Monday, October 08, 2018

Under cover

Inspired by Episode 33 of Sounding Bored, here - in no particular order - are ten covers that are each, in their own way, pretty remarkable.

'Hurt' - Johnny Cash (2002)

No consideration of the art of the cover version would be complete without mention of this - and thankfully podcast panellist Josh did the honours. He noted how it was Rick Rubin - famous as a rock and rap producer - who effectively revived Cash's ailing career, giving the Man in Black a new lease of life in his twilight years and introducing him to a whole new audience.

Over the course of four albums working in collaboration with Rubin, Cash covered a host of tracks to tremendous effect, including Depeche Mode's 'Personal Jesus', Bonnie "Prince" Billy's 'I See A Darkness' and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' 'The Mercy Seat' - all of which felt like perfectly natural choices.

But none of them could top his version of Nine Inch Nails' 'Hurt', which appeared on American IV: The Man Comes Around, Cash's final LP before his death in 2003. In the hands of its creator, Trent Reznor, 'Hurt' was harrowingly bleak and laden with self-loathing; Cash turned it into something very different, a weighty meditation on ageing and his own mortality. In tandem with Mark Romanek's profoundly moving video, Cash's 'Hurt' left me completely speechless.

It had the same effect on Reznor, who was stunned to hear "this other person inhabiting my most personal song". After first watching the video (in the company of Rage Against The Machine's Zack de la Rocha), Reznor just knew that "that song isn't mine anymore". He was right - and it never will be again.

'Changes' - Charles Bradley (2013)

Unlike Cash, fame came very late to Charles Bradley, the self-styled "Screaming Eagle of Soul". His life story was scarcely believable: abandoned by his mother at the age of eight months and raised by his grandmother, he lived an itinerant lifestyle working odd jobs and hitch-hiking across America, regularly performed as a James Brown impersonator, nearly died due to an allergic reaction to penicillin and had a brother who was murdered. It was a reconciliation with his mother that brought him back to Brooklyn, where he was finally discovered and appreciated as a vocalist of considerable talent.

'Changes', from 1972's Vol. 4, wasn't your average Black Sabbath track: an emotionally rather than musically heavy song written by guitarist Tommy Iommi with lyrics by bassist Geezer Butler about the break-up of drummer Bill Ward's marriage. Ozzy Osbourne recorded a horrific cover, a duet with daughter Kelly, that topped the UK Singles Chart in 2003, but when Bradley - who claimed to have never heard of Ozzy - first came across the song, the lyrics instantly struck a chord. His mother was gravely ill, and Butler's words seemed to express his anguish at the looming prospect of losing her again, this time forever.

He poured every ounce of that emotion into his performance, while the transformation of the song into a brooding 70s soul number, complete with blazing brass, felt so natural that it was hard to believe no one had had the idea before.

First made available for Record Store Day in 2013, the cover then became the title track of what proved to be his final LP in 2016. Two months after its release, Bradley was diagnosed with stomach cancer and, despite rallying briefly, he passed away in September 2017, still nowhere near as widely known as he deserved to be.

'SOS' - Portishead (2015)

If the previous two picks are examples of artists investing existing songs with a whole new layer of meaning by virtue of their own personal histories, this is an instance of a band boiling a track down to its base elements, thereby foregrounding something that was always there.

For so long derided as purveyors of kitsch nonsense symbolising the decade that taste forgot, Abba have benefited from a critical reappraisal that has (quite rightly) seen them lauded as arguably the greatest pop band of all. According to Bjorn Ulvaeus, 'SOS' was the song on which they truly found their own identity. It was an extraordinary single that saw melancholic, desperate verses married to an irrepressible chorus.

Portishead made their name with music for long, dark nights of the soul, and the Bristolians' take on the song was (as you might imagine) phenomenally bleak, dwelling pointedly on that devastating line "When you're gone, how can I even try to go on?" However, having been originally recorded for the film adaptation of J G Ballard's novel High Rise, the cover was then released in tribute to Jo Cox, the video ending with the murdered Labour MP's message of hope: "We have far more in common than that which divides us".

'Superstar' - Sonic Youth (1994)

Unlike Abba, The Carpenters have never really shed their image as the epitome of 70s kitsch: the cutesy brother-and-sister combo playing cheesy soft-focus ballads together. So how, in 1994, did they end up being covered by a whole host of rock acts, foremost among them the impeccably cool Sonic Youth?

The New Yorkers had never been shy of paying tribute to their heroes - whether that was through covering 'Hot Wire My Heart', San Franciscan punks Crime's debut single, on 1987's Sister, or, five years later, by finding room on their most commercial LP Dirty for a rampage through the minute-long hardcore frenzy of The Untouchables' 'Nic Fit', a song written by Alec Mackaye (younger brother of Fugazi's Ian). Their artfully messy 'I Know There's An Answer' was a highlight of Brian Wilson tribute record Smiles, Vibes & Harmony, and they were also among the remarkably disparate cast (including Wet Wet Wet, Hue And Cry and The Christians, as well as The Fall and The Wedding Present) who came together for the charity tribute LP Sgt Pepper Knew My Father, contributing a spectacularly good take on the original album's most out-there song, George Harrison's 'Within You Without You'.

Initially, it was Thurston Moore who was the Carpenters fan, his childhood fondness morphing into an appreciation of the "certain sort of dark mystery" lurking deep within their songs. Kim Gordon, by contrast, was dismissive: "It was music your parents would like you to listen to." But she soon came around, charmed by Karen Carpenter in particular: "There was this girl-next-door image with this incredibly soulful, and at times sexy, voice. Even though Karen didn't write the songs, she really made them her own - in much the same way that a singer like Billie Holiday did. With both of them, the words came right from the heart."

That "girl-next-door" image was complicated by Todd Haynes' 1987 film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which began with the brute fact of her death at the age of just 32 after a long struggle with anorexia. Sonic Youth's fascination with her wasn't merely ghoulish, however; it was driven by a preoccupation with the (often restrictive and damaging) ways in which female artists are perceived, portrayed and packaged within the male-dominated music industry - the same preoccupation that had previously given rise to an obsession with Madonna that resulted in 1988's Madge-sampling cover of 'Into The Groove' (credited to Ciccone Youth).

'Tunic (Song For Karen)' appeared first, on 1990's major-label debut Goo, but when the idea of tribute album If I Were A Carpenter was floated, 'Superstar' seemed tailor-made for them, a sad tale of unrequited love/lust, broken promises, romantic delusions and the power dynamic between performer and fan. They played the verses understatedly, Moore singing in hushed tones, but ratcheted it up a notch or two for the choruses. The video also mimicked the original, even down to the way that Moore handled the mic. Needless to say, in the context of the album, it stole the show.

'Easy' - Faith No More (1992)

The initial motivation behind Faith No More's decision to cover Commodores classic 'Easy' was rather different. The band had no great affection for the song; bassist Bill Gould claimed they liked it "in a painful kind of way. It gives us memories of our childhood." The point was not to pay their respects to Lionel Ritchie and chums, but to get up the noses of the narrow-minded metalheads drawn to their gigs by the promise of tracks like 'Epic''Jizzlobber' and their version of Black Sabbath's 'War Pigs'.

And yet as a result the cover was remarkably faithful to the original - a break-up song whose protagonist, far from being heartbroken, seems strangely unphased and contented in the circumstances. The guitar solo was one of the last things that Jim Martin would do before being fired from the band and going on to become a champion pumpkin grower, while vocalist Mike Patton showed off a versatility and range with which few would have previously credited him. Of course, simply having Patton singing "I'm easy like Sunday morning" was a joke, given his manically aggressive stage performances. I still can't decide whether that elongated "Ewwwww" that introduces the solo is an expression of disgust or a lewd insinuation.

The song reached #3 in the UK Singles Chart, attracting legions of admirers who would have been appalled by the band's previous output, and signalled the start of an unexpected fascination with easy listening, lounge music and bossa nova. As recently as three years ago, having reformed and put out a new LP, Sol Invictus, they recorded a very decent cover of Burt Bacharach's 'This Guy's In Love With You' for the audience of Radio 1's Rock Show. That they are so often identified merely as the godfathers of nu-metal does them a gross disservice.

'Too Drunk To Fuck' - Nouvelle Vague (2004)

The only covers band to make this list, Nouvelle Vague were the brainchild of French musicians Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux. It all started with Collin dreaming up the idea of performing a bossa nova cover of Joy Division's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' - presumably, being French, he'd had a full cheese board shortly before going to bed the night before - and just spiralled from there.

I could certainly have picked 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' for the way in which Collin and Libaux transformed the oppressively gloomy, fateful original into a breezily insouciant shimmy. But even better was their take on Dead Kennedys' 'Too Drunk To Fuck', which swapped the angry, on-the-verge-of-puking Jello Biafra for a giggly, breathy, coquettish female vocalist to brilliant effect.

Their self-titled debut LP was all a comic novelty, of course, but very nicely done, and actually didn't sound out of place alongside the likes of The Concretes, Camera Obscura and other mid-noughties indie-poppers. A second album Bande A Part followed, featuring versions of New Order's 'Blue Monday', Buzzcocks' 'Ever Fallen In Love' and Blondie's 'Heart Of Glass', and then a third, on which a number of musicians - including Depeche Mode's Martin Gore, Echo & The Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch and Magazine's Barry Adamson - got in on the joke, contributing to covers of their own songs. But nothing quite came close to matching 'Too Drunk To Fuck'.

'Wicked Game' - Giant Drag (2005)

For a brief period in the mid-noughties, Annie Hardy was indie rock's new poster girl. That was largely thanks to her band Giant Drag's debut album Hearts And Unicorns. The album was notable for several things, including the slacker gems 'Kevin Is Gay' and 'Slayer', and song titles like 'My Dick Sux', 'You're Full Of Shit (Check Out My Sweet Riffs)' and 'You Fuck Like My Dad' (abbreviated to 'YFLMD'). Perhaps most remarkable, though, was a bonus track that was initially exclusive to the UK release, only appearing on US pressings the following year.

'Wicked Game' is by some distance the best-known song by Chris Isaak, a 50s throwback whose music has featured in the films of cult directors David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino. Its cinematic quality is immediately evident, Isaak inhabiting the persona of a tortured romantic crooning in a Roy Orbison-esque style about smouldering and unrequited desire over the top of dusty, arid Americana. For her version, Hardy zeroed in on the song's sense of inner conflict and emotional tumult, amping up the chorus so that it had a sonic impact to match that of that fantastic line "I don't want to fall in love with you".

Just as the original came to popular attention through featuring in Lynch's Wild At Heart, Giant Drag's cover was memorably used in the trailer for US drama series Nip/Tuck. Sadly, though, Hardy was unable to capitalise on either that or the relative success of Hearts And Unicorns. Since then, there have been collaborations (with Deftones, The Jesus & Mary Chain and The Icarus Line) but only one Giant Drag album, 2013's Waking Up Is Hard To Do. She's been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and suffered horrific loss in her personal life, only returning to music with last year's solo LP Rules. Given the promise contained within Hearts And Unicorns and 'Wicked Game' in particular, it's a terrible shame that she's been unable to be more prolific.

'Hounds Of Love' - The Futureheads (2004)

In the podcast, this earned a brief mention, in relation to white, all-male indie bands covering pop classics either ironically or over-earnestly. I feel it a matter of duty and responsibility to disassociate it entirely from some of the abominations discussed in the same context.

Mackem new wavers The Futureheads couldn't really be accused of using their version of the title track from Kate Bush's 1985 LP as a crutch; after all, they'd already released a slew of spiky and brilliantly idiosyncratic singles - 'First Day', 'Decent Days And Nights', 'Meantime', all preceded by the 123 Nul EP and its lead track 'Carnival Kids' - by the time 'Hounds Of Love' came out. They were always far sharper and cleverer than the rest of the post-Strokes/-Libertines pack they got lumped in with, and covering a Kate Bush song was a shorthand way of simultaneously identifying with her maverick spirit and distancing themselves from the herd. The choice of song was no doubt carefully considered, too, proving ideally suited to a barbershop punk makeover. To this day, I'd maintain that it's better than the original.

Reaching the heady heights of #8 in the UK Singles Chart, 'Hounds Of Love' was subsequently named as the Best Single of 2005 by NME. Unfortunately, that meant that the pressure was on, and The Futureheads wilted. 2006's News And Tributes was a disappointment, and while they went on to release three further LPs after extricating themselves from their deal with 679 Recordings, none of them matched up to their eponymous debut. In that respect, 'Hounds Of Love' turned out to be as much a curse as a blessing.

'Diane' - Therapy? (1995)

1995, and Therapy? were flush with the success of the previous year's pop-metal masterpiece Troublegum. Andy Cairns' head was full of ideas and his nostrils were full of Columbia's finest. Cue Infernal Love, a preposterous gothy monstrosity that drew on Afghan Whigs and Nick Cave much more than metal and saw the band donning smoking jackets, frilly dress shirts and false moustaches. Just as Troublegum had upset those who had been won over by their earlier amalgamation of Big Black, industrial and punk, Infernal Love seemed deliberately calculated to baffle, infuriate and alienate their legions of new Kerrang!-reading fans.

Having introduced a whole load of impressionable grunge-era kids like me to Joy Division by including a cover of 'Isolation' on Troublegum, Therapy? followed it up by recording a version of Husker Du's 'Diane' (from 1983's Metal Circus) for Infernal Love. It instinctively made sense - the influence of the Minneapolis punks had been discernible in some of Therapy?'s earliest work. This take, however, bore very little resemblance to the original; instead, the song was reconfigured very much in the style of the album on which it appeared. Out went guitars, bass and drums, and in came strings and OTT production values. The song's author, Grant Hart, was reportedly appalled by the results.

The lyrics referred to the kidnap, rape and murder of waitress Diane Edwards in 1980, and there was a sense - arguably corroborated by the lavish Anton Corbijn-directed NSFW video, a symbol of mid-90s pre-Napster record industry excess - that Cairns enjoyed playing the part of murderer Joseph Ture with a discomforting degree of relish. At the time, though, he clearly didn't give two shits about what might be deemed distasteful. That 'Diane' somehow made it to #26 in the UK Singles Chart is perhaps the most remarkable thing about it.

'Where Did You Sleep Last Night?' - Nirvana (1993)

Nirvana's decision to perform an unplugged set for MTV was somewhat contentious. Their last studio LP had been the gloriously uncompromising In Utero, and so the sight of Kurt Cobain perched atop a stool (well, an office chair), amid flowers and candles, strumming an acoustic guitar was enough to horrify many - a tacit acceptance that he and his band somehow needed to prove themselves as serious and talented musicians in a language that middle-aged, middle-class audiences and arbiters of taste could understand. So, in one sense, it was a defeat - but in another, it was an utter triumph. Cobain's humanity and wit shone through, making a mockery of the tabloid caricatures, while his songs turned out to be every bit as resonant in stripped-down form as they were at full blast.

Not that Nirvana restricted themselves to their own material, of course. Not only did they play 'Jesus Don't Want Me For A Sunbeam' (a track they'd been covering live for years) and David Bowie's 'The Man Who Sold The World', Cobain also took the opportunity to plug one of his favourite bands, the Meat Puppets, by performing a trio of their tracks. In fact, 'Jesus Don't Want Me For A Sunbeam' was effectively a cover of a cover (being their version of The Vaselines' 'Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam', which was itself a sardonic parody of Christian song 'I'll Be Your Sunbeam') - and it wasn't the only one to feature as part of the MTV Unplugged set.

The song variously named 'In The Pines' and 'Black Girl' is a traditional folk song of unknown provenance that has been part of the great American songbook since the nineteenth century. Cobain first encountered it under the title 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night?' when he and bandmate Krist Novoselic were invited to contribute to a cover for Mark Lanegan's debut solo record The Winding Sheet in 1990. Cobain credited the song to Huddie Ledbetter aka Lead Belly, but in truth his was merely the most famous interpretation - until Nirvana came along.

Those few minutes were arguably the most electrifying of Nirvana's whole recording career. Cobain encapsulated more in that final screamed verse than many artists do in a lifetime. This wasn't merely the "teenage angst" of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' to which he mockingly referred on 'Serve The Servants'; this was a howl into the abyss. It was a suitably extraordinary performance to conclude both the MTV Unplugged show and what would turn out to be the last Nirvana album recorded before Cobain's premature death.

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