“Gloria” is a 1965 garage rock song by Van Morrison originally recorded by his then-band Them. The song is extremely simple, basic even. It consists of three chords on a loop, multiple verse-like ramblings, and a chorus containing exactly one word. The song is amateurish even by 60s garage rock standards, and it’s not exactly high in the pantheon of British Invasion hits. However, there is one thing about the song that might grab your attention. It’s been covered by everyone, and I mean everyone.
Immediately after release, it was covered by a slew of nearly identical British bands with names so stupid I refuse to believe they’re real, including but not limited to: Shadows of Knight, The Boots, The Gantz, The Fruit Eating Bears, The Human Beingz, The Belles, The Other Half, The Wheels, The Deejays, Thee [sic] Midnighters, The Chellows, and my personal favorite King Beezz. This doesn’t even scratch the surface of cover versions by actual famous people including The Doors, The 13th Floor Elevators, Jimi Hendrix, multiple reworkings by Van the man himself, David Bowie, AC/DC, U2, John Cougar Mellencamp, Rick Springfield, The Tragically Hip, Tom Petty, Billie Joe Armstrong, Bill Murray feat. Eric Clapton (yes really), not to mention countless covers by the guy who insists on bringing his guitar to your party.
This rather impressive list of artists would make more sense if the Them version was, you know, good? Your mileage may vary as to how much you can enjoy the original song, but to me personally, it’s no “You Really Got Me.” It’s structureless, tuneless, and a little creepy. So, returning to the title of this article, why does Gloria persist in our cultural memory? The easy answer is that it’s Wonderwall-easy to play on guitar, and the singing features nothing resembling notes one might be expected to hit, but a more honest answer is harder to come by. Simplicity is certainly one aspect. Decades of prog bloat and studio recording have long severed Rock’s original tether to the blues, and Gloria is a fun throwback to those early days. Another is the versatility; the song can be adapted to almost any style as long as it’s energetic. The sing-along elements of the chorus certainly help as well. And then there is Patti Smith.
Patti Smith’s 1975 song “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo,” is a brilliant song. A heavily reworked cover version of the original Gloria, it’s so far removed from the original song that I hesitate to even call it a cover, it’s more of an adaptation. Smith stays true to the spirit of the original song, but mostly discards the body, and in doing so she reveals what really makes the song work, and why it endures. The song, ostensibly about sex, is given a greater sense of nuance by Smith’s alterations. The famous line “Jesus dies for somebody’s sins but not mine,” reveals the emotional core behind Rock’s macho posturing. The desire for freedom and empowerment, the spiritual tension, all conveyed in six letters,