When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the post

For some reason this weekend I've thought of a whole slew of topics about which to write. I have three different drafts saved with ideas for future posts, involving science, secrets, SF, and also stupid artists.

But the one I'm going to write about today involves music, and musicians. Specifically, musicians playing other musicians music. Otherwise known as a cover song, it poses an interesting concept for the music fan.

I bought a bunch of cassette tapes, and today I'm dubbing some LPs and mp3s to tape, so that I may listen to them in my car, in which the CD player is broken, and only has a working deck. I'm using 90 minute tapes, which is perfect for one LP per side. The mp3s are much more flexible, but I'm taking the opportunity to dub collections of 7" singles, and various disparate recordings, so that I can have some ready made playlists available for my commute.

While it is perhaps to cliche to discuss the art of the mix tape after such romanticized popular culture depictions like High Fidelity, it certainly exists. You only have to listen to a poorly made tape or mix to figure it out. Although the skill necessary to punch clunky cassette deck buttons in the proper sequence is now retro-chic thanks to the ease of the CD-burn, (I remember when MiniDiscs were considered awesomely new), there are also levels to think about, the importance of track timing so that one does not record over leader strip at the beginning and end of a side, the difference between side A and side B (aesthetically), and of course, the always important placement of thematic tracks to segue the mood.

But maybe this is just an attempt for the music fan to consider him/herself half as artistic in the playing of the song as the artist that originally recorded it. A bit of idolization and repetition, perhaps. As my father and grandfather have said, the only thing they can play is the radio.

But what makes a musician attempt to play another musicians song? Of course, it is nothing new for an artist to record a song not written by him/herself; the singer/songwriter is a pretty new phenomenon in the history of recorded music. But to record a new version of a song that was already popularized by another artist... why? Maybe to gain some fame from the recording of a recognizable track. Surely hiphop and DJ remix genres have benefited from this aspect as much as anyone else, almost to the extent that it resembles the fan's mix tape. Oh, Will Smith likes Stevie Wonder? How artistic!

Not so long ago I wrote about Softcell's cover of Gloria Jones' original recording of "Tainted Love". While their version of the song has again been covered by many groups, I speculated that their cover had some historical significance because of the timeliness of their release during the outbreak of AIDS, as did the original release during a pivotal year in the fight for racial civil rights. This makes the cover very interesting, and evocative.

I think there are two main justifications for covering a song, and thereby deeming it a "good cover".

1- To try to play the song as well or better than the original recording, as an homage to the original.

An example of this is of all-cover bands. These are bands that like the original band enough to celebrate their music by forming a group solely devoted to playing that group's oeuvre. Whether or not they succeed or their attempts are even enjoyable, are up to the listener.

2- To try and artistically interpret the song, making one's own take on the song and thereby deepening the artistic value of the piece, or updating it for a new era/style.

Softcell's "Tainted Love" would fall into this category. Hiphop also scores big here, with samples from the soul era, or even covers of early rap like the numerous re-makes and re-hashings of Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick's "La Di Da Di".

While I was making some tapes, I thought about a particular manner of this song remaking, when the lyrics are changed ever so slightly. I think I noted in the post on Softcell how Gloria Jones' line, "I've given you all a girl can give," is changed by Marc Almond to "I've given you all a boy can give." Now, of course it would make more sense for Almond to say "boy" than "girl" because of his anatomy. But, as history would have it, it also gives a large amount of significance to the re-recording because of his sexuality, the sexuality depicted throughout the entire album, and the cultural links between all of these back in 1981.

When dubbing a copy of Siouxsie and the Banshee's 1978 album, The Scream, I was struck by their cover of "Helter Skelter". Of course, the sound is already quite different than the Beatles' original version, although it contains a lot of the same manic energy as the original, perhaps the sort of manic energy that would drive borderline psychotics like Charles Manson to predict the coming race-war apocalypse. (Conspiracy note: The Beatles come to America in 1964, the same year as Gloria Jones' "Tainted Love" was released.)

But anyway, the lyrics are all the same, except for the second time through the chorus, Siouxsie Sioux, rather than "You may be a lover but you ain't no dancer," sings "You may be a lover but you ain't no fucking dancer."

Now, what is the significance of this change in the song? Is it just part of the aesthetic of the punk movement, a big middle finger up in the air to the sort of people who liked the Beatles? But then why cover the song at all? Or is it that in 1978, ten years after the release of the White Album, things had not gotten better than 1968, but had gotten worse, so that this was not a whimsical reminisce of the "60s" but a rebirth of that manic energy that was somewhat, although perhaps in an un-dead sense, alive in those days?

Or maybe it's nothing but a coincidence. After all, Cake's cover of Gloria Gaynor's disco hit "I Will Survive" changes the lyric, "I would have changed that stupid lock," to "I would have changed my fucking lock." And I have no reason to find anything significant about that.

That's the thing about history and culture. Any significance is merely what you happen to find. And with that, I will go back to making significant progress in my mix tapes.

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