Yes, you read that right: Barbra Streisand singing songs written by John Lennon.
I don’t get Barbra Streisand. I know she’s won a brace of Oscars; I know she’s sold countless albums and that she holds the record for the most top-ten albums of any female recording artist, but all I hear when she opens her mouth is that nasal, Brooklyn whine. I know that she has raised more than $25 million for charity; I know she’s as gay-friendly as they come. I should like her...but I don’t. Maybe it’s because of Meet the Fockers, or because she uses a teleprompter during her live shows (that’s just lazy). I know that a great many people love her fractured, bruised style; that the tragic longing in her voice has a diva-like quality which has endeared her to gay men of a certain age but – like that other icon Bette Midler (if I hear that bum note at the end of the Wind Beneath my Wings once more I think I’ll strangle someone) – I can’t stand her.
And I especially can’t stand this.
In the hands of John Lennon Mother is a heart-wrenching, guttural, angst-ridden plea to his parents not to leave. Influenced by his experience with Arthur Janov’s Primal Scream therapy, it tells how John was abandoned by both his parents: his father Fred, who walked out of his life when he was little more than a toddler (and who resurfaced once his son had become a global superstar) and his mother Julia who had begrudgingly handed her son over to his aunt Mimi and who was run over and killed by a drunk, off-duty policeman shortly after she and John had been reconciled. It’s a pained, painful and brilliant performance from John, accompanied by Ringo Starr on drums and long-time friend Klaus Voormann on bass. It’s one of the best things ever released by a solo Beatle; if it doesn’t move you then you don’t have a soul.
However when Babs takes on the song it becomes anodyne and boring. She doesn’t understand the pain of the composer: although her own father died when she was 15 months old her mother remarried when she was seven and she enjoyed a poor but settled family life. She turns Lennon’s anguish and anger into something insipid and radio-friendly: it starts off as a hymn, complete with church organ, but by the third verse she’s really into her stride, bleating, shrieking and honking her way through the song. It jars when, on several occasions, she misses her marks. Producer Richard Perry would later do great work for Ringo and Harry Nilsson but here he’s so far off the mark it’s ridiculous.
It’s a rock song sung by someone who has no idea how to rock. Opera singers should not attempt to interpret pop songs. Streisand, perfectly at home with power ballads and show-stopping stage standards should never, never, never try to cover material written by one of the greatest rock vocalists of all time. Some genius at Columbia even thought it wise to release this as a single in several countries. What were they thinking?