Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Some say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I think that there should be a place in every music lover’s heart that’s devoted to cover versions.

A sincere reinterpretation of a favourite tune is a great way to breathe life and new dynamics into the sentiments of an influence, showing existing listeners new angles and potentially introducing songs to a new generation of fans.
Here’s a list (which is in no way supposed to be exhaustive) of some of my favourites.
Dennis Boothe 'Everything I Own'. Okay, so it’s a cover of the smaltzy AOR band Bread (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bread_(band)), which is nothing to be proud of (although it’s all the more moving when you find out it's about the writers late father) but it’s a great reggae tune and one that I very, very happily found (imagine my excitement, if you will) on a Trojan 7” in a charity shop in Westbury On Trym for 20p – in mint condition. Dennis Boothe’s cover was then subsequently covered again (and butchered) as Boy George’s debut solo single. I’ve read reports more than once that Tony Blackburn, “in his pomp as Radio 1's premier DJ”
(http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/jan/30/reggae-revolutionary-bob-marley-britain) used to play reggae covers of popular tunes (such as this one) on the radio, stopping them half-way through before playing the original (usually white) artist’s version to show how ‘superior’ they were to the reggae versions. I disliked him before I heard that, I absolutely hate him now.

Nirvana 'Love Buzz'. Nirvana’s cover of a tune by the sixties Dutch band Shocking Blue, more famous for their global pop smash ‘Venus’. ‘Love Buzz’ was released as the first ever release on Sub Pop Records’ singles club in 1988 (limited to 1000 copies, ensuring cult status). I think it’s one of Nirvana's purest statements, stripped to the bare bones of the track, only using the first verse from the original and vastly simplifying the structure of the song. (Quite possibly down to the limited technical capabilities of the band at that point).  In 1992, a friend and I wagged off school and were mooching about on Portobello Road (probably looking for vintage flared Levi’s at the Flipped import clothing store). We went in Vinyl Solution (
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vinyl_Solution) and saw that they had a copy of the original 7” release (‘Love Buzz’ with a five second audio concrete segment of children playing that’s only ever been available on that release bw ‘Big Cheese’). Nirvana had just blown up and was quite simply the hottest band in the world at that point. I clearly remember that the single was on sale for £105 even then (way out of the financial reach of a 13 year old kid). I dread to think what it would be worth now.

Ryan Adams 'Wonderwall'. As this blog develops, I’m sure that I will make much of my adoration of Alt-Country’s own Rick Moranis. I had a nearly ten year gap from guitar music (a drum & bass tangent, if you will) but came back to find that the ‘real music’ world had clearly realised how great the singer from Whiskeytown (or David Ryan Adams, as I knew him) was. This cover version (which won a Grammy) has the rare feat of being a cover that’s clearly better than the original. Whilst it’s a big call for me to say that, Noel Gallagher (who wrote it) says the same thing, “
We've never got it right. It's too slow or too fast. I think Ryan Adams is the only person who ever got that song right." (http://www.spin.com/#articles/spin-interview-noel-gallagher). Interestingly, when performing the song live with High Flying Birds project, Noel now actually performs the song like the Adams version. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9alHSFI1tuo&feature=related – 37.20) Ryan Adams is one of the artists that I’ve actually bought more records by than any other. Admittedly he’s pretty prolific and I’ve got several of his different records; however, due to flat moves and break-ups, I’ve bought replacement copies “Strangers Almanac” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strangers_Almanac) at least four times. There’s a deluxe version double vinyl out apparently, so it will doubtless soon be five.

Fu Manchu 'Godzilla'. I’ve mentioned Fu Manchu elsewhere on this blog so won’t pontificate too much. Covers are fun, and Fu Manchu are a fun band. This is a cover of a Blue Öyster Cult (a band whom I’m ashamed to say that I’ve known about for years and years but have never knowingly heard before this song) tune and (bar even fuzzier guitars and slightly less polished production) is a pretty straight cover of the original. It’s a very silly song overall (as you would imagine a song named after a massive mutant lizard to be) but highly listenable in a juvenile fist-pumping way.
Jose Gonzales 'Heartbeats'. This is one of those rare covers that sounds more rounded and finished than the version that it’s based on. The song sounds infinitely more soulful transposed to Gonzalez’ finger-picked open tuned classical guitar from the retro synths of the original. I was standing in Commonsense Organics on Wakefield Street in Wellington recently when another one of his came on over the muzak. I thought "Oooh, Jose Gonzalez" and then immediately thought, "What a middle class twat I am.” I originally heard this accompanying a really good advert for Sony Bravia televisions. (Well, I say, "really good". It clearly wasn't terribly effective in my case; we still have one of those old ones with a big back on it which has all the channels on the wrong numbers. I'm not really much of a TV watcher.)

Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris 'Love Hurts'. Originally written by the married songwriting team Felice & Boudleaux Bryant for their main client The Everly Brothers (whom I love and whose version is also great) who originally released it as a single in 1960. Parsons & Harris’ version (which was sadly only released posthumously on Parsons 1973 ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’ LP) made this one of the most beautful male/female country duets ever. (You could perhaps think of it as the antithesis of “Islands In The Stream” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton). If you don't find this moving, I would suggest that you don’t bother listening to music anymore; you're actually dead.
Patti Smith ‘Gloria’. Smith’s absolute must-own debut album ‘Horses’ features a desecration of the Van Morrison/Them original rather than a faithful re-visitation, with Smith using the original’s chorus as the coda to a completely different song. But hey, isn’t nascent punk rock supposed to be about tearing up the rule book and starting again? There are loads of other covers of variable quality (possibly due to the songs simple three chord structure) not least a great one by the US garage rock band Shadows Of Knight. Sadly, I have a 7” of the 1969 heavy psychedelic version, rather than the highly collectable 1966 garage rock version. One day…
Jay Reatard ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’. This was a fairly recent discovery for me but I really, really like it. Kurt Cobain was so heavily influenced by the Beat Happening leaders/K Records founder Calvin Johnson’s childlike lo-fi approach that he had the K Records (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K_Records) logo tattooed on his forearm to “try and remind (him) to stay a child”. I think his appreciation of that ethos and his purported love of basic recording techniques (exemplified by hiring Steve Albini to record ‘In Utero’) would mean that he would have definitely approved of this version; upon which the also sadly deceased Reatard’s approach is brutally primitive.  As it is, I’m not really sure about the whole ‘lo-fi/anti-commercial/don’t want to be famous’ aspect of the Kurt Cobain myth. (Why did he sign to a major label then? I understand that they had distribution issues with Sub Pop, which was having the old indie label favourite “cash flow problems”. Surely though he could have got deal with a larger, more established indie if he was that way inclined? Saying that, I’m not so unsure about it that I subscribe to Jello Biafra’s speculation that Cobain was in fact a CIA agent sent to turn suburban white kids away from hip-hop” conspiracy theory either).

Jeff Buckley ‘Hallelujah’. I think it’s sad that this song will be now be known to most US and UK listeners as a weepy warbler off of both countries terrible Saturday night “Talent” TV programming. Buckley’s cover takes the guitar backing (although in a different key) from Leonard Cohen’s original as well as an extra verse (written by Cohen but omitted from the 1984 recorded version) from John Cale’s 1991 piano version. It’s supremely moving (as is the original, Cale’s version and a later cover by Rufus Wainwright), unlike my myriad of karaoke versions that have come out since. Oh the humanity.
Jonah Matranga ‘Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away). I’m a great fan of this very delicate and sympathetic cover of the angsty Deftones original, which (just to confuse things), I believe to be strongly influenced by Matranga’s former band old band Far, whom were a band favourite and touring partner of Deftones. (It’s even in the title, see?). Far split–up just after the release of their third LP, the critically acclaimed ’Water & Solutions’, which has later proven to be highly influential on whole generation of similarly loud but highly melodic bands. I saw Far open for Deftones on their tour for their sophomore (and last decent) LP ‘Around The Fur’ in 1998 at the Charing Cross Road Astoria in London and “Far Away” (see?) was (along with Far’s entire set) a highlight of the show. Matranga’s version is taken from his “Voices+Dedication LP” which was recorded with contributions from and fans and (as with all of his solo recent material) is self-released and available at very low cost from his website (http://jonahmatranga.com/yard-sale) which was recorded with contributions from loads of fans.
However, cover versions have been taken to a whole new level by New York City-based Easy Star Records’ studio band the Easy Star All-Stars.
Now, historically, I’m not aware of that many ‘Cover Albums’ (although I am aware of one that I really want to hear, in the form of influential 1980’s New York Noiseniks Pussy Galore’s version of my favourite ever LP – ‘Exile On Mainstreet’ by the Rolling Stones) but the Easy Star All-Stars have cut themselves a niche doing dub covers of entire LP’s.

I’ve bought both their version of Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ (1 x blue LP – titled here as ‘Dub Side Of The Moon’) and Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ (1 x blue, 1 x green double LP) and they are a revelation. (I would suggest that ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ off of ‘Radiodread’ and ‘Breathe’ off of ‘Dub Side Of The Moon’ are highlights but realise that these are correspondingly my favourite tracks off of the source material, so I may well be totally biased on both fronts).
They’ve also done one of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ which I’ve not yet bought, as I don’t really like the Beatles.
I will though, I know it already.

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