Both the first and last piece of music-fragmented frequencies ever purchased were cover versions. This realisation resulted in one of those light bulb moments where you realise that no matter how debonair and tasteful you’ve fooled yourself into thinking you’ve become, ultimately you’re still the same seven year old kid breaking open the piggy bank to have your ears assaulted by folks who should know better.
The recent purchase was Jamaican rocksteady legend Little Roy’s amazing cover of Nirvana’s Sliver. It sucks all the power and angst out of the original and replaces it with a warmth and wisdom. It’s like your grandfather, instead of asking you when you’re going to get a real job, is a cool chilled out Rasta who wants to tell you about his childhood. It’s a song that always felt odd in Nirvana’s catalogue, a little too simple, an experiment by a band still searching for self, but age and wisdom has given it new poignancy. Little Roy approaches it in much the same way Johnny Cash made Trent Reznor’s music seem like much more than the revenge poetry of a terrified 12-year-old Goth hiding in the toilets from the school bully.
In 1981 the piggy bank was broken for Footy Favourites. It featured the ‘hottest’ footy stars of the day demolishing their favourite songs. The central premise is that if you can kick or catch a ball then you can sing. It’s not a well thought out hypothesis. Pre Autotune Tim Watson pitches all over Kenny’s Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love to Town), whilst Demons legend Robbie Flower delivers Macho Man and Geelong’s Michael Turner offers I Go To Rio, both without any notion of subtext. It’s a bad karaoke car crash. Adding to the notion of full circle it’s released on Studio One records. Little Roy once worked for a label of the same name, though to be fair it’s unlikely that in the early 80’s Coxsone Dodd turned his back on reggae and relocated to West Melbourne to tap into the burgeoning musical talents of the VFL.
Two pieces of music 30 years apart, both offering a newfound narrative, one intentional, the other? Well who knows? But that that’s the beauty of covers, the more misguided or offensive to their origins the better. Sure they can be cynical exercises in shining a light on a hitherto underappreciated album to improve sales. Yes I’m talking to you Lemonheads. But sometimes there’s a genuine love of the song. It’s when this love is sprinkled with the artists own pixie dust, well that’s where the gold lies. Particularly when that dust is really dried out turd flakes.
Take aging UK pretty boys Duran Duran, the whitest band in the world attempting to garner some much needed street cred by covering Public Enemy’s 911 is a Joke without a trace of irony. It’s so unbelievably offensive on multiple levels that its difficult to believe that it wasn’t entirely calculated for this purpose.
The song Ring of Fire has been covered by upwards of 75 artists, including Yo La Tengo and Moby. But the best is Olivia Newton John’s disco version, where she effortlessly castrates the songs soul, spirit, and self-respect. By the time she’s lit up a cigarette you’ll spend hours in the shower futilely scrubbing your ears raw.
Disco has proved fertile ground for covers. Words don’t exist to describe the joy inherent in Mecco’s amazingly kitsch disco takes of Star Wars and the slightly creepy Wizard of Oz. Disco Circus sexes up Iron Butterfly’s In a Gadda Da Vida, making this raw evil LSD infused dirge an exercise in vacant ultra sexy lushness. But disco was like that: fearless.
In disco’s indiscriminate hands every song ever written had the potential to become the soundtrack to a dry hump in the bathroom stalls of your favourite club. Nothing was sacred. Take Beethoven for example. Shove on some slap bass and push the tempo up to 125 beats per minute and you’ve got Disco Saturday Nacht: Feverish Sounds of 1830 by the Eine Kleine Disco Band, where they tackle renowned disco forefathers like Strauss, Mozart and Haydn.
On a similar tip occasionally artists get all Neil Young and reinterpret their own material. Ethel Merman was a sprightly 71 when she made her disco album, transforming the show tunes that made her famous into high-energy dance floor workouts. There’s No Business Like Show Business makes waterboarding seem like a day spa. This is a very special record in the pantheon of covers, everyone here knew better, they were just blinded by dollar signs and the notion that the gravy train was starting to run dry. Clearly it was time to jump the shark. And we reap the rewards.