30 April 2009

When the Cover Version Pushes Aside the Original

Here we discuss a few cover versions of songs that are better than the originals. I think of these as I do great film sequels: they occur only rarely.

The Otis Redding clip below is one of the earliest examples, in post-50s rock, of a cover artist stealing a song out from under the original artists. If there is any justification at all for the Stones continuing to add Satisfaction to their set lists, it is as a tribute to Otis Redding

Immediately below is a live performance from 1966, around the time Redding
"broke out".

And here's another: Neil Young doing a live cover, in 1992, if Dylan's Just Tom Thumb's Blues

Having, on my great southwest Texas travel adventure 20 years ago, 'been lost in Juarez at Easter time', where 'the cops definitely had no use for me', I have always loved and identified with this early Dylan classic.

Here Neil, his classic black Les Paul in hand, turns up the volume and distortion to give "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" just the right coke-jitter edginess. Though this performance is a decade and a half old, it stands perfectly as a metaphor for the city under drug war siege Ciudad Juarez is today.

But Neil is like that -- he makes whatever he touches timeless. Neil is one of the few performers who can incorporate Dylan vocal mannerisms into his performance without looking silly.

Think about it, who even tries?
(I heard Jagger stumble and botch it only once. He never tried again after Godard caught him doing Dylan in the recording session for "Sympathy for the Devil", included in Godard's film One Plus One.

Here, Neil executes a rugged Dylan-esque vocal flawlessly.


This last definitive cover I'll mention here you can put to the test yourself. Johnny Cash's cover of U2's song One is number 5 on my black jukebox in the left column. Johnny Cash' cover of One, by U2, discussed in an earlier post here, is now definitive. Just check out track 5 and let me know what you think. In my view, now that Cash has passed on, he owns this song (artistically) and no one will ever take it back.

The lesson here: just because you didn't write that great song doesn't mean you can't do the best version ever. Indeed, I do the world's best cover of Neil Young's Cortez the Killer, I just can't prove it anymore.

{Post inspired by WhiteRay at Echoes in the Wind: "Otis Redding, Neil Young & Gypsy"}

24 April 2009

Rock with Strings: A Non Sequitur, Except ....

Strings on rock records are almost always a failure -- they actually water down, rather than increase, the power of songs that will rock your socks off.

The most high profile example of this problem are the strings that way-past-his-prime
Phil Spector used to bury the studio work of the Paul, John, George and Ringo on the Beatles song Across the Universe, released on Let it Be (1970). Luckily, Sir Paul McCartney has acquired the publishing rights to the album and stripped the strings off, allowing one to hear what was actually recorded in the studio by the lads (see Let it Be... Naked (2003)).

There are, however, exceptions. The most important is the revolutionary wall of sound developed by Phil Spector's when was out the height of his production powers in the early 1960s. The Wikipedia contributors describe the "wall of sound" as
.... a dense, layered, and reverberant sound that reproduced well on AM radio and jukeboxes popular in the era. He created this sound by having a number of electric and acoustic guitarists perform the same parts in unison, adding musical arrangements for large groups and/or orchestral musicians, and then recording the sound using an echo chamber. .... (Wall of Sound, Wikipedia Contributors)
A great "wall of sound" record to check out is "Paradise" by The Ronettes (available on the Phil Spector box set Back to Mono).

Another great use of strings in rock came about eight years later. On the
Stones' Moonlight Mile (from the album Sticky Fingers), Paul Buckmaster's powerful string arrangement sends Mick Taylor's crescendo power chords into overdrive, turning a good album closing cut into a great one.

And now, the payoff for reading all that -- a contemporary example of making strings work in a rock song. Here, for your listening pleasure, are the best rock strings in a generation: "Linger" by The Cranberries :

Yeah, let's let that linger -- play it again Delores, rock away my broken heart.

19 April 2009

The Passing of a Pioneer, Bettie Page

Bettie Page on the bow of a classic wooden Chris Craft.

Bettie Page was the ground-breaking pinup model of the 1950s -- the lone talent to shatter all the taboos and, eventually, open up America to mainstream artistic female nudity, erotica, and non-mainstream work such as bondage photos. Ever joyful in front of a camera, we owe her a lot. She helped free this country from it's now-pointless puritan roots.

With her December passing, she will be missed, and continue to be admired.

Bettie, you were the best. Requiescat in pace.

14 April 2009

"There's One More Kid That'll Never Go to School, Never Get to Fall in Love, Never Get to Be Cool."

Neil Young -- Rockin' in the Free World (music video)

There are a lot of wanna-be social protest songs detailing our social and moral decay as a society. None rock this hard. When Neil and Crazy Horse performed it on Saturday Night Live, it burned the house down and I got to experience the "busted guitar string heard round the world."

This is a masterpiece. This is what rock 'n' roll is all about.

09 April 2009

Steely Dan - Hey Nineteen (Live, 2006)


"We got nothin' in common
We can't dance together
We can't talk at all
Please take me along when you slide on down"
If you are ever sitting in a bar -- and you are a man over 50 hitting on a young lady, let's say half your age. Then, mysteriously, the studio version of Steely Dan's Hey Nineteen comes on the jukebox, look around.

You may see me over in the corner of the bar, sipping iced tea and giggling to myself. Yes, I'm the culprit trying to mess up your May-December romance.

This is a message song -- a lesson to be learned well. In addition to the two couplets quoted above, think about this: she doesn't know who Aretha Franklin is. She probably never heard of the Beatles or the Stones. The only way you two, with no common ground, will get through the night is with some "Cuervo Gold and fine Colombian."

Just my opinion, and there are exceptions. But not in bars. Get a hold of yourself man. Pick on someone who is your own age. Leave that Sweet Little Rock n' Roller be.

03 April 2009

Carole King & James Taylor - "So Far Away"

As far as I know, Carole King only performed in Tampa once.

When I was about 14 (1970-1972) , James Taylor was touring with a stop at our convention center -- concert central for the area. During Taylor's set, Ms. King came out, to the audience's surprise and true elation. King played a 3 song mini-set that immediately entered the annals of Tampa music history -- a gentle Brill Building breeze so perfect no one knows anymore whether it could have been as good as everyone who remembers it thinks now.

Above we have some had evidence that Carole on James' stage in the early seventies was that good. Here we have the reverse situation: Carole invited James onstage to perform one of the incomparable songs off her chart-dominating 1971 collection Tapestry.

I personally wore out 3 Tapestry lps "getting through" from age 13 to 15. And music clips such as the one above take me right back to when the concept of a nickel bag still made sense to music, if it couldn't save the world, could save me.

Ugh, time marches on, C'est la vie. Come on Carole, sing one for us. I know I'll ".... still love you tomorrow ..."