Thursday, 18 February 2010

When Musical Worlds Collide #5

There has been a bit of a fuss recently because Mary J Blige has recorded a cover of Stairway To Heaven. (See for example Circle of Fits - where Seano is clearly a bit miffed, so his language is not entirely safe for work!) To be fair to MJB, she did recruit a few people for the recording that ought to have been able to bring some rock kudos to the project, however, I haven't heard her version yet, so I will reserve judgement... while fearing the worst.

As a result of reporting the news of Mary's meddling with a classic, a couple of sites have compiled a list of rock crossover projects that I'm going to plunder for this post. :-) Unlike previous When Musical Worlds Collide posts, this one will feature collisions that I am far from impressed with!

First, Classic Rock magazine had a news item titled: Ten Pop/Rock Crossovers That Worked – Or Didn’t! However, from their comments, it is clear that they think most didn't! Honourable mentions are given to Michael Jackson and Eddie Van Halen on Beat It. However they are less than impressed with Metallica and Mariah Carey.

Next Rock Radio had two items counting down the ten worst cover versions: Worst-Ever Cover Versions 1-5 and Worst-Ever Cover Versions 6-10. Of the ten they list, I'd like to offer the following two as the worst of the worst covers. First is Shakira's Back in Black:

Stunning isn't it? She is completely incomprehensible at times and why she is prancing about barefoot isn't entirely clear. I especially like the bit where she shouts "Everybody..." at her bemused audience.

I have a long standing problem with Celine Dion. I once complained to a music store about the way they organised their CDs. I told them in no uncertain terms that I do not consider Celine Dion to be Easy Listening. (Thanks to Arnold Brown for this joke!) It is almost too easy therefore to dislike Celine Dion's version of You Shook Me All Night Long:

The air guitar at the start and the attempt at a duck walk are utterly cringeworthy.

However, don't get me wrong. If a song is good, it should be able to cope with people covering it in unusual ways. If an artist tries to bring something different to a cover, drawing on their strengths rather than trying to copy the original, it can work. That's why I particularly dislike the two shown above. They make the mistake of trying to rock it up like AC/DC instead of doing what they do best (what ever that may be). Therefore, I disagree with at least one of the covers on Rock Radio list:

I think Tori Amos has at least tried to do something different with the track - to do it in her style rather than Nirvana's. And I'm in two minds about Westlife doing More Than Words. It's not my cup of tea at all but they've done with it what Westlife do - they've made it safe and mum friendly.

In conclusion, I think we rock fans can get a bit precious about things. I don't believe that Stairway to Heaven is such a classic that it should never be touched. As long as the person covering it brings something new and interesting to the table, I don't see why they shouldn't give it a go. As Exhibit A, I offer you Rodrigo y Gabriela:

And as Exhibit B, Rolf Harris:

"All together now..." :-)

  1. What, in your opinion, are the best and worst rock cover versions ever?
  2. Am I wrong about Stairway To Heaven? Should it remain untouched?


Royston Eco-committee said...

Funny u mention more than words was looking at the vinyl of it last night!!! Westlife doing more than words is a no no they ruined a great song for me.

David said...

Hello Ms Eco Committee

Westlife? Really? I thought that was bland rather than offensive. ...Or is it the blandness that offends?

Thanks for adding a comment. I thought this post might have generated more feedback (See what I did there?) For example, I'm surprised I haven't had some irate purists complaining about Rolf's rendition of Stairway yet. Maybe they just need time to work up a full head of steam. :-)

Anonymous said...

def has to be the blandness and just really the fact they are a boy band. (and im a big extreme fan have been for nearly 20 years now) Stairway well hey reminds me of Waynes world in the music store when hes trying out the guitar "Stairway denied" im sure they will complain i kept my rant to a minimum could go on for days re state of music today!!! however mabe that could be another post for you

calmsea said...

Dolly Parton's Bluegrass version of Stairway is superb. And then DJ Earworm used it in a fascinating mashup available here:
Or how about Aztec Camera doing Jump by Van Halen ( You have to stick with it until the end - well worth it.
Icicle Works used to do a a cool version of Into the Mystic and often did Rock'n'Roll as an encore.
So I don't think anything is out of bounds.

Mosher said...

I was going to name two culprits, but they're both on the top ten you linked to.

Madonna should have been summarily separated from her vocal chords for the absolute heap of audio dung that was her cover of American Pie. Don McLean would be spinning in his grave if he was dead.

And Under the Bridge by All Saints. Simply: why? Not "wny did they do it", but "why did someone think it was a good idea to inflict that on the innocent public?"

David said...

I'm glad to see that I'm not alone in thinking no song is sacrosanct. However, the number of poor efforts shows just how hard it is to improve on a classic.

Sean Coleman said...

Going way back now, but the idea of learning a melody and journeying off (instrument in tow) to another town to unveil it to a brand new audience is part of the Celtic/folk tradition. Some songs go so far back that it's tough to trace the source/authors.

There's definitely no problem getting the word out in the digital age. When it comes down to those brave souls that attempt to cover material that was originally produced in the golden age of popular music (1964-71) you can only wish them luck.

It becomes a touchy subject because of the emotional investment that many have in these tunes. When an obvious pretender steps up and mangles one of these songs, all I generally think is: What is the point? A poor, out of focus Poloroid snapshot of the Mona Lisa is no substitute for the genuine article.

You can peel another layer off of the onion and stand in the shoes of a classical or jazz enthusiast. The merits of Sweet Home Alabama and Kid Rock's twist on it both seem like a bad joke when stacked up against Bach's Goldberg Variations.

Wine and grape juice.

I think that a sense of innovation is the true measure of any really decent cover version. Some of the bluegrass takes on classic rock selections have been great. William Shatner over-emoting his way through Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is just pure entertainment.

My personal favorite? Jeff Buckley's version of Hallelujah.

That being said, there are some creations that are definitive and can't be improved upon.

Excellent blog, sir. All apologies for running long with my comments.

David said...

Hello Mr Coleman

No apologies for long reply necessary. Good points well made.

I agree about the importance of innovation and the analogy of the Mona Lisa and a Poloroid is good. I'm still not sure though that some tracks are so good that they can't be "improved upon". Partly it will depend upon the ear of the beholder. Deciding what's best when it comes down to music is, at least in part, subjective. I think therefore that you are right to talk about "emotional investment" in songs. I suspect it's the individual's emotional investment in a song that makes it sacrosanct rather than something that's intrinsic to the song/recording itself.