Cover me badly: Spirit ‘Taurus’

Disclaimer to my mom: Sorry, but a gal’s gotta do what a gal’s gotta do.

Update: Looks like Taurus had it with “Stairway to Heaven” being one of the greatest rock songs of all time. They sued and a judge decided that the melodies are close enough to be put to trial. Ooh weeh!

Spirit are one of those lost and forgotten prog rock bands from the late 60s, early 70s who have a beautiful orchestral and quite aloof sound (so no King Crimson madness and instead the roots of art rock that sometimes even hint at what Ween might have listened to before they came to be Ween). Their song “Taurus” – coincidentally my favourite zodiac sign if I had to choose – is a lovely relaxed guitar piece backed up by a luscious orchestra and even a cheeky cembalo. It’s one of those slightly humorous ventures into anachronistic sounds of the courtyards of yesteryear because despite its sometimes gaudy reputation (thanks to the gaudy leanings by the late 70s early 80s), early prog rock was quite smart and witty.

The song was on Spirit’s self-titled debut album which was released 1968 and toured heavily. One of the supporting acts, Led Zeppelin, apparently liked the song so much that they did their own cover version. However, they failed to grasp the concept of a cover song and kind of renamed the whole song and left out the original credits and added a bunch of stuff so their guitar player could noodle along for a while.

http://www.metatube.com/en/videos/237801/Taurus-by-Spirit/embed/

(sorry; I could not properly embed the video)

Now, the cover “Stairway to Heaven” is hailed as one of the greatest rock songs of all times and – as with quite a few cover songs – the original got shoved a little into obscurity.

Unrightly so, because “Taurus” is a great song, a little pretty ditty gently placed in the middle of an album that is overall a very impressive debut, especially given that these guys didn’t rip off a whole catalog of blues musicians of that time like some other bands might have done (or would do a little later).

Besides, the weird thing about “Stairway to Heaven” – but this is solely subjective – is the fact that I personally think that the way that “Taurus” was implemented into the intro is not very delicate. The real strength of “Stairway to Heaven” doesn’t lie in the watered down original melody, it lies more in Robert Plant’s climactic vocal delivery (and the noodling, I guess), so the rip-off is pretty much wasted (again, in my humble opinion). Additionally, the lyrics provided by Led Zeppelin really don’t do the song a favour because they are…not very good (as many lyrics are that try to be a lot more philosophical than they actually are – crying spirits and random ladies and pipers usually don’t make for good song lyrics in my experience).

So, to get that sub-par cover out of your heads, here’s “Fresh Garbage” by Spirit. A pretty fun song.

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Cover me badly: The Ronettes ‘Be my Baby’

It’s no coincidence that motown (-ish) songs of the 60s are amongst the most covered songs in history and yet, the originals (or the endless cover-versions in that time-frame) hardly ever pale in comparison to the endless strain of interpretations by the most known and skilled of modern artists. It was a different time and there was a clarity to the music and execution that a lot of the cover versions unfortunately don’t share (even though there was often the pomp of orchestral background, the vocal delivery was precise and far from the pretentious exercises that artists like Mariah Carey introduced to the music scene).

That’s why they are so great – there’s a great melody that is not buried under vocal trailings, there are very strong voices (so incredibly strong that modern RnB – especially by male artists – for a very long time suffered from whistly breaths instead of the self-assured voices of Sam Cooke and Co) and there is a way of orchestrating that is pretty grand but hardly ever over the top (that, most RnB producers left to the less skilled producers who copied this style for the segregation-loving audience).

“Be my Baby” was originally performed by the Ronettes and written by the infamous Phil Spector along with songwriter duo Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry (you’ll find that quite a few of your favourite songs of that time were usually written by a female/male-songwriter duo). This song is layered like a wedding cake and I guess that the production team and especially the sound editor went crazy over it but it’s not overlayered (like, for example, Meat Loaf’s early 90s phase of cheesing all hell out of Rock and Roll). It’s a lovely song, especially if you can exclude all pop-cultural associations* and lo and behold, Darlene Love and Sonny & Cher provided background vocals for the original recording (mind = blown).

Now, I won’t get into the hundreds of cover versions of the song, in fact, I am only writing this because only recently I heard a version that is the perfect example of what’s wrong with a lot of modern cover versions (I actually wrote about it before but let me drive this point home again).

People, this is not how you do a cover song. You don’t spit in the face of the songwriters by transforming the melody so much that only the lyrics hint at the original. You just don’t. And there is so much of this going on nowadays, it makes me mad. Sure, a playful cover version that rearranges this and that is amazing and that even a highly altered interpretation can add to the original songwriting has been proven over and over again but this is just butchering a great tune, meandering along and turning a very clear song into bedspreads of sadness that go nowhere. And you can add the fact that way too many great peppy RnB-songs get turned into sad little puddles of misery by indie-bands. Why are you so miserable, indie-bands? What is wrong with you that you can’t feel joy when you listen to Ronnie Spector (aka Veronica Bennett) and instead want to channel funeral marches in your cover version? What went wrong in your life?

*Full disclosure: I hate “Dirty Dancing”. I watched the movie as a teenager and even though I loved the music (and back then, I could fall in love with movies solely for their soundtrack-choices), the movie itself held no appeal for me and the older I got, the worse the movie transformed (I experienced the same with “Pretty Woman”, by the way). It’s not even just a single thing that bothers me, it’s the whole movie, all character motivations, all character backgrounds, the actual lack of a proper story (there is none, there really is none), the very sad attempts at forced romantic moments and the fact that the female teenage character who falls for a much older guy is called – of all names in the world – “Baby”.

Cover me badly: Randy Newman ‘I think it’s gonna rain today’

You know, people can make fun of Randy Newman – and I mean hilarious fun – as much as they like but the dude can write a darn good song. And whenever his vocal delivery doesn’t make his music appear to sound the same always (ALWAYS), you can just see it so clearly and when a song like this:

…when a song like this gets interpreted by a singer who generally is known to put an amount of emotion in her singing that it simply breaks your bones under the weight, you really see it so so clearly as if it’s the first memory you ever had and that you will always keep.

Oh, not her, sorry. I mean, this is great, but scroll down a little more, ok?

Now, there have been many many great artists (and many more not so great artists, *cough* UB40 *cough*) tackling this song. Bette Midler does her Broadway-thing where everything is a little too theatrical to go all too much under your skin and Peter Gabriel gives you a hug as he usually does and you turn your head away because of the tears. But Nina Simone’s version. I mean Nina Simone’s version is the one that understands Newman as a songwriter and elevates the song, so it can leave you space to really feel it and get silent for a while.

Cover me Weirdly: ‘Royals’ by Lorde

People can compare her to Lana del Rey as much as they like but in contrast to Lana del Rey’s bored-ass non-singing I actually enjoy the smart lady from New Zealand and even though Lorde is your typically mopey intellectual teenager, she probably (hopefully) enjoys Weird Al Yankovic’s parody of her summer hit.

Man, Weird Al. For very long, I pretty much hated parody music like this but since this ridiculous video:

I am a total Weird Al-fan and enjoy his parodies so much that my five-years-ago self would probably cry out in embarrassment. But what can I say, there is wit, stupid puns and a very joyful silliness to everything he does. For Christ’s sake, this guy did a “Pokerface”-parody called “Polka Face”. I don’t even have to hear the song to start laughing on inconvenient occasions just by thinking about that name.

By the way, this is one of 8 planned music videos that Weird Al releases in anticipation for his new album. When Beyonce did it, I actually didn’t watch a single video even though I like me some Queen Bey now and then but this time around, I am excited for every new ridiculous song.

Cover me badly: The Magnetic Fields – The Book of Love

I saw Peter Gabriel in May and even though I had to pee for the entire 2 ½-hours he played, I thoroughly enjoyed the concert because this man is such a warm, giving and passionate artist that he does not just hurl out his hits, no, he re-imagines them, he creates an entire visual experience around them and he still believes that his audience can go out and change the world. Call me naïve but I really believe that he still grieves for the world whenever he sings “Biko” and wants to change it for the better (can’t say that for some other charity-musicians I won’t name here).

I have to admit, I thought that I would tear up during “In Your Eyes” because as mentioned over and over again, I have lots of love for that song. But alas, I was incredibly surprised when instead Gabriel’s cover of The Magnetic Fields’ “The Book of Love” turned me into a big ball of bubbling emotions. Stephen Merritt’s lyrics are absolutely divine and even though I usually don’t do that, I will post them here in their entirety because it was actually the combination of Gabriel’s voice and Merritt’s lyrics that tenderly pulled at my heartstrings.

It’s such a sweet, smart and wonderful song, it really should become the official wedding vow for everyone (chose your own version, the orchestral Gabriel-hymn or the humble Magnetic Fields-pearl).

The book of love is long and boring
No one can lift the damn thing
It’s full of charts and facts and figures
and instructions for dancing
but I, I love it when you read to me
and you, you can read me anything

The book of love has music in it
In fact that’s where music comes from
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb
but I, I love it when you sing to me
and you, you can sing me anything

The book of love is long and boring
and written very long ago
It’s full of flowers and heart-shaped boxes
and things we’re all too young to know
but I, I love it when you give me things
and you, you ought to give me wedding rings
I, I love it when you give me things
and you, you ought to give me wedding rings

Cover me Badly: INXS ‘Never Tear us Apart’ – and a lot about musical stars

I am watching “SVU New York” which – according to the internet – makes me a 70 year old lady who drinks a small glass of liquor and eats a cucumber sandwich when she watches this show. Does it redeem myself if I say that I only watch it to see Raúl Esparza (in the role of lawyer “Rafael Barba”) one day break the fourth wall and break out in song? Because that’s what I always hope for whenever I see a Broadway star on TV. So far, only “Orange is the New Black” and “Pushing Daisies” actually helped me fulfill my tv-dreams, so Raúl – make it happen! (*there is an inordinate footnote about more of this at the end of this article, in case you are interested in those Broadway-outbursts. It totally derailed after I wrote the initial entry and I am kind of sorry but not really – my readers know that I have a soft spot in my heart for all things cheesy-musically-a-cappella-y).

Anyways, in one of those “SVU”-episodes I stumbled over Paloma Faith’s cover of INXS’ “Never Tear us Apart” which might be one of the greatest 80s songs in the history of great 80s songs. It has everything: A charismatic and amazing vocalist with the late Michael Hutchence, an epic orchestra to give the dramatic background, a single guitar strung while the drums go faster and harder, one of those moments in a song when everything stops only to commence much stronger and lyrics that evoke nostalgia as well as a feel of great gravitas and being in the moment. Ok, it also has one of those horrible saxophone solos that no one ever asked for but that just happened in the 80s and early 90s but given that the rest of the song is stellar, let’s not hold that against it.

Now, I like Paloma. She is cool and classy and doesn’t talk so much crap like Lily Allen (man, it’s really difficult to like Lily Allen when you read her interviews). It’s a great version. It’s dramatic, it doesn’t have the saxophone solo and her voice gives it a certain James Bond-vibe which is cool.

Paloma gives the song justice and it’s no “Celine Dion sings ‘I Drove All Night'”-trainwreck – far from it, actually. However, I am not sure what I think of the fact that she initially covered it for a commercial…

But Michael Hutchence is one of those rare shiny and unfortunately tragic examples of one of a kind-artists who give so much of their own to a performance to a song that there is no one who can do it better. So, whatever version I might listen to, his is the only one that I really want to listen to. No wonder – what a giant shadow he cast.

I won’t post the Joe Cocker-version because it’s really not good. I didn’t even believe that Joe would sing this song because vocally, it’s such a weird fit and Joe’s usual growling by the end of the song is simply off-putting because the song works through a singer who is in control of his emotions and doesn’t go full Cocker on stage. The Cary Brothers did a pretty solid cover but didn’t really add too much to the song. And even though Tom Jones and Natalie Imbruglia add a lot to the song, it might be a little too much and they out-duet each other so much that the song loses the initial cool and determination. I am also not the biggest fan of their Diva-grandeur by the end of the song with one singing over the other. It feels a little as if they don’t really get the song.

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Peter Gabriel ‘And I’ll scratch yours’

So, Peter Gabriel released an album with coversongs of his own musical heroes and a couple of years later most of them have returned the favour with their own versions of his songs. I initially only wanted to write about my two favourite artists but then curiosity got the best of me and I had to listen to and review all songs on the album. Damn it, I can’t help it, I love Gabriel too much not to see what other musicians make with his long long discography.

Elbow have a long creative relationship with Gabriel whose studio has been a frequent place for the production of Elbow’s albums. His cover version of “Mirror Ball” didn’t quite work for me personally but that’s probably because “The Seldom Seen Kid” is one of the greatest albums of all times and no cover of any song on it can ever cut it. But Elbow’s version of “Mercy Street” is quite haunting.

The song was originally written for poet Anne Sexton. The song itself is another example why “So” is quite possibly his greatest album to date as it creates a nearly spiritual atmosphere musically but still feels raw and vulnerable in the lyrics.

Now, Elbow’s version of the song is a stripped down version, as if they stepped out of the church and into an open field to sing this ode to Sexton. The great thing about the original and the cover is that they both have a different approach to the same warm sadness that Gabriel initially created. Elbow’s interpretation doesn’t go out of its way to be different but still is its own entity and it doesn’t feel sacrilegious or repetitive.

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