“What would you do, if I sang out of tune,” echoes in the hearts of millions as the famous lyrics first penned by Lennon and McCartney (more of a ‘Paul song,’ no question), and later endured by Joe Cocker’s 1969 cover and subsequent opening theme for the classic TV show, The Wonder Years. Clearly, the Cocker version reigns supreme with its bluesy progression provided by Jimmy Page’s stinging guitar, topped with a ferocious vocal performance by Cocker that seems to release enough tension to wipe out a city. The soulful backup singers and brilliant eight-minute Woodstock performance highlighted in the ’69 documentary (where Cocker’s band admitted to being high on acid), reduces the Ringo Starr-sung version down to more of a spoof than a real Beatles tune.
Rolling Stone recently listed the Cocker version as one of the “Best Vocal Performances in Rock History,” which is no surprise to anyone willing to spend a few minutes and watch Cocker’s visceral attack on YouTube. “With a Little Help” assisted in propelling Cocker into the stratosphere along with his ’69 debut LP — which included a sultry version of the Animals’ classic, “Don’t Let Me Be Understood,” and an unmistakable homage to Ray Charles on everything Cocker touched.
Growing up in the late-’80s, Cocker’s cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends” became synonymous with Americana and popular culture when the song first appeared as the song that defined Kevin Arnold’s coming-of-age story in The Wonder Years. Overnight, every kid in my generation associated the tune with the bygone spirit of the ’60s, as opposed to the limited range offered by Ringo on countless forgotten performances with his All-Starr Band.
In the mid-’70s, when John Belushi covered the song on SNL during the inaugural “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” season, his spastic Joe Cocker on drugs performance was not only in tune, but also managed to earn a standing ovation from an audience that didn’t know whether to laugh, or to cheer in admiration of a magical performance that was genius, jaw-dropping, and reminded everyone how Cocker poured every ounce of his sweat and tears into each performance.
45-years later, Cocker’s version was reintroduced to a whole new audience during the closing set of Glastonbury 2013, when Mumford and Sons (Vampire Weekend providing support of keys and horns, with First-Aid Kit doing their best church choir backing), created a folk-rock version that exploded through the rolling green hills of the English countryside. The performance summoned the spirit of Cocker’s original festival performance in ’69. It was a grand finale to a brilliant festival, and my nostalgia senses were tingling.
A few days ago, I decided to get my nostalgia fix by watching The Wonder Years on Netflix – hoping to hear Cocker’s theme and feel the spirit of suburbia during the Age of Aquarius. But then it happened. And by it, I mean a reoccurring nightmare I’m probably going to have for the rest of my adult life.
The opening song of The Wonder Years, “With a Little Help from My Friends,” the Cocker version, didn’t quite sound right. No, in fact, it was someone else doing the singing. A country singer more in the line of an older, more washed up version of Toby Keith. Each note, systematically destroying my childhood with what can only be described as a sweaty-sounding rendition that pisses on the essence of what Cocker brought to the cover. It’s disgusting, and frankly, everyone at Netflix, ABC, and whoever else manages the licensing and reissue of the show should be ashamed of themselves. Show creators Neal Marlens and Carol Black, who may or may not have been involved in the gutting of the show’s soundtrack, are also at fault for allowing this to happen.
Look, I get it, music licensing and publishing issues have made it almost impossible to reissue classic TV shows in their original form — especially shows like The Wonder Years, which are built on the charm of the profound soundtrack during each episode. Seriously, just imagine the “My Father’s Office” episode in season one, widely regarded the first season’s best episode, without the use of the original Bach-inspired guitar riff from the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Actually, no need to imagine it, just go on Netflix and watch episode three of season one, and you’ll notice the original is now a cover. No, not a Joe Cocker cover that deserves credit, but some underwhelming version that any fan of The Fab Four will quickly notice is just off. Going further, it seems like all 115 episodes are laden with audio-holocaust; systematically wiping away treasures from the ’60s and replacing them with placid American Idol-sounding covers that offend music snobs, TV geeks, and flower children alike.
I will not be taking this sitting down. The mission is clear: Bring back the music from The Wonder Years for all six seasons on DVD, in their proper form, sans the butchered Netflix soundtrack from the Simon Cowell vault of untalented teenagers.
I recently discovered a website that lists every single classic song from all 115 episodes of The Wonder Years between 1988 and 1993. Peep it here. Now, all I need to do is check each publisher’s licensing fee for each song on DVD, start a crowd-funding campaign to raise a few million dollars to pay for the rights, and then, reach out to Fred Savage and Daniel Stern to help bring a proper soundtrack back to The Wonder Years that is accurate to the original.
I also cannot allow Cocker’s “With a Little Help” to live on in the form of a blasphemous cover that belongs in a cheap trucker bar. I simply will not allow the music that made The Wonder Years so special remain trapped in a web of legal and financial issues that cannot, and should not, keep great art from enduring.
[Update: About a year after this piece was published, it was announced ‘The Wonder Years’ would be available on DVD with all the original music.]