Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Hello, It's Me (Again) -- Artists Cover Themselves

I thought of writing about this as I was listening to The Move's B-side to "California Man," "Do Ya." Of course, it became more familiar when it was a single five years later by Electric Light Orchestra. In and of itself, not a surprise. Plenty of covers, like remakes of movies, become far more famous than their original incarnations. Even those of us who know often forget there were two versions of The Maltese Falcon before Humphrey Bogart's, because the others just pass out of the public conscious, even when they might be preferred by many who see or hear them (which isn't the case there, barring some random dissenters, but the point remains).

The Move

Electric Light Orchestra

But this is a more interesting instance: The Move's Jeff Lynne wrote "Do Ya," and after The Move broke up, he formed...well, Electric Light Orchestra. In effect, his new band was covering his old band. Well, it's more complicated considering Bev Bevan and The Move's effective leader, Roy Wood (who wrote "California Man") were also in the early incarnations of ELO. But nevermind that: the idea that came to mind, because I did know of other instances, was that of artists covering "themselves."

Of course, a live performance is nothing new, even when it's radically different. Sure, sometimes an "acoustic version" (or, more rarely, like the re-recorded version of XTC's "Ten Feet Tall"--yeah, that's three separate links--an "electric" version) or other alternate versions. Those naturally count when one is talking about someone who covers another band's song when they play live, (like The Church covering the Smashing Pumpkins, allegedly in response to a reversed situation), but it seems more like a crowd-please or a casual revisit of old work when it's done by, say, Big Star with The Boxtops' "The Letter," which their own Alex Chilton sang for The Boxtops--Big Star, though, never recorded the song in a studio).

But there's usually something even more interesting when an artist goes solo or enters a band and re-records the song with new people (or now no people). The song changes in response to that, whether it speeds up, slows down, fills out, strips down or turns itself inside out. Sometimes it functions as a move from demo to full recording, sometimes it literally is that. Often, the older version is lost to time, much like those older Maltese Falcons (1931's was re-titled Dangerous Female to avoid confusion, and 1934's was titled Satan Met a Lady at release), but it maintains a fan base that appreciates the comparative "rawness" or "energy"--the usual buzzwords for less cleanly produced or performed versions, though nothing is absolute in this.

I managed to comb through my entire music collection, as best I could, to find all of my covers, and noting, as I went, those that happened to fall into this category of self-covering. I didn't find an awful lot, so I'd be interested to hear any anyone else knows, though I realize that's a little too specific and encyclopaedic for most people.

Still, here are those (interesting!) examples:

"Hello, It's Me"
The Nazz - Nazz, 1968 (also a B-side to debut single to the Who-reminiscent "Open My Eyes"
Todd Rundgren - Something/Anything?, 1972 (released as an A-side at the end of the same year)

The Nazz

Todd Rundgren

Todd took vocals on, considering the album this came from has 4 sides on vinyl, 3 of which feature Todd on every instrument, production, and basically everything. The song appears on that fourth, full-band-styled side, but Todd maintains the visible sort of presence by singing what the Nazz left to their regular vocalist, Robert "Stewkey" Antoni. He also took the tempo up a good bit, tightened the approach to the vocals and tweaked it in the ways that a studio rat would.

"Cruel to Be Kind"
Nick Lowe¹ - B-side to "Little Hitler," 1978
Nick Lowe/Rockpile - Labour of Lust, 1979 (Rockpile released a single album as Rockpile, then acted as band for Lowe and Dave Edmunds subsequent "solo" albums for a few years--this track, by the way, was also released as a single)

Nick Lowe/Brinsley Schwarz

Nick Lowe/Rockpile

Nick dropped the speed down (something that he would end up doing even more often as he began to transition into truly solo acoustic performances as a primary avenue, and albums that worked on a slower tempo in general), and gave a little more space to the band's performances, letting the song breathe a little, instead of being wound up into a singular, unified bullet of a trip through a typically-Lowe discussion of feelings. Oh, and watch for Edmunds as limo driver, and Carlene Carter as Lowe's blushing bride--which she actually was at the time.

"(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?"
Brinsley Schwarz - New Favourites of Brinsley Schwarz, 1974 (also released as a single that year)
Nick Lowe - Various studio acoustic recordings of unknown dates
Bonus recording: Elvis Costello, under the guise of "Nick Lowe and His Sound" as the b-side to "American Squirm," which was actually a Nick Lowe single, where it became a big hit. For Costello. Confused yet?

Brinsley Schwarz

Nick Lowe (Yeah, it's live, he plays it at most shows now, so no one felt the need to upload one of the studio versions, but this is how he plays it in them)

As generally happens with "acoustic versions," Nick slowed the song down a good bit. Anyone familiar with the Costello version will find the phrasings in both very different, though closer to each other than to his. Musically, the Brinsely Schwarz version shows where Costello's version came from, but Nick shows his understanding of the song is different from how Elvis comes off. Lowe is not without his darker side, especially with humour (see: "Marie Provost" in particular), but seems to have a lesser biting cynicism about the song's message--perhaps an underlying hope in an agreement that it isn't funny some day.

Buckingham Nicks - Buckingham Nicks (1973)
Fleetwood Mac - Fleetwood Mac (1975)
(yes, both self-titled, both "debuts" though the latter is the debut of the Buckingham/Nicks-fronted Mac, and nowhere near the band's debut)

Buckingham Nicks

Fleetwood Mac

  The most obvious difference is a "toning down" of the more distinct characteristics of Lindsey Buckingham's voice, and a greater prominence to Stevie Nicks' backing vocals (probably Christine McVie's, too, but I am not good enough to pick such things out). There's also, quite naturally, a fuller production of the band, considering Mick Fleetwood and John and Christine McVie had bigger roles in Fleetwood Mac than the mix of musicians (many of them studio stalwarts--Waddy Wachtel, Jim Keltner, Jorgé Calderon, and members of some of Elvis's bands. Presley, I mean) who backed Lindsey and Stevie on their album. There's also a stronger synth/keyboard line in place of the band as musical backing. I like Lindsey's voice a lot, more than Stevie's if I'm honest, so I like the idea of dropping the greater constraint on his voice, rather than the open pipes to sound like most singers.

Dan Friel - Sunburn (2004)
Parts & Labor - Stay Afraid (2006)

For reasons of obscurity (I can only assume) neither Friel nor his more famous (though still not famous) band with BJ Warshaw, Parts & Labor, are easy to link to. You'll have to live with my description. I imagine plenty of you are fine with that when it comes to these gentlemen--which I assure you is your own loss! If you aren't, both of these are still available, even if Sunburn is most easily acquired from Amazon MP3 and not on disc (which I purchased at the P&L show I attended a few years back).
As one expects from any move from solo artist--however electronically oriented--to band, the P&L version of "Death" is much more "complete" and full in sound, with Christopher Weingarten's drums forming a stronger (if relatively quiet, as they are on most of Stay Afraid) backbone to the song. Like most of Sunburn, Friel's original recording of "Death" is a lot more abrasive, starting with squeaks and pings, before buzzing in over a steady thumping drum (machine) beat. It's also (as the rest of Sunburn is) instrumental, despite the fact that Friel did vocals on a relatively even mix of P&L songs.


I'd welcome, quite happily, any instances others know of for this particular phenomenon, as it's not an overly common occurrence but can provide an interesting impression of the core elements in a song for a given artist, or in how they might feel a recording should have been refined, or even just a new spin from a rapidly bored one.


There could be mention made of Lou Reed and some of the demo material recorded with The Velvet Underground, to be sure, but none of that was released as VU until the releases of the Peel Slowly and See box, Another View and VU compilations of previously unreleased material, designed for completists and diehards. Still, he did move a decent set of songs over into his solo career: "Satellite of Love," "She's My Best Friend," and "Andy's Chest." He even managed to space them out into two albums, so there's that--one he didn't even come back to for a good seven years after its original recording: "She's My Best Friend," recorded in '69 with VU, and not released until 1976's Coney Island Baby.

Back to Post ¹While the labels credit it to Lowe as a solo artist, the 1978 singles uploads on YouTube have been met with an amusing torrent of thoroughly English thwackings from co-writer Ian Gomm, who maintains that the "original version" is actually from the aborted Brinsley Schwarz final album and was recorded with his voice and guitar at Jackson Studios. Memory is a faulty thing, of course, but I'd say he seems sharp enough on the details to believe it--nevermind that it sounds quite Brinsley-esque.



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