My friend Rex has been indulging in an incredibly ambitious (and largely successful) project: every day between his 39th and 40th birthdays (he’s a little more than two months in right now), Rex records a randomly chosen cover song. If you haven’t discovered his 39-40 blog yet, please do check it out.
Along the way, Rex asked for collaborators. I volunteered…and rather than get a mostly finished song to which I could add backing vocals or keyboards, etc., I merely got the original song and a note from Rex saying “do what you want with this.”
I was a bit intimidated to discover that the song was Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.” No obscure little number for me; no, I end up with a very well-known song, one that’s been covered many times over. Plus, it’s jazz…and I can’t play jazz for doodly. What to do?
As it turned out, the ghost of Billie Holiday dragged me off to a Detroit garage and threatened to kick my ass unless I messed her song around but good. You don’t argue with Billie Holiday’s ghost. Anyway: first thing I had to do was de-jazzify the chords. Actually, for a jazz standard the changes are fairly pop: lots of major sevenths and nothing too complex, harmonically. But still: who ever heard of a major seventh chord in a garage-rock number? And the turnaround back to the root chord on the chorus: way too jazz-pop for garage rock… So I bashed away for a while, simplifying things while still trying to preserve some flavor of the original chord sequence. At one point I had a sort of cool sequence of ninth chords (C-shaped and traveling up the neck) but…too tricksy for the garage, I thought.
At this point I e-mailed Rex saying that I had some ideas…things were evolving a bit, and while I started solely in the garage, some other flavors started seeming compatible – and I remember saying to Rex that I was sort of thinking of the MC5 meets the Byrds (because if nothing else, I wanted to give rock critics a nice hook to hang themselves on). I also mentioned saying it’d be nice if Rex added an electric 12-string solo, since I didn’t have such an instrument. While Rex says he doesn’t remember my MC5/Byrds comment, in fact, what he ultimately came up with (at his blog, here) is pretty much what I was thinking of when I made that comment.
Of course, after I made that remark, I kind of forgot about it…and the sunny drive down Laurel Canyon to Sunset to the Troubadour kind of left my head, and I proceeded to smear motor oil and grease all over the track. Naturally, even after I sent off the not-quite-complete track to Rex (a big space for a solo, which he indeed did fill with an electric 12-string), I kept having ideas…and they all had to do with louder and distorteder and noisier. And what to do with that space for the solo? Cheap organ – with (yes!) distortion!
So now there are two versions of my cover of “God Bless the Child.” There’s the version featuring Rex’s guitars, vocals, and production, and then there’s my version. You could call them the LA Mix and the Rust Belt Mix, if you’d like.
A couple items of note about this recording (and my contributions to Rex’s): on this recording I discovered Logic Express’s “amp modeling” feature…which is really nice, in that it all but obviates any need on my part to own an electric guitar or bass. (The guitars you hear are just my humble li’l acoustic, and the bass is a keyboard…but I tried, in both cases, to get an authentically nasty electric guitar/electric bass noise from them.) And then there’s the vocal: Another ghost showed up, in this case that of Elvis, who said to me, “Son, you know a bathroom makes a mighty fine vocal recording booth,” and so I set up my lonely little mic a good three feet from me in our bathroom with its stone tile floors and large glass shower enclosure…and then I shouted my way through the vocal. I’ve never tried singing like that before, and in case it wasn’t noisy enough, I then slathered some more distortion on top, getting a nice “Captain Beefheart blowing out the microphone” effect at a couple of points. It ain’t pretty or nice, and audio engineers are probably having heart attacks hearing it – but I think it does the job.
For some reason I ended up quoting not one but two classic late-seventies/early-eighties British bands’ basslines…the parts originally were just a bit close, and then I said, to hell with it, and quoted directly. You may spot a bit of bassline nicked from “Party Girl” by Elvis Costello & the Attractions, and another part cribbed from “Millions” by XTC. And then, after the whole thing was done, I realized that, amusingly, there’d been a subconscious influence from a nearly completely different universe: the chord sequence leading in to the solo, and the modulation of the solo itself, is the same as in “Over the Hills and Far Away” by Led Zeppelin…and listening to the rhythm guitar part, I can tell now that part of my brain was thinking of that similarity…
Also cool to note that without really thinking that hard about it, I found a way in to the lyric: I wouldn’t have thought, beforehand, that the lyrics lent themselves so well to a garage-rock song…but you know what? They do.
Monkey Typing Pool feat. Rex Broome “God Bless the Child” LA Mix (at Rex’s 39-40 blog)