Sunday, April 11, 2004

Cover Songs

A while back Say Uncle posted a list of some of his favorite songs. I meant to do something with that, but the idea got lost for a while. Today I want to make that up.

Please note that my definition of "cover" is pretty lax. I'll even consider an artist rerecording the song, if they find something new or play it substantially differently. And my tastes in music tend to the obscure, so bear with me. The list will have the covering band with the song and the name of the original artist in quotes after.

In no particular order:

* "Don't Fear The Reaper;" Oingo Boingo (Blue Oyster Cult)
I love the BOC; they are one of my all-time favorite bands, hands down, even today. They're still out there touring and recording new stuff! Oingo Boingo are OK. I always thought them just as herky-jerky sounding as (singer/songwriter) Danny Elfman's movie soundtracks. But this is a nicely reverential version that still manages to sound like OB. Their lead guitarist slightly reworks the signature riff and the band works in some feedbacky noise at the end that suits the mood.

* "Neon Lights," Love Tractor (Kraftwerk)
Love Tractor was an instrumental band from the Athens, Georgia, scene that produced REM and the B-52s, who got the limelight. LT was part of the second tier of artists from around that time, along with Pylon; good, but never broke through. LT tackled this Kraftwerk song as Beatle-esque raga rock, with lush guitars and dreamy production, transforming the song's original sterility and coldness into something warm and human. Many folks who hear this -- and know Kraftwerk -- will be deep into the song before they recognise it, which shows just how good the original song was, to have survived the shift, and just how well it was reinvented.

* "Like A Hurricane," Roxy Music (Neil Young)
Neil's original is all quiet fury, sustained swirling energy; prototypical American guitar rock. Roxy Music were the quintessential English glam/art rock band whose catalog of songs takes in a huge breadth of styles. Their version is just as powerful, and as swirling, but in a very different way. It's also reverential, because lead singer Bryan Ferry is a stylist who knows to respect the song. And it's a great workout for Roxy guitarist Phil Manzanera, who shines.

* "A Forest," The Cure (The Cure)
Can a band cover themselves? In this case, Robert Smith redoes this song in a live version that blisters. The original version was from the band's mondo-depresso era, the Faith and Pornography albums. It was dank and claustrophobic and, in the context, hopeless. On a double-pack 45 a couple of years later, they released a live version. This production was airy and open and Smith used a flanged guitar that emphasised strumming. The guitar playing by the end is all strumming and phasing and it sears your brain. Nothing hopeless here.

* "Purple Haze," Mahogany Rush (Jimi Hendrix)
What if Hendrix had state-of-the-art recording technology from the late Seventies when he recorded this classic? Imagine how much more powerful this song would be. Well, Mahogany Rush was led by Frankie Marino, a Hendrix worshipper. He even learned to play guitar with his other hand -- and upside-down and backwards like Hendrix -- just to be like The Master! They recording a completely note-for-note version of the song that takes everything you love about the original and makes it sound more contemporary. Hard to explain, you have to hear it. Powerful.

* "1969," The Sisters of Mercy (Iggy and the Stooges)
The Stooges were a Michigan band from the Seventies who were all about Raw Power. Loud, primitive, primal, carnal. Guitar worship mixed with punk icon and source, Iggy Pop, fronting the band in naked fury and lust. The Sisters of Mercy were a late Seventies Goth band; in fact, they helped lay much of the archetype for what Goth later became: sepulchral, deep singing; gloomy subjects; lots of black outfits and smoke on stage. The Sisters didn't have a human drummer, but a machine called Dr. Avalanche, which they used to great effect in their songs. Their version of the apocalyptic "1969" turns Raw Power into whipsnap precision. Rather than the Stooges being hurtled along by energy and anger ("It's 1969, OK / There's war across the USA"), the Sisters are being ping-ponged by outside forces. It's just as powerful, but in a different way.

* "The Passenger," Siouxsie and the Banshees (Iggy Pop)
Same as what I said above about the Igster, although this album comes from his collaboration with David Bowie (!). The song is all about the alienation of driving aimlessly through a decaying industrial city. In the Banshees version, Siouxsie, a vocalist of limited but enormously stylish range, mimics Iggy, but the band redoes the song in a very English kind of way. Faithful, but ornate. It's like the difference between actually driving through the industrial wasteland and watching an arthouse movie of driving through the industrial wasteland. But it's a very, very good movie.

* "Ring of Fire," Wall of Voodoo (Johnny Cash)
Voodoo is another of my all-time favorite bands. If you've heard "Mexican Radio," that's them. It's unfortunate that this was their one-hit wonder because, although that's exactly how they sound, they were so much more. Ennio Moriconi spaghetti-western soundtrack music from a futuristic Twilight Zone. They recorded this early in their career and played it in concert all the way through. It begins with a deep pulsating drone, then Marc Moreland's guitar, hot-miked and all cheesy Western, plays the riff. Front man Stan Ridgway then sings the lyrics in his trademark voice. Wisecracking irony in flesh. Even being sincere, his nasal voice still dripped with it. Spare, spellbinding version that ends in guitar feedback.

* "That's When I Reach for My Revolver," Catherine Wheel (Mission of Burma)
This song was part of a group of "secret cover tracks" on a Catherine Wheel CD. CW were an alt-metal band from England in the mid-Nineties. Neither heavy metal or hard rock, but very, very powerful and very, very smart. Their record company tried to slot them in with grunge, but they aren't that either. Guitar-based, loud but with a superior control of their dynamics, thoughtful and intelligent lyrics. A great package that never caught on, sad to say. Mission of Burma were a Boston punk-ish band that never got much notice, but were hugely influential on later bands. Angular, experimental, also loud (They gave their guitar player tinnitus!), and not afraid to confound their audience. "Revolver" is a melodic and melancholy song about pent-up anger ("That's when I reach for my revolver / that's then it all gets blown away"), that goes from quiet verses to bursts of soaring riffery in the choruses. The Catherine Wheel version is note-for-note, but they bring their trademark power and dynamics to the song, along with far superior production values to the indy original, to make it soar.

* "Ever Fallen In Love," Fine Young Cannibals (The Buzzcocks)
Many of you will have heard this, back in the Eighties. Smooth singing over a lush mid-tempo track. The original though was a high-velocity punk rock song! Really! The Buzzcocks were often compared to the Ramones, who were their direct inspiration, but had far higher pop smarts and melodic sense. This is another example of how genius songwriting means a song can be redone in almost any way and still sound great.

* "Bela Lugosi's Dead," Until December (Bauhaus)
Bauhaus were another archetypal Goth band. This was one of their earliest hits. More on them next. Until December was a San Francisco "gay, metal disco band" as their front man once described them. Their live version of the Bauhaus song is reverential and respectful in the extreme, yet outdoes the original in almost every way, especially when turning Peter Murphy's arch delivery into Andy Sherburne's near-mumble. UD recorded this live and the sound is exactly like being in a dripping cave while langorous vampires entertain you. Chilling.

* "Ziggy Stardust," Bauhaus (David Bowie)
Bowie's song was from the Spiders From Mars period. Mick Ronson's guitar absolutely makes the song, a lament about the collapse of a man and a band. Bauhaus almost single-handedly founded the Goth image and style: mannered vocals, sterile production, cold feel. The Bauhaus version is a near copy, even to Peter Murphy's Bowie-worship vocals. But the song is recorded loud, really loud, which makes it fun to crank up.

* "Jump," Aztec Camera (Van Halen)
Everyone's familiar with Van Halen's pop masterpiece. But Aztec Camera, an English band, reinvented it with a light acoutic guitar sound, changing the title command from an imperative in the original to a wry, friendly suggestion in their version. Well worth seeking out. Again, more proof that great songs are great no matter what.

Wow, this was not only longer than I expected, but I'm sure I'm forgetting things here. I've thought about this off and on for a while, but never made notes, dammit. I'll come back to it later this week.

I also mean to do something about obscure songs and bands you really ought to seek out. Later, though.

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