Listen to this track by experimental pop collective and repositioners of classic R&B songs The Flying Lizards. It’s “Money (That’s What I Want)”, a cover of the much-beloved 1959 Barrett Strong original. As often as it was covered, by both The Beatles and by The Rolling Stones among many others, The Flying Lizards made this one their own. After its release as a single, it eventually appeared on their self-titled 1979 debut album and became an (perhaps unlikely) hit single; number 5 in the UK, and number 22 on the dance charts in the States.
In some ways, it sounds as though this take on the song is trying to throw its own fight in the appealing pop music stakes. And yet somehow, the opposite effect knocked listeners out during the height of new wave when weirdly cool records were able to thrive as record companies, perhaps, were still trying to figure out the paradigm shift. Even in 1979, this sounded pretty weird coming out of the radio; a true novelty hit.
But beyond the novelty aspect of things, I think there is something underneath this version of a classic and well-covered R&B song that does more than just amuse us by being such a curiosity as a hit single.
Listen to this track by blues and roots alchemist and multi-instrumentalist interpreter Taj Mahal. It’s “Take A Giant Step”, the title track as taken from one-half of his 1969 two-fer double album Giant Step/De Ol’ Folks Home, his third release. The album represented two different approaches on each disc, with one being a full band excursion into the American roots music spectrum. The other is a solo acoustic record.
On both discs, you can hear just how well integrated Mahal’s sound is with respect to country, blues, folk, and pop music. This track may be the prime example of this, written by pop writers supreme Carole King & Gerry Goffin written for The Monkees and recorded by them as a B-side for first hit single, “The Last Train To Clarksville”. This version by Mahal is a far cry from that one, slowing everything down, taking out the pop-psychedelic and far east edges, and replacing them with a languid and world-weary quality that the fresh-voiced Monkees couldn’t really have pulled off in their version, as much as I love it.
This is another sterling example of how an arrangement and vocal performance can add dimension to a song. So, what’s the angle on this tune? I think there’s a decidedly spiritual aspect to be found here that may have been missed earlier, but that Taj Mahal is able to draw out as easily as a bucket of water from a sacred river. Read more
Listen to this track by British pop chanteuse and peerless interpreter Dusty Springfield. It’s “Windmills Of Your Mind”, a shimmering pop gem as taken from her seminal 1969 album Dusty In Memphis.
That album was a strategic move on Springfield’s part to make a bona fide R&B album in the very heart of where some of the greatest soul albums were created during that era. The results of this and the story behind them is an epic tale with a who’s who of characters including Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, and The Memphis Cats all in tow. But, all the while, Springfield proved above all that she was able to sing anything and in any style and make it all work on an LP that comes together in an extraordinary way. This tune isn’t strictly a soul song, for instance. But, it certainly has soul as Springfield sings it. So, it fits because of her voice.
Among other places, it was featured very prominently in the film The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen, and sung by Jose Feliciano at the 1968 Academy Awards, at which “Windmills Of Your Mind” won for best original song. Its place in the film is where a lot of casual music fans will recognize it the most. So, how did Dusty Springfield take this song, and make it the one by which all others must be judged? Read more
The cover version, as I’ve said so many times, should bring something new to the listener that they can’t get from the original. It’s a good general rule. There are perfunctory cover versions anyway, of course. And there are ones that you think couldn’t possibly work, and yet they do and sometimes gloriously so!
But, what of the cover version that seems to have been inevitable? What of the ones that appeared to have been waiting for the artist to take it in their arms and give it some sweet musical lovin’? I’m not talking about predictability here. No. I’m talking about that “of course!” factor; of course that artist recorded that song. It was made for them, even if they didn’t write it, or record it first!
Well, here are ten of those; songs that silently demanded that they be covered by the given artist, and that the artist framed the song in such a way as to bring out personality traits in it that weren’t obvious before, true to their own personalities and previous works. Some were big hits. Some were only minor entries into the charts. Some were little-known live versions or bonus tracks. But beside all those details, with each one comes thefeeling to a listener that a sense of resolution has been revealed, that because each of these cover versions exist, finally the cosmic tumblers have fallen into place. Proceed!
Listen to this track by San Franciscan psychedelic blues band fronted by transplanted Texan R&B shouter Janis Joplin. It’s “Summertime”, a re-telling of the Gershwin-Heyward American songbook classic as featured on the band’s 1968 debut album Cheap Thrills.
The song is one of three cover versions on the record, and the one with the longest pedigree having been covered by many over the years since it was written in 1935 for the musical Porgy and Bess. That musical, and certainly this song, was a snapshot of American southern life through a very romanticized lens. Maybe this band covering this song is kind of an unexpected choice for a long-haired rock ‘n’ roll band like Big Brother & The Holding Company. The song had grown a sheen of respectability by the 1960s along with the jazz traditions out of which it came. But, when you think of where jazz, the blues and rock music comes from, and the idealistic nature of the counterculture, it really isn’t all that much of a leap. After all, George Gershwin was as fascinated by African-American folk culture as any white rock ‘n’ roll singer was by 1968.
But, I think this cover version is notable for something else, too when it comes to Big Brother frontwoman Janis Joplin. In many ways, this song was waiting for her to record it. Because its story is hers. Read more
Listen to this track by self-motivated pop song interpreter and songwriter Kirsty MacColl. It’s “A New England”, her 1984 single of Billy Bragg’s original song that would get her to the top ten in Britain.
By the time this single was recorded, MacColl was a latter-day signee to Stiff records. While there, she’d record a few singles. But, it would be this one that would make the most impact during her tenure there, with a tale of a young person suddenly confronting the end of a relationship, corresponding with the end of innocence, too. It also talks about love and its complexities, and its power to create as much disappointment as it does to create joy.
Besides filling out the song in an arrangement full of jangly guitars and spacious production, it’s MacColl’s ability to carry the material off which separated it from it’s original context, and created a new one in its place. And the song’s author would help with that process. Read more
Listen to this track by acid jazz six-string slinger Ronny Jordan. It’s “So What”, a single as taken from his 1992 record The Antidote. The album was a part of a movement to link post-bop jazz with early ’90s hip hop and R&B of which Ronny Jordan was a major player, based in Britain but making impact in North America too.
This piece is well established in jazz history, originally the centerpiece and lead track to 1959’s Kind of Blue album by Miles Davis, a game-changing release that led jazz into a new era in the 1960s. Jordan wasn’t the first guitarist to cover the song. Grant Green and George Benson would both release versions of the song, two guitarists that Jordan would count among his musical forebears. But, Jordan’s innovation was in bringing it into a new milieu outside of jazz that included hip hop beats and a distinctive R&B feel.
Jazz has always been treated as a sacred trust, by critics and by musicians too. The attempts to marry other music to how jazz is defined has had a mixed history, celebrated by many, and condemned by others. The conflict around it has mostly been about preserving a tradition. But, the attempts to push it in new directions had to do with bringing it new life, in turn by making it culturally available to new audiences.
The Beatles established the idea for British beat groups that if you wanted to make your mark, you had to write your own songs.
But, before they were writers, they were music fans and record collectors – just like us! They had influences, like any other band. In their earliest days, The Beatles considered themselves primarily as a rock ‘n’ roll band. But, they pulled in a number of influences that allowed them to define their sound even early on; soul music, rockabilly, traditional pop, movie soundtrack music, Latin music, and more.
A lot of the time, their choice in material was made so as to distinguish their sets from those of other bands working the same clubs as they did. And it also served them as a live act when they were a bar band in Hamburg, playing eight-hour shows. To play sets that long, you’ve got to cover a lot of ground, and make sure you’re ready to play anything for the sometimes volatile audiences. More material is better than less in those situations; better to know it and not have to play it, than having to play it, and not knowing it.
What this anything goes approach also helped them to do of course is to create a template for how wide their reach would be as songwriters on their own. So, which songs did they cover that helped them to do this best? Well, in the tradition of the Delete Bin, here are 10 to consider as great Beatle-starters, and as prime cuts of pure pop magic all on their own. Take a look! Read more
Sometimes, cover versions totally make sense, an obvious fit even before you hear them. Of course that mall-punk band will try out “Another Girl, Another Planet”. That blues group will assuredly play “Stormy Monday”. That pop princess will definitely try to sing that soul favourite to establish her cred. The quality of the results are another question, of course.
But, what about the cover version that comes completely out of nowhere, that has seemingly no relation to the act in question? What about the ones that, in their original forms, actually work against the sound, scale, or the set up of that act? What if those acts are defiant, kick irony to the curb, and play it straight in their own way, and damn the consequences?
And what if it works?
To celebrate this phenomenon, here are 10 cover versions that are surprising, that perhaps really shouldn’t work, and yet do so anyway. Some of them were done live, and many not recorded formally. Others were b-sides, deep-cuts, or rarities. Some were even big hits! The popular music spectrum is well-represented here, stylistically speaking.
George Harrison had always been seen as the kid brother to his bandmates John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But, that would change.
Although it took him a while, George soon became as good a songwriter as his partners in The Beatles had become, and did so largely on his own steam. Yet, that was the kind of artist he’d always been, focusing his ear for melody early on in his solos, which were meticulously and very patiently wrought, as much as they were inventive, and later to be applied to some of the most celebrated songs in rock history.
Yet, by the mid-to-late 1960s, he’d pen some of the most enduring songs of that group’s catalog as a songwriter. This would be a skill he’d take with him into his solo career as well.
So, in celebration of that skill, and of the birth of George Harrison which is coming up this Saturday, February 25, 2012 (he would have been 69!), here are ten distinguished covers of Harrison’s songs that span his most fertile period. In that time, he mastered acoustic folk styled tunes, sumptuous psychedelia, Indian traditional music, and of course straight ahead guitar pop too. As such, the artists who covered his songs are varied across the stylistic spectrum as well, from pop crooners, to soul men, to blues players, to singer-songwriters.