himself back into the proverbial 98-pound weakling getting sand kicked in his face. [The worst offender was Eric Clapton unplugging his hit song “Layla” in 1993 and in the process siphoning the fire and urgency out of his 1972 version. Of course, that remake became a huge hit too and won a Grammy for Best Rock Song, which shows I know nothing about what kind of Pop music the general public wants.] Most of the rock songs I’ve heard on that series just don’t sound right without the sonic firepower needed to move a large crowd. And yet in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s bands from coast to coast started churning out worthless acoustic versions of their songs.
It takes skill to create an acoustic song remake that doesn’t suck all the life out of the original. Australian alt-rock band Frente! made one of those rare remakes. They created their version of New Order’s classic song in 1994 and it was the band’s only U.S. hit, hitting the top fifty on Billboard Hot 100 and top ten on the Modern Rock charts. What makes it work are Angie Hart’s sweet, clear voice and the fact that the band doesn’t sandbag the tempo just because there are only two of them playing relatively softly. Two of the most difficult things for a musician to do is to play either Loud and Slow or Fast and Quiet. Frente! do the latter just right for this song. It probably helped that the band was a full-time acoustic ensemble that was used to playing non-electric instruments that don’t require a candlelight setting.
Frente!’s cover doesn’t change the meaning or inherent strangeness of New Order’s original version, just the setting. It’s the version you might sing to yourself at 4:00am after you’ve gotten home from the club and your ears are still ringing, but you still remember the melody and words perfectly. Both versions are great in their own way.