Cat’s in the Cradle - the Harry Chapin original
The idea for this review came to me at 3 AM, as my cat, Kevin, settled himself atop my head while I slept in my bed. Before any rumours start circulating about me sleeping in a cradle, I want to make it clear that I actually sleep in a racecar-shaped trundle. But we’re already off-track and it’s only the first paragraph.
Cat’s was birthed as a poem by Chapin’s wife, Sandy. He says he “stole” it from her in his endeavour to become a great artist. During a live performance of Cat’s, Chapin once said: “it’s about my boy, Josh, and frankly, this song scares me to death.”
Chapin’s timeless classic has the power to wrench tears from fathers and sons across generations, leaving even the toughest of men vulnerable, caught off guard and bawling in the supermarket aisles as its poignant melody spills from the tannoy system. It’s a reminder that behind those hardened exteriors lies a deep emotional core, shaped by the emotional and physical absences of their fathers. Masculinity is complex.
The song begins abruptly with the hook, a fingerpicked lullaby accompanied by other stringed instruments. True to the style of many exceptional songwriters, the first verse manages to convey a wealth of meaning with just a handful of words. By the end of the chorus, the characters, setting, and tone are firmly established.
In terms of composition, Cat’s is primarily driven by a Travis-picked acoustic guitar, which forms the foundation of the track. Accompanying the guitar is a captivating bassline, with that rich, present sound found throughout the seventies. Additionally, the song incorporates a string section, adding depth to the overall arrangement. The composition strikes a balance between simplicity and richness, with the backing instruments providing an emotional backdrop for the narrative journey spanning two lifetimes.
I sat listening to Cat’s with Kevin in my lap. By the third chorus a tear welled in my eye, and Kevin was feeling personally attacked. One day, all too soon, he’ll be on his way to cat college.
Ugly Kid Joe covers Cat’s in the Cradle
Joe first came to our attention while kite-flying sex dolls on the beach for their breakout hit Everything About You. Understandably, expectations were low when their subsequent release was for Cat’s, a poignant and introspective lament of intergenerational disappointment.
The Joe opening stays true to Chapin’s rendition, mimicking the tone and hook with effortless fidelity. The Travis picking had been substituted with lush acoustic strums, the essence and vibe of the original are still preserved.
The verses remain faithful, giving the impression that a respectful homage to Chapin’s classic is in store. However, after the third chorus, the guitarist’s fingers become restless, and the overdrive is cranked up, taking a prominent position in the foreground.
If you ever wondered what would happen if a rock band tried to play folk music while still plugged into their amps, Joe’s rendition is here to satisfy your curiosity. Once they flick the switch to their own style, the song undergoes a transformation into a powerful rock anthem with ballad elements. This style is their signature, and I can’t deny that I was expecting it. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just a departure from the original and it works in its own unique way.
Comparing Harry Chapin and Ugly Kid Joe
Chapin’s rendition is lamentful, and, essentially futile. The narrator realises the problem of his own making and understands their is no redemption. He’s trodden that path himself. There’s no happy ending here.
Joe’s departure from the original’s sincerity may give the impression that some of the emotional impact has been lost. The escalated rock-out ending might appear as an added and unnecessary element. However, if you approach it with a generous perspective, you could interpret the Chapin version as being sung from the father’s point of view, while the Joe version represents the perspective of the frustrated and forgotten teenage son. This interpretation adds depth and sheds light on the different emotions and experiences portrayed in each rendition.
Joe’s version of Cat’s is like a rebellious teenager’s attempt at ‘adulting’ – loud, brash, and missing the subtle nuances of the original.
Their rendition is unapologetic, while still paying tribute to the surface-level elements that made the original song great. It’s evident that they approach the source material with reverence and admiration, ensuring there is no disrespect in their version. But at times they’ve missed the nuance and subtlety that make Chapin’s version a classic.
If you thought the original Cat’s needed more power chords, long hair and wind machines, then Joe’s cover will be your jam. But for those who appreciated the gentleness and introspection of the original, this rendition falls short.
Reading this review might give you a bit of whiplash as I seem to be alternating between praising and criticizing Joe. The reason behind this is that there are indeed many positive aspects to their cover rendition. Joe didn’t do a bad job; it’s a perfectly serviceable cover that resonated well with audiences in the early 1990s. It was the kind of cover that suited the tastes of that time, and Joe delivered what was expected. However, upon closer examination, a more mature analysis reveals the flaws that become more apparent.
Would I listen to the cover over the original? I wouldn’t smack the radio on the nose if it came on in my car. If I were curating my own playlist, however, Chapin wins every day of the week. There’s isn’t enough on offer from Joe other than nineties nostalgia.
I rate this cover three overdue bedtime stories out of seven.
Hug your cats, people!
Please enjoy these rejected cover images for this article.