07 November, 2005

Cover story

Watching the repeat of A Concert For George on BBC4 last week, it was telling how many of the erstwhile (and now permanently) Quiet One's songs sounded vastly superior to the original versions. In fact, all of them did. Whether it was Billy Preston throwing himself into 'My Sweet Lord', Eric Clapton trilling 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' or Paul McCartney crooning 'All Things Must Pass', in every case the tribute was better than the version recorded by its creator. He may have been a decent songwriter (from 'Taxman' onwards), but George Harrison was certainly no singer. And given he didn't even play the most convincing guitar solos to feature on Beatles records - 'Taxman', 'Sgt Pepper', 'Good Morning Good Morning', 'Get Back' - he wasn't that much cop as an instrumentalist either. A documentary about the Concert For Bangladesh which followed on BBC4 straight afterwards certainly proved as much, with endless shots of Harrison weedily yelping into a microphone while prodding haplessly at his guitar.

It's very rare, of course, for cover versions to so exceed their antecedents. Most times they barely parallel the original by way of imagination or invention. A recent example was Oasis's butchering of The Jam's 'Carnation': not a song it's easy to screw up, given there's not much you can do with it, but Messrs Gallagher and Gallagher did their best, which as usual meant doing their worst, and accordingly Liam bellowed his way through the tender lyric, his voice never varying in tone from that of a fishmonger desperately trying to flog his wares ten minutes before closing.

It was back in 1994 that both the perils and possibilities of cover versions were brought home to me when it was decided to stage a gig at school entirely comprising other people's work. This was my last year at school, and while tradition dictated there had to be some kind of rock gig every summer, this time round nobody seemed prepared to say it had to be a proper one, i.e. any good. An unusually profligate number of prototype groups were jostling for recognition and acclaim in 1994, and presumably to create some kind of level playing field a covers-only policy was introduced. I was supposed to be taking part, in an ad hoc ensemble comprising me, my best friend and a couple of mutual acquaintances. We even did a couple of rehearsals. A curious chain of events then led to us pulling out, however, when word filtered along the 6th form grapevine that a rival group were intending to "sabotage" our performance. Such lamentably outrageous hearsay was grist to our headstrong teenage sentiments. Nobody was going to screw up our act, we concluded. We're better off out of it. Let them make fools of themselves. Which of course is precisely what happened (though I'm hardly likely to claim otherwise).

Anyway, what transpired was as much of an education in how not to do cover versions as you could possibly want. One band was called The Outcasts. They chose this name in the belief it satirically drew attention to the fact nobody liked them. In reality it compounded everybody's estimation of them as being unlamented half-arsed idiots. The lead guitarist took to the stage with a broken foot, and proceeded to do the set sitting in a plastic chair. The drummer lost his sticks. The third stood glumly behind a tiny bank of keyboards. They did three songs: 'The Road To Hell', 'Wonderful Tonight' and 'Money For Nothing'. Everything that is great and fun and exciting about pop music was efficiently and mercilessly driven from the vicinity, never to return. Fortunately, neither did The Outcasts.

The other band of note were called (prepare to wince) The Architects Of Smile. A bizarre conglomerate of an ace drummer, an equally ace bassist, an appalling trumpeter who wore Buddy Holly glasses, a violinist who was sleeping with the guitarist, and a vocalist who was the trumpeter's brother, they went on to fuck up 'Brown Sugar' by not playing the riff (how is it possible to make such a decision?), ruin 'Creep' by shouting all the vocals, invite not riot but ridicule from a cartoon recital of 'Killing In The Name Of', and perpetrate a Salvation Army-esque reading of 'Hard To Handle'. My best mate had fled the venue (the school hall) by this point, leaving me to stand almost completely alone with only two teachers and a female acquaintance for company. We didn't applaud.

In retrospect it was clear the whole thing was doomed from the outset. What were we to know, at just 18 years old, about interpreting the classics? Me and my friend had deliberately goaded the bespectacled trumpet-wielder a few days before by pretending to "rehearse" 'Brown Sugar' ourselves in one of the school music rooms, knowing our rival was next door and was sure to come bursting in waving his arms around like a girl. Sure enough he did, wailing that we couldn't do that number as it was "his song". But of course it was no more his than ours. Being able to amateurishly recite songs is one thing. Being able to properly perform them is quite another.

George Harrison couldn't even do the first of these two feats. John Lennon was a decent singer, but an acutely inconsistent songwriter. Macca was the only all-rounder. But when was the last time you heard someone trying to cover something as beautiful as 'Fixing A Hole'?


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