This is the 18th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs 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.
After spending what he called “a night in hell,” songwriter Mickey Newbury said he wrote “Just Dropped In” in the mid-to-late ’60s as a warning of the dangers of LSD. “It was a drug song telling people of the horrors that drugs will do to you,” Newbury was quoted as saying in Joe Zimmer’s “Mickey Newbury: Crystal & Stone.” “Some people jumped out of buildings… That song was about a country boy’s attitude to a bad acid trip. There were so many pro-acid songs then that I thought someone ought to show the other side.”
The song indicated Newbury’s ability to paint a picture with words:
I pushed my soul in a deep dark hole and then I followed it in
I watched myself crawlin’ out as I was crawlin’ in
I got up so tight I couldn’t unwind
I saw so much I broke my mind
I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in
After writing the song, Newbury shared it backstage at a concert with a friend of his from his from high school: Kenny Rogers. Rogers, performing with the New Christy Minstrels at the time, wanted to record “Just Dropped In.” Rogers said he asked Newbury multiple times if he could make his own version, but “[Newbury] said, ‘I can’t give it to you because Sammy Davis, Jr. has it on hold.’ Boy, I’d have almost loved to have heard that song.”
Davis never recorded the song, but Kenny Rogers eventually did. But a few others beat him to it.
The first recording of the song, titled “I Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” was by Teddy Hill & The Southern Soul, and released in October 1967. The phrase “southern soul” fit the group, and particularly this track, which smartly combined soul elements of horns with twangy, country vocals. It was a seminal recording for Rice Records, which previously had only recorded country and pop songs. The vocals had that bluesy balance between R&B and country, conveying the pain and frustration that those genres cover so well.
In a matter of months, Jerry Lee Lewis recorded his own version. From the opening bars in which Lewis played a “Cool Jerk”-like piano riff, everything about his version was peppier than the Teddy Hill & The Southern Soul version. Lewis sounded too unfazed, singing as if he were recounting a trip to the beach, rather than the story of drug-induced misery. The upbeat percussion and horn parts also belied the trauma of Newbury’s lyrics, sounding like something one could hear at a Blues Brothers revue.
By the time Rogers recorded “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” he was no longer with The New Christy Minstrels, but The First Edition. Arranged by producer Mike Post and featuring a trippy backward guitar intro by Glen Campbell, The First Edition’s version sounded like the kind of psychedelic drug experience the song described. “This is as close to a 1967 acid flashback as you’ll get,” Rogers told one audience.
When Newbury recorded his version for his 1968 album, “Harlequin Melodies,” the First Edition’s version was making its way up the Billboard Hot 100 (it peaked at Number 5). Because of the popularity of The First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” RCA pressured Newbury to model his version after that one. Newbury said he always thought the song should have been sad and bluesy, but the version on the album featured a psychedelic guitar production, per RCA’s wishes.
Bettye LaVette recorded her own version of the song “about two days after [Newbury] did.” LaVette’s “What Condition My Condition Is In” recast the song as fast soul song. The horn parts were given more space to breathe, building on the soulful foundation of Teddy Hill & The Southern Soul’s version. But the centerpiece was LaVette’s commanding voice, which Kenny Rogers liked so much that he brought it to the attention of his brother, producer Lelan Rogers. Through that introduction, Lelan Rogers and LaVette would eventually record her Top 40 hit, “He Made A Woman Out Of Me.”
The deluxe edition of LaVette’s album “Worthy” included an interview in which LaVette played a slower piano version of the song.
Experimental German post-punk band Die Haut recorded a version of “Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” with Nick Cave on vocals for its album, “Headless Body In Topless Bar.” The track, with its hiccupy starts and starts, slowly built into a noisy mess of guitars, drums, and distortion, sounding like the perfect late-’80s update of The First Edition’s psychedelic take on the song.
The Raymen played brand of rock that combined the pace of punk, the vocals of rockabilly, the quirky guitars of surf rock, and the production value of garage rock. The band’s “Just Dropped In,” appearing on a collection of rare and unreleased tracks called “Garbaged, Littered & Totally Destroyed,” sounded like a cross between a moody Cramps song and a dance-y B-52s track. There’s a spooky Halloween quality to the song, which dovetails well with the story told by the lyrics.
Using the moniker Mojo Nixon and The Second Edition, psychobilly singer Mojo Nixon recorded “Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In.” His bombastic version of the song used the line “Yeah, yeah, oh yeah/What condition my condition was in” throughout the song. In between those instances, Nixon screamed bits and pieces of the original lyrics, out of order, while also adding bits about Dolly Parton and others. At the end, over a final drum solo, Nixon yelled, “Ya know, what condition is Kenny Rogers’ liposuction in right now? God dang it!”
Supergrass recorded the song as a B-side to its single “Alright.” The song also appeared on the 20th anniversary edition of the band’s debut album, “I Should Coco.” The version was heavily informed by The First Edition’s, starting with the same “Yeah, yeah, oh yeah/What condition my condition was in” line. Less psychedelic than The First Edition’s version, Supergrass’ “Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” featured jangly guitars and peppy pianos that defined the rest of the album (and much of mid-’90s Britpop).
Just as “My Best Friend’s Wedding” introduced “I Say A Little Prayer” to a new generation in 1997, The Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski” revived “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” when the movie came out in 1998. The First Edition’s version of the song served as the backdrop for The Dude’s drug-fueled hallucination, cut specifically to go with the song, in which The Dude (Jeff Bridges) encountered Saddam Hussein as a bowling alley cashier before women dressed as bowling pins formed circles around him in some sort of Busby Berkeley dance sequence. By the time that part of the movie happened, enough what-the-fuck-ery had unfolded such that this was no big deal.
Willie Nelson has recorded two versions. The first appeared on his 2001 album, “Rainbow Connection,” and had a laid-back lounge feel with its restrained guitars, bongos, and harmonicas. As he was able to with his version of “Always On My Mind,” Nelson sang “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” in an earnest way that revealed the sadness of the story.
By virtue of the fact that Nelson’s second version had electric guitar and more drums, it sounded more forceful, even a bit angrier, than his first cover of the song. Appearing on 2002’s “Great Divide,” had a fuller sound, including backup singers for the occasional “ooh” or “what condition my condition was in.” Nelson’s vocals still sounded poignant, but he didn’t sound sad so much as like a guy who had a really weird story to tell.
Funk/soul revivalists Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings released a cover of “I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” that fleshed out the song’s funk potential that LaVette had explored in her version. Jones, one of the best soul singers of the last 20 years, sang as if she had shared the “night in hell” that inspired Newbury to write the song, and the horn solos and faster drums in the Dap-Kings version only bolstered the sense of frenzy.
Jeff Walker, the singer and bassist of the English metal band Carcass, released a solo alum in 2006, under the name Jeff Walker und Die Fluffers. “Welcome to Carcass Cuntry” was a country metal album that featured mostly covers. Walker’s “I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” lurched and sputtered, slowing the song down to a heavy, guitar-laden track. Walker’s maniacal vocals suggested not only that he had been on a harrowing and scary journey, but that he was still on it and might not ever stop.
With light percussion and minimal guitar, Tom Jones’ “Just Dropped In” was a slow burn that never fully erupted. The song featured unmistakable Jones phrasings and vocal flourishes, but for a man who made over-the-top remakes, this track felt sparse, almost muted. But even if Jones didn’t deliver the cautionary tale Newbury did, the restrained Jones still manage to convey a bewildered and cryptic tone.
Americana singer Paula Nelson covered “Just Dropped In” for her 2014 album, “Under The Influence.” Her steady voice, the perfect blend of country twang and bluesy swagger, was got more commanding, as if each word she sang was a flashback to her bad trip. The psychedelic elements that appeared in The First Edition version (and thus many subsequent versions) were absent, allowing the vocals to be the main attraction.
White Denim recorded a cover for the second season of the TV show “Fargo,” based on the Coen Brothers’ movie of the same name. That season was set in 1979, and White Denim’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” appropriately borrowed a lot in style from the late ’70s: spooky percussion elements, funky guitars, and disco keyboards.
A few times before, we’ve discussed a songwriter who wrote a song and recorded a version after another artist had already recorded it. Michael McDonald co-wrote “What A Fool Believes” with Kenny Loggins to appear on a Doobie Brothers album, but Loggins’ version was released first. In that post, we conceded that McDonald couldn’t cover a song he helped write. We applied that same logic applies with Carole King’s recording of “Locomotion,” in that it was another version of the song, but not a cover.
But Newbury’s version of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” was, against his wishes, heavily influenced by The First Edition’s version. So then could Newbury’s version be a cover of that version? Could any version be considered a cover of the First Edition version, even though that version was not the first recording? In other words, can you cover a song that itself is not the original? In the same vein, could any version of “Tainted Love” that depends on Soft Cell’s iconic keyboards be considered a Soft Cell cover, even though the original was by Gloria Jones?
These questions get at the heart of what a cover is. If a cover is just a recording of a song inspired or influenced by a previous version, then not only is Newbury’s version a cover of the First Edition version, but so are many of the versions out there. But that only speaks to the recording, not the writing. In which case, “I Say A Little Prayer” would solely be a Dionne Warwick song. Or would it? Anyone’s version of a song could be considered an original as long as someone else subsequently recorded a version that sounded like that earlier version.
To quote Walter Sobchek of “The Big Lebowski,” “This isn’t Vietnam, Dude. There are rules.” And a line must be drawn in the sand: you can’t cover a song that itself is a cover of another song. But even this is a squishy rule, one which could be challenged soon when we look at songs that are more than samples but aren’t exactly covers.
You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.