Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Kicking The Tyres: The Risks Of Buying Retreads

What does a rock star do when he's run out of ideas? When writer's block or contractual obligations hinder creativity, your average legend falls back on the dreaded covers album, explained blandly as: "It's been something I've been wanting to do for ages, but never found the time." This is a statement hewn from the same block as "It's part of a musical trilogy I'm working on in D-minor, which is the saddest of all keys", which, all fans of 'ver Tap' will know, is Nigel Tufnel's pre-amble to announcing Lick My Love Pump.

Covers have been with us since Moses was in short trousers: who hasn't started out in a garage trying to navigate stubby fingers around someone else's chords? Even The Beatles were ripping off Chuck Berry when they began. Some bring something new - Otis Redding's cover of Satisfaction, or the totally different approach of Joe Cocker's A Little Help From My Friends. Then there are the novelties: Rolf Harris covering Stairway To Heaven was a clear nadir in a litany of atrocities, although David Lee Roth's California Girls comes close. Entire albums of cover versions, on the other hand, have more nefarious connotations.

No matter how much justice is done, covers albums are rarely a good thing. Most are exercises in laziness, others, outlets for vanity. This month we get two contrasting examples of the genre: Phil Collins' Going Back - a retread of soul classics - and Robert Plant's Band of Joy, a compilation of obscurities drawn not so much from the American Songbook, as brought down from a dusty attic and hand-written on parchment.

Taking pot-shots at Collins has been something of a media spectator sport over the last 30 years. I admit (puts reputation on the line here) to being something of an apologist for the bloke who rarely gets credit for being a unique drummer. Rather than a unique singer. Despite the wry giggle we had when he took You Can't Hurry Love to No.1 with its ironic video (multiple Phils wearing bum-freezer suits and Wayfarers), the prospect of a 60-year-old from Hounslow recreating the 40-year-old Motown sound for, apparently, his own indulgence is, as vanity projects go, dangerously close to pub band territory. Let's leave it there before I say something I'll regret.

The covers album, however, doesn't have to represent a complete abandonment of credibility: Robert Plant has, since his multi-Grammy-winning Raising Sand with Alison Krauss, and his brief return to Led Zeppellin, cemented himself as the elder statesman who can do no wrong (we'll forget Now And Zen...). In teaming up with a collective of Nashville musicians, Plant builds on Raising Sand with a rich, varied and intriguing trek through Americana. From blues (Lightnin' Hopkins' Central Two-O-Nine) to Appalachian folk, Plant immerses himself into a love of backwoods music which belies his West Bromwich origins and, disappointing for some, takes him even further away from the lucrative lure of a full Zep reunion.

One man's loving homage is another's rank laziness. Paul Weller lost serious cred with his knocked-out-in-an-hour-so-he-could-hit-the-coffee-shops-of-Amsterdam covers album Studio 150. Writer's block offers little real excuse.  Doffing a cap to heritage is, in Plant's case, it would appear, OK.

Eric Clapton has made it his stock-in-trade in recent years, returning repeatedly to the Robert Johnson/Delta Blues oeuvre in deference to doing anything new. But when you've reached your sixties as a fabulously wealthy rock star, there's probably not much point discussing retiring to a cottage by the sea. Plant and Clapton, to their credit, don't make any bones about doing what they do for artistic progression. It's about celebrating the music they love, while growing old with some degree of grace.

Which brings me to, arguably, one of the most innovative covers albums, from someone who never fails to immerse himself with such iconoclastic zeal each time he knocks on the studio door. Peter Gabriel's Scratch My Back epitomises his relentless approach to Doing Things Differently Ans Awkwardly.

On his third album, he instructed his drummers (including Collins) to abandon cymbals, ridding his rhythm section of the punctuation of a crash after every phrase. In the process, Gabriel inadvertently helped create a You Tube gorilla phenomenon and a generation of bar room air drummers. On his fourth album, Gabriel applied more and more of the world music he has consistently championed, in his own work and in helping establish WOMAD, introducing Middle Eastern and Asian instrumentation and rhythmic influences to the 'western' notion of rock music.

Scratch My Back is, unashamedly, a covers album. Typically, it has the Gabriel twist: a collection of covers, performed orchestrally, of some of Gabriel's personal favourites - an eclectic mix spanning the likes of Arcade Fire, Paul Simon, Radiohead, Elbow, David Bowie, Lou Reed and Neil Young. The twist, in case you were still wondering, is that each of the covered artists will reciprocate with an equally different cover of one of Gabriel's canon (well, some of them - rumour has it that Radiohead got snippy about the reworking of Street Spirit). For all its novel approach, Scratch My Back and its eventual mirror, I'll Scratch Yours, is simply another way of avoiding writing anything new. But given Gabriel's legendary gestation of new material (10 years between his Us and Up albums), it might be overdoing it to expect the now sexagenarian Gabriel to repeat his relatively herculean effort in recording Us a mere six years after the hit-spawning So in 1986).

Gabriel has proven that, when bereft of any genuine originality, creativity doesn't have to be completely abandoned. Retreading the back catalogues of others can be a refreshing experience, especially when - as Gabriel has done - he removes any well-lit pathways to comfortable recognition. His painfully sparse version of Paul Simon's Boy In The Bubble, and his string-heavy interpretation of Heroes - it's chugging spine removed - are almost unnerving, challenging the listener by taking away all but the scantest traces of the familiarity bred by countless Top 40 radio plays.

But alas. Christmas is a-coming. And that means that, inevitably, record company press offices (not sure if they even still exist) will be drafting a new batch of press releases bearing the words "...his own, personal interpretation of classic songs...", a phrase which conjures all the dread and fear of an afternoon toasting marshmallows with Beelzebub himself. Which means, kids, when choosing this year's stocking fillers, you have choices. Real choices. Choose wisely.

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