Is Bridge Over Troubled Water the song even Simon Cowell couldn’t ruin? A charity version of the Simon and Garfunkel classic was released today, credited to Artists For Grenfell, to raise money to support survivors of the tragic Grenfell Tower blaze.
Quickly organised by the pop and TV supremo, a studio full of pop stars emote with breathy sincerity over piano and strings, a subtly modernised underlying groove building to an explosive gospel choir finale.
Good causes aside, on paper it sounds like a recipe for a farrago. Someone has chopped out the beautiful middle eight (it is so long to “So long silver girl”) and instead drafted in a couple of Grime rappers, Stormzy and WSTRN, to add to Paul Simon’s lyrics, the very notion of which would probably have most fans of the 1970 original break out in a cold sweat.
And there are so many famous singers on the track, they have had to parcel out lyrics a few words at a time, with little obvious logic. “When tears are in” sings Rita Ora. “Your eyes,” Craig David adds. “I will dry them all,” concludes Dan Smith of Bastille. I’d love to have been in the room where that was being organised. The 5’6” James Blunt’s entire contribution is “feeling small”.
And yet the result is undeniably moving. I defy anyone’s heart not to swell as the song gathers steam and hits that awe inspiring chorus declaration of support for a distressed friend. “Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down…” The wall of voices at the conclusion, including The London Community Gospel Choir, convey an immense feeling of care and solidarity. As an anthem of empathy, Bridge Over Troubled Water may simply be indestructible.
The press release claims 50 pop stars participated, although I only counted 20 lead vocalists and two rappers, with guitarists Nile Rodgers and Brian May in the engine room. There is a good showing on the track from Cowell’s TV talent show stable, including One Direction’s Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson and a trio of X Factor winners: Leona Lewis, James Arthur and Louisa Johnson. Kelly Jones of Stereophonics and Roger Daltrey of the The Who represent the rock fraternity.
Others including Pixie Lott, Dua Lipa, Geri Halliwell, Tony Hadley and Gregory Porter are in the massed voices of the chorus, willingly sublimating personal ego for a good cause – impressive in any endeavour, but all too rare in showbusiness.
There is an air of sanctity around charity records that effectively puts them beyond criticism. People are doing their bit for a good cause, and if the results are not to your refined tastes, then you should probably bite your lip and find something less worthy to moan about.
But I have to say most singalong charity records are so excruciatingly naff I’d pay good money to charity not to have to hear them again. Cowell himself has form in this department. His last charity record, an all-star version of REM’s Everybody Hurts in aid of Haitian earthquake relief effort in 2010, turned one of rock’s greatest and most tender songs into a saccharine, overblown, cheesy singalong.
Cowell not only has form in ruining great rock songs, he seems to take pleasure in it. The careers of his TV protégés has been marked by transforming much loved rock culture ballads into mushy, sentimental pap. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, Snow Patrol’s Run, Oasis’ Stop Crying Your Heart Out, Biffy Clyro’s Many Of Horror (When We Collide) and The Rolling Stones Wild Horses have all been given mainstream makeovers by a man who once admitted to me he didn’t really understand rock at all.
Perhaps his fondness for such classics of rock culture is a tacit admission that the kind of formulaic songs produced by in-house teams of writers for manufactured pop acts lack the emotional gravity and intensity of the best rock records?
Yet Bridge Over Troubled Water survives this treatment, perhaps because it doesn’t feel like a pop song at all, or even a rock culture classic. It feels like a hymn, like a mysterious folk song that has been shared from the dawn of mankind. Paul Simon once admitted to me that he still found it a mystery how his younger, 28-year-old self even came up with it.
“It almost feels like somebody else wrote it,” he revealed, and added “I also think that it’s the listener who completes the song.” The original version is surprisingly intimate, with an ethereal swell of a chorus that, on the charity version, becomes a full on gospel blast. It may actually suit the multi-artist format more than most songs, because of this churchy aspect. It has the feel of a universal song, to be sung and shared by all.
And that is part of why it hits home so hard for this particular tragedy. It is the sound of Britain’s pop community reaching out to another British community, to let them know that they feel their pain. It has the kind of shared compassion that charity singles aspire to but, through glossy sentimentality, frequently fall short of.
In that respect, Stormzy’s slow and sombre opening rap verses really set the tone. He sails pretty close to the edge, directly addressing the victims of the Grenfell fire and daring to put himself in their place. “For every last soul up in Grenfell, even though I’ve never even met you / That could have been my mum’s house, or that could have been my nephew / Now that could have been me up there / Waving my white plain T up there / All my friends on the ground trying to see up there.”
Grime originated in places just like these, and as the London Grime star of the moment, Stormzy makes a genuinely powerful voice for the community.
I think Paul Simon would be impressed but it is another Simon who deserves credit. I haven’t always been his biggest fan, but on this occasion, I genuinely salute Mr Cowell’s pop judgement.