Here’s our third and final article in this short series of non-Christmassy songs that were big hits at Christmas.
Although I didn’t set out to do this, I’ve just realised that all three of the songs I’ve written about… “Hallelujah”, “Mad World” and “Somewhere Only We Know” … are covers.
In the case of “Hallelujah”, it’s actually a cover of a cover… or even a cover of a cover of a cover… I’ll explain shortly…
And just on the off-chance you’re a massive Jeff Buckley fan reading this, the reason I’m writing about Alexandra Burke’s version of the song is that her version hit the top spot in the UK charts back in 2008. As this short series of articles is about non-Christmassy Number One hits, Alexandra Burke’s version won that particular battle by a nose.
It also has to be said that, in just about any version, “Hellelujah” is a phenomenal song, and I’m paying tribute to the song as much as anything else.
“Hallelujah” had an inauspicious start in life, tucked away as an album track on Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s 1984 album “Various Positions”.
In fairness to his record company, Leonard Cohen isn’t an act you’d immediately think of for the singles chart. But it’s perhaps surprising, given the number of well-regarded versions of “Hallelujah” performed by other artists, that Leonard Cohen’s version wasn’t considered for its own single release.
Nowadays, a song that good would be streamed from the album anyway and probably chart on the basis of streaming numbers and downloads. But back in the 1980s, record companies were more in control of the process. They didn’t think it was a single…so it wasn’t. End of debate.
Again, in fairness to Columbia Records, Leonard Cohen’s original was extremely dark — a bleak, almost mumbled piece of soul searching packed full of biblical references.
And this was the year when songs like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper, “Jump” by Van Halen and “The Reflex” by Duran Duran were riding high in the charts, so you can see the record company’s point.
After languishing in obscurity for a few years, “Hallelujah” started its decades-long journey to the top of the charts in 1991 when former Velvet Underground member John Cale recorded a version for his album “I’m Your Fan”.
As Leonard Cohen had a habit of mixing up the verses over the years in his own live performances, writing new lyrics and discarding old ones, John Cale played an important role in making “Hallelujah” the great success it deserved to be.
He ploughed through the dozens of sets of lyrics Leonard Cohen had used at different points over the years and selected the lyrics we would now recognise as the definitive version of the song.
But it would be another few years before the first more widely-appreciated version of “Hallelujah” came along.
The song languished on John Cale’s album, as the original had languished on Leonard Cohen’s, until a young singer called Jeff Buckley heard it and recorded his own version in 1994.
At this point, the critical acclaim for Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece started to snowball. Whilst still just an album track on Jeff Buckley’s “Grace” album, it was starting to get noticed. People started talking about it.
Jeff Buckley sadly passed away, far too young, a couple of years later. And the song might have languished on his album for the rest of time too… critically-acclaimed, but with only a small group of “those in the know” aware it existed.
But in 2001 the blockbuster film “Shrek” came along, which used John Cale’s version of “Hallelujah” to great effect.
In an instant, the popularity of the film gave “Hallelujah” the mainstream traction a song this good deserved. From an obscure album track, almost overnight it became a song everybody knew.
By 2004, “Hallelujah” rightly appeared on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All-Time listing.
There are many critics and industry insiders who consider Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” to be the definitive version. Although I’m using the Alexandra Burke version for this article, I’d probably agree with them. You can find Jeff Buckley’s version here… https://youtu.be/y8AWFf7EAc4
If you listen to Jeff Buckley’s version, you’ll notice it’s much longer than the Alexandra Burke hit version and contains a number of verses that were sanitised from her more commercially-friendly take on the song.
There are people who disparage this sort of treatment. But I’m in favour of just about anything that publicises one of the greatest songs of all time and gets it in front of a wider audience.
Although many people will just stick at the commercial hit version, a small number… including you, now, dear reader… will spend the time to get to know the original and to pay tribute to the songwriters and the people who helped it along the way.
If John Cale’s version of “Hallelujah” (a live performance here… https://youtu.be/Nzu4LE667VM ) hadn’t been included in the Shrek soundtrack, would it have had enough traction to make Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list?
We’ll never know, of course, but I imagine it helped considerably…
But for the biggest UK hit version of “Hallelujah”, we need to wait another couple of years until the X Factor in 2008 came along.
Again, people often disparage programmes like the X Factor. Leaving aside that it’s a far from perfect, and often quite cruel, format, it can play a part in getting public traction for songs and artists who might not have made it into the British public’s consciousness up to that point. So there’s both yin and yang at work…
Some of the more biting, biblically-infused lyrics from the Leonard Cohen, John Cale and Jeff Buckley versions get omitted in Alexandra Burke’s version.
Partly this is to make sure she had a 3-minute single at the end of the process and partly, I suspect, it was to make it slightly easier listening for the general public.
They did leave in the opening lines, though, which give you a flavour of what was going through Leonard Cohen’s mind as he wrote the original…
I heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
Without mentioned their names, we then get taken through a verse which essentially tells the sale of Samson and Delilah, keeping the biblical theme very much alive.
Although my favourite verse in Alexandra Burke’s version is the last one…
Maybe there’ s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Is how to shoot somebody who’d outdrew ya
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not someone who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah
Although you’d be forgiven for thinking Alexandra Burke’s version was a religious song, entirely appropriate at Christmas time, it’s anything but.
The highly professional and commercial gloss on her treatment is like the old magician’s trick of getting you to pay attention to something so he can distract you from what his other hand is doing.
“Hallelujah” isn’t a Christmassy song at all. It’s a bleak and challenging song of love gone wrong and a crisis of faith. Even the word “hallelujah” is used ironically…a bit like, depending on the tone used, “woo-hoo” can be either an enthusiastic endorsement or a severely under-impressed reaction.
And that’s why I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Alexandra Burke’s version of “Hallelujah”, even though purists would point (largely correctly) to the John Cale or Jeff Buckley versions as conveying the spirit of Leonard Cohen’s original more accurately.
Alexandra Burke’s version is subversive in a way the other versions aren’t. They are up front about the way they’re going to challenge you. Her version creeps up on you without you realising.
So, to end this mini-series of articles about non-Christmassy Christmas Number Ones, I can’t think of a better song than 2008's surprisingly subversive UK Christmas Number One.
Alexandra Burke does a great job and thoroughly deserves her Number One. Her version of “Hallelujah” was the UK’s biggest-selling single of 2008.
Just remember, as the choir of angels is singing and the full orchestra is playing, that this is one of the most subversive records to hit the top spot in the charts…and it’s about as far away from what it appears to be on the surface as any record could ever be.
Here’s Alexandra Burke with her cover of Jeff Buckley’s cover of John Cale’s cover of the original Leonard Cohen composition… “Hallelujah”…
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please consider following me on Medium so you get new articles as soon as they are released. You can also find me on Twitter here.
And if you prefer to listen to the track on Spotify, you can find that here… https://open.spotify.com/track/5IaR621NoOM6i5KTcuNRHM