A name I hadn’t heard for ages popped up on the radio the other day…Billy Ocean. He was a big star in the 1980s with hits like “Love Really Hurts Without You” and “When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going”.
This time the DJ didn’t play one of his hits from the old days, instead he played Billy Ocean’s more recent recording of “A Simple Game”.
I remember catching Billy Ocean on some chat show a year or so ago. He gave a live performance of “A Simple Game”, his new record at the time, come the end of the show. For a man well into his 60s, he gave a good account of himself with his cover of what I’d always considered a Four Tops song…(Billy Ocean’s recording here… https://youtu.be/ANQjdmVkdHk )
It’s very good. Billy Ocean introduces a hint of vulnerability that perhaps wasn’t so much a part of The Four Tops’ original, which you can find here… https://youtu.be/EDID-1NYAjg
I say “Four Tops’ original”…but when I did a bit of research into the song it was a great surprise to discover the Four Tops version of “A Simple Game” wasn’t the original recording at all.
Given the Four Tops’ history at Motown, I must admit I’d always imagined “A Simple Game” was another monster hit fashioned by Motown’s ace writing and production team, Holland-Dozier-Holland, who wrote and produced many of what we would now regard as the classic Motown tracks. How wrong could I be…?
Quite a lot, it turns out.
“A Simple Game” was written by Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues. Even more astoundingly, although “A Simple Game” would go on to win an Ivor Novello award, it didn’t appear on a Moody Blues album at the time of its original recording, and only featured as the B-side of a single release, or we might never have heard it at all.
In my defence, m’lud, that’s why I didn’t realise there was another version of “A Simple Game” before The Four Tops’ much more famous recording. I don’t even remember hearing The Moody Blues version on the radio growing up — every time “A Simple Game” came on, it was always the Four Tops’ recording.
I’ve always been a big Motown fan and I particularly liked the power of lead singer Levi Stubbs’ vocals…”Don’t Walk Away, Renee”, “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”, “Standing in the Shadows of Love”…all classics I can listen to over and over again.
In retrospect, I should have realised this wasn’t a Holland-Dozier-Holland song before now. And it actually becomes more apparent in Billy Ocean’s recording without the full-on Motown production treatment.
In Billy Ocean’s hands, you can see how “A Simple Game” might easily have started out as a song written by a bunch of English hippies.
For all that, each version of “A Simple Game” is distinctive in its own way, but still recognisably the same song. I always like that in a performance…how some very subtle changes can give a song a completely different vibe. The three versions of “A Simple Game” illustrate that really well.
The lyrics can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but for me they implore us all to find our individual path through life, realise our potential to bring good to the world and become the person we were destined to be.
Mike Pinder puts it like this…
As time goes by
You will see
That we are going to be free
You and me
A little further on he tells us…
Be what you wanna be
What we deserve to be
What we are meant to be
In the hands of The Four Tops, one of Motown’s biggest acts, these words sound like a tale of the struggle for emancipation. In the hands of 1980s legend Billy Ocean, they sound like the advice someone the age he is now might give their grandchildren. In the hands of the Moody Blues it sounds like some typically trippy hippy talk.
And that’s what I love about music. The same song…three near-identical treatments…three entirely different results…giving three subtly different messages.
What’s interesting is that the different messages don’t come from the words you hear. Those are identical in all three versions.
The messages are, admittedly, created in part by our unconscious associations for each act. But I’d argue much of the difference comes from the skill of each individual vocalist…squeezing just enough subtle changes in expression out of the same set of lyrics to take our minds in one of three different directions.
Odds are you’ve never heard the Moody Blues version of “A Simple Game”…I certainly hadn’t until researching this article. So that’s the version I’ve linked to below. It’s audio-only, unfortunately, but it’s a decent quality audio and there’s certainly enough listening pleasure in that to keep anybody going.
Mike Pinder wrote a wonderful song, a song of hope and self-determination that remains as relevant today as it did on The Moody Blues original recording nearly 50 years ago. Billy Ocean proves the continued relevance of “A Simple Game” with his more recent version. And The Four Tops’ recording was the biggest chart hit of the three, and the version most people think of when the song title is mentioned.
All three versions showcase just what a great song Mike Pinder wrote.
More often than not, Justin Hayward sang lead vocals on Moody Blues records. But for “A Simple Game”, in addition to his normal duties on keyboards, Mike Pinder provides the lead vocals for this one too. I hope you enjoy the original version of this lovely song as much as I did.
Here’s The Moody Blues with “A Simple Game”…
The video is below, but if you prefer to listen on Spotify, you can listen to the track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/3DW0zyvMMYA1OezDNiIAuK
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