Thursday, September 29, 2005

Another Music Post

I was watching the beginning of CSI and the soundtrack was the cover version of Tears for Fears' Mad World done by Gary Jules and Mike Andrews, from the Donnie Darko soundtrack. (Full story here)

Most of the folks reading this should be familiar with the original, which the post linked above describes as "chugs forward with electric drums, a wash of keyboards, and layers of synthesised horns." The cover version, though, is a closely-miked voice singing sofly with genuine melancholy alongside a simple piano accompaniment, with a subtle synthesiser boost. It's definitely a 3AM kind of song. Scarily intimate, letting you in just a little too close.

It's also an illustration of one of my favorite theses about music: good songs can withstand being transferred to any other genre, and may even improve.

Look at the Fine Young Cannibals' Ever Fallen in Love. The original, by English punk band The Buzzcocks, was full-bore, high speed guitars, an adrenalin rush. The FYC slowed it down, transferred it to a lush keyboard environment and had a Top 40 hit.

Going more obscure (because that's where my musical tastes lie, sadly for you), there is Aztec Camera's acoustic version of Van Halen's mega-hit Jump. Diamond Dave and VH in their pop mode makes for a bouncy rocker, but Aztec Camera took a more relaxed approach, so that the song almost sounds knocked off, half-joking. When Roddy Frame off-handedly sings the song's trademark line "You might as welllllll jump," he sounds almost like he's talking to a friend and kiddingly suggesting it for real. Very sweet.

There was a band from Athens, Georgia, music scene back in the Second Wave of American Punk that produced REM, the B-52s, Pylon, Guadalcanal Diary, and others. They were an instrumental group called Love Tractor. On their first album with vocals they did a cover of Kraftwerk's Neon Lights. Of course, most folks know Kraftwerk for thin, wobbly vocals and lush, detailed, completely synthetic soundscapes. Love Tractor redid the song with a raga-rock feel (think George Harrison during his Indian phase, the whole "Eastern enlightenment" thing, or bad Sixties movies). Dense layers of guitars with similarly thin vocals. No matter how many people I've played it for, no one recognises it until the vocalist starts singing, but everyone's amazed by the difference and by how good it sounds.

There was a local cover band in Huntsville in the late Seventies called Nuke the Whales. Their lead guitar player was called Doctor Proctor because he was a med student during the day. His schtick was to take his wireless guitar and leap around from table to table in clubs. The lead singer was the lead sales manager for the big Top 40 AM radio station. They did a hilarious cover of the song Cocaine. Eric Clapton's version is the most famous, but it was written and first recorded by JJ Cale. His original is a bit slower, but his vocals are deep, gravelly, bone-weary and harrowing. He had obviously written the song from personal experience which had thoroughly kicked his ass. The Nuke the Whales version was played as though they were on cocaine. It flew by in a blur. "Shedon'tmindshedon'tmindshedon'tmind..." big pause for the audience to get ready... "COCAINE!" Zoom!

Nashville's White Animals were legend for their covers. Two in particular stand out for me. I first saw them in the early Eighties playing at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. They did a version of The B-52s Planet Claire where the lead singer and the guitar player left the stage during the song to sit with the audience, still playing their instruments. The drummer and bassist kinda shrugged and kept up the long, jammy rhythm while the other two tinkled his Casio and strummed his guitar for a while.

They were also famous for a nearly nine minute long epic version of the Van Morrison / Them classic Gloria. It was faithful in that they didn't redo anything to the lyrics or chords. But in every other way, it was reworked into a long, long night of trying to get laid. The band's producer was also their soundman at shows and an uncredited (sorta) fifth Animal. Most folks didn't realise he was manipulating vocals with echo, throwing a Jamaican "dub" feel into the band's sound, and generally taking a straight-forward (and fun-loving) cover band into new territory. After grinding away through the usual verse/chorus stuff they then launch into The Jam. Lead singer Kevin Gray starts talking to the listener about driving around in his car with his girl, hand on his stick and how she reached DOWWWWWWWWNNNNN. He warns the listener about what can happen, and the bassist can be heard adding "'Cause it can lead to harder stuff" to which Kevin enthusiastically replies "Yeah, yeah, YEAH!" Some "unhs" and back into the riffing. Cover bands have always redone songs with long, slow sections where the members show off their chops, or they try to take listeners to new places mentally. The White Animals succeed in Gloria.

You want more? How about Iggy Pop's The Passenger, from his David Bowie-collaboration days? I think it's even been used in a car commercial. A chugging rocker, full of anomie, with the Ig's deep, sonorous voice singing about driving around bleak industrial towns, trying to find some action. It was covered by Siouxsie and the Banshees, and English post-punk band. They redid it with upbeat flamenco-ish guitars and horns, and Siouxsie's mannered singing. It still has that "driving nowhere" feel, but in a more open production atmosphere. It's weird, but in a welcome way.

Let's go the other way. The Mary Tyler Moore Show had a great theme song, Love is All Around, beloved by young women in the early Seventies all across America. The original, written by Sonny Curtis, was typical of the soft-rock sound of the day, compressed to run in the time alloted as opening title credits. A big studio band softly but emphatically rocking out. Then came Joan Jett, prototypical hard rocker. She did was is essentially a fairly reverent version, but with her trademark stripped-down, no-bs sound and made it cool all over again for a new generation of women. Same song, two different takes, same result across twenty years.

I mentioned Guadalcanal Diary earlier. On their first proper album, "Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man," they include a live, full band, electric cover of the folky / protest classic Kumbayah. Instead of the weedy, wuss plea you're used to, it becomes triumphal, a cry to arms, building to a great climax.

There are many more. Punk bands were especially fond of doing satirical takes on previous generations' hits. Take The Sex Pistols' version of The Monkees' Steppin' Stone. Sloppy, sarcastic fun. The Monkees were singing about love, but from The Sex Pistols, it sounded like a thumb of the nose to the record companies and media flaks that all wanted a piece of them. Same song, different meanings.

Are there any more good covers, done in a different musical genre? Not just the kitschy ones, but fans of the song trying something new or adapting a song they love to their own musical style?

Speaking of television theme songs, my all-time favorite is the Hawaii Five-0 theme. Another large studio orchestra, but going full bore, balls to the wall, burly and muscular. Wild blaring horns -- lots of them! More! -- rolling drums, pounding beat. It builds to a frantic crescendo and then, with a few da-da-da-das it's over, leaving your breathless. Gotta love that.

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