I will not rest until Simply Red covers this song.
For someone who has gotten almost as cover-friendly in his autumn years as UB40, I’m frankly surprised this hasn’t happened yet. After all, once Mick Hucknall lifted a huge chunk of Daryl Hall and John Oates; “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” for a 2003 single, you’d think that any and all apprehension about raiding the gold in them thar ’80s hills would be an afterthought. And yet, somehow, Hucknall has to date resisted recording his own version of a UK Top 10 hit – with a Simply Red-friendly reggae beat, no less – that is fucking begging for him to sing it. Go figure.
But enough about my cover version dreams. This song hooked me from the very first moment I saw the video in the dawning hours of MTV. There was something so heartbreaking about that chorus, no matter how funny the video was. (Keyboardist Tony Hymas should have been an actor, he was so good here.) When the clip ends, with singer Jim Diamond getting carried off in an abandoned car by a junkyard magnet, I just wanted to cry. They’re sending him off to die! Won’t somebody do something?
Six years later, I distinctly remembered a moment when I thought of the clip and that haunting chorus, even though I hadn’t heard the song since its MTV heyday. It would be another seven years before I saw the song on CD, in the form of an uber-expensive UK import double-disc collection of ’80s modern rock hits. I loved the song, but not for $30.
Fast-forward another three years (1997, for those keeping score at home), and Radiohead’s OK Computer dropped. The album came out in the summer, and while I loved The Bends, I had read the reviews about the new one, and I was damned if I was going to allow my summer to be weighed down by some dark-ass album. So I bought it in the fall…right when they released “Karma Police” as a single. Perfect. Ah, this is good cold-weather music. Hey wait, what’s this? That last bit, where Thom Yorke wails, “For a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself,” I found myself thinking, “This rings a bell.” Eventually, it hit me; I was playing guitar in my bathroom – it was a small apartment, and I didn’t want to bother anyone, because I suck – and while playing the chords to that last bit in “Karma Police,” I started slowly warbling, “I won’t let you down, won’t let you down again…”
Holy shit. A perfect match.
All right, not exactly a perfect match – “Karma Police” is at least a step lower than “I Won’t Let You Down” – but hot damn, were they chord progressions of the same mind, and PhD’s melody fit Radiohead’s music like a glove. Minor, minor, minor…now end MAJOR! Has a mash-up artist stumbled upon this yet? The first one to put them together has an instant cult classic on his hands.
I finally nabbed a copy of the song in 2000 – thank you, Napster – and still play the daylights out of it. I even try to watch the video once a month. (Seriously, is there anything funnier than a guy lighting a bomb that says “BOMB” on it?) There is talk, some 27 years after the band’s first release, of putting the albums back in print via iTunes. While it’s tempting to rail against an indifferent music industry for focusing more on the short-term acts than the long-term, bank account-fattening artists that could have prevented the crisis they currently find themselves in, we will instead simply say thank you. Hopefully that 45MB of disk space will generate enough revenue for them to, oh, I don’t know, make sure no album falls out of print ever again. Just a thought.
Obscure music geek trivia: the drummer for PhD was Simon Phillips. Wow.