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.