NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and a suggestion of sensuality.
My daughter’s violin instructor is taking leave for five weeks to tour with a well-known rock band. If my daughter ever becomes self-conscious about playing nerdy classical music, perhaps she can look to this for inspiration.
For this post I use the term “music fusion” to encompass a number of ideas: classical instruments in rock music; covers of rock songs; amateur covers; cross-genre exploration; and fusion I’d like to see.
Classical in rock
I’m not a musician. Though my mom wanted me, as a kid, to learn the cello, the orchestra teacher thought better of it. So I’m just a listener. Perhaps with a better trained ear I’d pick out all kinds of classical instruments in the rock music I listen to. Watching a documentary on “Pink Floyd The Wall” recently, I got the answer to a question that had long troubled me—how do they get that strange menacing backdrop of vague sound?—when I saw four cellos performing with the band. I’ve also picked out some violins backing up Eminem songs. At a Radiohead concert a decade ago, I watched one of the band members carefully playing an xylophone during “No Surprises.”
Sometimes rock music gets treated to a stronger dose of classical instruments. A string quartet called “The Section” did an entire album of classical arrangements of Radiohead songs. After reading some reviews to make sure it wasn’t just a gimmick, I bought the album, and I love it. And there was the Metallica album, S&M, of a live performance where the rock band played alongside the San Francisco Symphony. I haven’t heard the album, but one of its songs, “No Leaf Clover,” got a fair bit of radio play and I liked it fine. And I love that Devo decided to do their own elevator music; the 30-second snippets I’ve heard of their E-Z Listening Disc sound pretty good. (I'm not about to shell out $193.97 for the disc, which must be a collector's item or something.)
Some years ago I was flipping through the FM stations in the car when I heard a song that was both familiar and not. It was a cover of Radiohead’s “High and Dry,” and it sounded great—which intrigued me because though it’s a neat song, I’ve never liked it. (To my ear, Thom York, the lead singer, sounds too whiny in this song. Perhaps this is because he never wanted to record it anyway; in an interview he once said of the song, “It’s not bad ... it’s very bad.”)
But who did the cover? Alas, modern deejays are apparently too cool to bother themselves with announcing what song you just heard and who played it. When I googled “High and Dry cover” I discovered a dozen versions of this song. I figured out pretty quickly that what I’d heard on the radio wasn’t from Amanda Palmer’s album of ukulele-based Radiohead covers. I think the version I heard was by Jamie Cullum, but I’m not sure I want to shell out $13 to find out if I was right.
I also like Urge Overkill's cover of “Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon” whereas I could never stand Neil Diamond. (I suffered an overdose of secondhand Neil Diamond at a moldy-oldies radio station where I worked, as a receptionist, in the ‘80s.) I also love The Breeders’ version of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” by the Beatles.
Not all covers are good, of course; Limp Bizkit did what I can only assume is a sarcastic version of George Michael’s “Faith,” which strikes me as a kind of pointless exercise. I mean, making fun of a mediocre song by squawking the chorus? And this gets airplay? According to Limp Bizkit's guitarist, George Michael hated the cover and ‘hates us for doing it.’” Oddly, the copyright law concerning covers doesn’t require the covering band to get permission from the original artist, though royalties must be paid.
There’s a pretty cool website listing cover versions of everything, including “cover chains” (“a set of songs in which each song is a cover of a song by the artist who covered the preceding song”); the longest chain listed is over 300 songs long. Click here for The Covers Project.
Of course it would be impossible to count the number of times a startup band of aspiring musicians plays a cover at some tiny venue. I also figure that anytime I sing at home, that’s a cover, and not a good one, though I take some satisfaction in my kids not always asking me to be quiet (which is especially remarkable when I sing Pink Floyd's “Vera,” which in my rendition is particularly maudlin). Aside from quality issues, the most distinctive trait of the “home cover” is that it’s almost always sung a capella, unless a wooden spoon on Tupperware, or some foot-thumping, is employed (which works best if your audience is babies or toddlers).
Of course around the kids I have to sometimes alter the lyrics—I can't sing "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" (of which I count five actual covers, by the way) because it’s about a serial killer, so I do “Maxwell's Silver Platter” (e.g., “Maxwell's silver platter made sure that she was fed”). Other kid-targeted enhancements: Thorogood's “Who Do You Love” is corrected as “Whom Do You Love,” and the final line of “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” becomes “that book by Vladimir” (since Sting pronounces “Nabokov” completely wrong, and the right pronunciation would throw off the meter of the line).
But enough of this childish stuff. The best enhancement opportunities involve some thought and sophistication. Here’s an example. Say you’re tired of getting your brother’s voice-mail and tired of leaving boring messages, so instead of a normal message you rap Ice-T’s “The Girl Tried to Kill Me” into the phone. Doing this straight would be amusing enough, but then you think, wouldn’t it be even better to refashion the song as a poem, presented at a cozy poetry reading by a tweedy professor, a dignified man much like your father? And if he were to read it in a gentle, thoughtful, caring voice? Imagine:
“Yo.” [This spoken a bit uncertainly, as if the professor isn’t quite sure what to make of this word.]
“I met this girl the other night.” [Pause.]
“Hype.” [Spoken with a trace of wonderment: what is this word, exactly?]
“Super-dope body and face, her mini-skirt ... tight.” [“Tight” given after a pause, and without the slightest trace of salaciousness. The professor is now adrift, and just sounding out the words.]
“Talking about legs and lips, mind-blowing hips,
Had to cross my legs just to look at her...” [Here the professor falters as he cannot bring himself to utter the vulgar word “tits,” and eventually substitutes:]
“Vipassana.” [You hang up immediately after this, as if to suggest that the professor has suddenly realized that, though “Vipassana” was the gentlest word imaginable—one of his favorites—in this context it sounded lewd, and he has blushed and abruptly abandoned the lectern for his seat.]
Some covers seem pointless to me—e.g., Billy Idol’s version of “Money Money” and the Lemonheads’ cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”—because they’re too similar to the original. They add nothing. The best covers, I think, are the ones least faithful to the original, where the band doing the cover sees a way to present the song in a totally new way. For example, the Jamie Cullum cover of “High and Dry” isn’t even rock—it’s something more like jazz. (Not everybody likes this genre-bending; an amateur reviewer of a Cullum album complained, “Over here in the U.K Jamie Cullum is regarded as the saviour of jazz. [But] he isn’t jazz. It masquerades under that name in order to make jazz trendy and saleable.”) Whatever genre this cover is, if it can lure me out of my rock/rap rut, I’m all for it.
I can say the same of Amanda Palmer’s cover of “Idioteque,” which you can listen to here. I expected the ukulele bit to be a gimmick (I mean, c’mon, a ukulele?) but the song is brilliant. (For one thing, with Palmer’s clear vocals instead of Yorke’s mumbling, I can actually make out the words.) I also cannot categorize the Cowboy Junkies and their great cover of Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” Though their cover bears little resemblance to the original, Lou Reed reportedly called it “the best and most authentic version I have ever heard.”
Often a cover is done whimsically (though can’t be only whimsical or it wouldn’t hold up musically). At a Bob Schneider concert many years ago, I was delighted to hear a rockabilly version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away.” I didn’t even recognize the song until about a minute in. But later Schneider outdid even this feat with a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Only the choice was whimsical, though. Had he played the song ironically—if he’d thrown in any hint of wink-wink, nudge-nudge—it would have been a silly and pointless stunt, but he played it completely straight. Even his (male) backup singers came in perfectly (“Womaaan!”) and Schneider did a call-and-response thing with the audience—well, at least with the many females in the audience—and I can’t imagine any singer has ever had better opportunities with groupies after the show.
Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh, in a bio you can find here, acknowledges the value to a song’s creator of hearing a good, creative cover of it. Of the Teddybears’ version of “Watch Us Work It,” he says, “They took Josh Freese’s drums off and put on a sample from something we did back in, like, 1982. And I thought, ‘That actually is better!’ That was when I first really saw that Devo had something to absorb, as well as something to impart.”
Odds and ends
Some covers aren’t exactly covers, like the brilliant “20 Dollar” by M.I.A., which is really its own song but grounded in Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” (which has spawned some eighteen covers). M.I.A.’s liner notes in say “Incorporates elements of ‘Where Is My Mind,’ written by....” Of the twelve songs on her “Kala” album, six of them say “Incorporates elements of....”
In rap, of course, infusion of one genre into another via sampling is standard—like the guitar lick from Heart’s “Magic Man” in Ice-T's “Personal,” or the chorus of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” throughout Eminem’s “Sing For the Moment.”
Music fusion I’d like to see
It's a pity, I think, that bands mainly do covers early on, when they don’t yet trust their own material. As Mothersbaugh suggests, an established artist or group might really learn from hearing, or doing, outlandish covers (in the spirit of Devo’s own cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”).
Perhaps some bands are shy about covering bigger bands’ songs. It seems that the more a song gets covered, the more likely it is that somebody else will cover it, as memory of the original becomes more distant and vague. We associate “Hey Joe” with Jimi Hendrix, though his cover is one of hundreds, and the song’s original authorship is a matter of debate. Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” has become a staple: all kinds of bands have covered it, including the Troggs (whose big hit, “Wild Thing,” was itself a cover); Swamp Rats; Motörhead; Led Zeppelin; Black Flags; Joan Jett and the Blackhearts; and the Smashing Pumpkins.
In my perfect world, I could compel bands to do covers of my choosing, which would propel them into totally new musical directions.
Some music fusion I’d like to see:
- Eminem doing James Taylor;
- James Taylor doing Eminem;
- My own dad doing Ice-T;
- Radiohead doing a rockabilly version of “Optimistic”;
- Metallica doing Kenny Rogers;
- George Michael covering Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl (and I Liked It)”;
- Tom Waits doing Dido;
- Dido doing Tom Waits;
- The Rolling Stones doing a Devo song;
- Amanda Palmer covering Pink Floyd’s instrumental “One of These Days” on the ukulele.
Of course this list is incomplete. I encourage you to list your own fusion ideas in the Comments section below.
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