One thing that’s intriguing to me is which songs make viable choices for cover songs…and which don’t. Some of the latter are obvious: covering John Lennon’s “Oh Yoko!” would be pretty much inconceivable…unless the person covering it was also in love with a woman named Yoko, I suppose.
Here are two songs that prove difficult to cover, or at least, cover versions that are lacking in some way. Beginning with the “really not too bad – I’d probably like it better if I didn’t know the original” is A Camp’s version of Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging.” (Here’s the video for Bowie’s original.) Bowie’s songs are often arranged and recorded very distinctively: this song suffers from lacking the “Bjorn Borg” bass sound (that term courtesy XTC’s Andy Partridge) and the tweezed organ backdrop…but what it misses the most is Adrian Belew’s insane guitar solo. Whoever plays the solo in A Camp’s version heroically tries to emulate Belew’s enraged rhino solo…but it falls short. (I’m even less certain about the Very Nice little keyboard solo that follows.) I do like the way the piano part is primarily one note, regardless of the underlying chord. If I didn’t know Bowie’s song, I’d like this a lot. Bowie’s song is not only a song, however, but a recording, a particular arrangement of a particular set of sounds – and in this case that set seems somehow integral to the song, not incidental.
A different problem confronts Welcome Wagon in their cover of the Smiths’ “Half a Person.” Morrissey’s persona is so strongly a part of the vocal delivery of this song in the Smiths’ version (here’s a “video” of the original), it’s hard for any other singer to pull off. But giving this song to a female vocalist (or most of the song, anyway) seems odd: it robs the chorus (and Morrissey’s enjambment of the abbreviation “Y…WCA”) of its gendered humor, and nearly eliminates the suggestion behind his “backscrubber.” (Of course, Morrissey was still playing is “is he or isn’t he?” sexual orientation game at this stage in his career…like a classic actor, no matter what role his characters might have seemed to be playing, they were all variations on the “Morrissey” character. Incidentally: has any other singer emerged from pretty much nowhere with such a fully formed persona…one which has been largely preserved throughout a career? I can’t think of any…) It wouldn’t have to – but the singer doesn’t seem to want to pursue any implications of the altered gender of the vocalist. And the call-and-response backing vocals are deeply annoying – after one or two lines, they’re like a bratty six-year-old repeating everything one says. The entire arrangement seems nearly witless: I can’t discern the reasoning behind almost all of the band’s decisions here. And I’m not even sure I’d call this a top-level Smiths song.
(Apparently I’m hard to please where Smiths covers are concerned…judging from my entry a few months back on a cover of “Reel Around the Fountain” (which I like better now than I did then…). Then again, I like Radiohead’s version of “The Headmaster Ritual” – but that one’s a little less dependent upon a narrative persona.)
A Camp “Boys Keep Swinging” (b-side “Love Has Left the Room” 2009)
Welcome Wagon “Half a Person” (Welcome to the Welcome Wagon, 2008)