Before writing last week's installment, I had this fantasy about creating a playlist of awesome cover songs for people to listen to on a Saturday or Sunday morning while making coffee or doing housework, with a few stories to go along with each song. I did make a playlist—it's at the end of this issue—and the first place I'd like to start is with a classical pianist hunched over his piano, singing and mumbling to himself as he plays.
Glenn Gould playing Bach’s "Goldberg Variations" is one of the most popular and enduring recordings in classical music history. It must be well-known because, hey, I know about it and I know very little about classical music.
If you’ve heard Gould play it, it’s difficult to listen to anyone else do the same. In a way, Glenn Gould ruined the "Goldberg Variations" like a neighborhood tomcat spraying a much-loved couch. In comparison, other versions of the same material seem so lackluster and academic, and this is in part because of Gould’s unique, unorthodox approach.
And playing this repertoire, Gould is not even consistent with himself. Compare his 1955 performance of the opening Aria—the recording that made him famous—with his performance in 1982 of the same piece and you hear the evolution of an artist from early tempestuousness to someone more measured and mature. His 1982 recording is deliberate. Each note is painfully and beautifully articulated. Nothing is lost or brushed over.
Why is Gould's Bach so enthralling? I'm not the best person to answer that question, but I do know that classical music used to be a lot less stuffy, even as far back as a hundred years. Musicologist Clive Brown explains—and I've heard the same from others—prior to the institutionalisation of classical music, composers always assumed that performers of their work would embellish, change and rearrange the compositions to suit their own interests and the audiences they were playing to.
Yep! Shock of all shocks—classical musicians used to improvise, and... Darn it, what's that word? Oh yeah, 'jam' way before djembes and doobies and dreadlocks were invented. Well, not invented, but wrenched from other cultures and appropriated as a Western a type of neo-primitive... I'm getting off track. Where was I? (Got to stop smoking those doobies...) Oh yeah—jamming, classical music.
The idea that the composition is sacrosanct, deserving nothing less than dogmatic reverence, is a new one; most probably propagated by virtuosos, critics, academics and whoever else had a vested interest in building high walls around the art.
Then you get someone like Gould who comes along and sets a new standard through the simple act of being his weird, mumbling-while-playing, eccentric self. And suddenly that wall seems higher when in fact it should now seem easier to jump, since one of the messages of his contribution is the same as the 'take home message' of any Disney or 80s movie:
Be yourself. No one else. You will triumph. Even though you may be treated like an outsider at the beginning, there will be a big party for you at the end.
Gould himself said,
"I believe that the only excuse we have for being musicians and for making music in any fashion, is to make it differently, to perform it differently, to establish the music's difference, vis-a-vis our own difference."
And there it is—an answer to the question I was asking in the last issue. Why do some cover versions suck and others sizzle?
Well, counter-intuitively, the sucky ones suck because they lack originality.
Doing a cover version of someone else's material that's expressive and interesting and communicates something requires a good injection of self-authenticity. Looking down the list of artists and tracks I’ve picked for these two issues, I can see this contradiction at work. Each artist has put their stamp on the songs they've selected to the point of almost colonising them.
As a result each song, rather than being a lifeless facsimile of its original, becomes the property of the singer, not the songwriter. Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power), for instance, when singing “Satisfaction” doesn’t try to sing like Mick Jagger; her interpretation stays true to her usual languid breathy-ness. The same goes for Patti Smith not taking on Kurt Cobain’s incomprehensible twang, or Seu Jorge not hiding his Portuguese heritage and pretending to be David Bowie, but instead remaining blatantly and undeniably, well, Portuguese.
Regardless of the material they are working with, these artists are true to themselves and their own idiosyncrasies, and as a result they have reinvented these songs simply by passing them through the prism of their own well-established individuality as artists.
Thinking back to last week's essay and what I said about the guy singing Radiohead at the farmer’s market—I realise now that part of the reason it I didn’t like what he was doing was that I was subconsciously picking up on a certain level of insincerity in his performance.
(Geez! I’m such a bitch. And such a snobby one at that! I’m reviewing some guy having fun playing covers for god’s sake, and getting all haughty about it. I’m the style slash karma police, shouting ‘Arrest this man!’)
(As a general rule, I think anyone who gets out of bed and decides it's a good day to leave their house with a guitar, a crate of records or whatever, makes this world a better place. Mazeltov to you and whatever you set out to do! So, whatever I say next, imagine I'm Rodney Dangerfield at the end of each paragraph saying, “Only kidding. Hey, this guy’s alright!”)
(Plus, let’s not forget that this essay-blog depends largely on other people’s work. Bear with me. I think I’m trying to work through something here about my own originality, and I think it's this...)
The guy was singing Radiohead in that forced rock faux-American voice—a voice that many of us who've tried to sing have wanted to hide behind. So, in a sense, it wasn’t that he was doing an impression of one artist badly that put me off; it was that his version of “Karma Police” was a double citation at odds with itself. It had become a weird Frankenstein-amalgam where a song of alienation by a British band was being sung with an inherited American ideal of what a solo singer should sound like.
(Here comes the Disney, 80s ending...)
From my perspective, I guess if he (the cover song guy who is also me in a past life) had just been more original by being himself and singing in his own voice, I would have enjoyed it more.
But hey, this guy’s alright! And while we’re all here—let’s party!
6. Isley Brothers – “Twist and Shout” (The Beatles. No wait, The Isley Brothers. No, The Top Notes! What?!)
Yep. “Twist and Shout” wasn’t written by The Beatles. I didn’t know that till a few days ago.
It was written by Phil Medley and Bert Berns in 1961 under the title "Shake It Up, Baby" and recorded by a group called the Top Notes with an as-then unknown Atlantic producer Phil Spector. The song was a flop, but the following year it was rerecorded by The Isley Brothers and was a huge success in the US.
The Beatles rerecorded The Isley Brothers’ version, right down to what would become their signature Little Richard sounding ‘Ooohs!’ (which goes against the originality of the artist thing I was talking about earlier, but fits with the colonisation thing... ah, it doesn't matter that much).
7. Otis Redding – “Respect” (Aretha Franklin. No wait. Otis? Really? Again?)
Otis Redding's version of "Respect" is the original. He wrote it for his friend and road manager 'Speedo' Sims to record. Sims couldn't get it to sound right, so Redding rewrote it and recorded it himself. Aretha Franklin recorded it two years later and instantly it was a massive hit.
The difference between the two versions is the difference between roast potatoes and Ikea. Both are wonderful, but both serve radically different purposes. Plus Otis's version is more, 'You'd better have dinner on the table because I'm the man of the house' kind of thing, whereas Aretha's is,
'I'm not gonna go to work and put food on the table and put up with this bullsh*t anymore, so things better get different real quick or you'll be sleeping outside from now on!'
Aretha's sisters—her real sisters (familial) rather than 'sistas' (universal)—sing back-up vocals, and helped her to rewrite the song, including adding a new chorus that wasn't in Redding's original:
Find out what it means to me
Take care, TCB
BTW—TCB? I looked it up. It stands for 'Taking Care of Business'.
BT-BTW—This colonising other people's work can be a fantastic thing as in Aretha's case, but it also has a downside too. Since writing last week’s installment, there’s been a little bit of controversy in the news about cover songs. Someone was filmed doing a cover of "I was only 19" (a popular Australian song about the Vietnam War) at a ‘Reclaim Australia rally,’ which is part of a new anti-Islam, ultra-conservative ‘Tea Party’ inspired movement that objects to what it sees as the ‘Islamisation’ of Australia. John Schuman, who wrote the original, publicly objected to the use of his song saying,
"I was very disturbed to learn this morning that ‘I was only 19’ had been performed at at least one Reclaim Australia rally. [...] All of my work, ‘19’ included, is about understanding, compassion, tolerance and inclusiveness. I am very, very disappointed to see my work co-opted by what I, at my most charitable, consider to be a very confused 'patriotic' movement.”
Too bloody right. Schuman, TCB.
8. Brad Mehldau – "Exit Music (for a Film)" (Radiohead)
In jazz pianist Brad Mehldau's freakishly dextrous hands, "Exit Music" approaches Chopin. So much of Radiohead's chord sequences and melodies are inflected with classical music. This version proves it.
9. Johnny Cash – “Hurt” (Nine Inch Nails)
The way cover versions usually operate is that a younger generation discovers and reinvigorates an older artist's work. Not so here—the opposite.
This is most definitely evidence of how a great, very individual artist can take possession of a work by the sheer weight of their skill and personality. The video is brilliant too, featuring a blend of new and archival footage collected over Cash's entire career.
When Trent Reznor, the song's creator, saw the finished product he said:
"I pop the video in, and wow... Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps... Wow. I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn't mine anymore... It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. That winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning—different, but every bit as pure."
The same year the video was filmed, Cash's wife, June Carter Cash who also appears in the clip, passed away. Cash followed her four months later.
10. Rage Against the Machine – “Maggie's Farm” (Bob Dylan)
I could have picked any number of tracks from Rage Against the Machine's album of covers, "Renegades". This band hammering out everything from Cypress Hill to Bruce Springsteen is such a brilliant idea and impressively executed. Dylan's "Maggie's Farm" in particular takes on this fantastic depth, especially when it gets to Zack de la Rocha screaming:
Well, I try my best
To be like I am
Everybody wants you to be like them
They say 'sing while you slave'
and I get just bored
"Maggie's Farm" was Dylan during his 'electric period', staunchly declaring to his critics his individuality and claiming his right to make his own choices as an artist. It was Dylan being true to himself which... Hey! That's the theme of this issue!
Here's "Covers" Part 1 if you missed it.