Friday, May 11, 2007

Strange Cover Songs

By now I would say that if someone has not heard of Alanis Morissette's cover of The Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps" that they have either been living under a rock for the past month and a half or they simply don't have internet access. For those of you have neither seen the video (now one of the all time most popular videos on YouTube) nor heard the song, Morissette has given "My Humps" the full Morissette treatment. Her version of the song is downbeat and moody, complete with Morissette's usual, angst filled, soulful vocals. The video, in which Morissette dresses up like Fergie of The Black Eyed Peas and beats up men trying to touch, well, her humps, is a work of low budget genius. No one quite knows why Morissette covered "My Humps." Some think that it was meant as an ironic attack on modern popular music and the inanity of some of the lyrics (and, quite frankly, "My Humps" is about as inane as one can get). Others believe that it was a parody of her own tendency to perform covers of songs. Yet others believe that it was simply an April Fool's joke--given that it was released on April 1, this is a possibility. Regardless, Morissette's version does point out the inherent weaknesses of a song that repeats the words "my humps" 55 times and which is essentially a song about a woman's breasts...

Regardless, Alanis Morissette's version of "My Humps" is not the first strange remake of a song. And it probably won't be the last. In fact, rock music has a long history of artists taking songs and turning them into something else entirely. The first off kilter cover version of a song of which I became aware was "The Locomotion" by Grand Funk. Originally a dance hit released by Little Eva, Grand Funk turned it into, well, a hard rock dance hit.

A far stranger cover was "Love Hurts" by Nazareth, from their album Hair of the Dog. The song was originally recorded by the Everly Brothers and later by Roy Orbison (it was the B-side of "Running Scared"). The original Everly Brothers version is gentle and soft, a bit slower paced than some of their better known songs (such as "Wake Up, Little Suzy"). Roy Orbison performed "Love Hurts" as more of a novelty, an unusual choice for a man known for his ballads. But Nazareth turned "Love Hurts" into one of the earliest power ballads, packing it with a sense of tragedy not present in any of the earlier versions. Ironically, it would be Nazareth's version that would become the best known.

Aerosmith worked a similar transformation, in some ways more drastic, on "Remember (Walking in the Sand)." The original was the debut hit of the girl group The Shangri-Las, released in 1964. The song relates how a girl is parted from her beloved, only to receive a letter from him two years later telling her he has found someone new. The song, already tragic, was performed as a heavy metal ballad by Aerosmith on their album Night in the Ruts and was somehow made even more tragic. Quite simply, they changed the line from The Shangri-Las version, "Oh, what will happen to/The life I gave to you..." to "Oh, whatever happened to/that night I gave it to you..." I always interpreted this to mean that he gave her a ring, as in an engagement ring. In other words, he not only lost the woman he loved, but his betrothed as well.

I must admit that it seems to me that songs by female vocalists have always been ripe for strange cover versions. In 1980 Dave Stewart (not to be confused with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame) and Barbara Gaskin recorded a synth pop version of "It's My Party." The original song was released in 1963 and performed by Lesley Gore. For their version, Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin slowed down the tempo and relied heavily on keyboards. The result would be a song that is somehow even more depressing than the original. Of course, that other Dave Stewart (the one of Eurythmics fame) would also be involved in a cover originally performed by a female artist. The Tourists, the group Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox were with before Eurythmics, remade "I Only Want to Be With You." The Tourists' version isn't really too far off from the Dusty Springfiend original (released in 1963 as her debut, solo single, and a pre-Beatles British song that broke the American top forty). That having been said, they did make the song harder and added synthesisers (for which Eurythmics would later become famous).

At least Barbara Gaskin and Annie Lennox are female. As in the case of Aerosmith's remake of "Remember (Walking in the Sand)," when a song originally performed by a woman is remade by men, it is going to be drastically different. A case in point is The Crystals hit, "Then He Kissed Me," remade by KISS as "Then She Kissed Me" for their album Love Gun. They took a song that was typical of girl groups of the early to mid Sixties and turned it into a heavy metal song. For their 1989 album The Adventures of Women & Men Without Hate in the 21st Century, Canadian band Men Without Hats covered the ABBA song "S.O.S.," turning it into a post apocalyptic love song. Of course, even that wasn't as drastic as the changes that have been wrought on "Hit Me Baby One More Time," the debut hit of Britney Spears. The song was remade in 2000 by Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa, the sons of the late Frank Zappa, for the movie Ready to Rumble. The Zappa brothers took what was essentially a teenybopper dance song and turned it into a guitar driven, Electronic ballad. Powerpop band Fountains of Wayne would also remake "Hit Me Baby One More Time," releasing it on their album Out of State Plates. Like the Zappas, Fountains of Wayne makes the song guitar driven, essentially a powerpop ballad with sense of tragedy that the original lacked. Denton, Texas band Bowling for Soup also remade "Hit Me Baby One More Time," turning into a guitar driven hard rock tune (almost heavy metal). At any rate, all of these versions are superior to the original. Indeed, before these two cover versions, I didn't even know that the song had stanzas!

Britney wasn't alone in having her hits changed into something else entirely. Madonna has seen her songs remade as well. "Like a Prayer" has been covered no less than three times. Tori Amos performed it live, transforming it into a ballad (it was released on her Live Bootlegs). Amos' version was nothing compared to a punk version released by H20, which sped up the tempo and added lots of guitar. Of course, even H20's version pales beside that of the German electro-industrial band Bigod 20. They somehow made the old Madonna song sound menacing and absolutely creepy. Their version has become something of a cult hit.

Of course, as strange as songs originally made by female artists being twisted into something else by male artists may be, stranger things can happen when there is a complete change of genre. To wit, odd things happen when disco becomes heavy metal or hard rock. "I Will Survive" was originally a disco hit for Gloria Gaynor in 1979. Even then, it was unusual for a disco song in dealing with the more serious subject of surviving a bad relationship. In 1996 on their album Fashion Nugget, Cake turned the song into something else entirely. They took a relatively upbeat disco song, and turned it into a slower, hard rock song complete with the "F" word. That change was mild compared to what White Zombie did to "I'm Your Boogieman" on The Crow City of Angels soundtrack (later released on their EP Supersexy Swingin' Sounds). The original version was released by KC and the Sunshine Band. And like every other KC and the Sunshine Band, I hated it. Somehow White Zombie took this song and turned it into a very good heavy metal song. It actually received a Grammy nomination for Best Heavy Metal Performance.

Heavy metal bands just don't change disco songs when they remake them. Early in their career Judas Priest took two songs and heavy metalised them. One was "Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown)." The original had been written by Peter Green and released by Fleetwood Mac back in 1970. It was released in the UK as a single, reaching #10 on the charts. Surprisingly, the Judas Priest cover version wasn't really that far from the original. Oh, it was harder, but the original had been fairly hard to begin with. Regardless, many believe that Judas Priest originally made the song, being unaware of the Fleetwood Mac original. On the other hand, Judas Priest wrought some big changes on Joan Baez's "Diamonds and Rust." The original was a folk-styled song (as might be expected), inspired by Bob Dylan. Judas Priest took the song and turned it into sheer heavy metal, speeding up and making it entirely guitar driven. It was on their 1977 album Sin After Sin.

There have been other unusual remakes over the years. Goth band Type O Negative made Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl" even harder and turned the Seals and Crofts folk rock song "Summer Breeze" into a something that sounds, well, menacing. Industrial band Godhead made an industrial version of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby." Soundgaden remade, of all things, Devo's "Girl U Want." Hair metal band Kik Tracee (which has been totally forgotten these days) made a hair band version of Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson." The Dickies sped up "She" by The Monkees and punked it out (quite frankly, I prefer the original). The Who turned "Summertime Blues" into proto-metal.

If there is one group, however, that is most famous for their bizarre cover versions than their original, it is probably Slovenian industrial band Laibach. They took "Life is Life," a happy, upbeat, reggae type song by Austrian arena band Opus, and turned it into a Wagnerian anthem. They took Queen's "One Vision," a song that is already bigger than life, and made it even bigger than life as "Geburt einer Nation." They turned Eighties, Swedish, hair metal band Europe's song "The Final Countdown" into a Wagnerian opus with a disco beat. They remade all of The Beatles' album Let It Be, save for the title track and "Maggie Mae," complete with marching rhythms and choirs. I am convinced that Laibach is not content to let any song remain the same. I'd hate to see what they would do with "It's My Party..."

I doubt that cover versions that depart dramatically from the original songs will ever go away soon. In fact, given that so many times (as in the case of White Zombie's "I'm Your Boogieman" and the three rock remakes of "Hit Me Baby One More Time") the remakes are far superior to the originals, I don't think I would want them to. I rather suspect that in the next several years, we will see more strange cover songs, and some of them will be even stranger than Alanis Morissette's version of "My Humps."


poppedculture said...

Great list - there are a few I will have to track down. I am partial to The Flaming Lips cover of Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out Of My Head." They slow it way down.

Teenage Fanclub's version of "Like a Virgin," from the Threesome soundtrack is well worth a listen too.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I'll definitely have to check out Teenage Fanclub's remake of "Like a Virgin." I haven't heard Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out of My Head", but anything by The Flaming Lips is worth checking out!

Unknown said...

Extreme Metal band Celtic Frost did a great cover of Wall of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio" in 1987 on the album "Into the Pandemonium" - they liked it so much they did a second version of it on their next album "Cold Lake"