Serious musicians often think that only original work matters. They should try redoing other people’s songs for a changeby Nick Crowe / January 26, 2011 / Leave a comment
Cover me: US artist Beck and his collaborators are remaking music
The pop cover version is so common in entertainment culture, and on the whole so badly executed, that many consider it a necessary evil, like costume drama or Kentucky Fried Chicken. As the shrewd performer knows, the success of a cover version—the performance or release of a song previously recorded by another artist—is down to approach, of which there are many.
Some take the most obvious course and mimic the original, instrument by instrument, note by note, haircut by haircut. Tribute acts like Fake That, My Winehouse and Coldplace are guilty of such reverence. Others prefer orchestral interpretation: Mantovani, Acker Bilk, and the entire easy listening genre work from this premise. More intrepid souls translate material into exotic musical languages, like in the Easy Star All-Stars’ reggae tribute to Pink Floyd, Dub Side of the Moon.
Popular at the moment is something that could be called the middle way (never a good strategy as far as music is concerned). Contestants on television shows such as The X Factor, and YouTube hopefuls are users, commingling the latter three methods with so much hubris that the song ceases to be of interest. Perhaps the most worthy approach, though, is the use of the cover version to honour the dead or semi-retired. Aerosmith recently performed part of Abbey Road before Paul McCartney at a yawn-filled award ceremony in Washington DC.
A final approach, however, encouraged by the American solo artist and producer Beck Hansen, has trumped all former methods. For the past 18 months, Beck has been inviting musicians to join his Record Club, held at Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood. On arrival, guests agree on an album to cover and remake it in a single day. There are little or no rehearsals. At their disposal are guitars, drums, keyboards, samplers: the gamut of sound. Tracks are released week by week on the club’s website (all tracks are available on beck.com/recordclub, and a compilation of the most popular tracks is promised soon).
Record Club’s approach is clear from the outset: “The album chosen to be reinterpreted is used as a framework… There is no intention to ‘add’ to the original work or attempt to recreate the power of the original recording.” In other words there are no expectations—one is faithful not to the original song, nor to the arrangement, but to oneself.…