The New Pornographers Perform Their Song ‘Mass Romantic’

Here’s a cute clip someone did of an animated Sims 2 band ‘performing’ the New Pornographers’ title track to their 2000 album Mass Romantic.

The song itself just beams with melodic sunshine, and it doesn’t hurt that the incomparable Neko Case is singing lead – she’s got a soaring voice which can apparently adapt to pretty much any genre. As a solo act she’s associated with alt-country. This time with the New Pornographers, she adds her pipes to a sort 60s power pop approach with a hint of ’67 Beatles, which is the general flavor of the album. The song is bursting at the seams with positive energy. It’s one of those tunes you want to hear again and again, while wanting to jump on the couch Tom Cruise style while it’s playing.

The New PornographersThe band is actually sort of a musical collective, with members that also have solo careers, and who base their activities as a group right here in Greater Vancouver. Somewhere along the line, they have managed to get international attention and admiration from fans and fellow musicians all over the world. I’m proud of this band. I love that a local group has made such great music that’s appreciated internationally. That’s a very Canadian trait, for all of you non-Canadian readers; if one of us does well, than we all do. Yes, Neko Case is an American. But, she’s spent a lot of time here making a music career and studying at Emily Carr , so she counts as a Canadian, OK? They put out their fourth album, Challengers in 2007.

To hear more from The New Pornographers, check out these fine websites:

Enjoy!

Neil Young Performs “A Man Needs A Maid”

Here’s a clip of everyone’s favourite Canadian ex-pat, Neil Young with a solo piano version his song “A Man Needs A Maid”, recorded in a more sumptuous manner on his 1972 album Harvest.

Neil YoungThis is actually my favourite song of his, and I love a good deal of them. One of the reasons is that it tends to live outside his usual oeuvre of folky-country or electric freak-out rock. It is wistfully orchestral, not unlike a Jimmy Webb tune. And the lyrics are very clunky in places, yet the clunkiness works, just because this is a song about trying to express oneself, and finding that the words just aren’t available. It’s a love song for those who know that navigating through it is treacherous. And although it is about being in love, it’s also the song for someone who is very lonely at the same time.

The song was recorded using the London Symphony Orchestra on the record, along with another tune; “There’s a World”. But, more recently it was featured on the ‘official bootleg’ Live at Massey Hall 1971 a concert recorded a year before Harvest came out. And on that version of the song, it is presented much like it is here – just stark piano and voice. Young introduces it as a new song, a “showtune from the movie of my life”.

The shock of hearing it presented so nakedly was quite a delightful on first hearing, since it revealed even more of the vulnerability which lies at the core of the song. Also on that version, he adds a middle section which is made up of another song, which hadn’t been fully formed at that point – “Heart of Gold” – a song which would make Neil Young a star.

Enjoy!

Happy Birthday, Bob Dylan!

Happy birthday to Robert Allen Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan, born this day in 1941 in Duluth Minnesota and raised in nearby Hibbing. Born “far from home” according to his own account in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary Bob Dylan – No Direction Home, he knew that there was something out there for him to do, and it had something to do with the sounds coming out of his radio.

Young Bob DylanSo, after forming a rock n’ roll group, and playing piano for touring singers, he pursued folk music after pawning his electric guitar for an acoustic. At some point too, he changed his name to Bob Dylan, starting out with the intention of going by Bob Allen, using his middle name, and then deciding that “Dylan” had more connection to the world of poetry through Dylan Thomas. Young Bob was excited by the Beat poets, Hank Williams, the blues, and by Woody Guthrie, a songwriter who would inspire him to write songs of his own and seek out a community of others who were driven to do the same thing. First, he went to Minneapolis, and then to New York’s Greenwich Village.

The folk community in the Village embraced him and his incredible gift for folk interpretation as evidenced on his first album Bob Dylan released in 1962 on Columbia Records, the record label that has retained him since. The folk community loved him even more after the release of his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963. Even the rock n’ roll world stood up and took notice of that one. The album contained Bob Dylan originals such as “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”, “Talking World War III Blues” and the era-defining “Blowin’ in the Wind”, which would become a civil rights anthem. Such was the impact of his writing and stage presence that the folk community wanted to make Bob the successor to Woody Guthrie, who’d been hospitalized by the end of the 50s with Huntington’s Chorea. Bob would visit Woody in the hospital a number of times, starting in 1961. But as Bob branched out and developed his craft, he showed that he had no intention of accepting the mantle of his hero. To make this clear, he sang that he didn’t “want to work on Maggie’s farm no more” during a tumultuous appearance at the 1965 Newport folk festival. His pursuit of electrified sounds, and use of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band for the performance demonstrated a new direction that certainly didn’t involve any further marches to Washington, or any other songs about answers Blowin’ in the wind. Bob was on his way down Highway 61 instead.

The next year in 1966, he pissed off folkies in Britain too, touring with an R&B band called the Hawks who blew the roof off of the Manchester Free Trade Hall, and helped to get Bob labeled “Judas”. They wanted the earnest folk singer of two years previous, not the speeded-out, wild-haired beatnik with the black and white telecaster and impenetrable shades. It is important to note that the concept that an artist could “change direction” was an alien one in 1966, nor was there any conventional ‘rock press’ to explain it to fans. Until Dylan, no one took this idea seriously on a mainstream level. Both the concept and the strain of journalism to convey it had yet to be invented, until Bob Dylan plugged in and dropped out of the folk pantheon in order to follow his own course. Somewhere in there, Bob made a string of classic records including rock’s first double LP, entitled Blonde on Blonde which he recorded in Nashville. The songs reveled in electrified country-flavoured rock music, equally influenced by the Beatles, and revealing his playfulness when it came to his lifelong romance with the english language.

And then, Bob changed again.

Bob Dylan 1966After returning home from his harrowing tour in Europe later that year, he had a motorcycle accident near his home in rural upstate New York. Details were sketchy at the time, and there were a lot of conflicting reports as to the severity of his injuries. But, serious or not, it took him off the map for 18 months. In late 1967, he emerged with a new album which completely went against the grain of the brightly-coloured, psychedelic times. This new record even stood in stark contrast to Blonde on Blonde. That album was John Wesley Harding – sepia-toned, spare, and desolate, yet also strangely biblical in it’s parable-like approach in the songwriting. He would further his efforts with two more albums – Nashville Skyline in 1969 which is a straight-ahead country album sung in an entirely new voice, and Self-Portrait in 1970, a collection of fragments and odd cover versions. Both of those albums were attempts to move further away from his supposed “voice of a generation” status, a position he had always rejected. His life at home was difficult once members of the counterculture tracked him down, visiting his home at all hours, and unwilling to acknowledge that he had a wife and children who didn’t see Dylan as they saw him. And indeed Bob himself saw nothing common in the graven image these people were erecting and equating to him. He just wanted to be a musician and raise a family at the same time, without being pestered about issues over which he had no strong opinion or control.

Bob Dylan Mid-70sBy the mid-70s, Bob’s marriage was on the outs, yet he enjoyed another purple patch of creativity to rival the one which had established him a decade before. He toured for the first time in 8 years, taking the Band along with him, the group who had once been the very Hawks who had stood by him in facing a sea of glaring faces during his ’66 tour. And he put out the excellent Blood on the Tracks, and its follow up Desire in 1975 and 1976 respectively. The supporting tours would be branded the Rolling Thunder Revue, featuring a number of Bob’s friends including Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, Mick Ronson, Rambling Jack Elliot, and many others who would join the tour and fall away from town to town. Bob wore white make-up on stage to accentuate his face. But the mask would always be looked upon as symbolic more so than practical. With Dylan, it was hard for critics to avoid. The mask was his stage face. He would always give a version of himself away, never the real thing (if such a person exists). His make-up was looked upon as a challenge to the identities his fans and critics attempted to place upon him.

There were further phases after that, as the tours stretched into years, and the years to decades. Dylan discovered Jesus in 1978 and sang about it for three albums. But, like many voices established in the 60s, Dylan had a patchy 80s overall. He thought about retiring a number of times. Still, he toured with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, became a Traveling Wilbury , made a live album with the Grateful Dead, and worked for the first time with Daniel Lanois on 1988’s Oh Mercy. He had been granted entry into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame that year, and was honoured in concert by friends and admirers.

Bob Dylan UnpluggedIn terms of recording during the 90s, he recorded an Unplugged show for MTV with an accompanying live album, and cut two albums of folk cover tunes – World Gone Wrong and As Good As I’ve Been To You – which made some wonder about whether or not his muse had skipped town. But then again, these records made others remember why Columbia records had signed him in 1962 in the first place – for his love of dusty old tales of betrayal and misfortune, and his ability to deliver them convincingly in a voice that was nothing less than original.

By 1997, Bob had dashed any doubts about his writing talent on the rocks with the critical and commercial smash Time Out of Mind, a collection of brutally eloquent songs about age, love, loss, fear, and death, again produced by Daniel Lanois. This, and an Oscar for his song “Things Have Changed” as featured in the film Wonder Boys would firm up his status as a songwriting elder statesman, as would his follow-up album Love and Theft in 2001, released on September 11 of that year. A third album in the trilogy would appear in 2006 – Modern Times. Interest in Dylan was driven by Scorsese’s documentary, his own autobiography entitled Chronicles Volume One, as well as Todd Haynes’ meta-biography I’m Not There in 2007 in which Bob, or a series of self-aware impressions of him, is portrayed by several actors, one of which is Cate Blanchet. In what other life could such an approach be feasible?

Like many songwriters, Bob Dylan sees himself as a vessel, out of which pours images and melody. The term ‘prophet’ sits uncomfortably with him as he has said that he doesn’t know where these things come from. It makes sense that if he were a prophet, he should know. But as it is, it’s a mystery to him too, which I suppose is why he keeps it up, why he tours almost constantly, and perhaps why people are fascinated with his work. Everyone loves a good mystery. And Bob Dylan is certainly that as well.

Bob Dylan is an artist who is both loved and hated – you either get him or you don’t. But, either way, the truth of it is that his work has benefited everyone who calls themselves a songwriter. Dylan proved you could sing in any sort of voice and be listened to, if what you were saying meant something to an audience. Where it’s easy to take this for granted these days when everyone writes songs about what ever they want to write about, it is important to remember that things were not always this way. And Bob Dylan was one of the few who cut the trail on which others currently tread.

Happy Birthday, Bob!

Bob Dylan

***

Hear Bob Dylan talk about his life and work in this interview with Ed Bradley from the television news program 60 Minutes.

Part 1

Part 2

And read about a new crop of Bob Dylan photos recently discovered, and taken around the time of Bob’s 1966 electric tour.

Enjoy!

The Style Council Perform “Headstart for Happiness”

Here’s a clip of the Style Council in 1984 with one of the highlight tunes of the band’s career, “Headstart for Happiness” taken from their album Cafe Bleu. Of course, they sound more like 1970 here, being retro before retro was cool.

The Style CouncilPaul Weller’s decision to make R&B and jazz overtones his main musical reference points when leaving the Jam and forming his next band was a bold move. A lot of Jam fans were bemused. Yet, soul music was always a big part of mod culture, a template which Weller followed pretty closely. And it’s not like the influences of soul music didn’t have some impact on songs like “A Town Called Malice”, which certainly owes a debt to Motown. In this respect, Weller’s move away from the guitar-bass-drums punk rock sound and into a smoother soul sound isn’t as big a leap as might be first thought.

The Style Council was made up of Weller and keyboardist Mick Talbot, along with a number of other contributors including stalwart Weller drummer Steve White, and vocalist D.C Lee who Weller would eventually marry. The trajectory of the group was a bit shaky after their first EP and subsequent debut album and the band would fold by the end of the decade after having released albums of uneven quality. Weller would continue as a solo artist. But the band managed to produce a number of excellent pop songs along the way like “My Everchanging Moods”, “You’re the Best Thing”, “Shout It to the Top”, and others, all infused with radiant soul music influences.

“Headstart for Happiness” is one of my favourite Weller songs all-around, sounding like a classic pop soul gem of the early 70s more so than a tune coming out of the early 80s. In the middle of a very tense time in world history, a time when nuclear war was a constant threat, this song just beams optimism. As such, it comes off as a sort of protest song in a way. Weller and his bandmates would protest in another way, with their involvement in The Red Wedge, which was a sort of musical expression of pro-Labour Party politics and a reaction against what was considered to be an attack on the social fabric of Britain in order to promote laissez-faire economic policies by Thatcher’s Conservatives. The Red Wedge movement was short-lived, and in many ways marks the time as one where musicians stood in direct opposition to the Establishment, perhaps for the last time.

All of that aside, Weller still knew how to write a great tune, and this is one of his best.

Enjoy!

The (English) Beat Perform “Mirror in the Bathroom”

Here’s a clip of British ska revivalists The Beat performing their 1980 track “Mirror in the Bathroom” from their album I Just Can’t Stop It.

The Beat were a major part of the British ska revivalist scene in the late 70s and early 80s, centred in Birmingham and Coventry. Along with The Specials, Selecter, and Madness (a London band), The Beat took many of its musical cues from Caribbean music, most notably the Jamaican ska of Desmond Dekker, Prince Buster, and others and infused it with the tense political edge that was common to the times.

The English Beat - Beat Girl

The band was comprised of both black and white members, some being immigrants from the islands, a large number of whom had emigrated to Britain at the beginning of the 60s. Their saxophonist, aptly named “Saxa”, had played with both Dekker and Prince Buster in the 1960s, adding a certain level of authenticity to the band. The group mixed the spikiness of punk with the jubilant energy of ska, and created a sound that was both aggressive and celebratory in equal measure.

The band’s sound and the thrust of the whole scene came off as a sort of musical fist in the air to Thatcherism and to the racial intolerance that existed particularly violently in urban centres of the country at the time. The band covered Prince Buster’s “Whine and Grind” and fused it to their own song, “Stand Down Margaret” which was a not-so-subtle commentary on the current Prime Minister.

The scene as a whole was short-lived, but The Beat would make the biggest impact overseas of all of the bands that were a part of it, championed mainly by anglophile fans, alternative rock radio, and supporting appearances with the Police and the Pretenders, among others. Of course, they’d have to change their name to “The English Beat” Stateside, as there was already a band called the Beat as led by Paul Collins, formerly of power pop lost legends the Nerves. But as soon as they had begun to crack the States, internal tensions led the band to split in two. Lead vocalists Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger left to form their own group, General Public who would have a smash hit in their lead single “Tenderness” as taken from their 1984 album All the Rage. Bassist David Steele and guitarist Andy Cox formed Fine Young Cannibals with vocalist Roland Gift. FYC would have hits in ” Johnny Come Home”, a version of “Suspicious Minds” in 1985, and later their ubiquitous single “She Drives Me Crazy” in 1989.

The Beat would reform as an ongoing live act in 2005, without many of its original members, and is currently led by Ranking Roger and original Beat drummer Everett Morton. They remain to be a popular live band in Britain. Meanwhile, Dave Wakeling tours in his own “The English Beat”, based in the States, and also known to be an energetic live act.

“Mirror in the Bathroom” is one of my favourite songs by anyone, with an insistent bassline, and a sort of speed-fueled edge to it thanks to the prickly rhythm guitars and Wakeling’s rapid-fire vocal. And a saxophone has never sounded so menacing. The song is eminently danceable, defying you to stand still in fact. In essence, this song is the template of the band’s whole sound – the joyousness of Jamaican ska, with the anger and darkness of punk fused to it. It gives me the same rush now to hear it as it did when it came out!

Enjoy!

Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed & the True Loves

Eli Paperboy Reed 2008 appears to the be the year of the funk-soul revival, with momentum gained perhaps by the Dap-Kings-abetted Amy Winehouse smash Back to Black last year. It seems that there is an audience for sweaty, down-to-earth soul music after all. And one of my recent discoveries is Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed and his band the True Loves. Reed is a 24-year old Boston resident who appears to be borrowing James Brown’s muse, and cheating on her with the muse of Wilson Pickett while he’s at it.

On a recent compilation from MOJO magazine, I was introduced to the closing track on Eli’s album, Roll with You, the track in question being “(Do the) Boom Boom”, a song after the tradition of Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances” and Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips”. The tradition of course has a double entendre at its core; the “dance that’s goin’ around from the old folks down” sure as shit ain’t square dancing, good people. It’s been a while since I’ve heard new music so full of energy, enthusiasm, and downright verve. The only things I can hope for is that more artists of this calibre emerge in the mainstream and make this revival more than just a passing fad.

You can hear “(Do the) Boom Boom” on Eli ‘Paperboy” Reed’s MySpace page, among other tracks that betray a love for classic soul music.

And for good measure, here’s an interview with Eli “Paperboy” Reed, explaining his background and his curious nickname too.

Enjoy!

Song rendition showdown: “Around and Around” by Chuck Berry, The Animals vs David Bowie

This week’s showdown is between Tyneside bluesmeisters the Animals and rock n’ roll messiah Ziggy Stardust, as played by David Bowie. The song? Chuck Berry’s 1958 hit “Around and Around”.

Like a lot of Chuck Berry songs, this one is an ode not only to rock n’ roll, but also to the culture it created. This is a song about good times and police intervention. In 1958, rock n’ roll was considered by many to be a cultural threat, and in many ways they were right. Communities which had been apart were drawn together because of the popularity of the music, and the peace was often disturbed.

Where the song here focuses mostly on how the music affects people, causing them to rise out of their seats with the feeling that they “just had to dance”, the underlying themes here are undeniable too. When the police knocked, those doors flew back. Rock n’ roll here is both joyous and fraught with danger at the same time. For this alone, it’s a classic. And as the cover versions which came about proved, it was a very interpretable classic too.

The Animals

The Best of the AnimalsThe Animals had credibility among their peers as R&B experts during the British blues-boom in the 1960s. The group boasted the authentic blues voice of lead singer Eric Burdon as well as the gospel-infused organ of Alan Price, who arranged the band’s most famous recording; their version of ‘House of the Rising Sun”. The group’s love of the Chess Records catalogue was obvious too of course, and their debt to Chess artists is even more obvious. They scored hits with two John Lee Hooker songs – “Dimples” and “Boom Boom” – and this tune by Berry as well which appeared on their debut album The Animals in 1964.

Berry’s influence is felt all over the rise of British R&B. But what is most striking about this version is the sense of menace in Burdon’s delivery. You really get the feeling that there is impending violence in the events that unfold in the song. That’s my favourite part about this version; Burdon’s voice is so compelling, so believable, you know that he’s not just talking about a night out. He’s talking about confrontation. The Animals’ take on Berry’s song seems to allude to impending change, proving the song to be something of a prophecy, whether they intended it or not.

The ensuing years would prove that the British establishment feared rock n’ roll as a means of stirring things up, just as it had been feared in America as well. Jail sentences and drugs charges plagued rock royalty by the end of the decade in an effort by the police to make examples of them. Members of the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles were raided, and some were even put up on criminal charges. Jagger and Richards even went to jail before they were exonerated in late 1967. The seeming effort to suppress social change ultimately failed, and although the social changes of the time are difficult to accredit to rock musicians, the music they made did seem to create an environment where it was possible to break out of cultural doldrums by embracing new experiences and new cultures. And what is this song by Berry talking about if not crossing the tracks to the other side in some fashion? In many ways, it’s the perfect countercultural anthem.

David Bowie

David Bowie Sound and Vision Box setIf anyone was aware of cultural shifts and changing times, it was Bowie who first made a splash on national TV when he debuted his song “Starman” on Top of the Pops in 1972, dressed like a glittery androgyne from outer space. The performance was a shock to some, and a delightful wake-up call to others, as Bowie knew it would be. By this time in his career, he had Mick Ronson aiding Bowie’s glam-rock sound on guitar, which is effectively a sound fueled by 50s American rock n’ roll. This of course makes the choice of this cover version a pretty obvious one. Yet another aspect of this of course is the tension in the song – the crowded club, and the arrival of the police who mean to knock the doors down and do who-knows-what after they do.

His take on the Berry song, found on the boxset Sound + Vision (called “Round and Round”) is along the same lines as the Animals, in that this is more than just a story of an overcrowded night club. This is about fear and supresssion on the part of the authorities. Bowie’s delivery is not as menacing as Burdon’s, but there is a heightening sense of tension in his voice, something almost maniacal when he reaches the line “those doors flew back!”. And Ronson’s haphazzard guitar solo makes this sound like a riot is breaking out, which is perfect for the material. Like a lot their work together, Ronson’s guitar is the wave on which Bowie’s voice rides. And the “Around and Around” on this version is about disorientation, more than it is about dancing. Bowie would cover this ground on his own of course with his song “Changes”. But on this track, we’re not getting a patient explanation that the generation coming out of the time is “immune to the consultations” of police and government. This is anarchy. This is revolution.

It stands to reason that such a song would become so important to many with regard to changing one’s views on authoritarianism. And where I don’t think that records alone can change the world, I think that singing them and hearing them sung tends to be an indicator of what are on people’s minds. In the 1960s and 1970s in Britain after the war, rationing, classism, and a mass amount of immigration from places which had formerly been a part of the Empire, change was in the air just as it was in America in the late 1950s. The doors were about to “fly back” as it were.

But the question today is this, good people. Which version is best? British R&B disciples the Animals? Or meta-performer Ziggy Stardust?

As always, you decide!

The Go-Gos Perform “Head Over Heels”

Before The Bangles, Kenickie, The Donnas, or Le Tigre, there were the Go-Gos. Here’s a clip of the Go-Gos performing their 1984 hit “Head Over Heels” taken from their album Talk Show.

The Go-GosOf their hits, this one is my favourite. It’s got everything – a great lead vocal from Belinda Carlisle, a memorable piano riff, pure sugar-rush “ah-ah” girl backing vocals (I’m a sucker for that). And I love the bass guitar break with the whip-crack drums in the instrumental section. Fantastic. It’s one of the best pop songs of the decade. During their initial introduction with their first record, they were known as “America’s Sweethearts” by Rolling Stone Magazine. I know I had a crush on them!

The band were signed to Miles Copeland’s IRS label after being on the California punk scene at the end of the 1970s when they were still in their teens. Having signed with Copeland who was based in England, the group moved to the UK briefly and toured first with Madness, and then later with the Police , a band for which Miles’ brother Stewart was drummer. While together, the group would make solid pop records while also paving the way for similar bands to do the same before breaking up by the mid-80s. Lead singer Belinda Carlisle would become a polished solo pop singer by the end of the decade , and guitarist Jane Wiedlin would have hits of her own (“Rush Hour” being my favourite), along with collaborations with Sparks, and with Terry Hall, formerly of the Specials.

I recently picked up a Go-Gos compilation album which is actually a VH1 Behind the Music tie-in: VH1 Behind the Music: Go-Go’s Collection. I generally try and steer clear of compilations which have the word “collection” in the title. But it’s actually a great little compilation, with 17 tracks taken from the band’s first three albums. I was surprised at how raw their sound was, since I grew up hearing the hits like “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “Vacation” which were more pop records than rock records. But, the Go-Gos were a product of punk, small little scenes on the West Coast when anyone could get up on stage and be a band. Their sound when taken in as a whole is not unlike 60s girl-group the Angels (“My Boyfriend’s Back”) meets Mancunian punk founding fathers Buzzcocks. Like the best pop-punk bands, they made compact little songs with simple and effective riffs and hooks. And Gina Schock is a great drummer.

The group reconvened more recently for a new record God Bless The Go-Go’s.

Here’s the Go-Gos MySpace page for more information and more music.

Enjoy!

10 Beatles Cover Songs Which May Be Better Than The Original

The Beatles as a favourite band may be an unoriginal choice. But, there it is. Sometimes, a band chooses you, not the other way around. If you’re a regular reader of the Delete Bin, you’ll know that the Fabs tend to come up a lot, despite my own fairly wide tastes. My own preferences aside, I think one of the things which can be said of the Beatles is that their songs have a quality that go beyond individual performances, even their own. They are great songs, no matter who is performing them.

This is a handy thing since they’ve been covered so much by so many artists from different backgrounds, genres, and (let’s face it) levels of competence. But, here are 10 notable cover versions. Some of these are so good, they threaten the originals for the number one spot . Others are unique statements of their own just by being in existence, so much so that they simply deserve a mention for their temerity.

Hey Jude – Wilson Pickett

Wilson Pickett Hey JudeThe Wicked Pickett covered this song in 1969, the year after the original Beatles single which had stayed on the number one spot for 9 weeks, despite it being over 7 minutes long. Pickett included it on his album named after this cover version, Hey Jude. The arrangement dials up the gospel overtones of the original, while also bringing in the truly supernatural guitar chops of Duane Allman. Wilson Pickett made a career of singing soul music as if fighting for his life, and this is a great example of Pickett’s approach – a rough and ready tone that belts out the lines of encouragement in a way that Paul McCartney would have done it, had he been born a Southern Baptist preacher. The soulful evocations of “It’s gonna be alright!” in the famous coda section, along with the heavenly horn section and Allman’s fiery guitar make this a contender for best version ever.

Allman’s work on this track gained the attention of Eric Clapton, who would work with Allman on the Derek & The Dominos album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs in 1970. Wilson Pickett would continue to have an impact on the rock world by covering “Fire and Water” as written and recorded by (the very underrated) British blues-rock band Free, who had written and the song recorded themselves all the while with Pickett’s voice in mind.

With A Little Help From My Friends – Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker With A Little Help From My FriendsJoe Cocker recorded his first album With a Little Help from My Friends named after this cover version , in 1969. On doing so, he employed several musical luminaries which include Jimmy Page on lead guitar, Merry Clayton on vocals, Carole Kaye on bass, Henry McCulloch on guitar, and Steve Winwood on organ, among many others. The record is aptly named, then. And Cocker is a powerhouse vocalist, probably one of the most gifted blue-eyed soul vocalist Britain had yet produced. His delivery here is muscular-yet-vulnerable, backed by an imaginative arrangement, some fine playing from Page, and a great interplay between Cocker’s lead, and the back-up vocalists. Like the Pickett version of “Hey Jude”, this cover of “With A Little Help From My Friends” seriously threatens to overshadow the Beatles original from Sgt. Pepper.

Cocker would of course go on to record two other famous Beatles cover songs in “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Something” on his second album Joe Cocker!, which again ratchets up the bluesiness of the songs in question. Having reached the heights with these covers, and those covers of songs by Traffic, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen, Cocker would find greater fame in his recording of “You Are So Beautiful” and “Up Where We Belong” in the late 70s and early 80s respectively. But this first single and his first two albums remain to be his best work.

Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds – William Shatner

William Shatner the Transformed ManThis is a legendary recording, possibly for different reasons than were originally intended. William Shatner of course is no singer – he’s an actor of stage and screen, possibly most famous for his role as James Tiberius Kirk, Captain of the starship Enterprise from the original Star Trek series. Here, the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” becomes less thelysergic anthem from Sgt. Pepper, and more of a (very) dramatic reading of the song’s lyrics (which actually turns out to be pretty trippy too…). Where this version of the song may not rival the original as some of the others in this list, it remains to be something of a bold approach, if unintentionally humourous at the same time. And to me, this is why it warrants inclusion. And because it throws a wrench in the works as far as what you were expecting of this list – right?

The version was a part of Shatner’s album The Transformed Man, released in 1968 at the height of his tenure as the Captain of the Enterprise, while also pulling from his stage acting background. Shatner would make more of these types of recordings through out his career, even into the present day with his spoken word album Has Been, made with songwriter Ben Folds in 2007.

We Can Work It Out – Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder Signed, Sealed, and Delivered“We Can Work It Out” is a pretty dark tune in the end. It’s about a struggling relationship, possibly on its last legs. The narrator of the tale is becoming pretty tyrannical in his approach to making his relationship better – “why’d you see it your way?”, “think of what I’m saying…”. In his 1970 cover version of the song found on his Signed, Sealed and Delivered, Stevie Wonder infuses this love-gone-wrong tune with an effervescence that draws a striking contrast to the darkness and desperation in the lyrics. You find yourself smiling at this tale of a man trying to push all of the blame on his partner. Who knew that narrow-mindedness and trivializing the opinion of a lover to get your own way in a relationship could sound so joyous?

Stevie Wonder would go from here to create some of his own pop classics, and of course make a contribution to a song which talks about relationships of another kind in duet with the author of “We Can Work it Out” – Paul McCartney. That tune of course is the immortal “Ebony and Ivory”, taken from McCartney’s excellent 1982 Tug of War album. Now, that song is annoying beyond belief, of course. But, at least the two voices behind each version “We Can Work It Out” were expressing the value in respecting different perspectives in a relationship, side by side on the piano keyboard as they are.

Eleanor Rigby – Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin Live at the Filmore WestIn keeping with the trend of a dark theme against a celebratory arrangement, Aretha Franklin’s “Eleanor Rigby” is downright chirpy. The original song, found on The Beatles 1966 album Revolver, is about a lonely old spinster – the titular Eleanor Rigby – who “picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been”. This is a person who has missed the happiness in life enjoyed by others, left behind to live only off the remnants of what others have enjoyed, lonely, isolated, and ultimately doomed. Yet, Aretha’s Eleanor has the funk, pushed along by pulsing basslines, push-me-pull-you vocal exchanges, bold hornshots, and a tempo that just won’t quit.

Found on her Live at the Filmore West album released in 1971, the live version is my absolute favourite take on the song just because it’s so incongruous. When listening to it, I often wonder what she was thinking when she arranged it. Maybe, she wanted to reveal that Eleanor Rigby had a richer inner life that no one knew about, and that when she was “wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door”, it was the face of someone who was not lonely, but content in being alone.

Come Together – Ike & Tina Turner

Ike & Tina Turner Proud MaryJohn Lennon allegedly wrote “Come Together” initially for a political campaign anthem for LSD guru Timothy Leary. While nothing came of Lennon’s involvement in the campaign, or indeed of Leary’s political career, the song was the lead track off of the Beatles final album Abbey Road. What doesn’t come off quite as clearly in that version is the double entendre in the phrase come together, which it surely does in Ike & Tina’s version. This 1971 cover version is simply dripping with coital sweat, a fully loaded sexual explosion of throaty vocals, stabbing guitar lines, and a rhythm section that goes like a train. As such, this version makes the song into something entirely new, less a series of absurdist images, and more about sheer physicality which makes the words secondary to what lies underneath.

Ike and Tina’s version of the song can be found on for their Proud Mary compilation. They would make a number of cover versions of popular rock songs, which in many ways brought them full circle having inspired many of the artists who would write those songs, including the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart, both of which Tina Turner would tour with in the ensuing years after her partnership with Ike ended.

For No One – Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris Pieces of SkyThis version of the song from Emmylou’s 1975 album Pieces of the Sky endures because I think this tune was always meant to be a country song, specifically a hurtin’ song. Everything about the way it’s arranged here – the spare instrumentation, the slow tempo, and Emmylou’s own plaintive delivery – is entirely true to the material, which is documents the feelings of sadness that go along with one person of two who has fallen out of love. Where Aretha re-invents Eleanor Rigby, Emmylou drills to the emotional centre of a song that is ultimately about helplessness. The clip here is a later take on the tune, yet the approach remains the same.

It is amazing to me that the same guy who wrote the patronizing lyrics to “We Can Work It Out”, also wrote this tune, with lyrics that are about respecting someone’s space, about letting go. McCartney was 24 when this song was recorded, which probably worked against him. Yet, the song he came up with works across the board, particularly as a country song sung by the best in her field.

Anytime At All – Nils Lofgren

Nils Lofgren Night Fades Away By the early 80s, the era of a possible Beatles reunion was crushed. Yet, it was also a time when the songs the group recorded were being looked at again as being examples of great songwriting beyond the era to which they had been attached. In 1981 on his Night Fades Away album, Nils Lofgren took an unassuming album track (found on the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night), and made it into a stadium anthem. The pure joie de vive of his version reveals it to be a mark of the time in which it was written. But, it also captures the feeling that the innocence of young love is ultimately pretty timeless.

After you’ve worked with Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen which Lofgren had, I guess the next logical step is to try the Beatles out. This song would remain to be a concert favourite. What I love about it is that Lofgren’s fondness for the Beatles, for Lennon, and for this song, just burns through. It’s infectious.

Blackbird – Dionne Farris

Dionne Farris Wild Seed Wild FlowerPaul McCartney’s “Blackbird”, orginally recorded for the band’s self-titled album (otherwise known as “The White Album”) has been interpreted in a political way before of course. Nina Simone recorded it, and the implications are pretty undeniable as a statement about equality and dignity for the black community in America. I have no idea whether or not Dionne Farris meant this to be a political statement or not when she recorded it for her Wild Seed — Wild Flower album in 1994 (I suspect she did, given other political content on the album). But for my money, this is a shining jewel of a version which made me wonder whatever happened to Dionne Farris, frankly, until I found the Dionne Farris MySpace page.

Where very few takes on this song (if any) can touch the original, I marvel at this, a solid R&B version with a bit of an acoustic blues flavour that keeps this from being the overproduced mess that has plagued (and plagues even today) other examples of the genre. The clip here is a live version which turns the song into a bit of a singalong. But the album version is a stark voice and guitar arrangement that is entirely different from McCartney’s own similar building blocks for his original recording.

Across The Universe – Fiona Apple

Fiona Apple Across the UniverseFiona Apple’s take on this song originally found on 1970’s Let It Be was featured in the closing credits of the film Pleasantville, the story of two modern-day teens who are thrust into the black & white world (in all senses of the term) of a 1950s TV show universe. The teens introduce new ideas into the minds of those who live in that world, revealing new possibilities to them. And the inhabitants cease to be characters in a TV show, and are transformed into real people. Fiona Apple’s take on Lennon’s song (written in India in 1968 while studying TM) about the complexities of love and the mystical nature of universal connection is the perfect, perfect, addition to the themes of the movie. This is not even mentioning Apple’s languid, dreamy delivery, which fits the song like a velvet glove.

The lines which are repeated in the song are all the more powerful given their cinematic context – “Nothing’s gonna change my world”. Apple’s version reveals that one’s world is changing all the time, that we’re all dependent on each other, moving as we are from one moment to the next. As a result, this song is given new life for me.

***

When people tell me they don’t like the Beatles, I just don’t believe them. To me it’s like saying “I don’t like kissing”. The very statement is preposterous, to the point where I think that there must be something wrong with someone who would say something like that. I have perspective of course. I know that those are just my perceptions. Yet one thing remains which is hard to deny, whether you like the Beatles or not. Beatles songs are universal, and wonderfully open to interpretation. They’re like Shakespeare that way.

Here you’ve seen 10 examples. I could have talked about a number of others, including Earth Wind and Fire’s joyous “Got To Get You Into My Life”, or the Breeders’ ferocious “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, or even Elton John’s Lennon-abetted version of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. All different, all wonderful. Saying the Beatles is your favourite band may be unoriginal. But the choice is pretty clear, leading as it does to great music of all kinds.

Josh Rouse Performs “Love Vibration” from his album 1972

Here’s a clip of Josh Rouse singing a highlight track from a very good album 1972, the song in question being “Love Vibration”. The album was actually released in 2003, being named after singer-songwriter Rouse’s birth year, the year when Carole King’s Tapestry ruled the airwaves, and the last of embers of 60s idealism were still aglow. The release of this record around the time the war in Iraq began seemed like the subtlest form of protest, as an entire culture was dragged into a less-than-ideal 21st century.

The record is self-consciously retro, and this song holds to that approach, complete with a bit of jazz flute, celebratory horns, and burbling basslines. And the outlook here is rosy indeed, coming from a pure pop perspective which is a tip of the hat to AM radio hits of the time to which it harkens back. The underlying feel to this song, and the manifesto of the rest of the album is that pop records used to be about idealism and innocence. And what could embody that more than ‘spreading the love vibration’?

This is not to say that the songs are frothy to the point of being forgettable. But one of the things that makes it great is its sense of fun, with a hint or two of gray to contrast some of its sunnier skies. I think the reason it works so well is that it pits its willful optimism against the times as a means of showing us just how far into our modern, jaded outlooks we’ve slid. Maybe its simple irony being played here. But, it sounds to me that the sentiments in this tune may also remind us that being afraid of the future isn’t much of a life, as easy as it is a trap to fall into in this age of terrorism in which we live.

1972 wasn’t exactly a Garden of Eden either of course. By then, political assassinations, student protest casualties, and the continuing escalation of the Vietnam war among other social ills were harsh and unavoidable realities. But, at least they had great pop records to prove as an antidote to despair. Josh Rouse captures the spirit of this in this song, with what I perceive as the underlying hope that others will follow his example.

Enjoy!