For some reason, I’ve always been quite taken with the idea of the “cover,” a great group or artist remaking the old art into something new, profound, and tangible for a new audience.
Unfortunately, the result of the cover is often a mere imitation of the original. This, sadly, does nothing but waste everyone’s time. In this instance, I can’t help but think of Echo and the Bunnymen’s remake of “People are Strange.” It is almost note for note and instrument for instrument the same as the original by the Doors. No matter how great, Echo, they will simply not best a classic by merely imitating. There’s nothing even remotely interesting or unusual in the Echo version. They sound bored, and they probably are. Echo was simply too good to be a glorified cover band.
There are also inferior versions of a once great song that simply had never had a wide audience in the first place. Here, I think specifically of the Bangles remaking A Hazy Shade of Winter. The Simon and Garfunkel version is in every way superior except one. When it was originally released, A Hazy Shade of Winter appeared around a number of other attention-gathering songs off of the album, Bookends. It would’ve been pretty hard to complete with “Mrs. Robinson.” And, A Hazy Shade never became absorbed into American culture the way so many other Simon and Garfunkel songs did. When the Bangles released it in 1987, it climbed to #2 on the American pop charts. Who can forget first hearing that song, realizing the immense disconnect between a barely talented hack corporate band and some of the best lyrics ever written? No, it shouldn’t have succeeded, but it clearly did. Commercially, a success. Artistically, a travesty.
Over the last decade or so, though, a number of excellent songs have been covered by various prog bands. In each case, at least as I see it, the songs covered are–quite the opposite of the Bangles assault on and diminution of a classic–in most respects far better than the originals. Three things help account for this. First, some of this improving, I’m sure, is a product of better technology. Still, we can all think of examples where the newer technology has driven the life out of a song or an album. Technology, in the end, is a tool, neither good nor bad in and of itself but a means to a good or bad end.
Second, in ways that could never be measured, a remake is importantly the result of the love the artist of today feels for the artists and traditions of the past. The current prog artist has absorbed some beloved songs for years and years, and the songs have become an essential part of the art itself and of the artist herself or himself.
Third, very importantly, few progressive rock acts perform merely to be commercial. They do so for love of the art itself.
Again, let me go back to that Strawband, the Bangles. What did they have to offer to a Simon and Garfunkel song? Nothing in the least. Per the above three points. First, the technology made them mere apes, allowing them to present sanitary mimicking of a great song. Second, the Bangles play their version as though they’d only encountered the original version days or possibly hours before recording. Their version came out twenty years later, but it, in no way, feels as though an artist had absorbed that song for twenty years. Third, the Bangles wanted to cash in on a piece of art that failed to reach its full potential two decades earlier. And, they did. Again, a commercial success, but a artistic horror.
But, what about some wonderful, beautiful, intense, gorgeous covers?
Nosound’s remake of Pink Floyd’s 1971, “Echoes.” Four minutes longer than the original, the Nosound version not only records their version with affection, but there is an unmistakable Nosound sound. Where Floyd used a cold and rather impressive technology to make certain unusual sounds, Nosound substitutes a much greater organicism to the song.
The Reasoning’s remake of Duran Duran’s “The Chauffeur.” This was certainly the best and most interesting track off of Rio (1982). And, Rachel Cohen of the The Reasoning has never once hidden her admiration of the best rock of the 1980s. Matt, Rachel, and the others do wonders to the original, making it far, far superior. At once more delicate and yet harder than the original, The Reasoning makes this a serious work of art. Matt’s deep and haunting bass is especially good. But, so is Rachel’s voice. The Reasoning takes a good pop/rock song, and makes it a short but haunting masterpiece of prog.
Big Big Train’s “Master of Time.” Sheer bucolic glory. Next to the original by the former Genesis guitarist, BBT’s Master is a blatant and full-voiced work of immaculacy. It makes the original seem a fine sketch of a song, while paying all due homage to it. Even in its BBT’s intensity, joy multiplies as the song progresses, following NDV’s driving drums. If this isn’t a glimpse of a pre-fallen Eden, nothing is. And, yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if David Longdon’s voice has an angelic counterpart in the spheres far beyond this world.
Peter Gabriel’s Scratch Your Back, in many ways, corrects the errors of the Bangles. While the whole album is good, and Gabriel covers everyone from Elbow to David Bowie to the Talking Heads, nothing bests his own version of the Paul Simon song, “Boy in the Bubble.” While it’s not necessarily better than Simon’s version, it is a penetrating look at the darker aspects of the song. I would challenge anyone to listen to Gabriel’s version with headphones and not tearing up at the terrors and tragedies revealed anew in the lyrics. This might be Gabriel at his absolute highest as an artist. “These are the days of miracle and wonder. Don’t cry, baby. Don’t cry.”
Glass Hammer remaking Yes’s “South Side of the Sky.” This has been one of my two or three favorite Yes songs going back to my early childhood in the mid 1970s. Certainly, when I saw Yes play live in Grand Rapids for the 35th Anniversary tour, this song was the highlight. Nothing, however, prepared me for hearing Glass Hammer’s version when I first purchased “Culture of Ascent.” This cover is a perfect example of a band and a group of artists that had fully absorbed the song–every single aspect of it–over period of two or three decades. This song by Yes is simply an immense part of the DNA of Glass Hammer. And, it shows in every aspect of Glass Hammer’s version. Everything is simply perfect, and it’s as obvious as obvious can be that Glass Hammer recorded and produced their version with nothing but love, pure and unadulterated love. And, dare I say it without risking the reader just switching off and heading to the wilds of a new website. . . Susie Bogdanowicz was born to sing this song.
There are other songs I’d love to write about, but time prevents me at the moment from doing so. Let me just conclude with this. When a cover is done well and with love, it’s a hard thing to beat. And, while I would never want the current progressive moment to become imitative at its heart, it’s a healthy thing to remember and honor those who came before us. In particular, I think there are a number of songs from the 80s that were brilliant in their time, but could really benefit from being progged up. Imagine Thomas Dolby’s One of Submarines redone as full-blown prog. Or, Big Country’s The Seer. Or, The Cure’s Disintegration. Or, New Model Army’s Whitecoats.
So much to be done. So little time.