This week, we are diving straight into “Watching the Detectives”, off of the Thank You Album. The original was recorded by Elvis Costello in 1977, and other artists have covered the song over the years as well. Costello’s version is included on the Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time at #354. Additionally, Costello counts the song as his favorite from the first five years of his career. Those are tough markers to live up to, so let’s see how the band did.
Nice girls not one with a defect Cellophane shrink-wrapped so correct Red dogs under illegal legs She looks so good that he gets down and begs She is watching the detectives, oh he's so cute She is watching the detectives When they shoot shoot shoot shoot. They beat him up until the teardrops start. But he can't be wounded cos he's got no heart Long shot of that jumping sign Visible shivers running down my spine Cut the baby taking off her clothes Close-up of the sign that says "we never close" You snatch a tune, you match a cigarrette. She pulls the eyes out with a face like a magnet I don't know how much more of this I can take She filing her finger nails while they're dragging the lake (chorus) Now you think you're alone until you realize you're in it Now fear is here to stay love is here for a visit. They call it instant justice when it's past the legal limit. Someone's scratching at the window. I wonder who is it? The detectives come to check if you belong to the parents Who are ready to hear the worst about their daughter's disappearance. Though it nearly took a miracle to get you to stay It only took my little fingers to blow you away Just like watching the detectives. Don't get cute It's just like watching the detectives. I get so angry when the tear-drops start But he can't be wounded cause he's got no heart. Watching the detectives. It's just like watching the detectives. Watching the detectives. Watching the detectives.
I really appreciate the opening of Duran Duran’s version – the drums, thanks to the return of Roger Taylor – sound so round and whole with just the right amount of echo to make you feel like you’re right there in the room with them during the recording. The feel of the song still has a slight reggae feel to it, but only enough to convince the listener that yes, it’s the same song you’ve heard before. Duran Duran reimagines the song by inserting a definite rock guitar in parts, and considerably changing the beat so that it feels far more grounded into the floor than Costello’s original, which feels like it floats along.
There is an ease in the Elvis Costello original that isn’t found or heard in Duran Duran’s cover. Their version sounds darker, more nuanced, almost as though there is an unseen evil lurking in the shadows of each verse – which is intriguing, but then the chorus brightens with a sort of teasing, coyness as “she’s watching the detectives” is sung, sounding full of cheese and not much else. The overall effect feels very disjointed, and it doesn’t flow easily, almost as though they were two different songs knitted together. Additionally, the sound effects used in parts of the song don’t fit, they stick out, without reason. The song comes off disjointed, lacking integration, and messy. While there are things to love about the song: the echoing guitar, the depth of the vocals during each verse, the drums, the song just doesn’t seem to have a decisive, cohesive direction, falling a bit flat.
Of all the songs on Thank You, this is the one I have heard the original the most of. I’m not sure why that is. (I suspect part of it has to do with having a brother who really likes Elvis Costello. The other part is that it is a song played on the TV show, History Detectives, that I play for my students every year.) Anyway, as always, I will judge the Duran one as I do all the covers. Did it live up to the original? Did they add something to make it more special?
Let’s start with the original, which has a fun New Wave vibe to it. It feels relatively carefree with pretty straight-forward instrumentation. Interestingly enough, the lyrics do not add on to this feeling and, yet, as a listener the message does not really resonate. I’m not thinking about daughters who disappear or that the narrator cannot take much more of this. No, the vocals match the vibe of the music rather than the lyrics. I think that vibe is so overwhelming as well that none of the lyrics really stick in my head besides “Watching the Detectives” and that is with multiple, multiple, multiple listens. So, does Duran’s version do the same?
Right away, there is a different feeling with the Duran one. It feels instantly less happy even though you can tell that they are the same song. Duran’s instrumentation definitely has some additions to it from the very first notes along with those additional sound effects that Rhonda mentioned above. Some of it feels necessary to create a more modernized version and some feels unnecessary, like they were uncomfortable with musical open space. One other element that is worthy of mentioning here is Simon’s vocals. His vocals match the lyrics more. The vibe of the Duran version is much less carefree and implies something unsafe or unnerving going on.
All in all, this version is a mixed bag. On one hand, I think Simon’s vocals fit better to the intent of the song. On the other hand, Duran does too much musically, especially in the last minute or so. It felt like they weren’t comfortable leaving it as is and added a lot more sound effects than were strictly necessary. The original was pretty straightforward and I appreciate that Duran wanted to add their own spin but it was a little too much at times.