Tag Archives: the beatles

List-O-Mania: 5 Songs That Are Pastiches of Other Artists

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

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List-O-Mania: 5 Alternate Versions of Songs Better Than Their Original Counterparts

As per my discussion of music mythology previously, a good alternate version of a song is a music nerd’s dream. “Oh man, you gotta hear this outtake version!”, “The demo is wayyyy better!” etc, etc. Sometimes it’s not quite cooked until after the album’s been cut and it gets worked over on the road or perhaps the line-up will change and offer a new angle to the song or it even just gets injected with a little more energy and suddenly you hear the song with new ears and realize what was in there in the first place. Listed below are five such songs for which I always have a ‘preferred version’.

Of course, ‘better than’ is one of the most subjective of terms, so I’ll explain some of my feelings towards it right up front: you can’t beat a good melody. Anything that uncovers, unclutters or enhances the melody of the song being sung is always going to raise it in my estimation – in most cases, the melody IS the point of song, and to improve that improves everything. Often, groups will get too interested in tinkering and lose the focus a little bit and only realize it later on down the road.

I’ve chosen ‘alternate version’ as opposed to saying ‘live version’, as I realized that some of these are done live in a studio (4), and two are just straight up studio re-dos of older songs (2 and 3), so the lines are a little blurred, to say the least, and I figured ‘alternate version’ would cover myself pretty nicely. All of these, however, are new performances of the songs by the original group/artist rather than covers or remixes (a list in and of itself!).

1) Talking Heads – Burning Down the House (Stop Making Sense)

Though I could easily include any performance from the phenomenal Stop Making Sense on this list, the huge “Burning Down the House” makes it on simply because the original song on its own sort of left me wanting. Yeah, you have the big group coming in on the titular line, but large parts are just sort of monotone and staccato, as, leading up to the chorus, Byrne recites each syllable exactly in time to the beat, with very little in the way on inflection. During the energy of the live show, however, the song gains just a little momentum and a whole bunch of energy – it’s going at a quicker tempo than normal. And it’s a little too fast for Byrne to do the lyrics staccato like in the original version, so he has to syncopate – and what a difference it makes. The build-up to the “burning down the house!” is so much livelier – this time around it really sounds like a party (“Three hundred *pause* sixty-five degrees!”)! That little touch in tempo gels the song together so much more nicely and trades any sort of clinical feel the original might have had. The tom barrage that opens onto the main section of the song, the synthesizer solo, Byrne’s frenetic strumming – they all shine like they didn’t quite get a chance to originally.

2) Peter Gabriel – In Your Eyes (New Blood)

Admittedly, this was actually the first version of the song that I heard. My reverence for the original, however, didn’t get very far. Though the melody and rhythm are very strong in the original version, the production, synthesizers and drum machines really do sound dated, which I find very distracting when listening to it – more like I’m hearing a relic of the era rather than concentrating on the important parts. On the appropriately titled New Blood, Gabriel goes back and literally orchestrates some hits from his back catalogue, without any traditional rock instruments present. Immediately, the song is given more gravity as a myriad of strings pick up the melody and swell as the chorus is reached, while the lack of drums creates a sense of spontaneity and the impression of the song being moved by emotion more than anything. Being played with classical instrumentation puts more focus on the melody and at once adds a sense of timelessness to the song. That sense was richly deserved all along, but the context needed to be changed in order to appreciate it.

3) Across the Universe – The Beatles (Let It Be… Naked)

There have actually been three or four versions of this song released, but this has gotta be the one. A beautiful acoustic track by John Lennon with psychedelic lyrics, this is the one version unadorned by wildlife noises, children singing along, and Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” behind it, stuffing every imaginable instrument in the background behind John and his guitar and creating more and more distraction. I find very much that less is more in this instance and the vocals and guitar say all that there really is to say about this track and anything else seems like a frill for the sake of it – even in the other versions, the core of the song sets itself apart at a distance from the rest of the noises. There are also two different speeds to the song, and this one is the slower of them, which allows the song to breathe a lot more and allows you to appreciate the trippy lyrics.

4) Radiohead – Give up the Ghost (From the Basement)

This may be an odd choice, as I listen to both this and the original version with the same frequency, but, for me, this “live in studio” version of the song gets a little more feeling out of it, for one simple reason. The song is based around looped vocals, each of which is double tracked. Because this is being recorded live, Thom Yorke has to do each part twice – you can hear each brick being put into place as more and more layers are added, as well as an extended coda with a little extra ad libbing by Yorke. You also get to spend more time with the song’s hypnotic rhythm and almost mantra-like vocals. Like #3, it is stripped of its ambient sound effects and you’re left with the plain message of the repeated “don’t hurt me/don’t haunt me” that heightens the already raw sense of vulnerability in the song. There’s also something charming about Yorke’s self-effacing “please tell me that sounded alright” after the song comes to a stop.

5) Simon & Garfunkel – For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her (Live 1969)

In the duo’s most plain and beautiful love song, the curious choice was made on the studio version to double-track Art Garfunkel’s voice, rather than have Simon sing along as was usual. The problem is that the double-tracking gets a little loose at the climactic moments in the song and, while sounding smoother, I find actually hides the accuracy and beauty of Garfunkel’s voice in what is surely one of Paul Simon’s best melodies. In the live version, Garfunkel still goes it solo, but no effects are put on his voice whatsoever, as it gently and sensitively carries the melody and crescendoes beautifully with just the right amount of trill. It also sounds less hurried, as they would have become much more comfortable with the song playing on the road for three years than when debuting it on the album. This version ends with something I always thought was interesting to hear on live albums – pure applause without a single person’s voice interrupting it.

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