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July 21, 2005

Cover versions

Posted by Phil on July 21, 2005 10:55 AM

Paul Anka's Rock Swings coincidentally arrived at both Mike's and my houses yesterday. (In my case, Cindy brought it home, which has made for a nice addendum to a dispute we've been having about Bobby Darin, my criticism of whom is between the lines here.)

Once upon a time, I would have disliked Anka's album for the obvious reason, but now, for some or all of the reasons Mike mentions, I actually like jazz, swing, and classic pop. Like Mr. Burns said, "I don't know about art, but I know what I hate," and while I don't hate this, don't have an argument with Mike's take on it, and even enjoyed it at points, I've got some ideological beefs with it.

I think there's an antiquated (or maybe just non-transferable) attitude to it that isn't in Anka's style so much as the show-business notion that any era's "great songs" become "standards" that all "singers" ought to do. That was true in the era of professional songwriters who excelled at crafting evocations of emotions everybody has, and it's true of some of the more pure-pop or show-biz tunes ("The Love Cats," "Jump") on Anka's record.

But the personal nature of rock music is what often makes efforts like this alternately ridiculous or maudlin. After Dylan and the Beatles, more and more performers (in rock, anyway) wrote their own songs, but jazz/pop performers went right on covering them just like they'd always done, trying to get hit songs with songs that were already hits. It was what you did! But you and I know that something had changed, which is why there are so many unintentional gag records from the '60s and '70s of sad old has-beens trying to sing rock songs. Songs didn't become "standards" anymore, and swapping them around outside their genre didn't work. The problem wasn't simply that the singers weren't down with the style (although there was that), but that they didn't have any business covering them at all.

Every singer ought to take a crack at "All of Me," but "Eleanor Rigby" loses its stark pathos if anyone else sings it--unless it's another artist who understands its home idiom and either makes an equal commitment to the emotion, or reinvents it--thus turning it into another personal statement (even if that's a sarcastic joke). But some cat who just digs that bittersweet melody...no. He should stick to "Send in the Clowns."

Or some other Beatles song, because it's not true of all of them, or of all rock music, but when it doesn't translate, it's because it's dead serious and personal in a way that only adolescents who have no objectivity and no perspective can be. Which is why "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Paul Anka can only ever be an unintentionally schmaltzy joke, and it's why he really didn't oughta cover "Tears in Heaven" or "Everybody Hurts," either. I don't even like those songs, but those are personal statements, not merely "great tunes," and what makes a great rock song isn't only in the melody or the lyrics (which are often meaningless) but in the timbre of the voice of the person whose emotional message it is.

"Wonderwall" might be the best example of a bullshit song with nonsense lyrics (by an asshole band) that will forever resist earnest attempts to cover it in any other idiom, because it's serious, teenage nonsense. I don't like that song, either, but when Liam (or is it Noel?) Gallagher's voice strains, "I don't be-LIEVE that ANY-body FEELS the way I do...," he's conveying something--several things, in fact--that Paul Anka, singing just the notes, never will. Which is why his record, for me, mostly fails to be sublime in any of the overlapping and sometimes contradictory ways that Mike notes so-called lounge music, whether truly old or merely retro, can be.

Maybe it's that there's more to choosing what songs to cover than people of the pre-rock generation seem to grasp, with their more superficial analysis of melody and lyric, and their failure to understand, let alone make, the kind of emotional commitment rock music requires. Ironic post-boomer performers (as perhaps on Prozak for Lovers) will seldom make a misstep similar to Anka's, because they get it. They'll either pick the right song, or do the wrong song the right way. (I once wanted to do a ska version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and have Mike play a trombone solo.) And if Paul Anka wanted to come out struttin' like some show-biz ham and sing more songs like "Jump" or let the mockery rip on some joke covers, he could knock himself out. But, no, he takes himself seriously, with his serious photos and serious musical statements, which makes him every bit the anachronism he's trying not to be.

Paul Anka let Sid Vicious cover "My Way," and he got that the guitars sure were different, but he didn't understand why it worked. Sid wasn't saying, "I did it my way," he was saying, "FUCK YOUR WAY!" In his blindered hubris, Paul Anka just thought Sid was complimenting him on the great tune.


all this for Paul Anka?

Last year sitting on some old bleachers in a cattle barn at the Davis County Fairgrounds I heard a 20 something girl with pink hair belt out "Little Maggie" with such purity and passion that it gave me funny feelings in my knee-caps. I first heard the Stanley Brothers do the song. Did one of the Stanley brothers write the song? Dunno. Don't care. All I know is that I love it when I hear the Stanley Brothers do it, but I really love it when I hear it being performed live by great musicians.

Bet I'd like that Anka album.

Posted by: thp at July 21, 2005 5:27 PM