Some covers of classic songs are like science fiction—like stories that imagine what it would be like if Hitler had won the war, or if steam power was never replaced by electricity and oil. In the alternative realities below, The Beatles are from Ghana, David Bowie is Portuguese, Chuck D is a woman, and Kurt Cobain's lyrics are intelligible.
Last weekend I was at my local farmer's market and some guy with an acoustic guitar and gravelly rock-sounding voice was belting out Radiohead's "Karma Police". Hearing him sent my spider senses into spasms of bitchy judgey-ness. People were milling about buying their weekly veggies, kids were getting their faces painted, and this guy was singing about "her Hitler hairdo" and making me feel ill.
What's worse, once upon a time, he might have been me.
It was karma for sure, and probably the real source of my dislike for what the poor innocent guy was doing—it was feelings of shame, ten years too late. Damn my super power of being able to see the faults in others and not myself! But standing there holding my groceries, while trying not to take in too much lest the song be ruined for me forever, made me think:
Why are some covers insipid and others inspired?
In my head, I started listing all the covers I love—versions that add another dimension to their originals rather than drain the life out of them.
1. Cat Power – "Satisfaction" (The Rolling Stones)
'Familiarity breeds contempt' the saying goes. Urgh, what total claptrap trotted out by every hack... Sorry, I'm doing what? Oh, yeah right.
It's true though. The danger with the 'classics' is that they have been played and replayed, and parodied so much, we no longer see or hear them for what they are. That's why Beethoven can be reduced to the first four notes of his 5th; Da Vinci is the guy who painted the chick who looks pleased with herself on all those mugs and tea-towels; Hamlet is 'To be or not to be'; and no one including me knows Moby-Dick beyond the first line, "Call me Ishmael."
'Moby Dick? Ummm. Something about a whale and a guy called Ishmael? Loses his hand. Gets a hook. Hangs out with some kids, I think—one's called Wendy.'
Rather than living, breathing texts that still surprise us, the classics become dusty artifacts.
They become things we're vaguely aware of that we know Wikipedia will remember for us should we need to know about them for a quiz night, and for your information Erica I wasn't cheating—that's bullsh*t! I was just checking my phone for the ti...
(Sorry. Scratch that bit.)
The same happens with well-known songs. We've heard them and we think we know them, but more often than not we don't really know them at all.
That's why Cat Power's version of The Stone's "Satisfaction" is so great, because it makes the familiar unfamiliar. This version skips the immediately identifiable parts of the song that would be an instant signal to tune out. There's no guitar riff, no chorus. All that's left are the verses. I can't say I've paid that much attention to the lyrics before hearing this version. They're really interesting on their own.
When I'm watchin' my TV
And that man comes on to tell me
How white my shirts can be
But he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke
The same cigarettes as me
2. Charlotte Dada – "Don't Let Me Down" (The Beatles)
The multiple time signature changes in this Beatles original make much more sense in the context of African music. Charlotte Dada's version is infectious and real pretty.
3. Patti Smith – "Smells like Teen Spirit" (Nirvana)
Turn the lights out
At the steakhouse
Here we are now
Or at least that's what one person thought.
Up until Patti Smith released her version, no one knew what Kurt Cobain was singing except Patti Smith. She's like a UN translator for Cobain's 'I'm so disenchanted, diction doesn't matter' drawl. The use of double bass and banjo, and Smith's smoky afternoon age-ed barfly delivery turns this indie-anthem into something sprawlingly transcendent.
4. Seu Jorge – “Life on Mars” (David Bowie)
Se nao eu vou perder quem sou
Vou querer me mudar
Para uma Life on Mars
This is another cover that reveals the ineffable beauty of the original.
Seu Jorge's Portuguese language reinterpretation of David Bowie's music for the movie The Life Aquatic is wonderful beyond words. (Well, almost.) The track is played solo on nylon string guitar—the glam theatrics of Bowie's version replaced with an aura of solitary, cool introspection.
Even Bowie was impressed with the result.
"Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs in Portuguese I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with."
5. Tricky – “Black Steel” (Public Enemy)
I got a letter from the government the other day
I opened and read it, it said they were suckers
They wanted me for their army or whatever
Picture me giving a damn, I said never
"Black Steel" is a cover of Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos."
I'm a child of the 90s, and at the time this was released trip-hop pioneer Tricky's post-punk-ish re-imagining of this song was so exciting. Rather than spoken, Chuck D's lyrics are sung by Tricky's collaborator, Martina Topley-Bird.
Years in the future, the grand kids will be swarming round my ankles as I sit in my hover-recliner listening to this track full blast. "Hear this kids?" I'll say, bobbing my head back and forth. "This is real music!" A nurse in silver Lycra will appear and unplug the stereo from the wall. No one will realise that she's also unplugged my life support for another twenty minutes—everyone is just happy the racket has stopped.
Hope you enjoyed. This was Part 1 of a double issue. Here's Part 2, Rabbit Hole #28 — "Covers 2: Bring Yourself, TCB".