Billie Jean

face in the sand

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

The King ruled over a great empire. He had built magnificent temples as monuments to his wealth and power. The inscription on his statue proclaimed his dominion over all the known world. Pretenders to his throne could only marvel at what Ozymandias had built. Marvel and despair, because no other ruler would ever match his achievements.

That is how I feel about Calum Graham. As a guitar player he is supreme. Look on his works, guitarists, and despair because, if you live for a thousand years, you can not hope to rival him. Take, for example, his version of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean.

When this came up in my listening stream the other day the Crotchety ears pricked up, electrical signals scurried down the auditory nerve and the neuronal networks buzzed with instant recognition. A smart young man with black hair and dark skin danced and sang for me. He sang about a woman who falsely accused him of being the father of her child. “But”, he protests, “the kid is not my son”.

The mental imagery was so vivid it had to be Michael Jackson’s huge hit record. Then, almost imperceptibly at first, doubts began to creep in. There’s that distinctive bass line introduction, there are those staccato chords, but is that MJ’s voice? Could this be an alternative take or a demo version? Or is this an exceptionally good cover? One thing is certain, there must be at least three separate tracks on this superbly produced recording.

Michael Jackson.jpg

But the brain continued to buzz with a mixture of admiration and puzzlement. Billie Jean is an imperiously good pop song and the original version stands head and torso above the desiccated dunes of the pop song desert. No-one would dare to challenge the King of Pop by issuing a straightforward copy of the world famous single. An imaginative re-interpretation would be one thing, but a direct clone, no matter how faithful, would be musical suicide.

And yet, here it was, telling a tale as mysterious and beguiling as the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Reaching for the streaming app Crotchety Man checked the artist. “Calum Graham”, it said. Well, that explained the exquisite guitar work, but who was the singer and what was producing those deeper notes? It took a visit to YouTube to find the almost unbelievable answer to those questions.

Astonishingly, not only is Calum Graham’s version of Billie Jean almost as good as the original, it’s performed solo on an instrument known as a harp guitar. There are no other tracks, there are no other musicians, there is no production magic. What you see in the video is all the artist needs to recreate a jewel from the pop world and bring delight to our ears.


fallen statue


Of course, the irony of the Ozymandias story is that eventually his empire crumbled to dust, his monuments were covered by the desert and this greatest of all kings was forgotten for centuries. If he had known what history had in store for him perhaps even he would have sunk into the sands of despair.

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