Covers 3: Superb Assassins

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It's been a big wish that Rabbit Hole would have guest contributors one day. That wish comes true with this special double issue. In part one below, a good friend of mine under the name Ferret writes—well, in a way—a cover of the 'Covers' series. (In cricket, a rabbit is a extremely poor batsman; a ferret, who usually goes in after a rabbit, is even worse.)

Writing a blog post about cover versions is a stroke of genius. Everyone can relate to it. We all have favourites we can share in the comments section and, best of all, it gives me the perfect platform to become Rabbit's first ever guest contributor.

I can trot out my favourite covers and whack on about them safe in the knowledge that it's just my opinion, right? Well, maybe not that simple. A glimmer of insight is also required in order to raise my discourse above mere comment fodder, so I'll start with my personal credentials as a peddler of covers.

I was in a band many years ago that played an up-tempo, Elvis-style version of "Ring Ring" in a heat of Campus Battle of Bands that our student newspaper described as a "superb assassination" of the ABBA classic. Thank you very much.

Mind you, the rest of the review described our set as "a nil-all draw with the audience" and we didn't make the semis.

Such genre bending (we also tried doing Peggy Sue as a reggae number) is obviously the lowest form of cover work and, as Trent Reznor says (quoted by Rabbit in Covers 2), a good cover needs to reinterpret the original so that it "retains sincerity and meaning—different, but every bit as pure."

1. Melanie Safka — “Ruby Tuesday" (The Rolling Stones)

To my mind a song which fits this description beautifully is Melanie Safka’s take on the early Jagger/Richards classic "Ruby Tuesday". The Stones seemed to be observing this mysterious free spirit from a distance but Melanie understood where Ruby was coming from and expressed those feelings with eloquence and power.

Melanie appealed to my teenage self because I worried that I lacked empathy and emotion. My mother was a cry-er. Sad movies and documentaries about World War I made her cry while I wondered what the fuss was about. I know now that it wasn't so much empathy I lacked as life experience. If my father had been a shell-shocked Great War veteran like hers, I'd probably have cried too when photos of bloated no-man's land corpses appeared on TV.

Melanie's baby-doll-on-whiskey voice with its soaring sweeps from raw whisper to irresistible roar seemed like a gateway to the emotions I lacked. Her ability to drop notes into the spaces between beats added new dimensions to songs. In her hands "Ruby Tuesday" is a tour-de-force.

(I listened to this song for the first time in years while writing this piece and was surprised to find that Melanie's guitar and voice are backed by a full band and string section. This style of backing seems to be a sixties thing. Want a bigger sound? Get the session boys in to play the dots. Always ends up sounding rather soulless. Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" is a case in point. This very acoustic song from their first album was beefed up for the opening titles of The Graduate by adding a band track to the original. Compare the two versions and you'll see what I mean.)

2. Fairport Convention — "Morning Glory" (Tim Buckley)

Before Fairport Convention made their name as pioneers of English electric folk in the early seventies, they put out three albums mostly covering other people's stuff. (One could argue that their folk recordings were also covers but I shall confine myself to cases where both versions made the charts.)

Most bands play covers in their garage while they're still finding their feet, but Fairport's boy wonder guitarist Richard Thompson got them elevated to recording artists before they knew how to write their own stuff.

I reckon this version of Tim Buckley's "Morning Glory" is their best effort from this period. Try as he might, Iain Matthews can’t match Buckley’s great vocals, but Fairport replace the light jazz piano backing of the original with a much stronger rhythm section and crown a great song with a glorious solo from 18-year-old Thompson. For some reason they never made a studio version so there's only this poorly mixed live TV audio to show us what might have been.

3. Paul Kelly and Uncle Bill — "Taught by Experts" (Paul Kelly)

I shall now stretch a point here and consider performers who re-interpreted their own songs, starting with one of the pleasures I have discovered about growing older—bluegrass. Hillbilly music was way too naff for trendy youth but, boy, that old-timey stuff packs a punch.

Thank you Coen Brothers and the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack 'fer showin' me the lart!'

So, what do you get when you combine Australia's greatest songwriter (Paul Kelly) with our best exponents of bluegrass (Uncle Bill)? An instant classic, that's what! I could have picked just about any track from their album Smoke, but "Taught By Experts" is the one I play the most.

4. The Byrds and Gene Clark — "Here Without You" (Gene Clark)

Finally, we come to my all-time favourite songwriter Gene Clark—the so-called 'lost genius' of the sixties.

If Melanie Safka captured emotions in performance, Gene created wordscapes in music that trapped melancholy and sadness inside songs.

Luckily for posterity, Gene hit it big at pretty much the first attempt with The Byrds—a band that caught the post-Beatles wave perfectly and rode it into folk-rock heaven. Gene's success as their main songwriter (ironically for a band remembered nowadays mostly for its covers) encouraged record producers to give him a go from time to time despite a growing reputation as a bad risk.

Here are two versions of Gene's "Here Without You," starting with The Byrds' first album in 1965. We just hear the trademark folk/Beatle harmonies of Gene, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby with some guitar and bass—a fine example from the first flowerings of a new pop sound.

The second version was recorded live a decade later when Gene's stuttering solo career had him playing small, out of the way venues. With Roger White and Duke Bardwell for support (recently of Elvis's touring band) the song re-emerges as a powerful Appalachian lament.

It's enough to make me cry.

Ferret

This week's Rabbit Hole is a double issue. Check out part two,"Kraftifacts: If Post-it notes have taught me anything...". Oh, and here's "Covers" Part 1 and Part 2if you're interested.