Cover versions (part 4)

Taking us from R to Z, a few more interesting cover versions to follow parts 1, 2 and 3.

  1. Richard Cheese – Gin and Juice.  The potential for comedy within the cover version has been covered before (groan) but I can’t get away from Dick Cheese (more groaning…) as the paradigm: he’s made a career of comedy covers, and possibly the best one can be seen here, in glorious 240p resolution. Incogruity and juxtapositions are vitally important, I’ve noticed, in getting a cover to really stand out. If it’s not going to be wildly different, you had better be bloody good. You can’t get more different to G-Funk than lounge music… is this perhaps the perfect cover version?
  2. Scissor Sisters – Comfortably Numb – there’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but it strips the two most important parts of the original Pink Floyd song right out: the sense of languorous resignation to the effect of the drugs, and the stunningly constructed guitar solo. Instead, you get a serviceable Scissor Sisters song, but without any of their humour; I suppose, at a stretch, this could be the effect of becoming comfortably numb on some kind of disco drug, but I doubt it. Otherwise, acid house wouldn’t be as mental as it is.
  3. Specials – A Message To You Rudy – I love this song, this marvellous bit of slow skanking cross-race genius. I’d never checked out the original Dandy Livingstone version until tonight, but what I thought was particularly interesting was that the Specials got in an original Sixties Jamaican horn section, who worked with a lot of the great reggae and original ska artists, to play on the album.  It’s a bit like getting the Band in to help you cover Like A Rollin’ Stone. What I love about the cover is that it’s pretty faithful to the original, only roughing it up around the edges and oddly, sounding more Jamaican than Livingstone’s cut.  Neville Staples was a special singer, and worked so well with Terry Hall to get a crowd going.
  4. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross/Duke Ellington – In The Hall Of The Mountain King – this isn’t so much about this cover as about covers of this piece of music. Uniquely, for this list, this is not a cover of a popular song, but a piece of classical music, Grieg‘s ‘In The Hall Of The Mountain King’ from his suite ‘Peer Gynt‘. This portentious piece of music was remixed and techno-ed up by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and his long-time collaborator Atticus Ross for the soundtrack to the film The Social Network. It accompanies the scene of a boat race at Henley Regatta, where Harvard twins the Winklevosses get rid of what I can only assume is a lot of subtextual frustration… scored to climax at the finish line, it’s an exhilirating use of the piece, and the treatment of it is reverential whilst still roughing it up and making it a tad more electronic.  I’m not sure if they rerecorded it all on synths or sampled a recording, but it’s a brilliant take nonetheless.  In contrast, Duke Ellington, jazz bandleader extraordinaire, did a version on his “Three Suites” that turns it inside out and makes t more playful. Whilst the more original, I find it less satisfying – the industrial roar of Reznor’s reworking takes this portentious piece and drags it over the finishing line.
  5. Tricky – Black Steel – when I first heard this, I was blown away, but also confused. Why was Martina Topley-Bird being drafted? What was going on? A little research threw to light the great lyricist of Public Enemy, the inimitable Chuck D, whose gruff delivery in the original Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos couldn’t be more different from the sweet vocals of MTB and the mantra-like trip-hop rapping of Tricky. And then, of course, there’s the production. The Bomb Squad were a tight, taut group who sampled intelligently and this is one of their best productions – Tricky, on the other hand, made a skittering clattering maximalist sound of swirling guitars, heavy bass and dark brooding beats. You couldn’t get more different within hip-hop if you tried, and that is the effect the Atlantic Ocean has on the genre: the Americans manage to make it righteous, the British arty. I can’t pick a favourite, as Chuck spits a dark and detailed narrative while Tricky and Martina take the guts of the song and crank up the atmosphere, in less of a cover and more a reworking.
  6. The White Stripes – Stop Breaking Down (Robert Johnson)/Death Letter (Son House)/I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself (Burt Bacharach and Hal David)/Conquest (Patti Page/Corky Robbins) – for the final entry on this list, I’m looking at the cover as a statement, and as an evolving method of expression. The White Stripes, in the tradition of the 1960s white-blues revival, covered a number of traditional 1930s black country-blues tunes; by the end of their career, they were covering the Great American Songbook and 1950s orchestral novelty pop. It mirrors their evolution from punky scuzz bloozers to ‘artists’. Stop Breaking Down, a Robert Johnson original, is probably the most conventional – it follows the song, and does so within the Stripes’ modus operandi. Still in their earlier period, but from the album De Stijl (and aaas knowingly arty as that implies), Death Letter takes one of Son House’s most depressing songs and fires it up with bitterness and anger. Whilst I’ve never heard a cover of a Son House tune as intense as the man himself, this comes mightily close. By the point of their commercial breakthrough (think Seven Nation Army), covering Burt and Hal seems almost obvious: getting Kate Moss to table-dance in the video is just wonderfully ironic. By the time Icky Thump, their final and most bonkers album came along, covering Patti Page singing a mock-Spanish song seems natural. Mariachi horns and a vicious rendition of what was no doubt edgy in 1956 take this to a very different place from their debut, a place to which Jack White now would never seemingly return.

As a journey through influences, commercial decisions and artistic freedom to whatever the hell they wanted, it’s a neat way to tie up a look through all the different kinds of cover I can conceivably find in my collection. I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour through other people’s influences, tastes and experiments – it’s been a ball digging through the virtual crates and finding these wonderful juxtapositions.

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