Cover versions are a difficult thing. If you stray too far from the original, you can be accused of bastardising a classic; if you stick too closely to it, people might rightly as what’s the point?
Taking on the Shangri-Las’ Leader of the Pack seems an especially hazardous task, given how perfect a slice of melodramatic pop the original is. The classic ‘death disc’, this is a perfectly constructed piece – three minutes of high emotion, high drama and high camp that could have easily unbalanced, but instead stays just on the right side of deadly seriousness. Mary Weiss’ vocals on the song are a flawless example of teen angst and the production is magnificent. Touching this seems fraught with danger. Twisted Sister got away with it in the early 1980s because Dee Snider’s gravelly vocals added a camp quality to the song, and the entire thing is gleefully disrespectful; Die Crazy Girls’ German version Der Feuerstuhl is an oddly glorious reconstruction that benefits both from the fact that it is in all senses a translation of the original – tantalisingly familiar yet decidedly mysterious – and because if anything, it ramps the melodrama up several degrees.
Cherie Currie and James Williamson’s new version of the song is a valiant try but ultimately seems like a poor facsimile of the original. Currie’s vocal is too mature and too powerful for the song, and Williamson’s heavy guitar additions are not quite heavy enough to lift the song to a different level. It’s too respectful, if anything – it sounds as if they are going for a recreation of the existing track rather than turning it into their own thing, and in doing so they occupy that uncomfortable point between imitation and originality. What this needed was more aggression, perhaps, more sonic madness to counter the unmatchable teen angst of the original song. Instead, we have a curiously restrained hybrid that on the one hand seems to want to beef things up, but on the other is too slavishly in awe of the original recording to be of real interest – why have a copy when the original is still out there to be heard? The only point where the track really strays into its own territory is at the end, when Williamson starts to guitar solo – but it means that the original ending of the song, so eerie and atmospheric, is lost in a rock ‘n’ roll maelstrom.
As a fan of both artists, I’d hoped for more from this. As it is, it feels like a pointless exercise, and a wasted opportunity – just think what they might have done together that would be more explosive?
Interestingly, the B-side of the seven inch is Currie’s version of her own Runaway’s song Cherry Bomb, with Wayne Kramer and Marky Ramone, and this is a pretty explosive, raw, belting version of a song – again, not straying too far from the original in feeling, but beefing up the rock ‘n’ roll chaos and sleaze – and of course, Currie’s voice is perfect for this track. It feels like the sort of jammed out version of the song you’d want to see live.