Following a conversation between our writers we’ve come up with this new occasional feature which we hope you will enjoy. The question posed is “What is the best or definitive version of any given tune. Is it the original, the first version that you heard or the one that got recommended by a friend?” It’s a tricky one, right? Over the course of this series we will be looking at individual songs and how different artists have interpreted them. This could be different artists covering the same tune or indeed the same artist interpreting their own tune in different ways. First into the fray is my chief collaborator on this feature Rick Bayles who gives us an in-depth analysis of the song ‘1952 Black Lightning’ for all you motorcycle enthusiasts.
Richard Thompson (1991) The original and, many would say, the best version of this outstanding song. Taken from his ‘Rumour and Sigh’ album the song tells the story of motorcycle rebel, James Aidee, and his love for his Vincent Black Lightning motorcycle and the girl known as Red Molly. The Vincent Black Lightning motorcycle was produced by the Vincent company, based in Hertfordshire, from 1948 to 1952 and was reckoned to be the fastest production bike in the world at that time. Only 31 were ever built, so they were rare, even in their day, and this would’ve been one of the last models produced. The song is a wonderful piece of story-telling, with James establishing his bad-boy credentials early in the narrative – “I’ve fought with the law since I was seventeen/ I’ve robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine/ And now I’m twenty-one years, I might make twenty-two/and I don’t mind dying but for the love of you/ and if fate should break my stride/ I’ll give you my Vincent to ride”, so his motorcycle is, of course, the spoils of ill-gotten gains and he goes on to meet his end in a robbery gone wrong, passing the keys of his beloved Vincent to Molly as he lies on his deathbed.
In 2011 Time magazine listed ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ in its “All TIME 100 Songs”, a list of what it considered to be “the most extraordinary English-language popular recordings” since the magazine began in 1923, citing it as “a glorious example of what one guy can accomplish with just a guitar, a voice, an imagination and a set of astonishingly nimble fingers.”
Del McCoury Band (2001) Perhaps the best-known cover version of this song, certainly in Americana circles, is this one from Del and his band, who take the song and turn it into a rousing bluegrass anthem. They, famously, changed just one word in the entire song, substituting the name of a city in Tennessee, Knoxville, for the summit of the North Downs, Box Hill, in Surrey, England – “So he pulled her on behind, and down to Box Hill/Knoxville they did ride”. It’s a clever substitution because it instantly gives the song an American identity missing from the original and McCoury was able to make the song his own without further changes to the lyrics. Many Bluegrass fans actually think this is a McCoury original, which is quite a compliment to Richard Thompson’s ability as a writer. In fact, Thompson’s music draws heavily on the Anglo/Celtic folk tradition, which is also at the root of American Bluegrass music, many of the tunes being based on folk songs brought over by the original European settlers.
Reckless Kelly (2006) Reckless Kelly are a country rock band based out of Austin, Texas. They took this song, slowed it down and presented us with a country rock ballad on their 2006 live album, ‘Reckless Kelly Was Here’. It’s an interesting comparison with the McCoury version; the harmonies are more in the country style and the fiddle is more prominent in certain sections. This version keeps the signature guitar lick and there’s a solid rock beat and backbone to the song. In many ways this is the more surprising of the cover versions featured, as a country rock version seems one of the least likely directions to take this song in – but it works gloriously well and the band can take full credit for a clever and creative approach that puts their own stamp on the song.
Red Molly (2014) Red Molly are an American Folk Trio comprising of Abbie Gardner (vocals, guitar, dobro and lap steel), Laurie MacAllister (vocals and bass) and Molly Venter (vocals and guitar). They formed in 2004 and took their band name from the heroine of Richard Thompson’s song – though they didn’t know it was his song at the time; they’d only ever heard the Del McCoury Band’s version at that point.
Red Molly also bring a different approach to the song. The swagger and bravado of James has gone and what you get is a telling of the story that comes across as being in Molly’s voice. This is partly because they are female voices doing the singing but the delivery is more wistful and they’ve tapped in to the romance at the heart of the song. The use of their harmonies and their phrasing positions the song more as a country blues, in the style of a murder ballad, with Abbie Gardner’s dobro playing conjuring up images of the Appalachian Mountains behind James and Molly as they ride into the night. It’s interesting that they didn’t record their version of the song until including it on ‘The Red Album’ in 2014, when they’d already been Red Molly for 10 years, in fact it was a relatively latecomer to their set and they only started playing it in response to fans requests for their namesake song. This is one of my favourite versions of the song, despite being a big Richard Thompson fan. I think this more gentle telling of the story adds to its depth and gives the band a version they can truly call their own.