Friday, July 11, 2008

Rules For Beatles Covers, Or, Why I Love The Residents

I generally consider Beatles covers blasphemous. While I say that partly as a joke, there is certainly some meaning behind it. It isn't that they are the best band ever - I would like to think by now that I've established a few other artists that I like more than the Fab Four, if only slightly.

Still, there are only two factors that go into it.

1.) Who is covering the song?

This is key. The artists who go for Beatles covers are more often than not, at the risk of snobbery, unworthy of handling such great material. The Beatles had their songs cannibalized on American Idol. I won't dignify the "artists" who ruined them by giving them mention. Nor shall I force you to suffer through a clip from Across The Universe, a nostalgic look at the 1960's somehow stupider than Forrest Gump, a revisionist version of the 60's where everyone was doing acid, everyone was fighting against the war in Vietnam, and everybody was listening to The Beatles. And for added Rolling-Stone-will-cream-their-jeans-over-this-piece-of-shit value it features Bono.

POP QUIZ: What Beatles album made the Billboard Top 5 Albums of 1967?
Trick question. More Of The Monkees was #1, followed by their self-titled debut, then the soundtrack to Dr. Zhivago, the soundtrack to The Sound Of Music, and lastly The Temptations Greatest Hits.

This same argument can come up over who is allowed to cover John Lennon tunes, with fine examples being Big & Rich covering "Nobody Told Me," Christina Aguilera doing "Mother," U2 doing "Instant Karma," Green Day doing "Working Class Hero," and all of the following artists have covered "Imagine":
+ Blues Traveler
+ Madonna
+ Avril Lavigne

One artist who performed "Imagine" did it out of spite against the media. After 9/11 ClearChannel blacklisted a number of popular songs from radio play, including "Leaving On A Jet Plane" by Peter, Paul, & Mary, "What A Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong, "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" by Bob Dylan, "Hey Joe" by The Jimi Hendrix Experience (funny, the original version by The Leaves wasn't on the list), "Ruby Tuesday" by The Rolling Stones, "Head Like A Hole" by Nine Inch Nails, ALL songs by Rage Against The Machine, "War" by Edwin Starr (you know, that one that asks what it's good for, and responds absolutely nuthin'?), "Wipeout" by The Surfaris (an instrumental!), "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" by The Smashing Pumpkins, "Burning Down The House" by The Talking Heads...the list goes on and on. I'll rain Hell about this in itself some other time.

Anyway, a televised benefit concert called America: A Tribute To Heroes took place only ten days after the attacks. Another angry rock and roller a damn-the-consequences attitude, Neil Young, did the song on live television. It was considered one of the highlights of the program, in spite of the fact that you couldn't hear it on Clear Channel-owned radio stations.

It's rare that a truly great musician or group goes out of their way to do a cover, unless of course you're a fledgling rhythm and blues band from London and you need a hit, which Mr. Lennon and Mr. McCartney gladly supply to you:

But it's not like Frank Zappa or someone like that covered The Beatles, right?

Oh. Still, it's good, if a bit goofy. The man singing is Ike Willis, who I consider to have one of the finest, most distinctive voices in rock and roll.

2.) Why is the artist doing this Beatles tune?

Is it for charity? Madonna and Avril's covers of "Imagine" were for the Indonesian tsunami and the "crisis" (which we still don't have the balls to consider "genocide" over at the UN) in Darfur, respectively.

Is it "a tribute to The Beatles" really a tribute to The Beatles...or a tribute to the artists ruining the songs?

Ah, but is it a tribute to a deceased Beatle? THIS is where we find some positives. The 1995 compilation Working Class Hero: A Tribute To John Lennon featured some great versions of Lennon songs by The Red Hot Chili Peppers (who did "I Found Out"), George Clinton of Parliament/Funkadelic ("Mind Games"), and Cheap Trick, who provided a BITCHIN' cover of "Cold Turkey.

After George's death, some true greats came out to pay tribute to the "Quiet Beatle," including Leslie West (of Mountain) did a blues-wailing version "Old Brown Shoe", Bill Wyman - former bassist for The Rolling Stones - funked up "Taxman", John Entwistle of The Who (before his own death in June 2002) made "Here Comes The Sun" kick a little ass, They Might Be Giants took "Savoy Truffle" and turned into a sprightly tune for children, Wayne Kramer of The MC5 droned through "It's All Too Much" (my personal favorite Beatles tune), Todd Rundgren did a soulful rendition of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", and fellow Hindu Dave Davies did one of George's "could-be-a-love-song-about-God-or-a-girl", the sublime "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)". Needless to say, this encompasses a larger "who's who" group, and as such I can actually rank Songs From The Material World as one of the best albums from 2002.

Todd Rundgren was a Beatles fan, he covered "Rain" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" on his 1976 album Faithful, his band Utopia did an album of Beatlesque tunes from Merseybeat to the psychedelic stuff called Deface The Music, and he later toured with Ringo's All-Starr Band. Among the other musicians who graced the truly all-star lineup? John Entwistle, Billy Preston, Joe Walsh from The James Gang and The Eagles, Peter Frampton, and Jack Bruce from Cream.

The bottom line is, whether it's Cheap Trick or Todd Rundgren or Neil Young or The Smithereens taking one of my least favorite songs - George's "I Want To Tell You" - and making it good, the fact of the matter is that it's clear that these guys are Beatles fans in that they don't set out to one-up the Fab Four. Their tribute to the band who paved the way and inspired them to become musicians is done lovingly, in their own unique style. Instead of their intent on making the song a hit single, they instead let it serve as an acknowledgment of their roots.

Can Christina Aguilera really sympathize with the lyrics of John Lennon's harrowing "Mother?" Can Madonna really imagine no possessions? U2 might have been making a statement doing "Helter Skelter" on Rattle & Hum, in an era where they were both relevant and still in possession of their souls, but their cover of "Instant Karma," like almost everything else on the Darfur tribute album, is the work of a great songwriter converted into disposable pop trash. The musicians involved were more interested in self-preservation and attaching their names to the latest trendy cause. Too bad genocide in Sudan has been going on since the 1990's.

3.) Unless you can do it live, leave it the HELL alone!

The Beatles stopped touring in 1966 because their newer music was becoming more and more complex. It was impossible to replicate their studio sound live. But this doesn't stop bands from attempting "Tomorrow Never Knows", and badly. The song is rendered unique by its usage of studio effects and tape loops. Otherwise, you're just an idiot strumming the c-chord for three minutes trying to sing like John Lennon but instead sound more like an injured lamb.

In order to do some Beatles songs, might need a whole orchestra to back you up!

That is why I present to you something that can only be considered the best Beatles cover that will ever be. It is an interesting song choice - the song is "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - one difficult to replicate live no doubt, it is also devoid of political causes, and more importantly it DOESN'T involve Bono!

Godspeed, you eyeball-headed geniuses. Godspeed.



m@ said...

This was an interesting one for me. The clips are such an great addition...I can't go on too much about that.

The only thing that really struck me was that you questioned an artists' (and I use that term very loosely) ability to understand the intent or feeling of a work. Having done a lot of interpretation work through college forensics, I couldn't agree with your commentary on this more. It's all about the interpretation.

I have witnessed the best pieces of literature, drama, and poetry ruined by people who attempted to present them without either the intuitive understanding of the piece or the talent to pull it off.

Keep up the awesome work. These are not just entertaining, but I am receiving a musical education through these as well.

Shelley said...

These are good rules. You should publish them.

I totally agree. It is about honoring a band, showing their influences, not covering them just for the hell of it.