A ton of great covers come out of Australian radio station Triple J’s “Like A Version” series, and we have written about a lot of them (one other just this week!). We’ve come to expect quality, and rapper Denzel Curry did not let us down with his cover of Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade.”
If you’re a music and/or data nerd, journalist Rob Mitchum’s annual spreadsheet compiling the albums on every publication’s year-end lists is fascinating. Long before the Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll comes out, you can see, mathematically, where the critical consensus is landing.
In 2018, most names in the upper echelons came as no surprise if you follow music journalism. But, to me, one name near the top stood out: IDLES. Though near the top, this British punk band appeared on far fewer publications’ year-end lists than the likes of Kacey Musgraves or Cardi B. But here’s the thing: When IDLES did appear, they ranked high. In fact, their album’s average year-end-list ranking was higher than anyone else in the top 50. They were either in someone’s top ten, or not there at all.
What a strange and contrary man Evan Dando seems to be. Liked and lauded beyond any reasonable appraisal of the breadth of his output, nonetheless he seems a decent enough dude as to get away with it. Yes, he has written some great material, he has an agreeable voice and an extensive taste in cover versions. He’s also written a lot of filler and chosen strange songs to interpret. All in that agreeable voice, a slightly bruised tenor. Moreover, there is the dichotomy between his live persona and his studio self. His later records suggest an acoustic troubadour, plugging in to widen his listeners palate, yet live he turns it all up to 11, chucking everything at the audience at once, good, bad and indifferent, hoping enough sticks, appearing either not really to care or to notice.
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Gordon Lightfoot wasn’t happy. He’d learned that Warner Brothers intended to change the name of his album Sit Down Young Stranger, and he flew from Toronto to Los Angeles to ask them why. Stan Cornyn, head of merchandising, responded with his own question: “Gord, did you take algebra?”
“I took it, but I sure as hell never passed it,” Lightfoot confessed.
“Well, Gord, changing the name of the album is the difference between x and 8x.”
“Go ahead and change it,” said Lightfoot. Smart move on both their parts – as If You Could Read My Mind, the album went from 80,000 in sales to 650,000. Credit the now-title track, which peaked at #5 on the Billboard charts forty-eight years ago this month.
Emel Mathlouthi knows her cover songs. The Tunisian singer-songwriter, who first gained fame when a viral protest song got her dubbed the “Voice of the Arab Spring” (she performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony – take that, Grammys), told us about her five favorite covers last year. She also, on pretty short notice, pulled together a rare “All Along the Watchtower” cover that sounds nothing like all the other “All Along the Watchtower” covers for my book party (no joke, friends still mention her performance to me two years later). But her newest cover may be her best yet. Certainly her most unrecognizable.
She’s sort of covered Jeff Buckley before, performing a pretty straightforward interpretation of his “Hallelujah” cover early in her career. But that finger-picked ballad wouldn’t prepare listeners for what she’s done to Buckley’s lesser-known song “New Year’s Prayer,” also called “Fall in Light.” Dark and electronic and storming, her cover, rechristened “Fallen,” sounds like Nine Inch Nails or Portishead. Anyone but Jeff Buckley.
“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty-odd years.
“I really don’t remember writing ‘Party Doll,” said Buddy Knox of Happy, Texas. “But I did, out on the farm, behind a haystack.” It was 1948, and Knox was fifteen at the time. Eight years later, he became the first artist of the rock ‘n’ roll era to write his own number one song. It took a lot of people, famous and not, to get it that far.
Knox went to West Texas State University, where he formed a band with two friends, Jimmy Bowen and Don Lanier, and saw both Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison play. They both recommended he take his songs and his friends 90 miles west to Clovis, New Mexico, to record with producer Norman Petty. Knox’s sister and two of her friends sang backup vocals; a more capable bassist replaced Bowen, and since Lanier didn’t have a full kit, he beat on a box stuffed with cotton (a sound that would later appear on the Crickets’ “Not Fade Away”).
The three were content with the acetates of “Party Doll,” but a farmer named Chester Oliver asked to press 1500 copies to sell around town on his own label, Triple-D Records. One copy made it to KZIP in Amarillo, Texas, where DJ Dean Kelley turned it into a regional hit. Lanier’s sister contacted Morris Levy of Roulette Records; he signed them and released the record nationwide. Ed Sullivan had him on his show, exposing “Party Doll” to the whole of the US, and the rest is history.
But the history of “Party Doll” covers was just beginning.