Cover versions get a bad press. They’re rarely as good as the originals, or the originals as you remember them. They often try too hard to be tricksyly different. But one exception to the rule for me has been Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Nightshift” from his latest album. Only the Strong Survive is Springsteen’s 21st studio album and is made up of fifteen “soul music greats’. It came out late last year and, though I’m not a die hard fan, I’ve been revisiting this track for old times’ sake.
The Boss’s take on “Nightshift”, which was the last gasp of funk/soul from 70/80s band The Commodores, doesn’t mess with a good thing, although his chastened 73-year-old voice gives what was a smooth R & B inspired track, a more brawny melancholy. https://youtu.be/GsTKEQzLkmw
Or is that just me?
The lyrics of “Nightshift” (released in 1985) celebrate soul greats Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, who had both died the previous year. The song imagines them reunited, gigging together on a celestial nightshift.
Gonna be a long night
It’s gonna be alright, on the nightshift
You found another home
I know you’re not alone, on the nightshift
Back in the 80s, when The Commodores were charting with the track (straight after Lionel Ritchie had left them for a solo career), I was literally on the night shift, working as a sub-editor in Dublin newspapers. There was nothing even vaguely celestial about the 8pm–4am shift.
Politically and historically, these were dark years. As journalists, we maintained ghoulish vigils for hunger-strikers, warned of hurricanes and snowfalls that came in the wee small hours, charted the late-night casualties of sectarianism, war, air travel, cars and drink. Our job was to sit in deserted newsrooms waiting for the bad news to come.
On our nightshift, you were alone.
There was plenty of time to consider your debt, your broken heart, your unfulfilled ambitions, as you sat awake in the graveyard hours keeping watch while the normal world slept. And to wonder what the hell you were doing with your life. A time designed for existential angst.
Coincidentally, in the past week, two former colleagues of mine from The Irish Times and this era – Noel McFarlane and Liam McAuley – who’d have done their fair share of these shifts in their time, have passed on to the great subs desk in the sky. It gives added poignancy to the Springsteen track, and the memories it evokes. At our age, nostalgia has a treacherous undertow – the loss of companions who shared those times with you.
Despite the fact that it’s an elegy, “Nightshift” is paradoxically, a bouncy number. It has a danceable rhythm and a breezy, feel-good, optimistic mood – essentially a kind of “we’ll meet again” vibe. So, I’m hoping. . . the promise of an afterlife is one of the last vestiges of religious belief to die.
Over 35 years on, I’m living with the legacy of those long ago night shifts. I still keep ridiculous hours. Late to bed, late to rise.
But as Elaine Stretch memorably sang in the gnarly Stephen Sondheim classic – ” I’m still here!” And in the words of another classic from the now forgotten 1960s musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd – “And I’m feeling good.” (Covered by Nina Simone, Michale Bublé, George Michael and a raft of others.)
6 thoughts on “Bossing the Nightshift”
Mary–it’s not just you. I got chills the first time I heard/saw this gorgeous remake. So much love and care put into every moment of the video. I also love how the backing band and singers are highlighted in close-ups. I am a Bruce fan though. His autobiography was excellent–and definitely written by him. I think he’s doing his all to address the racial divide in America. He’s nothing if not ambitious.
John, glad you feel the same precisely because you’re a fan. It’s just a very tasty track, I think, and as you say, beautifully produced. I also really liked The Seeger Sessions album. The fella has range, I’ll give him that!
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Great stuff. You sent me scurrying to YouTube for the Commodores and Bruce’s videos. Sweet soul music indeed – and Bruce’s absurdly glamorous strings section. Cover versions can be inspirational. The Band’s Moondog Matinee features Richard Manuel’s heartbreaking vocal on A Change Is Gonna Come. John Lennon’s Stand By Me may be as good as Ben E King’s. And Johnny Cash’s Hurt made me forget about Nine Inch Nails.
Now I’ll have to go scurrying to YouTube for A Change is Going To Come – plus I don’t know Nine Inch Nails; thought Johnny Cash’s was the original!
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In full confessional mode, Mick, I have to admit a soft spot for some tricksy covers – I’m thinking of Sting and the Chieftains version of Sisters of Mercy. Totally naff and Oirishy but it explodes all of Cohen’s solemnity – also Ray Stevens’ cover of Misty, which turns it into a twangy country song.
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There’s nowt wrong with naff Oirish cover versions! Speaking of Cohen, people give Jeff Buckley the credit for turning Hallelujah into God’s gift to TV talent shows everywhere, But I think the honour belongs to John Cale who put the verses in a different order and simplified the arrangement. Cale’s version was heard during the climactic transformation scene in Shrek. Buckley picked up the baton and ran. Speaking of John Cale, his version of Heartbreak Hotel makes you forget about Elvis. I’ll always associate Sisters of Mercy with the scene in Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller, where the song accompanies a shot of a wagon bearing a load of weary prostitutes towards the mining town where Julie Christie runs the brothel.