Cover versions (part 2)

Continuing on from part 1, here are some more thoughts on the cover version.

  1. Holly Golightly – Further On Up The Road (originally Bobby “Blue” Bland) – an interesting one on many different levels.  I first heard this as a blues guitar workout by Eric Clapton, performing as a guest on The Band’s The Last Waltz probably the greatest live album ever recorded.  He had originally recorded it on a solo album, mid-70s, covering Bobby Bland’s version from the 50s (are you keeping up?)  Holly Golightly came to my attention as a guest singer at the end of the White Stripes’ album Elephant, and on her album of blues standards and originals, she covers Further On Up The Road (also known as Farther Up The Road, for those of you not into version control).  Her version, apart from obviously switching genders, makes an interesting point of introducing profanity and sounding particularly English.  I applaud different readings of songs, even if they aren’t radically different.  Sometimes, it just takes a little change to bring a different perspective.
  2. The Jam – Batman (originally Batman Theme by Neal Hefti) – English art-punks take on the iconic theme from high-camp 1960s TV version of Batman?  What could go wrong?  Nothing.  This is perfect, utterly hilariously perfect.  Only a British band could have covered this, and sounded cool – American punks would have sounded snotty, but the Jam had the right kind of attitude to pull this off.  A masterstroke of off-beat humour from a fairly serious band.
  3. Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah (originally Leonard Cohen) – it’s almost too obvious a choice, especially since the X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke did a horribly overwrought version.  This is not to say, of course, that Buckley’s version isn’t over-the-top, but it does have a depth of emotion which brings out the lyrics’ odd and dark themes; on the other hand, Burke uses it as a vehicle to be surrounded by candles and belt it out.  What Buckley does is drench this in sensitive artistic singer-songwriter schmaltz, and by rights I should hate it but by God it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, which is more than I can say for the grumpy old bastard Cohen’s version.
  4. John Coltrane – My Favorite Things (originally Rogers and Hammerstein) – I realise that I’ve skipped around the alphabet, and this isn’t strictly in sequence, otherwise Coltrane would have been in Part 1.  Hey ho; I debated as to whether to include jazz at all, as the idea of an artist owning the emotional copyright to a particular piece of work is weaker than in the pop idiom.  After all, the idea of a cover version is different than performing one of “the standards”; except, of course, the standards were written for a performer or a specific purpose, just like pop songs.  It harks back, in some ways, to a more communal form of music, that of religious communities, and I suppose it is no surprise that there has always been a strong church element in many of the backgrounds of jazz and blues performers (and that of course bleeds into soul, funk etc).  However, what Coltrane was doing here was taking something very contemporary and un-jazz, and making it transcendental.  The Sound Of Music came out on in 1959, and in 1961, Coltrane released My Favorite Things, along with a Cole Porter tune and two Ira/George Gershwin numbers.  My version, however, is from Afro Blue Impressions, runs to twenty one and a half minutes, and feels like three.  Recorded at a concert in Stockholm with his great quartet (McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones) it’s an exploration of a great song.  I grew up around The Sound Of Music and didn’t like it much, but when I heard this, I went back and realised how complex the harmonies and the arrangements were.  If that doesn’t show the power of a cover version, reinterpretation, or whatever you want to call it, I don’t know what can.
  5. John Legend and the Roots – I Can’t Write Left Handed (originally Bill Withers) – this is the ultimate meta-cover.  It’s on an album of covers, and even namechecks the artist the group are covering, when he first performed it, and discusses the political situations in both 1973 and 2010.  You couldn’t get more knowing if you tried.  John Legend is super smooth, although slightly more gospel than Bill Withers, but this song really belongs to “Captain” Kirk Biddle, the guitarist for the Roots, who utterly destroys the latter half of the song with a guitar solo reminiscient of Eddie Hazel’s legendary cut ‘Maggot Brain’ for Funkadelic.  All music, whether it’s rock, pop, hip-hop, opera or prayer, all are truly successful if you feel something transcendental, something soulful – and here, you don’t care who wrote it, who sings it, just that you feel the young man’s pain when Biddle plays what Legend couldn’t sing, and Withers couldn’t write.
  6. Kate Walsh – Unbelievable – (originally EMF) – I’ve written a lot about Kate Walsh (namely here, here and here), and I have to admit, I am most saddened that she seems to have stepped away from music making.  When I originally reviewed the Undercover EP, and now own the Peppermint Radio covers album, I talked about how affecting this cover was, and about the powerful effect taking a different style of music to a song can have (in this case, sensitive singer-songwriter to dance-pop-rock mess).  The cover exposes the dark and emotional underbelly of a seemingly upbeat song, but on reflection, it’s an interesting song to look at when thinking about cover version motivation.  On this list we’ve seen a few rule-breakers (My Favorite Things and Smells Like Teen Spirit are still non-standard jazz picks, especially the latter), funnies, angry young men and sensitive ones; what this one shows is someone who listened to a song in a completely different way than it was originally intended to be heard, and saw what the band almost seem intent to have hidden.  The lyrics are almost incidental – when you listen to the original instrumentation, it’s remarkable how upbeat it is.  I don’t want to bother with the verses, just the big shout of “You’re UNBELIEVABLE!”.  Yet, when stripped back, it stops being a dancier version of a James song, and becomes something much more interesting.
  7. The Kinks/Pat Boone – Long Tall Sally (originally Little Richard) – disclaimer: I have given an undergraduate presentation on this, so bear with me getting a tad dry and ‘academic’.  1956 was a year in which black American artists were still very segregated – you had race records, black charts, separate clubs, and black musicians were completely and utterly second class to their white counterparts.  In this milieu, Little Richard was a particularly out there sort of chap.  He wore shiny clothes, was insanely sexual, and still managed to somehow be fairly popular amongst white as well as black audiences.  What happened in the same year – the same damn year – was a hideously soft and sanitised version of a song about adultery and back-alley sex, by Pat Boone.  It boggles the mind now that this sold, but you must remember that Boone was a safe pair of hands.  While Elvis was gyrating on the Ed Sullivan Show, Boone was crooning about being ‘Twixt Twelve and Twenty’ (which wasn’t creepy at all…).  As an example of the white appropriation of black culture, it couldn’t be bettered.  Here was, in the same year, a wildly sexual number being stripped of all its power and rereleased for unsuspecting white audiences.  By 1964, when blues and R&B artists were playing the UK, bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks were all covering great tracks by the likes of Little Richard, and coming from a country where there wasn’t official racial segregation (although, of course, I’m not saying that 1960s Britain was colourblind… but we didn’t have Jim Crow laws), in a period of time when sexuality in white pop music was becoming more pronounced, probably thanks to Elvis’s hips, the aforementioned three giants of British guitar pop music could cover this.  The Kinks’ version is particularly vicious, with a return to some of the more suggestive lyrics from Little Richard’s version, a pretty wild harmonica solo, and raucous backing vocals.  Nothing can top Little Richard’s performance, and I don’t think it ever will, but the journey this song went through in just under a decade opened my eyes to the changing mores of pop music, and how it links into the wider civil society.

Who ever said that pop music wasn’t important?

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