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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

Song Covers
Sean Thomas

Today I’d like to discuss the topic of musical covers. For those not hip to the lingo, a cover is when a person or band records a version of a previously published song. The cover song can be a blessing or a curse for the listener and/or the artist. For some artists, the cover defines their careers. Their choice of a cover to introduce them to the world becomes the mountain they can never climb over. (See “Locomotion” from Kylie Minogue and “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tiffany). Of course there is the possibility that was the plan all along and the goal was to cash in using a song that someone already wrote in order to minimize use of any creative muscle. Often time’s bands will put out cover albums in order to fulfill some sort of contractual obligation. These albums rarely do anything but give hard core fans something new to listen to from their favorite groups. Artistically they tend to be pretty weak. One particular example is how Guns N Roses faded into oblivion with their cover of favorite punk tunes on “The Spaghetti Incident?” This was a placeholder until Guns N Roses could fulfill the promise of greatness that was the Use Your Illusion album. That promise never came and as fans we are stuck with a cd full of covers of bands that most of us never heard of and nothing so inspiring that would cause the average person to expand their horizons. The truth is that for the most part cover albums are cheap and easy to knock out. Some labels like Cleopatra have made a cottage industry out of putting compilations of covers performed by artists on their roster.

The main problem is how the artists approach the cover. They usually go in one of two directions. They stay so faithful to the original that they bring nothing new to the song. (See “Lady Marmalade” by some diva supergroup thingy). Why waste your time and effort on a poor imitation? The other way is that they try so hard to put their imprint on the song that they create something so sacrilegious to the original that much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensues. (See Madonna’s metaphorical pooping on Don McLean’s patriotically painted thumb by bastardizing “American Pie”). Every once in a while, though a cover transcends the original or at least brings something so unique to the table that it deserves to sit alongside the original. Possibly the best example of this is Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along The Watchtower”. Most people don’t realize that this is a cover of a Bob Dylan tune. In reaction to hearing the Hendrix cover of his song, Dylan has said: “It overwhelmed me, really.” Dylan has also stated “Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it's a tribute to him in some kind of way." Hendrix had taken this Dylan tune and had turned it into his own. A good cover has the ability to do that.

I now give you a list of five covers that I feel are every bit as awesome as the original

Jane’s Addiction’s cover of “Sympathy For The Devil” originally by The Rolling Stones

This song was on Jane’s Addiction’s live album that was put out before their major label debut. The band creates a moody atmosphere with subdued acoustic strings and percussion. This sets the tone for what makes this version so special: Perry Farrel’s vocals. When Mick Jagger crooned his version, it was full of raw in your face sexuality and machismo proudly declaring his dark deeds as the deceiver of the world. In this version, Perry Farrel’s voice is much more subdued, taking on the character of the serpent in the Garden of Eden going the route of deception over confrontation. I find this version much more convincing.

Furnace “Hey You” originally by Pink Floyd.

This was from one of Cleopatra’s many cover compilations. I bought this because I love Pink Floyd and I was big into industrial music at the time. I’m not sure what my expectations were at the time, but pretty much the whole double album blew (yes there were two discs of terrible covers). The lone exception was this masterpiece by some band called Furnace that I’m not sure did anything other than this. I could do some research to find out, but it doesn’t matter because they could never top this. Floyd’s album the Wall is #1 on my desert island disc list. It is the album that turned me onto rock and roll and sent me on the musical journey that I have been on ever since, so I am serious when I dare to put this song side by side with the original. The song is about isolation and loneliness. It is a song longing for someone to come and save the listener. The sparseness of the electronics and the pounding beat of this version take the feelings of isolation to another level. This is truly a cover that understood the theme of the original and took it places that maybe it shouldn’t go. The despair that Roger Waters conceived is palpable here.

Dread Zeppelin “Immigrant Song” originally by Led Zeppelin

“Blasphemy” you say? How could anyone touch Zeppelin’s Magnum Opus of Viking adventure, bombastic guitars riffs, and Robert Plants unmistakable howling? What business does a reggae band with an Elvis impersonator as a front man have messing with the Godfathers of Metal? I can’t answer these questions, but I can tell you that Immigrant Song matches well with some funky booty shaking reggae. And it doesn’t seem that much of a stretch to go from Robert Plants primal scream to Tortelvis’s over the top impersonation of the King. Of course I might be a bit biased because I used to see Dread Zeppelin a couple of time a year in my single days. Hilarious show, but they backed it up with musical chops. You couldn’t make Immigrant song so funky if you don’t have the musical ability to make it happen. And Dread has it in spades.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience “Sunshine of Your Love” originally by Cream

“Sunshine of your love” blew my mind the first time I heard it. My only real experience with Eric Clapton was “Tears in Heaven”. I had no idea why he was “God”. Being exposed to Cream and Derek and the Dominoes has helped me to understand why people thought Clapton was the “Cream” of the crop. “Sunshine” blew my mind because it was so heavy. My experience with oldies was the fluff that my parents listened to on Kool 94.5. I had no idea that this type of Rock was going on at the same time the Supremes were singing about their guy. Why is the Hendrix cover on here? It’s because The Experience takes it to an even heavier plane of existence. I must mention that there are different versions of this cover. I am specifically talking about the version on Live at Winterland. Jimi literally makes his guitar sing. There are no vocals. Hendrix’s wailing guitar takes the place of the vocals. The only dark surprise in this song is how freakin’ awesome it is.

Elvis Presley “Hound Dog” originally by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thorton

How could we not include the King and a song that helped start a revolution? This revolution wasn’t bloody, but hip gyratingly fantastic. The King took a slow burning bluesy take on a no good scoundrel and turned it into a rockin tune about something diffent, not sure what other than flippin’ awesom. His hip shaking performance on the Milton Berle show caused the Old Bitty Committee to launch a campaign to ban the Kings special brand of Rock and Roll fury. Sorry Ladies, but that train had already left the tunnel and was barreling down the track to lead us all to the land of Rock and Roll. Even fifty years later the King’s charisma still seeps from the ol TFT display when you watch the video. Sorry Big Mama, but this song belongs to the King of Rock and Roll.

What are some of your favorite or most hated covers?

ULTIMAGE GEEK FU runs every Wednesday. Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Star This, Star That, Star Whatever, The Starlost, Battlestar Galactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, True Blood, The X-Files, The X-Men, The Man From Atlantis, or pretty much any other SF- or fantasy-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll stuff it in the queue.
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