This month’s entry from pop music commentator and writer Geoff Moore has to do with a very important subject as dealt with in detail here at the ‘Bin: the cover version. There are good ones and bad. But, has the perception of the cover version changed over the decades that we call the rock/pop era? You betcher sweet bippy it has, kids! But, how? And for better, or worse?
A discordant trend in mainstream music these days is the proliferation of the needle-drop cover version. A recent example is Colin James’s take on Van Morrison’s ‘Into the Mystic.’ First, full marks to James for having the audacity to attempt one of Morrison’s greatest love songs, that is some serious nerve. The result however is rather pedestrian, Colin pointlessly sings Van. The arrangement seems to be virtually the same, so his cover neither expands or twists the original and therefore never feels like a natural fit with James’s own bluesy oeuvre.
A cynic may posit that James’s ‘Into the Mystic’ is aimed squarely at casual listeners who are unaware of the 40-year-old song’s provenance and pedigree; people who buy CDs released by American Idols or Susan Boyle. Perhaps televised karaoke contests are the genesis of the aping muck we find currently ourselves mired in.
In the early days of rock ‘n’ roll very few teen idols wrote their own material. There were massive exceptions to this generalization of course: Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran and Roy Orbison to cite just three examples. Yet for the most part songwriting and song publishing was and still is an equally profitable industry synchronous to the record business. It could be argued that most hits from those times were cover versions as most artists only invested their performances in songs. There was a limited or little sense of ownership; you think of each edition of the Drifters as mouthpieces for the compositions of Leiber-Stoller or Goffin-King.
What’s interesting to note at this juncture is how the more things change, the more they stay the same. At one time the principal consumer commodity of the music industry was sheet music. Tin Pan Alley, the nickname for the area in New York City where the writers and publishers once clustered, survived and adapted to the threats of player piano rolls, Edison’s talking machine and Marconi’s wireless telegraphy. What it ultimately could not abide was the D.I.Y. ethos of rock ‘n’ roll, artists writing their own material. Denizens of the fabled Brill Building, Burt Bacharach, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Carole King and Paul Simon, saw the writing on the wall and became hit-makers in their own right. The decline and fall of a seemingly integral element of the music industry is not a new phenomenon.
The dozen years or so between the British Invasion and the rise of punk were an incredibly fertile time for rock ‘n’ roll and were maybe the heyday of meaningful cover versions. Artists with little or no formal musical training of any sort with heads full of ideas that soared far beyond simplistic, boy-meets-girl pop narratives were fans and rivals of one another, any approach to making music seemed fresh.
If you’re under 50, it’s difficult to imagine a time when Rod Stewart mattered. This is a guy who, so the story goes, cut ‘Street Fighting Man’ because he was afraid that people couldn’t understand the words as sung by Mick Jagger. Rod’s interpretation may not be better than the Stones track, but in his hands it becomes a Rod Stewart song. That is the alchemy involved in a worthy cover, an unmistakable, singular performance.
Memorable cover versions bring something new to the party. Something that was familiar, known – etched in vinyl – is uniquely re-imagined. Roxy Music’s chilly rendition of Wilson Pickett’s ‘In the Midnight Hour‘ with its weird, underwater counting intro (“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…”) is about as far away from Memphis as you can get without a rocket ship. The Talking Heads’ version of Al Green’s baptismal ‘Take Me to the River?’ Your first thought before actually hearing it is, this won’t end well at all.
A cover that absolutely trumps and transcends the original version is a rare, rare bird, but there are a few that spring to mind immediately (and certainly others worthy of animated discussion). Bob Dylan wrote and released ‘All Along the Watchtower’ before Jimi Hendrix got his hands on it, but when you think of the song, chances are it’s the Hendrix version that comes to mind. Even Dylan performs it using Hendrix’s arrangement. Aretha Franklin’s cover of ‘Respect’ over Otis Redding’s own version: “Sock it to me!” Nazareth’s manic, growly ‘This Flight Tonight’ is the definitive take of Joni Mitchell’s wistful ballad. ‘Suspicious Minds,’ Elvis Presley’s last number one single, was an utter stiff for writer and singer Mark James previously. With apologies to writer Richard Berry (no relation to Chuck) and the other 90 or so acts who have waxed it, ‘Louie Louie’ is a Kingsmen tune. The Isley’s ‘Twist and Shout’ might be one of the best rockers in the Beatles’ repertoire.
While Colin James’s cover of ‘Into the Mystic’ is neither bad nor good, just there, unneeded and uncalled for, miles beneath it lays a cesspool rife with wretched, butchered travesties of what were originally great songs. Best not to uncover those here.
Geoff Moore is a writer who lives in Calgary, Alberta. It would be difficult to guess which song he’d choose to cover given the chance, but we can very safely rule out ‘Dancing Queen’.