So, good people which version is better? Is it the classic original by Satchmo, or the punked-up goodbye from head Ramone, Joey Ramone? You decide!
“What a Wonderful World” remains to be one of the most unabashed songs of optimism ever recorded, covered by artists as disparate as soprano sax cheesemeister Kenny G, to alt-country goddess Victoria Williams, and on to new-psyche pop outfit the Flaming Lips, among many others. A relative flop around the time of release, the song itself gained resurgence in popularity by the end of the 80s, when it was featured in Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam in a memorable montage sequence that put the song’s innocence and optimism against the destructiveness of the war in Vietnam.
The sentiments in the song are undeniably sunny, despite the hints of melancholy in the Armstrong version at least. And if Louis Armstrong’s take is considered the most heartfelt, delivery-wise, than perhaps Joey’s take is equally heartfelt, knowing that he was in fact saying goodbye to us all; Joey was dying from lymphoma.
Armstrong’s version of the song, written by Bob Thiele (himself a jazz figure, using a pseudonym, George Douglas) was recorded in 1967, making the 1965 setting in the Levinson film somewhat of a historical inaccuracy, as effective as it is. It was a single at the time, but also features on the compilation album What a Wonderful World. Louis Armstrong was criticized by the jazz community around the time of this recording for selling out to a pop audience. Yet, the material here suits his ragged voice of experience all the more just because of what a striking contrast it provides.
I strongly think that this contrast is why this version of the song works so well. It’s more believable with someone like Louis singing it, because you get the sense that if someone with such a voice, laced with grit and texture as it is, believes that this is a wonderful world, then it simply must be. If someone with a blander, less idiosyncratic voice led the charge, it would be one-dimensional The poignancy here is undeniable because of how it works against expectations.
In 2001, Joey Ramone died having just completed his solo album Don’t Worry About Me. His version of the song is, perhaps predictably, a more intense, punk-oriented affair which creates another kind of context for a well-known song that works in its own right. This time, the song has the exuberance which the lyrics suggest – it’s truly celebratory. The added bonus is that this is not a song of mourning which it easily could have been. Instead of being a restrained eulogy of a song, it kicks ass instead. In this sense, it provides just as much of an interesting contrast as Armstrong’s version provides, although this is contrast of a different sort.
Joey was dying, and yet his dedication to energetic, life-affirming music is underscored in this cover version. As such, this feels like a one-finger salute to the stresses he and his loved ones must have been going through at the time. Covering this song must have felt like an act of defiance, against death and against despair. That kind of defiance makes for some pretty compelling punk rock!
So, which is it to be: Satch or Joey? Vote now, people!