Thursday, May 24, 2012

The power of One

As you might guess from the title, today's theme is prejudice, and about overcoming it against the odds. The cover in question is by one of my favourite bands who were covering, at the time, one of my least favourite bands.

Achtung Baby was released in 1991 and heralded a new era for U2. The first single, The Fly, was dripping in vocal effects and synths. It marked a departure from their previous work and was part of a much bigger re-imagining of the band. 80s U2 were a rockband with a message. 90s U2 were a stadium pop band with a keyboard.

I hated it.

Don't get me wrong, it's not because I had such respect for their 80s music - I didn't. I thought they were just a bunch of political tossers with too heavy reliance on 3 chords and a delay pedal. But I hated their "new" stuff because it was so pretentious. The Zoo TV Tour, a stadium tour attacking commercialism, was basically taking the piss out of the people who had paid money to see it, and I hope the people in the first few rows were issued raincoats to protect themselves from the wank spurting from the stage.

So by the time their third single One came out, I inevitably hated it too. Although, musically and stylistically, it was more Joshua Tree than Zooropa, and although it used a whole five chords, I still hated it. I hated it for Bono more than Edge, though. I remember picking up on the line "are you trying to play Jesus to the lepers in your head". I mean really. Was that supposed to be deep or something? I knew their little fan boys and girls would be lapping it up, and couldn't they just see how pathetic it all was, really? Fanboys can be so blind.

1991 also heralded a fairly new era, musically, for me. I was just starting to get into some bands that would stay with me for the rest of my life (so far, at least). In particular, R.E.M. caught my attention. Out of Time, their biggest album by far, was released and topped both pop and alternative charts, pretty much causing the death of the newly coined concept of "alternative". I'd love to say I was into R.E.M. from their early days, but I wasn't. I had heard Orange Crush, but was otherwise pretty much completely unaware of them. That changed very rapidly though, and by the end of 91 I was well versed in the entire back catalogue.

So that was me in 91. Hating on U2 and loving REM.

Many years later, around 1999 or 2000, I was searching on Napster for "<band name> cover" (feeding my addiction) and found a file called "One REM U2 cover". I downloaded it to see how my beloved and irreverent REM would treat this overly self important song. And then Stipe's vocals started and I was mesmerised.

Stipe treats the lyrics with his usual abandon. Not through contempt, just due to his completely terrible memory. He mixes up the lines so that they don't rhyme and any semblance of sense is completely lost. But he sings it with such conviction that I immediately fell in love with it. I remember picking up the guitar, wanting to learn how to play it simply because I loved it so much.

What I didn't find out till much later, when I saw the video on youtube, that this was only 2 members of REM. The rhythm section of this "cover" was being provided by Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton from U2. (Incidentally I wonder if Clayton pulled Mike Mills aside and said "sure, you're a good bass player, but you'll never be great unless you start wearing stupid suits." The song was performed/record in 1993, and it was around that time the Mills started wearing stupid suits of his own.)
So this put me in a great quandary. A song I hate, covered by a band that I love. Not only that, but I  like the cover. Even the "lepers" lyric is left, miraculously under the circumstances, untouched and it doesn't grate. How does that affect my feelings for the original? Should it?

The fact is, it did. By removing my irrational hatred of U2, and replacing it with my irrational love of REM, I gave the song itself (rather than any specific version) a second chance. I prefer the REM version, simply because I love Stipe's vocals, but I quite like the U2 One. Basically, I can listen to either version and really like it. My prejudices cancelled each other out.


It's still a stupid lyric, though.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A welcoming kiss

Welcome to my new blog.

Here I will be exploring the cover version, looking at specific ones, and talking about covers in general. I'm hoping to come to an understanding of why I have a mild obsession with covers, what makes a good one, and what makes a bad one.

I'm going to start with a song that, when I first heard it, I didn't actually realise was a cover.

In 1988 The Art of Noise recruited Tom Jones to do the vocals for their cover of Prince's Kiss. Although we didn't realise it at the time, it was the dawn of a new era for Tom and he was going to spend the next few years wearing black and being sexy to people half his age.

The song itself is odd, and I think I thought that at the time. I knew nothing of the Art of Noise then but the track is full of 80s samples, synths and sounds that typified their style. It came from the same era as Mello's Oh Yeah, and it sounds like it. There is so much going on, musically. If your ears could blink you would ask them not to, for fear of missing something.

It was Tom Jones, though, that brought Art of Noise into the charts. His voice is amazing, his expression throughout the clip (as if he's going to start pissing himself laughing at any time) and the fact that he was SO OLD and yet still singing about sex (but not in a creepy Tina Turner way - really if I paid for a private dancer and got that, I would be asking for a refund) was all combined to make a song that, in its own right, was fantastic.

I had heard of Prince, obviously, but I didn't realise that Kiss was a cover. I remember hearing Prince's version for the first time, on a crappy little tape deck in the computer room of my friend Budge's house. I laughed so hard. I couldn't believe that that pathetic and pissy little song actually came before the bombastic, and obviously superior version that Tom sang.

Everything about this song is ridiculous. The falsetto voice. The wimpy guitar. The empty arrangement. The whole disconess of it all. And the clip, with the tiny little man and his cute little high heel boots and crop top. The scrawny little body stripped to the waist. Singing about being sexy, of all things! I mean really, you could have someone's eye out with one of those elbows (if only he could reach that high).

And yet, unlike Tom, Prince seems to take this all incredibly seriously.He does have the odd grin and "wacky" expression, but you otherwise get the impression that it is very important to him that his woman act her age, not her shoe size, because if they don't do the twirl THERE WILL BE CONSEQUENCES.

But, if you follow the links and read the YouTube comments, there are Prince fans out there who love his version. It is, after all, the original.
And this brings me to my first observation. Not only do we like what we know, we tend to immediately kick back against anything that is different from the familiar. Not only did I hear the Tom Jones/Art of Noise version of Kiss first, I wasn't aware there even was another version. Had I heard the Prince version first I might have preferred it. I might look at the AoN version as some kind of sacrilege.

But I didn't and I don't. And while I obviously can't say that Prince's is, as it came first, I can (and will) say it's a good try, and an adequate first draft. And without it we never would have had the fantastic image of Tom Jones zipping up his fly.