Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Covering Our Bases - The Beatles (Pt. 1)

I grew up on the Beatles. I'm one of those people. Terri Hemmert's Breakfast With The Beatles was the soundtrack driving to church every Sunday of my childhood. I have strong opinions on the Capitol stereo mixes and the remastered albums of 2009, I believe that all groups of four can be divided into Johns, Pauls, Georges and Ringos and I believe that the Beatles, if not invented, at least popularized and and helped define the modern rock band. From the expectation of constant exploration to the redefinitional self-titled album to the drug influences to the folk period to the... well everything, the Beatles template has defined rock as we know it. And you know what, I'm incredibly happy for that. Their musicianship, restlessness, reverence for tradition, humor and songwriting abilities have never been fully matched and are about the best legacy that rock could ask for.

It is with this in mind that On Warmer Music presents its first batch of Beatles covers. It is done adivisedly, given the fact that every shitty band since 1964 has, at some point or another, banged out a Beatles cover. These are songs that add something to the original, show us something new about the artist or otherwise stand out in some way. Enjoy!

I Want To Hold Your Hand - Al Green  Buy Soul Tribute To The Beatles.
If there's a better combination than Al Green's sweet soul falsetto with the Beatles' ultimate ode to bubble gum love, I haven't found it. This is a simple take on a seemingly simple song (until you try to learn the guitar chords for it, that is). The Reverend adds just enough jive asides and gospel strut to make the song all his own. Between the insistent drums and organ it's hard to remember that this was originally a nasally British invasion chart-topper. I found this on a "Soul Tribute" to the Beatles that's packed with unforgettable covers. From inspiration Fats Domino tackling "Lady Madonna" to the Supremes giving "Can't Buy Me Love" the girl group kick it always needed, it's a collection worth owning.

Both Frank Black and Joey Santiago have talked about being influenced by the Beatles at a young age and that influence shows up in odd places throughout the Pixies catalog. Indeed, you can see the ethos of The White Album in the Pixies willingness to try genre forays, simple songwriting and anything goes attitude. So it makes perfect sense that "Wild Honey Pie" was a live favorite for the band. Clearly Frank Black had learned much from the screaming on "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?" and the Pixies bracingly simple guitar assault was the perfect tool to turn a loping folk song on its head. The mixture worked perfectly in bringing out the hooks of the original. Not every band could do that, but, then again, not every band was the Pixies.

I had never heard of this song or the Wailing Souls until last year when I was packing all my worldly possessions into cardboard boxes and listening to Radio M on WBEZ. This song came on and immediately struck me as the perfect meld of psychedelic source material and spaced-out reggae interpreters. "Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream", never have I heard better advice before listening to a song. The original was trippy enough with its stoned, E-chord wisdom, there's no telling what you might find in this version.

John Lennon was mired deep in what he called his "fat Elvis period" during the recording and filming of the Help! movie/album. He was unhappy with his marriage, fatherhood, fame and life in general. Only a year earlier, he had told us that he wanted because "I want to be free" but it seemed that just the opposite had occurred - he'd become a prisoner in his own suburban house and Beatles persona. Heavily influenced by Dylan at this time, John originally planned "Help" to be an acoustic dirge, more a cry for help than a pop single. But commercial circumstances but the kibosh on that plan and up-tempo, exclamation pointed version was released instead. Howie Day's cover from the lovely I Am Sam Soundtrack has always been a favorite of mine for trying to capture the song as John wrote it and begs the question of what might have been.

That Ted Leo is a dub fiend should be no surprise to anyone whose heard his cover of "Many Rivers To Cross" or his remix of Spoon's "Don't You Evah" but I can't find a better example of him combining it with straight indie rock than in this cover from 2005's Rubber Soul tribute This Bird Has Flown. Leo himself plays all the instruments in this recording which starts with an off-putting echoplex'd riff followed by an equally difficult chicken scratch guitar. But it's the heavy, TCH-infused bass and manic drums that make this take what it is. I was originally sad that Leo abandoned the song's lovely folk-rock dynamics but repeated listens show that his re-imagining was inspired. By the time the static barrage hits and leaves just burbly bass in its wake the point has been made that Leo can dub-ify anything and God bless him for that.

It saddens me to see just how little love the Wall get as punk forbearers. John Peel may have been their last true booster but the Wall were dyed-in-the-wool English punks, as seen by their 1982 Day Tripper [EP]. The original was a garage rock classic, so it's no wonder that it became cover fodder for punks of the late 70's. It's a straightforward, thrashy take on the Beatles' original which doesn't exactly open up the song but never fails to make me smile, thus it makes the list.

The original "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" may have started as a lark inspired by an unfortunately worded NRA poster, but it ended up being nothing less than a pocket history of pop rock up to 1968. Encompassing doo wop, rock, soul, R&B and folk in short order with time signature changes and dynamic shifts to beat the band, Lennon shows off his songwriting chops in the original. Kim Deals' Breeders version is a rather lo-fi basic affair that focuses on the seething anger beneath the lyrics of the original. Starting with the sound of striking lighters it zeroes in on the percussive loud-quiet dynamics that favor scratchy guitars and menacing bass that the Deals sisters and the rest of the Breeders supply in abundance. By the time the "mother superior" breakdown has passed and all that's left is feedback and Kelly Deals' breathy vocals you'll be seeing this song in a new light.

I Wanna Be Your Man - The Rolling Stones  Buy Singles Collection: The London Years.
It's hard to believe that the Stones (the Rolling fucking Stones!) started as just another English rock band in the shadow of the Beatles. This song was given to Stones by the Beatles as an act of goodwill in early 1964 and they made it into a menacing dance hit worlds away from the version that would appear on With The Beatles. In fact, the Decca Singles collection from their 60's years is a fascinating buy for Stones fans that shows their myriad influences, roads not taken and 60's dilettantism in ways not seen anywhere in their full-length catalogue.

And Your Bird Can Sing - The Jam  Buy Sound Affects: Deluxe Edition.
During the Jam's classic run in the late 70's and early 80's it never strayed far from the holy mod triumvirate of the Who, the Kinks and the mid-period Beatles and it shows. The expanded version of their standout LP Sound Affects shows that heritage clearly with studio takes of mid-60's invasion songs in abudance. I highlight this cover because it's of a song that always seemed to pass unnoticed on Revolver. "And Your Bird Can Sing" is vintage guitar pop-rock from John at its most instrumentally inspired and lyrically nonsensical. Stuck in the middle of a bold album it fails to stand out, but on its own it shows that the Beatles could pack more genius into a seemingly throwaway song than most people could create in three lifetimes. Paul Weller ensured that that spirit didn't die after the 60's and the inspiration he drew from that sound speaks for itself.

For No One - Elliott Smith  Buy Either/Or.
There's nothing much that you can say about this cover. Elliott Smith loved sixties rock and covered songs from the era freely. "For No One" is a brilliant piece of baroque chamber pop that distilled the breakup experience into three minutes. The album version was dressed up in weepy strings and harpsichord but was still a brilliant encapsulation of the post-relationship experience that would never be bettered by McCartney. This cover is just Smith and his guitar paying homage to that memory and skill with a basic six-string. It shows where the songwriter got his inspiration and learned his craft. Is it wrong that this breakup song makes me smile?

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