Bands going outside their comfort zone produces some interesting sounds. But bands deliberately imitating other bands makes the situation so much more interesting! Why exactly are they going lengths to ape someone else’s sound? Is it an homage, a rip-off or a send-up? More importantly, do they hit the mark or do they fall short?
The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” might serve as the most famous example, hitting both simultaneously: a loving homage to the Beach Boys right down to the lyrics, which of course substitute the then-verboten USSR where otherwise would be the good ol’ US of A. Whether it was overtly political or they were just having a laugh at transplanting American music, it creates the interesting effect of hearing a band through someone else’s ears first, at which point it’s then handed over to you. It sometimes can offer a different perspective on an act you already thought you were intimately familiar with! Without further ado, five more examples:
1) R.E.M. – “The Wake-Up Bomb” (T-Rex) (1996)
One thing I don’t think people were except from R.E.M. in the 90s was a paean to glam rock, but then sprawling, hour-plus-long New Adventures in Hi-Fi surprised a lot of people. The lyrics recall in crystalline detail the experience of the young glam rocker of the early 70s who would “practice my T-Rex moves and make the scene”, complete with requisite descriptions of the garish outfits. Despite their staid image, there’s no way this song is emerging from anywhere but experience. Michael Stipe delivers his lyrics with an unusual sneer as he defiantly informs us that “I get high in my low-ass boot-cut jean/I like being seen”, very much expressing the all-too-familiar confidence and vanity of youth – a journey that the band takes right along with him. There’s no subtle textures or nuance to the track, just big swaggering chords and a good ol’ beat to swing around to, with an organ being slammed in the background for good measure. On an album full of introspective and ponderous songs, this one for the extroverts does its job admirably: sometimes you just wanna wear your “metallic sick wraparound blackout tease” and rock the hell out.
2) Simon & Garfunkel – “A Simple Desultory Philippic” (Bob Dylan) (1966)
While a cover of Bob’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” on their first album would suggest a reverence for the folk-rocker’s work, “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” perfectly captures Dylan’s new (at the time) electric sound, while lyrically sending him up. The song is stuffed with contemporary references at every line (even in the title), while in between them Simon blows tunelessly into his harmonica. “He’s so unhip, when you say ‘Dylan’, he thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas, whoever he was!” is perhaps the most telling line as Simon’s lyrics send their barbs at the ultra-hip of the time, whose dialogue is alive with current topics and a myriad of slang terms (“I smoke a pint of tea a day”), but really pay little heed to the intellectuals that preceded them, and are really just playing at intelligence by using obscenely clever words while getting high. The fact that that is followed up with “But’s alright Ma/Everybody must get stoned!” leaves little doubt at who the figurehead. Though it seemed to be a little too pointed to be a pure jest, the fact that his last harmonica solo is punctuated with a declarative “Folk rock!” followed by Simon dropping the the instrument and sullenly stating “I’ve lost my harmonica, Albert…” is enough to make it at least hilarious.
3) The Guess Who – “Friends of Mine” (The Doors) (1969)
It’s nice to know that musicians are listening to the same music that you are. One of Burton Cummings’ idols entering the rock world as a singer was Jim Morrison, and this track makes it very plain. The song runs an exhausting ten minutes, much of which is Cummings repeating “Buh-babe-buh-babe-buh-babe-buh-babe-ay!”, spouting lines of pop culture, personal anecdotes and vague psychedelia as the band vamps underneath on a couple of chords. Not long after that, the band becomes quieter, opening the door to show you Cummings channelling Morrison’s rambling soothsayer persona for the telling of a macabre story Though it doesn’t quite have the conviction of “The End”, I would argue that the climax is even better. In case you forgot of the band’s country of origin, and because they presumably gotta make the ten minutes, Cummings begins to recite In Flanders Fields before changing the lyrics – “To Flanders Field the hippies go!”, he spits. The affection for the Doors’ original material is clear, as the whole band sounds the part, right down to the deft organ work thoughout, the jazz-inflected drumming and even the seeming telepathy of the original band, as they ebb and flow with the vocals just as well. Any ten-minute-long parody song is going to have to be a labour of love.
4) The Beatles – “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” (John Lennon) (1968)
Paul McCartney’s attempt to do a basic blues song with a screaming sort of vocal a la Lennon (the genuine article of which can be found on the same album – “Yer Blues”) only contains the words in the title plus “No one will be watching us”, repeated over and over again. Apparently inspired by McCartney seeing two monkeys copulating in the middle of the road while on the Beatles’ Indian retreat, it’s his meditation on “how simple the act of procreation is”*, but might also be saying the same about Lennon’s songs. At under two minutes, the song was never going to have fantastic legs (he’d revisit the idea more fully a few songs later on “Helter Skelter”), but it makes its point and displays a sort of rawness that always seemed to come without hesitation to John and didn’t fit as well with Paul’s more orchestrated songs. Fitting, too, that it makes its home on the incredibly disjointed White Album as the portrait of the band fracturing (only Paul and Ringo recorded the track, at which John was miffed) – why not send up one of your own and try something silly if everyone’s recording in their own little corner?
5) Talking Heads – “The Overload” (Joy Division) (1980)
This one might be a little bit of a cheat, as no member of Talking Heads had ever heard the music of Joy Division before – “The Overload” was an attempt to emulate them as they had been described by music critics. They didn’t get it totally wrong. The song is all gloom and dourness, with a buzzing, impatient guitar in the background and David Byrne intermittently being roused from his sleep to deliver the vocals – you can feel the cold sweat and longest nights behind them (probably the closest the song gets to the actual sound of the band). What sound like submarine signals ping back and forth in the background as a heavy beat trudging a path through the whole proceeding. It’s gloomiest the band ever sounded, but is a welcome experiment to add to their oeuvre.
*Source: Wikipedia’s page on the song, quoted from the Barry Miles biography of Paul, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now