Saturday, April 13, 2013

Guest Post: Thank U

This guest post was written by Des, an old school chum of mine. You can read more of his stuff here, and you should, as it’s really quite thought provoking – Rob.

Because I've known the author of this blog a long time, and enjoy antagonising him in ways many and various, I was delighted when he asked if I'd mind writing a guest article for him.

We all have some little dirty musical secrets, I suppose. You know, those bands that you really love but rather hope none of your "cool" friends find out about. So I'll some right out here and say it:

I really like Alanis Morissette.

I'm not alone, of course, according to Wikipedia she has sold over 60 million records worldwide. Unfortunately, it's a case of "I like your old stuff better than your new stuff", as her third album, Jagged Little Pill, sold 33 million of those all by itself. That was a great album, including the most savage break-up song ever (You Oughta Know) but it's a song from her more pensive fourth album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie that I'd like to investigate here.

The song is entitled Thank U, and despite using the letter U instead of spelling "you" I really love it. In the chorus she thanks India and the song was written after a trip to there, and obviously it had a profound effect on Alanis, because these lyrics are (for the most part, at least) equally profound. Or if not profound, then at least they are thematically courageous. The accompanying film clip (not the one I've chosen to use here) portrayed Alanis walking around Los Angeles in the nude. It's a pretty obvious analogy for a song that quite literally strips the singer bare, in an emotional sense, but I guess it got people's attention. I've cited the live version here for the purposes of an equal comparison with the cover version.


Now, as much as I am a fan of this song, and Alanis and her songwriting, I'm a bigger fan of Steven Wilson. I could go on and on about how astonished I have been at so much of his enormous catalogue of work, how he has brought me to tears, how the Porcupine Tree live DVD Anesthetize is the best live recording of any band, ever. But with one of his earlier musical collaborations, Blackfield, he frequently performs a cover of Thank U that holds up extremely well to the original.

Unlike Alanis' version with the full band, Wilson's version relies on an arrangement stripped bare, much as Alanis is in the film clip. His voice, whilst emotively equivalent, requires a stretch to hit the high notes that gives an edge to the lyrics and a depth to the dynamics that isn't otherwise present. His interpretation is more masculine, perhaps more cynical. He changes the third line of the first verse from "How 'bout them transparent dangling carrots" to "How 'bout changing a line 'cause it don't make sense", which is playful, rather than disrespectful. He puts himself into this piece, the Blackfield version is Wilson's reply to Alanis, in her own words. I think it's brilliant, and I prefer it over the original by some margin.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Totes Devo About a Lack of Girly Action

I knew when I started this blog that I would have a downtime (sorry about that), and that I would have repeats of bands. I never expected, though, that my first repeat would be the Rolling Stones: a band that I have never really liked.
Satisfaction is a relatively early hit from them, released in 1965, and also their first number one in the US. According to Wikipedia the song was, in the UK, initially only played on pirate radio stations (along with A Walk in the Black Forest) due to its sexual suggestiveness. And this is what I want to talk about here.

The song's main theme is the singers inability to get off with someone. This is exacerbated by his apparent uncoolness as evidenced by the media he consumes. He doesnt connect with the people on his radio and TV. The suggestion being that perhaps, if he kept in line with the social norms, and smoked the same cigarettes then perhaps, just maybe, he'd be able to get a "girl reaction" (or indeed some "girly action" as I first heard it when I was a kid.)
Here's the thing, though. This is Mick Jagger talking. I doubt he's ever had any trouble getting any girly action, particularly not at this stage of his career. Likewise, fashion was being modeled on what he did. And here's the thing: it's a saucy song. He's breathily singing this over the top of a very sexy and dirty riff. The buildup during the "and I try" bit is almost orgasmic, until he's shouting that he can't get no satisfaction even though it sounds like he just did, right then.
I short, it's incongruous, and I don't think that incongruousness is necessarily ironic or intentional.

Skip forward a few years to 1977 and (with Mick Jagger's permission) Devo release this cover of the song:

Musically, this song is everything that the Stones' version isn't. It's jerky and uncomfortable. It's sung with a manic intensity. And, of course, being Devo it's nerdy. It's a nerd, singing to nerdy music, about being a nerd and not fitting in and not getting any poontang (nerdy or otherwise).
In short, it fits. You can believe that everything Mark Mothersbaugh is singing comes straight from personal experience. He knows what it's like to not fit in, he knows what it's like to not be able to get satisfaction and he definitely knows what it's like to try t-t-t-t-try-try. I'm pretty sure he also actually says girly action.

But, aesthetically, their version simply isn't as good. I like Devo, and I don't like the Rolling Stones (if you offered me tickets to go see one or the other - at any point in history - I wouldn't hesitate for a second to see Devo) so I really don't like saying this, but I prefer the original. Why? I think it's just easier to listen to. The cover is TOO frustrated - too frenetic. It has an edge that puts me off. The original is smooth, rocky and cool. And even though that means it doesn't t match the lyrics, it's still a good song.
For what it's worth I think it would be a much different story if it had horns doing the riff, as Keith Richards first intended.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Cover me in four places

The subject of this post is a song that, since its first release, was dying for a cover. In fact the original band had 2 more cracks at it over the course of their career.

Throw Your Arms Around Me by Hunters and Collectors was originally released as a single in 1984. However when it appeared two years later on the band’s 3rd album, Human Frailty, it was re-recorded and re-released as a single.

He never names the four places

(Note that I couldn’t dig up a copy of the 1984 version, but this one is most people are referring to when they say the “original” – if you have a link to the 84 version, please put it in the comments).

In 1990, when it came time for the band to release a compilation of Collected Works they re-recorded it a second time, slightly slower:

I bet the bridge of her nose is one of them

Either version of this song (and they really are quite similar) is an “Oz Rock” classic. Every guy with a guitar and a campfire can, and will, sing it. But I was never a huge fan. It has a certain feel to it, musically, that a lot of Australian Rock from the 80s had, which I have never liked. People call it “raw” but to me it just feels a bit empty and hollow. And I’m not sure if Mark Seymour is deliberately singing bum notes in some of the verses but I physically wince a couple of times with how off key he is. (Again, maybe that’s part of the “raw” but I just don’t get it).

So it will come as no surprise that I much prefer this version of the song, performed by the Australian comedy trio The Doug Anthony All-Stars, made up of guitarist Richard Fidler, tall guy Tim Ferguson (who isn’t actually that tall) and lead singer Paul McDermott.

(Audio quality isn’t great, but beggars can’t be choosers)

I will admit to some bias here, as I loved DAAS from the moment they burst on to my TV screen in ABC TVs The Big Gig in 1989. They had a mix of satire, irreverence, abuse, immaturity and sweet harmonies that appealed to me instantly. I’ve been to see them multiple times, and own a couple of their albums. The above live cover comes from their 1994 album Dead & Alive (which also contained such lovely tracks as Skinhead Sooty and I Fuck Dogs).

What I like about this version is that it doesn’t feel at all empty. They are only 3 voices and a 12 string acoustic, but there’s a real depth to the sound. There is passion in the voices – and although there is probably more passion in Seymour’s voice there is strength behind the passion in this version. Which is odd, as there’s not a lot of expression on their faces. They are singing this, as they did with a lot of their serious songs, “altar boy” style. Standing up straight, looking forward (or slightly upward) and hands still.

Most live shows that DAAS did had one serious song, nestled among their other ruder works. This song was Dead & Alive’s and for the 3 or so minutes it took everything stopped and the atmosphere changed. Then the show continued. It was partly because it was unexpected and incongruous that it has such an effect. But, even when it stands alone - not contrasted against the rest of their material, it is still an amazing version.It is a pity, then, that Paul McDermott went on to milk this song for all it was worth, to the point where it became as much a standard for him as it did for the original band.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Guest Post: Smells like a cover

This very first guest post was written by my friend Haraash. We have known each other for just over 10 years, and although I wanted to cut the linkg to my own crappy cover at the end, he made me promise I wouldn’t.

The classic Nirvana song Smells Like Teen Spirit, sung by front man Kurt Cobain (who later realised he was so depressed he committed suicide) was seen by many as the theme song of a generation of moody, depressed, pretentious teens in the early 90s.

Released in 1991 it led the charge for grunge rock bands - in particular those from Seattle. I'm not from Seattle, I'm actually from Melbourne, Australia, but 1991 was a particularly important year for me as it was my final year of secondary school. And strangely enough whilst this song was just a wee bit popular it really didn't resonate with me; I suspect I was happy.

However, it really came to my notice a few years later when I heard Tori Amos's cover of it. I've always been a Tori Amos fan, her gorgeous voice accompanying magnificent piano has always delighted me. So when I heard her version I immediately got a hold of the original and not only compared them but began to appreciate the original a whole lot more than I had.

I find it somewhat interesting that a cover, and a really good cover - in that it was unique and nothing at all like the original - actually made me enjoy the original more than I ever had. Even now I still like to listen to Nevermind, the album on which Smells Like Teen Spirit originally appeared, from time to time.

In the end though, the Tori Amos version is still my preferred version, but I'm a sucker for Tori Amos.

On a final note, this blog's owner inspired me to write this brief guest entry because today I heard his own brief cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit on ukulele, and frankly it's pretty damn good!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

So you think you can cover me and spit in my eye?

It’s funny how people leave the big ones alone. There is a song that constantly tops various “all time” charts. It covers a number of different musical styles, and is widely regarded as an important piece of rock music history. [citation needed]
Even its film clip was iconic.
Supposedly the “first” film clip made.
But there has never been what I would call a serious cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, at least not one released as a single, and I think there are a couple of reasons for this.
Firstly the status of the song as an icon would discourage any covers. It’s a big ask to take a legendary song and produce a cover of it. This is also the reason we haven’t seen serious covers of Stairway to Heaven, Hey Jude or Satisfaction.
Another obvious reason, more specific to this song, is that it is technically challenging. It showcases the whole range of Queen’s abilities: choral, ballad, hard rock and everything in between. To do a cover of this song would take some effort. Even Queen, when performing live, would not attempt the whole song. To do even a half decent version of it, especially live, you would need a whole cast of backup singers, musicians and stage technicians to pull it off. Not to mention a skin coloured body suit to make it look like your boob was showing.
I actually don’t mind this version by Pink, although I can see why it wasn’t released as a single. It’s a little too faithful, wandering into the “pointless cover” territory. However as a live track it’s great. I love the Freddie tribute that went into her costume.
So that leaves us with the other kind of cover: the novelty cover. Now the same reasons that make “serious” people leave this alone become the reasons that “less serious” people are attracted to it. There have been a number of novelty covers of this song, all of which have their own merits.
On every one of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s albums, along with his parody hits and his original songs, he sings a medley of songs performed as a polka. But on Alapolooza there was an extra surprise:
Any way the wind, any way the wind, any way the wind blows–HEY!
I personally think this shows off Yankovic’s talents as an accordion player as well as an arranger. It’s really quite incredible.
But he certainly wasn’t the first. In 1983, a year before Spinal Tap, the guys from the Young Ones created a band, Bad News, which was a parody of English Heavy Metal. A few years later they released an album, with this as it’s primary single:
Blow Queen off the stage
What I love about this is that the album that this came from was produced by Queen guitarist Brian May, and I have always suspected that it’s him playing that perfectly wrong solo.
A couple of years ago Jake Shimabukuro performed this at a TED Talk:
You can tell he’s a knob because of the way he pronounced ukulele
I’m putting this in the novelty category because, despite the protestations of its proponents, the ukulele is a novelty instrument. Again this is technically incredible. But it’s still a song performed on a ukulele.
And, finally, there is this:
I see a little silhouetto of a clam
I found out about this amazing track from Queen’s official mailing list, and I think it is the original musical track from the master tapes used as a backing.
I have loved the Muppets for longer than I have loved Queen, and now that I am a grown-up I still love them, and they touch that bit in me that makes me all misty eyed. I can’t explain it but every time I listen to this version of this great song, I get a little something in my eye.  There is something about the way they all look at the camera and sing “any way the wind blows” at the end that just gets me.
But none of these, serious or silly, faithful or interpretive, are as great as the original (although the Muppet one comes close). Each of the covers would be meaningless without the original as the context. None of them would stand up as a track in their own right.
But each is paying tribute to an act you can tell that they love.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

When is a cover not a cover?

Picture the scene. A popular song-writing duo writes a song for another band, who have been struggling to get into the charts. That song is released and does quite well. Then, only three weeks after the song is released the guys who wrote the song release their own version of it, although only as an album track.

Well all this happened in 1963. John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote I Wanna Be Your Man in the corner of the Rolling Stones’ studio, and the Stones went on to record it.

I wanna be a top 20 single, baby.

It was released on 1st of November, 1963, reached number 12 and was the Stones’ first top 20 single. But only three weeks later it appeared on the Beatles’ second album, sung (mainly) by Ringo Starr.

I wanna be your cover, baby.

Given the simplicity of the song, and the general music of the time, they are different versions, and both bands bring their own flavour to it. The Rolling Stones make it sound like a Rolling Stones song, and The Beatles make it sound like a Beatles song. For the most part this is an important aspect to a cover. If a band can make it sound like they wrote the song, then it has in some way succeeded.

I’ve never much cared for the Rolling Stones, though. I like Paint It Black, mainly because I loved Tour Of Duty, the 80s Vietnam TV series which used that as its theme song. And so their version of I Wanna Be Your Man, being one that sounds so much like a song they might write, doesn’t really do it for me. The slidey guitar thing they do, the fact that it’s slightly slower and Mick’s voice all add up to something that simply doesn’t appeal to me.

The Beatles version, on the other hand, seems brighter, and boppier. It seems like he does, actually, wanna be her man. It’s easily my preferred version.

It’s interesting to me that the chords are slightly different between the two versions. The Beatles version stays on the same chord throughout the whole verse, whereas the Stones version alternates between two chords. I wonder which way it was originally written and I wonder who changed it for their version and why.

But the big question is: which version is the cover? Usually the band who first releases a song gets the right to call it the “original” recording. And as I have discussed in other posts, that original recording comes with certain responsibilities. It is the version that all other versions are compared to. The definitive version. But if someone writes a song but gives it to someone else, do they also hand over the right to claim the “original” tag?

Quite simply, yes. The original version of I Wanna Be Your Man is the Rolling Stones version, regardless of who wrote it. The Beatles version is the cover. So it is completely coincidental that it is also the superior version.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

When she gets weary…

In 1991, the Australian rock band The Screaming Jets had 3 top 40 singles, including Better which reached number 4 position. Their debut album reached number 2 in the album charts. They were really quite a big deal at the time. (How big a deal? Well, they toured with Ugly Kid Joe, and we all remember how huge they were). They certainly didn’t need the “instant audience” assistance that a cover would bring them. So it may seem odd that their second album included a cover, which was released as a single. What is even odder is that the song they covered, while a cult hit, was certainly not a mainstream commercial success. It was, however, a defining song of the Australian underground music scene (back when underground meant that less people actually heard your stuff).

Shivers by the Boys Next Door was released in 1979 and represents the first mark that frontman Nick Cave would make on the Australian underground scene. Now I must say, I have had an interesting relationship with Nick’s music over the years. There are albums of his that I absolutely love, some that I admire but don’t actually listen to, and others that I really don’t like. But I have such respect for him that those albums I dislike actually anger me, because they are so bad and I know he can, and should, do better.

But this song, which incidentally was not actually written by him, is a corker. The music is hollow and distant and yet driving. Nick sounds like he’s crying all the way through it. It basically created the template for a career steeped in melodrama, depressing imagery and lyrics which sound deep if you want to think of them that way. “You know my baby? She’s so vain she is almost a mirror. I know, right? And there’s this weird thing that happens when you say her name so, you know, please don’t.” According to wikipedia, the opening line about suicide meant that the song was banned on a number of radio stations, which almost guarantees a certain class of audience.

The Screaming Jets were certainly not aiming for that same audience at the peak of their career. I can only assume they covered the song simply because they liked it.

We could make a humidor out of our love

Which only makes me wonder why they decided it should sound as much like Poison’s Every Rose Has Its Thorn as possible. I can almost hear the guitarist saying “I could do some lonesome distorted bluesy thing” and the drummer jumping up and saying “yeah! and then I can come in with a tasty little roll before the chorus!” and then they’d all give each other high fives. However when it comes down to it, they turned the song into a typical rock ballad which, given they were a typical rock band, is not that surprising.

What is surprising is that they released the song with mistakes in the lyrics. (Or perhaps they are “improvements”. I’m not sure which of these choices annoys me more.) I’ll leave it to you to find them, but the changes either don’t rhyme or are nonsensical. It’s one thing to get the lyrics wrong on a live recording (as with the REM cover posted earlier) but to rehearse, record and then release a song with incorrect lyrics is unforgivable, and takes this cover from the merely “bad” category to the “I deserve a medal for having to listen to this multiple times while writing this post” category.