This is the first post in a yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of all songs in the series here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
In an interview with Elvis Costello, Smokey Robinson explained that Stevie Wonder had written a song with no vocals and brought it to a Christmas party to see if Robinson could write lyrics. Robinson said the song made him think of the circus, but he didn’t want to write about obvious circus imagery such as lions. Robinson relayed to Costello that he had wanted to write something “heart wrenching.”
The sad, conflicted clown Pagliacci, the subject of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera of the same name, had already inspired Robinson to write “My Smile Is Just a Frown Turned Upside Down” for Carolyn Crawford. When writing the lyrics for Wonder’s song, Robinson returned to Pagliacci and the themes he explored in the song for Crawford, even reworking that song’s line “Just like Pagliacci did/I’ll keep my sadness hid.”
The song that Wonder brought to Robinson, of course, became “Tears of a Clown,” and was a huge hit for Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. Pairing sad lyrics with a bright Motown sound made a song about sadness sound rather happy. Wonder’s sunny arrangement masks the somber story of Robinson’s lyrics and made them rather cheery. Smokey Robinson & The Miracles had already had a hit with a song about feigning happiness with 1965’s “The Tracks of My Tears.” But the fact that both hits were about sad people covering the tears of lost loves is not to say “Tears of a Clown” was formulaic or that Robinson was playing a gimmick. He just happened to tap into a relatable theme. There’s no specific details about what happened between the singer and the subject of the song, which makes it accessible to anyone who’s ever mourned a romance that has ended. It’s specific enough to elicit the appropriate feelings, but broad enough that it could apply to several circumstances.
The dichotomy between Wonder’s upbeat arrangement and mournful nostalgia that defines Smokey’s version is shifted in The (English) Beat’s cover of “Tears Of A Clown.” It’s not quite ska, but not quite reggae, and has a “let’s sit back with a cocktail” feel versus the original’s “let’s go to feel the dancefloor” vibe. But even at a slower pace, it’s still a great song. Dave Wakeling emotes a melancholy that doesn’t feel too sad, in part because the horns still make you shake in your chair. As is true with most Beat songs, my favorite part of The Beat’s “Tears Of A Clown” is Ranking Roger’s deep voice, which try as I might, I can never imitate.
As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, I’ve been fortunate to fill in as a guest for my friends’ “Under The Covers” nights a few times. In preparation for my first time in the DJ booth, I poured over several Spotify playlists to find new-to-me covers that I could mix in with well-known remakes. It was then that I discovered The Merton Parkas, and that band’s garage-y take on the classic. Released in 1979, The Merton Parkas’ “Tears Of A Clown” maintains the tempo of the Smokey version, but jettisons the funky Motown sound. It’s not a “gritty” cover, per se, but it’s less polished than the original and that lends to some of its charm. Something about this cover feels delightfully youthful, like we’re overhearing a couple of rowdy music fans messing around. Maybe it’s because Smokey is such a force who looms so large that I can’t help of thinking of him as older and wiser. Maybe it’s because the Talbot brothers were barely adults when The Merton Parkas were formed and thus Danny Talbot sounds younger and more foolish than the legendary Robinson. Or maybe it’s because the Parkas’ version exposes their intermediate-at-best guitars. That’s not meant as a dig, and it actually works in the band’s favor, as the overall mod revival sound pairs with Danny Talbot’s raspy voice.
The more versions of the song that I hear, the more convinced I am that I can’t find a horrible version of the song that I wholly dislike. Petula Clark’s vocals over the bouncy background music make for a fun, quirky cover. Phil Collins recorded a “Tears Of A Clown” that essentially sounds like a karaoke version of the original, and yet even that version makes me sway back and forth. La Toya Jackson’s version, from her 1995 album “Stop in the Name of Love,” has a strong synth reminiscent of 2 Unlimited’s “Get Ready For This” and thus sounds like a Jock Jams tribute.
But I still listened to it all the way through, because “Tears Of a Clown” is the musical version of coffee, chocolate, beer or pizza: even an ehh instance of it is still enjoyable. Maybe it’s my nostalgia for dancing around to the original talking when I say that, but I really do believe that the song is such a strong song to begin with that if Creed or Nickelback recorded “Tears Of A Clown,” I’d almost be willing to bet I’d like it.