A curious conundrum struck me earlier – while winter’s chill holds all in its icy grasp we dream of summertime warmth and a flush of green leaves adorning currently bare-naked trees; yet, come high summer and all we want for is it to be just that little bit cooler. Not much, but just a bit.
Cars are too hot to get into, baked by cloudless skies yet, right now, everyone’s getting pissed off with having to de-ice their windscreens before the four-wheeled trudge to work. Never quite as one wants it to be is it – either too much rain or too little, too hot or too cold; the British and their bloody obsession with the weather.
Its a bit... bollox, isn't it?
This morning (its dull, overcast, the possible threat of rain but maybe brightening later) and yet another round of tragic news hits the wires. The number of people in the UK alone who’ve been put out of work in the last 26 days since this year began number 39,340 – that 1,513 each day of a seven day week. Black Monday struck hard since it was also revealed that 70,000 people around the world learned yesterday that they were job-less.
Newspaper headline-writers took to using phrases such as economic downturn sharpens. Well, I suppose that’s one way of putting it – personally, I think a more apt phrase would have included the use of the word ski-slope within an adjectival context.
This isn’t getting any better… now, is it..?
No, quite clearly its not.
And is that worthy of further comment? Hardly, other than to reiterate one observation from before – will someone in power stand up and be prepared to be counted and… actually tell it like it is.
Someone speaking naturally – perhaps someone like the Archbishop Of York who… in plain language, absolutely castigated the BBC the other night about its refusal to broadcast an appeal for aid – much needed aid for the hapless victims of the omnipresent strife they’re unwittingly caught up in the Gaza Strip.
In front of the stunningly beautiful backdrop of York Minster, he stood and talked into the camera – a BBC camera – the very model of dignified indignity; using plain-speak to put across his point of view. What was impressive was his use of words – just normal words, not the evading-the-issue gobbledygook so much beloved by ‘politicians’.
Sure, the Bish – fully robed-up, decked out in his more Cirque Du Soleil than clerical headgear and brandishing his over-sized ceremonial Shepherd’s Crook – had a point to make but this isn’t about commenting on that – its about admiring his ability to talk plainly and… tell it like it is.
Which leads me to pondering… given that the Bish has fairly forthright views on (I’d imagine) all manner of subjects; what would he say – I wonder – to news reports my eagle eye spotted earlier regarding a pastime practiced by both sexes but which is rarely spoken of – anyone bashed the bishop recently or taken themselves in hand of late; enjoyed a hand shandy or spent a few minutes with a merchant banker recently?
The snappy headline in a day full of the little blighters read thus: Masturbation can be good for the over 50’s. OK, since I’m past the two score and ten mark, better have a quick squint. The article was, frankly a lot less exciting than the headline, claiming that a decent dose of solitary sexual activity is (maybe) linked to protection against prostate cancer that can develop in men over the age of a half-century so long as – during one’s twenties and thirties – you’ve shot one off the wrist on a pretty regular basis. Apparently its all to do with a build-up and / or removal of toxins. Far too complicated for me... time to move on.
Besides, can't really imagine the Bish would much want to comment on anything like that; tho’ I suppose monks and nuns do it just as often as bankers and backpackers say they do. Perhaps they just don’t admit to it or maybe they confess themselves into confessional meltdown before mass – who knows… who cares?
Perhaps however, the Bish would comment on another little item that’s been occupying my mind of late. The small matter of Cover Songs. Because, I’ve been wondering what is the one single thing that a cover needs to possess – the special something that’ll make a re-working of someone else’s song stand out?
Is there, for instance, a single defining moment that turns what someone else has written into… one’s own? Is it a sprinkling of fairy-dust or just plain going radical? Is it de-constructing to re-construct or is it new rhythm or meter that sparks new life? I wonder.
I suppose its highly probable that magazines have conducted their own polls on what’d be regarded as great covers. Maybe, maybe not.
In any event, to while-away some of my suitcase hours, I’ve trawled the memory stick and come up with a bit of a list. As with any list, its bound to be incomplete but… here goes. In no particular order, the following are, I reckon, some of the most interesting – and in some cases absolutely stonking – cover versions one’d ever hear.
My Way – Sid Vicious / Frank Sinatra… can’t for the life of me recall who actually wrote My Way, don’t think it was the Mafioso King but… whoever it was – would they have expected that hissing Sid could ever swagger, snarl, spit and sten-gun it… his way – and make it stick.
One – Johnny Cash / U2… clearly a classic in its own right and thus a bit of a tricky one (sic) to attempt – yet the man in black claims it for his own, sounding for all the world as if he’s down on his knees on a cold flagstone floor; praying – a last-gasp plea for forgiveness to his Creator.
A Little Help From My Friends – Joe Cocker / The Beatles… its that long drawn out organ-intro that gets you first; then the crash-crunch of gigantic drums before the realization that Ringo’s vocal take was simply a woeful wooly-draft when compared to the ensuing growl of Sheffield steel that follows. Add in Sue & Sunny’s call and response backing vocal and a song that began as a John ‘n Paul give-away has only ever made sense when the tie-dyed Woodstock windmill took hold of it and… strangled it.
All Along The Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix / Bob Dylan… a song that Jimi heard off of a white label test-pressing at a party one Sixties-night, immediately booked some studio time at Olympic on the hoof and hi-tailed it down there; he pulled in Traffic’s Dave Mason to play slide guitar with Mitch Mitchell on drums whilst playing everything else himself – Noel Redding seriously pissed-off and in the pub over the road.. Hendrix, quite literally, made this his own and – even on repeated playing – it sounds like it was recorded only yesterday; a song so utterly transformed that I’d wager that many don’t even know that it was written by Robert Zimmerman – and, while open to debate, I’d suggest this is one of the greatest covers… ever.
Killing Me Softly – The Fugees / Robert Flack… I confess – I don’t much like the Fugees. Sorry, I just don’t – the idiotic and needless background rap-grunting annoys the heck out of me; but that’s not to say this isn’t a brilliant take on an already superb original… A classic covered (if that’s the right word – I prefer the adjectival phrase, almost crippled) at the end of the About A Boy movie under-scored by Hugh Grant’s cruddy guitar playing (yeah, I know it makes sense in the context of the film) but even so… couldn’t they have chosen a different song to massacre?
Red Red Wine – UB40 / Neil Diamond… a far cry from the original that appeared on Neil Diamond’s late-seventies album Sweet Morning – taken to a totally different, easy-skanking, spliff-laden level by Birmingham’s finest; a quality arrangement with a whole heap of superbly understated hooks – from keyboard swirls to what suspiciously sounds like an infinite guitar yet plainly isn’t – over and above maestro Campbell’s chopped out vocals. The whole thing deserves the full-length, extended mix 12’ treatment – the radio friendly version is great but the user-friendly dubbed-up-a-bit mix is when the UB’s really come into their own. One of many Diamond songs that are better known by the cover than as the original – another being a US number One just as this was, The Monkees’ I’m A Believer; love or hate the pre-fab-four, that’s another track worthy of inclusion here.
Dear Prudence – Siouxsie & The Banshees / The Beatles… why this one… well, its a bit like what Cocker did with A Little Help, the Banshees take the heart of the song and twist it, coagulate it, let it bleed dry and then… only then… start properly messing with it – the result… a real result.
Always On My Mind – Pet Shop Boys / Brenda Lee / Willie Nelson / Elvis Presley… phew, who do you choose… is Elvis’ version sacrosanct – nope, not according to the straight-faced PSB committee who bound this up with their own take on U2’s Where The Streets… to create a sublime bit of disco meets Memphis by way of the Dublin Quays. Does it work… sure does.
Cocaine – Eric Clapton / JJ Cale… yes, of course, a great cover – who’d deny that but… for me, it’s the original that I prefer, stark in its down home, under the porch, rocking-chair Tulsa simplicity. That said, doubtless JJ would (I’d imagine) not be unhappy with the weight of pure gold pouring into his bank account every six months – probably enough for his great grand-children to have a very fine education indeed. That is, so long as no one’s nose had got in the way. Clapton’s other memorable cover – Marley’s I Shot The Sherriff gets an honourable mention; both led to massive increases in popularity for the originators tho’ again (for me) his white-rock approach somehow detracts from the original.
Tainted Love – Soft Cell / Gloria Jones… quaintly dippy, eye-shadowed Marc Almond, Top Of The Pops and Soft Cell’s elegantly quirky trashing of a song that they truly made their own.
I Fought The Law – The Clash / The Bobby Fuller Five… and the law won tho’ you’d never know it; Strummer’s in-yer-face quasi gangsta-rap went further than fifth gear in the version recorded at Shea Stadium when the Clash were at their zenith; their creative force had lit the touch paper to a long-forgotten song back in a London studio; live, however… it became a fireball.
Crossroads – Cream / Robert Johnson… a one-time lesson that harnesses hell-hound blues to a three-piece collectively playing out of their skins. I guess my first encounter – and certainly not my last – was seeing the final Cream concert beamed into our 12” black and white tv back in Hampshire in… gawd, that was a long time ago; having the Royal Albert Hall come to life in one’s parent’s sitting room was one thing, hearing this was quite another. The next again day, I emptied my trouser pockets and bought every Cream recording I could lay my hands on. It was only years later that I discovered the mastery of Robert Johnson – and that, too, was an unforgettable encounter.
Redemption Song – Joe Strummer & Johnny Cash / Bob Marley… one to search out and cherish. Bob’s original is – it hardly needs saying does it – a bona fide classic; the last shows he ever did featured the encore as just him, an acoustic, his voice and this song – spellbinding. The combination of Cash and Strummer’s voices however work like a dream… as I said, one to treasure.
Don’t Leave Me This Way – Communards / Harold Nelson & The Blue Notes… disco two-thousand plus or minus; there’s bald little Jimmy Communard strutting and making shapes as the energy from this bursts out of the speakers like an exploding condom. Even if you didn’t dance or, worse still, danced like a Dad, this will always make a Granny smile. The original is a great song, make not an issue of that – his though, takes the biscuit… hob nob anyone?
Dancing In The Street – David Bowie & Mick Jagger / Martha Reeves & The Vandellas… a truly unlikely cover; Mr Rubber-lips and Mister Android go full-sail Kent estuary all over Detroit – yes, an unlikely combination but… boy, does this… rock-out; hammed up (for sure) with tongues firmly in cheek the Dartford / Beckenham connection go at it full tilt, never letting up from the moment the needle drops. Berry Gordy may well have raised an eyebrow at their impudence but who could fail to love the boys in their ankle-length macs cavorting for the video? Better than the original – who knows, who cares… this is a great slice of… whatever you want to call it.
Nothing Compares 2U – Sinead O’Connor / Prince… played to death and rightly so; a song that was pretty much just another song from the purple-panted people-eater’s cannon but which became something otherworldly when Sinead got hold of it and breathed new life into the real pain of separation. Possibly one that can’t be listened to over and over again but, on that occasional hearing basis, the hairs on anyone’s neck would stand up and be counted.
Rocket Man – Kate Bush / Elton John… taken to bits, entirely re-configured and given a sort of reggae twist – is that really an Uillean Pipe in there, I think so… Kate’s breathless vocal gymnastics in between Connemara meeting Kingston town head-on led to a 2-all-draw at the final whistle; the original – a great track in its own right, somehow pales into insignificance beside this.
Stairway To Heaven – Dolly Parton or Rolf Harris / Led Zeppelin... who would even dare to take this and… play with it. I’d never suggest that Uncle Rolf the bearded painter’s version bears up to repeated listening – it doesn’t but, its here (as much as the huge-chested Dolly’s is) for the sheer audacity that allowed them to even consider a re-make of a song that most would claim as untouchable.
(I Can’t Ge No) Satisfaction – Devo / The Rolling Stones… ah, this is more like it – another of my favourite what the fxxk is that moments. Having perplexed the world outside of Akron, Ohio with their We Are Devo opener, they completely out-foxed the opposition with this – batsman number three… but, how does one describe what they did to what was once a sort of anthem to pimply youth who weren’t getting any? Clearly they weren’t getting any either so, showing no respect whatsoever to Mick ‘n Keef’s magnificence, they tore up the rulebook and put it back together again so much so that it smelled like burning rubber.
Helpless – kd Lang / Neil Young… back in the bleak days and even darker nights of Merle HQ, there was a BBC transmission of a kd Lang show from, I think, the Union Chapel in London… stark in its simplicity, stage and music stripped bare. 50 minutes of kd singing and playing that’s best described as being utterly mesmerizing that made sitting up late the more worthwhile when she sang this… I cried and don’t mind admitting it.
Star Spangled Banner – Jimi Hendrix / Francis Scott Key… the moment when Woodstock made sense, Jimi’s savage, pyro-technical, de-construction of the national anthem shook up an entire nation; it came right out of left-field – with the rising of the sun at his back, James Marshall Hendrix coaxed a sonic incendiary out of his guitar that became as eloquent a statement for a generation as any ever heard. Quite astonishing. Full stop.
Only Love Can Break Your Heart – St Etienne (Sarah Cracknell) / Neil Young… ah yes, what have we here? One late night way back when at Le Paradis and limp-along Steve has rolled a sizeable one and is sitting happily in front of rather a lot of cds. His diminutive spouse screeches – no Neil Young, too fuckin’ depressing. This appeared, honour was satisfied and its up there alongside of the majestic original; both heart-breakers of the first order.
Stop Your Sobbing – The Pretenders / Kinks… never worked (for me) as a Kinks song but put Chrissie Hynde in front of Ray Davies’ lyrics, factor in that great Pretender’s rhythm section and what do you get..?
Love Hurts – Jim Capaldi or Nazareth / Everley Brothers… yeah, I know Nazareth covered it in a bizarre-grunge-eighties-metal-meets-heartbreak-meets-gravel-voice style – probably quite a few others have too but, somehow gentleman Jim’s version said it far better than the Bros Everley ever did. Maybe a minor hit, memory loss threatens… was it from Oh How We Danced or Whale Meet Again… the bottle of wine is less than half-full… I can’t remember. Drat.
Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley / Leonard Cohen… which is better… the old man of the Grecian seas by way of Montreal or… the son of the father? To be honest, I’m not exactly sure… did I fire five bullets or was it six..? That said, I’d argue that without Jeff Buckley’s sublime reading of the song coming to recent prominence, few would have trawled back through Cohen’s own song-book to discover the original. A tie.
Blinded By The Light – Manfred Mann / Bruce Springsteen… picture the scene; a rammed to the rafters Marquee Club on Wardour Street; the Earth Band have just taken the stage… the bearded bloke starts prodding away at the keyboard and… this… sort of… erupts. The bloke I was with turns and mouths… who the fxxk wrote this, its amazing. It was and still is. Brucey-boy, take a bow… you’ll be sixty next year yet – for all your new stuff – this still stands loud and proud as a great version of a great song that the equally great E Street band never quite nailed.
Turn Turn Turn – The Byrds / Pete Seeger by way of the Book Of Ecclesiastes… I wonder who actually gets the publishing on this… the God-squad or the Seeger estate or… is it split? Maybe The Byrds’ Mr Tambourine Man should have been included here instead… it’s a cover after all… This isn’t necessarily the best of all covers; however, its one of the most thought-provoking… and takes the germ of Seeger’s idea to a new high, eight miles up up and away.
Helter Skelter – U2 / The Beatles… I found this on a bootleg called Cover Of Love – whoops, they’re illegal aren’t they… ah, bollox, who cares… the band that formed (everyone knows this) and started out playing covers but gave up playing other people’s songs ‘cos they were crap at it – equals they started writing their own stuff – take a stab at this and… breathe an ocean-full of light and shade into what had become, I reckon, a bit of a tired song. Chunky and punky and it sounds like fun was had by all. Even Larry.
I Shall Be Released – The Band / Bob Dylan… what do you say, where do you start with Dylan since so much of his extraordinary body of work has been covered by… just about everyone. Lets start again from the premise that this ‘list’ is just that, a list of a few songs that… are covers and which, in themselves, are pretty good (or interesting). From which ever side of the musical fence one resides, there can be no debate (I’d argue) that the Band’s first two album were entirely ground-breaking. The total, absolute bollocks – perm any adjective you like from three or more thesauruses and it still comes out that – within the context of all time, both those records didn’t just break the mould, they more or less invented a new one. Blue-sky thinking is, I gather, a new buzz-word. Ok… fine, if that applies to this, then this is thinking in outer-fxxxing space. This version comes from within that period and… it takes Dylan to a new level. Just gob-smacking.
Wheels On Fire – Julie Driscoll & The Brian Auger Trinity / Bob Dylan… one more from Bob the Bard’s prolific pen; a pure stab of sixties psychedelia – all swirly Hammond organ, phased drums and vocals with strangely coloured garments for the newly colourised Top Of The Pops. Why this and not one of twenty-dozen others that Dylan wrote… because, once again, it takes the original… deconstructs, reconstructs and… becomes something new and valid in its own right that doesn’t just stand the test of any time but is a bona fide classic in its own right. File under… stonking.
So… have we any conclusions…? Hmmm. As I wrote all of that, I thought of at least another thirty that’d make the grade. Maybe there is a book there – but, I guess it’d just be a subjective one… yet, it’d be an interesting (and lengthy research process – and probably never definitive) to list all the major covers. Perhaps, over time, that might become Project Y.
But, what actually makes a great cover?
I think its this… when act or artist X takes song written by composer(s) Y and makes it, totally transforms it… into their own.
And, in first place currently – two are tied. Joe Cocker’s re-make of With A Little Help and Hendrix’s All Along… both, in my book are definitive.
Disagree as much as you like, oh readers of this little Voltaire…
However, you’ll probably have noticed that the tearful Poodle’s absurdly warbled rendition of Leonard Cohen’s glorious Hallelujah hasn’t quite made it onto this list.
I think its obvious why… don’t you?