The Cover Song: Repetition. Imitation. Innovation.

“The author is a modern character, no doubt produced by our society…discovering the prestige of the individual, or, as we say more nobly, of the “human person”. Hence, it is logical that in literary matters it should be positivism, crown and conclusion of capitalist ideology, which has granted the greatest importance to the author’s “person.”” – Roland Barthes (from The Death of the Author)
Nihil sub sole novum, Ecclesiastes

Years ago a roommate (the Historian) and I got in a furious argument about Lauryn Hill’s cover of Frankie Valli’s 1967 hit “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You” (a ‘hidden’ track on the U.S. release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)). The Historian lamented both the lack of originality and the lameness of the cover in comparison to the ‘original’. Now, apart from the fact that Valli didn’t even write the song (Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio did, which complicates any claim of originality), Hill’s version, far from being a slavish imitation, is, I contended, a unique and worthwhile exercise that reflects her musical genre and time period and also enters into a long-standing tradition in art and literature. By updating the old, she created something new. And, as I added as an afterthought, originality is a false premise to begin with.

While my roommate retreated from his extreme “only the original and unique is good” position, he did not, lamentably, learn to love Hill’s version of the song. He has, however, come to see the importance of the cover song in popular music. Music is one area where we cherish repetition and imitation. Classical music and opera constantly revisit familiar territory; Jazz performance is built on a foundation of standards; Rap and Hip Hop made sampling at modern art form; and the history of Rock n’ Roll has the cover song as a staple of any new artist’s introduction.

Indeed, early canonical artists like Elvis and the Beatles were, at the beginning, cover artists (of course, some of this has to do with commercial viability; the rest of this has to do with re-packaging black music for white audiences). Anyone who has been in a band knows that you need cover songs to keep people listening to you and that learning and performing them is an essential part of musical and artistic development.

Somewhere along the way the cover song tarnished a bit. I suspect that part of this is a modern hang-up about “authorship” and “texts”; I suspect even further that once popular music was transported from its performance context where ‘authority’ resides in the current iteration (the performance) of the song rather than some dusty and fixed constant we started to be confused about its status.

Bear with me on this one. In classical music performances and live jazz shows, the money is for the performers—the commodity is in the moment. Since the dominant form of popular music has conventionally been the single played by the DJ and bought at the record store, the commodity is the fixed ‘text’ rather than the live performance or even the ‘transcript’ of the live performance. So, one explanation for the denigration of the cover song is that technological and cultural change facilitated a move away from a performance culture to prize the fixed recording instead.

Another explanation, and this one may be even more of a stretch, is that culturally we prize originality in artistic production because we overvalue ‘genius’. Some explanations for this phenomenon that I have encountered suggest that in a Christianized world we have followed the analogy author : text :: God : creation and that this implicit analogy has led us to devalue reinvention and repetition in favor of the divine original genius model. Another idea is that in a culture that so thoroughly praises the work of individual geniuses rather than the collective forces of human society, there is a certain psychological pressure on individuals to believe in this notion of ‘the genius’ with the secret and desperate hope that they might be one.

In truth, even the most innovative work is built on something that came before. In the ancient world, this idea permeates poetry. Telemachus claims in Homer’s Odyssey that men are always searching after the newest song—implying in some way that his song is new even as it builds on conventional and inherited language and motifs. In accepting a traditional form but claiming a different spirit, the Augustan poet Horace famously describes his poetry as “Roman wine in a Greek vase”. Imitation takes so many forms and is, like repetition, essentially paradoxical. By occurring in a different time, by having the ‘original’ behind it and in the mind of the observer/audience, a copy is never just a copy. The old is already something new. And nothing is ever truly new.

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Cover Songs: Pink Moons and Psycho Killers

In the past, I have spent a good deal of time talking about cover songs. I have mused about what it means to call a song the same song in different performances; I have tried to provide a typology of a cover-song; I have even dabbled in ‘arranged-marriages’ of sorts as I have tried to pair impossible, dream combinations of songs and performers.

One thing I have not talked about is the fact that certain songs should never be covered. Now, I know that such wide-open generalizations are inevitably proved false (you know, with all those monkeys working away on all those typewriters….), but I think there are songs that are so indelibly and unalterably bound to their performers that they should never be assayed by someone else.

What got me thinking about this? Last night my children politely requested their nightly dance party (at almost 3 and almost 1.5 years, they actually screamed for it, but I digress). I turned on the television to Music Choice’s (sadly and pathetically) default Adult Alternative station and the following abomination filled the air:

I don’t really know who Teddy Thompson and Krystle Warren are and I am so incensed that I will not even bother to check them out Wikipedia. (How’s that for some false indignation?) Here’s the thing: “Pink Moon”, Nick Drake’s brief, ethereal and ephemeral anti-anthem, works because of its (1) simplicity, (2) beauty, and (3) brevity, all of which are made possible by the solo combination of Drake’s eerie/breathy voice and his iconoclastic finger-picking.  When the spare piano notes come in, their vibrattoed-brevity brings that solitary sense into relief like the light of the moon in a darkened sky.

This cover is earnest—the performers obviously love the song, but they just do too much. The two voices deprive the song of its solitary space; the extra instrumentation clutters up the sound; and the repetitions lengthen the time past its key feature: the almost orgasmic (if subdued) brevity that leaves you wanting more.

And isn’t that the central story of Nick Drake’s music and his life? The lack—the wanting, and the ultimate space of hope and disappointment left at the end?

The next morning, my good friend and sometime-commenter on this blog (who keeps threatening to write a post…) asked me about a song we used to cover when we were in a band, “Psycho Killer” by the talking heads. See, the band just released an earlier version of this song with a damn cello in it.

This version, I must admit, actually seems to reside somewhere between the 1977 version and the live version–it doesn’t seem to have the same stilted pace of the album version. It also seems to anticipate a little bit of the life of the much later live performance. When it comes down to it, though, the cello isn’t that noticeable or radical.

Now, here’s the problem with “Psycho Killer”. (If it is really a problem at all.) The version I grew up knowing (and ultimately the one our band covered) was actually from the live performance that became the sensation Stop Making Sense. In that live version, David Byrne walks on to the stage and presses play on a sound machine to produce the beat—he performs the song at a pace much faster than the album version for the most part alone.

The band slowly integrates into the music as the concert builds on. By the end of a few songs the stage is filled and the air vibrates with some of the most dynamic and symphonic sound to ever come out of lower Manhattan.  The album version of the song, however, is slower, almost sloppy even though recorded, and ultimately unsatisfying if you heard the concert version first.

Now, in between the original recording and the performance was over half a decade. Anyone who has performed the same song for a year, much less seven, knows that songs develop as if they are in fact alive: they mature and become more complex; sometimes they lose vibrancy and urgency. But what is important is that they, like the performer and the audience, change.

So, perhaps some of my resistance to hearing another version of this song and part of our cultural attachment to individual versions of songs is that they offer us the false promise of sameness—the recorded song stays the same, it doesn’t develop, it is like a photograph or a video: it is a fossilized version of something that once was. The song lives on forever. Psychologically, isn’t this an attractive flouting of the fact that we will not do the same?

Still Killing?

Still Killing?

The trick of this, though, is that the experience of the song has changed because we as listeners are no longer the same and we live with the earlier experiences of hearing the song as part of our memory and our associations with that piece.

Now, “Psycho Killer” is a song whose power rests not in its particular beauty or in the simplicity of its articulation but in its message and structure, does lend itself to different reinterpretations. One of our favorite bands, Bishop Allen, does a fine and light job of it here ( I do appreciate the nearly manic pace of this cover and the humorous intro-patter; the slight change in phrasing isn’t as effective; the overall effect, though, seems to channel more of the punk-era aesthetic that the Talking Heads came out of). And the original version of the song above shows us some of the surprising depth that can be plumbed merely by adding in new instrumentation or varying the pace.

The lyrics of the song also lend themselves to pointed reinterpretation—where one version of the song is plaintive protest, another is mocking jest. What would this song be in the mouth of someone more earnest? What if a Bob Dylan or Bright Eyes performed this song? (There’s my impossible recover request: Bob Dylan, performing “Psycho Killer”,  five years before it was written in Washington, D.C. during the unfolding of the Watergate Scandal. Don’t ask. Just imagine.)

Of course, it is not only a simple song that is hard to perform. At times, the more complex a song gets, the more it depends on a dangerous tension between execution and failure. One of my favorite Talking Heads songs, “Nothing But Flowers”, works only when performed with a paradoxical severe levity.

I love this song. And, when I heard it performed live by another one of my favorite bands, Guster, I thought I was going to die of happiness. And, for at least a minute of the song, I was filled with joy. But, slowly, the sound started to wash over me and I realized how it seemed only half-way there, like something essential was missing.

So, the moral of the story? (Wait, there was a story?) Cover songs are hard and delicate work. An artist needs to make the song his or her own without losing whatever is essential to the song’s core.

I think. Maybe. While I figure it out, here’s another cover to mull over:

Bond Under Covers

(Note: We are happy to bring another guest post from  the pseudonymous Historian and Professor Mortis, a dead film resuscitator, conversational flaneur, and all-around master of media. Enjoy. And pray he writes again!)

 

I grew up in a house full of James Bond fans.  My older brother was the most fanatical, but we would go as a family to see the new ones in the theater, and we watched them together when they aired on TV.  Before I saw the films, I heard all the theme songs.  How?  My brother owned an LP of Bond themes.  A cherished childhood memory is dancing along to From Russia with Love in my parents living room, misinterpreting the lyrics as “the masher with love” (imaging a henchman with a potato masher instead of a hand, like Jaws had steel teeth).  I still love Bond movies, and I still love their theme songs, and their covers.  That’s right, covers (and you believed TheElderJ when he said that I hate covers, didn’t you?).

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Work Music

My brother and I have had  many jobs. Music can truly determine whether or not a job is good or complete torture. Every job I’ve had where you can’t listen to music at least some of the time has sucked and doesn’t deserve mention here. This will be at least a two-part post because as I’ve said, I’ve had many jobs.

Before I dive into this topic, I just want to reiterate how much music can shape an experience. Obviously we write this blog because we love music and those who read it must feel the same or else they just read it to mock us. It’s amazing how good music can make a shitty situation not only bearable but actually fun. It is yet another example of the transcendent nature of quality tunes.

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Leon Russell: Master of Space and Time.

Leon Russell took off his ever-present sunglasses the other night at a very small show in a barn in the woods of Maine and he looked right at me. I felt like something close to God stared directly into my soul. Very few musicians are as important to me personally as well as to popular twentieth music in general. His ideas and style have influenced everybody from George Harrison to Elton John and, at the golden age of 71, he can still melt your face playing piano. His name is Leon Russell and he is the Master of Space and time.

Leon is a piano player from Oklahoma who first captured my attention on a hazy day in the summer in about 2006. I haven’t mentioned him much before, using one of his Bob Dylan covers for a piece a few weeks back. My hippie neighbor Fred, who is about eight feet tall and the subject of an upcoming entry of his own, picked me up in his rusty old Subaru outback with a 12 pack of  Miller High life and a bunch of cds he had found in an old trunk.  I got in the car under the context of going to move some wood from one side of his driveway to the other but ending up driving very slowly in a large field nearby, drinking most of the beer, and listening to tunes. I learned a lot about Frank Zappa and Emerson, Lake and Palmer that day, but I want to focus on the major find which was Leon Russell. It was this song that sucked me in.

It didn’t hurt that we were having a few beers and driving in the woods, but this song bowled me over. I must have listened to it twenty times that afternoon/evening,  amongst many of Leon’ s solo songs on a retrospective disc Fred dug up somewhere. I then got the Fred version of the legend of Leon Russell.

The guy is basically a jack of all musical trades, from songwriter to producer to musician to singer and so on. He started playing music as a kid in Tulsa and at some point, moved to Los Angeles and eventually became part of the group known as “The Wrecking Crew”. These “fuckin bad asses” were supposed to be the best studio musicians in town and played on hits from the Beach Boys to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Band. Eventually, Leon started writing songs with some pretty good success, such as the following.

Everybody from Christina Aguilara to Ray Charles has covered this song and it’s also where he gets the name “The Master of Space and Time” . The excellent lyric states “I love you in place where there is no space or time” and this is around the same time Leon got perhaps his best known gig, as band leader for the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour backing Joe Cocker.  According to the liner notes of that best of disc, this tour was nuts and everybody was on drugs, but watch the video beneath. Leon looks like he is in his prime, the rest of the band is killing it, and Joe Cocker is his typical arm flailing awesomeness. More on that top hat shortly,

As things go, Leon got pretty big on his own right and split from Joe Cocker to start making his own records. His first had the track “A Song for You” which would go on to be a huge hit for so many along with one of my personal favorites, “Shootout on the Plantation”. Take the time to google this  self titled first album and you will be amazed at the line up of players, with Cocker, a few Rolling Stones, and even two Beatles in attendance on the sessions. This guy clearly had come clout back in the day and from this performance at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, he also had the chops to keep all these famous folks around. Just look at the guy, Fred is right when he says he’s a bad ass.

Unfortunately, his own records never sold like the ones he wrote and played on so sometime in the mid 1980’s, he kind of went obscure. He played gigs to pay the bills and it got pretty destitute to the point where his tour van was almost not functioning. I got all of this post 197o’s info from a great movie called The Union which tells the story of the making of the album with the same name by Leon and Elton John. If your watch these live videos  that I have included, you can see the gigantic influence and Elton does acknowledge it a lot. He does say some things that I think make Leon look a little bad, but all in all it is an immensely powerful movie about a musician  who is absolutely amazing. Here’s a great track which Leon wrote for Elton.

So why do I like Leon Russell so much? There is nobody like him, from his style of playing piano to his lyrics to his distinct singing voice. While he can play in any genre, it’s almost like anything he plays on just becomes it’s own Leon genre. Although I have heard many of his studio parts, as I am sure you have if you ever listened to Oldie’s radio, I prefer his solo work.  Nobody does all the work he does on a track anymore either, like “Out in the Woods” where Leon did everything except play bass. He has a distinctive style that has already stood the test of time.

I think his music also represents a certain time in my life, the college years they’d be called if I were to write a memoir. I listened to his music hard when I lived with my ex-girlfriend in a tiny apartment, one time buying a bunch of his records instead of saving money to cover rent. I never once introduced him to somebody who didn’t become a fan and one friend texted me the night after I saw him at like the crack of dawn. In short, it reminds me of a certain time that I really enjoyed but will never return to. The ex, who once told me listening to Leon Russell made her like me more, is long gone but I hope that she can still enjoy the music. That was the biggest thing we had together and although we ended badly, I look back on most of my time with her fondly. Here’s a good jam.

When I got the chance to see him the other night, still incredibly impressive at age 70, I obviously was thinking of my history of being a Leon fan and how quick things change. Watch that movie with Elton, the same goes for Leon, barely getting by one day and getting Grammys the next. I am very lucky for the show I saw as it was basically in a barn in Maine and I was probably twenty feet from one of my most revered musical idols. Check out the venue, it’s very cool. I also go to attend the show with two old friends whom I introduced Leon to years ago. In fact, the tickets were a wedding present to one of my friends whose wedding I was actually the best man for, so that was a cool experience in itself.

He played every song I’d want to hear except “Shootout on the Plantation” and had an amazing young band backing him. He is moving pretty slow and he has a laptop to remember lyrics, but don’t let this take anything away from him. He is amazing and I would pay a hundred bucks to see him again, Leon Russell is the Master of Space and Time and if you have a chance, discover it yourself.

Bob Dylan and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I have a love/hate relationship with Bob Dylan. I spent much of my teenage years as an avid fan who thought the man was pure genius and could do no wrong. I attended a show of his, my first big rock show, when I was a sophomore in high school and even though his vocals were difficult to dicipher at times, he still rocked my world. His band rocks and always will because of the legend that has grown around the man; so, this is one reason to see him in itself.

He is probably one of the best lyricists ever and has the unique ability in much of his work to write lines that seem to come directly from your own mind. For example, I think that “Dont think twice, It’s Alright”  perfectly expresses the feeling of breaking up with somebody but in a good way and is probably my favorite song along side “When I Paint my Masterpiece”.  But of course, Bobby won’t let anyone listen to his songs for free so I include a killer cover here, the singer I am sure you will know and is dear to all our hearts.

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YouTube Covers I


Now, I have written before about the art of the cover song (and my own theories). So this is not an entry about that. Instead, I am interested in the way that technology and the modern media has changed the relationship between the learning musician and the covered song.

For instance, reality competition shows (American Idol; The Voice) have incentivized (even monetized) cover songs in a way that just didn’t exist when I was younger (apart from the karaoke stylings of Star Search). Everyone who can carry a tune has an audition song. Audiences have become accustomed to discussions of fidelity vs. originality in performances for years.

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On the Radio: Pumped Up Kicks

Recently when my brother finally came to visit my hot as hell state, we painted my deck and did some driving around town talking and listening to the radio. (The visit was too short. I wish we didn’t live so far apart.) More than once while driving, we heard Foster the People’s “Pumped-up Kicks”.

As I often wonder about songs that get under my skin, what makes them work? This song’s attractiveness starts with its muffled bass line—it walks smoothly around, it makes you move with it. The overall sonic atmosphere of the song is well balanced. When the vocal comes in through the old-school radio effects, I almost reject it for trying too hard to be cool.

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Cover Songs, Redux

In an earlier post, I wrote about cover songs abstractly, taking the time to discuss only one of my favorite covers in detail. In re-reading and re-thinking that post, I have more to say about one of my favorite topics (big surprise).

First, the cover song plays important but often different roles for artist and audiences. For developing musicians, covering a song is a bit like a painter copying the brush strokes of a master. In performance contexts like the dive bar or a street corner, however, a cover is an important way to grab a distracted (or hostile) audience’s attention either through the fidelity of the imitation or the originality of the interpretation.

Covered by every bar singer in Boston 1999-2001

Indeed, it is in the transition between these two polarities that we often mark the difference between a musician and an artist. When we go to live performances (especially of artists’ we don’t know) we may be impressed by the ability of a performer to imitate David Gray or Dave Matthews (most typical for singer/songwriters in bars) but we remember performers who deliver familiar songs in slightly different or even surprising ways. In fact, less-than-talented musicians can still provide exciting takes on songs.

I was in more than one heated argument in my band days over the issue of fidelity vs. interpretation. (For my part, it was the inability to imitate sufficiently that drove my desire to innovate.) As I argue in the earlier post, the ability of a song to be translated into a different form by a different artist is a testament to the beauty, even transcendence, of that song. Imitating slavishly is good for wedding bands, but not for original artists (as the judges from American Idol should be explaining).

But interpretation can also fall flat—the genre of lounge singing, for example, levels out the edges of music and channels even the most powerful songs into flaccid, saccharine schmaltz.  And, falling in between the two can be disastrous. Back in the day, I attended a Bush concert that ended with a wretched cover of R. E. M.’s “Radio Song”. I didn’t love Bush beforehand; I certainly had no greater respect after that.

In order to think through what happens with cover songs and why they work, I have tried to come up with some categories. Hopefully these will get the Younger J either (1) up in arms or (2) adding/correcting my lists ad infinitum.

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The Cover Song: Repetition. Imitation. Innovation.

“The author is a modern character, no doubt produced by our society…discovering the prestige of the individual, or, as we say more nobly, of the “human person”. Hence, it is logical that in literary matters it should be positivism, crown and conclusion of capitalist ideology, which has granted the greatest importance to the author’s “person.”” – Roland Barthes (from The Death of the Author)
Nihil sub sole novum, Ecclesiastes

Years ago a roommate (the Historian) and I got in a furious argument about Lauryn Hill’s cover of Frankie Valli’s 1967 hit “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You” (a ‘hidden’ track on the U.S. release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)). The Historian lamented both the lack of originality and the lameness of the cover in comparison to the ‘original’. Now, apart from the fact that Valli didn’t even write the song (Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio did, which complicates any claim of originality), Hill’s version, far from being a slavish imitation, is, I contended, a unique and worthwhile exercise that reflects her musical genre and time period and also enters into a long-standing tradition in art and literature. By updating the old, she created something new. And, as I added as an afterthought, originality is a false premise to begin with.

While my roommate retreated from his extreme “only the original and unique is good” position, he did not, lamentably, learn to love Hill’s version of the song. He has, however, come to see the importance of the cover song in popular music. Music is one area where we cherish repetition and imitation. Classical music and opera constantly revisit familiar territory; Jazz performance is built on a foundation of standards; Rap and Hip Hop made sampling at modern art form; and the history of Rock n’ Roll has the cover song as a staple of any new artist’s introduction.

Indeed, early canonical artists like Elvis and the Beatles were, at the beginning, cover artists (of course, some of this has to do with commercial viability; the rest of this has to do with re-packaging black music for white audiences). Anyone who has been in a band knows that you need cover songs to keep people listening to you and that learning and performing them is an essential part of musical and artistic development.

Somewhere along the way the cover song tarnished a bit. I suspect that part of this is a modern hang-up about “authorship” and “texts”; I suspect even further that once popular music was transported from its performance context where ‘authority’ resides in the current iteration (the performance) of the song rather than some dusty and fixed constant we started to be confused about its status.

Bear with me on this one. In classical music performances and live jazz shows, the money is for the performers—the commodity is in the moment. Since the dominant form of popular music has conventionally been the single played by the DJ and bought at the record store, the commodity is the fixed ‘text’ rather than the live performance or even the ‘transcript’ of the live performance. So, one explanation for the denigration of the cover song is that technological and cultural change facilitated a move away from a performance culture to prize the fixed recording instead.

Another explanation, and this one may be even more of a stretch, is that culturally we prize originality in artistic production because we overvalue ‘genius’. Some explanations for this phenomenon that I have encountered suggest that in a Christianized world we have followed the analogy author : text :: God : creation and that this implicit analogy has led us to devalue reinvention and repetition in favor of the divine original genius model. Another idea is that in a culture that so thoroughly praises the work of individual geniuses rather than the collective forces of human society, there is a certain psychological pressure on individuals to believe in this notion of ‘the genius’ with the secret and desperate hope that they might be one.

In truth, even the most innovative work is built on something that came before. In the ancient world, this idea permeates poetry. Telemachus claims in Homer’s Odyssey that men are always searching after the newest song—implying in some way that his song is new even as it builds on conventional and inherited language and motifs. In accepting a traditional form but claiming a different spirit, the Augustan poet Horace famously describes his poetry as “Roman wine in a Greek vase”. Imitation takes so many forms and is, like repetition, essentially paradoxical. By occurring in a different time, by having the ‘original’ behind it and in the mind of the observer/audience, a copy is never just a copy. The old is already something new. And nothing is ever truly new.

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