Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Over the years, tribute albums have been given a bad name. Nowadays they frequently consist of either inferior bands covering the works of superior bands in the hopes of getting noticed and having talent hopefully rub off on them, or of well-known bands dragooned into making product that’s sure to shift units, radio-friendly and otherwise. There’s also an excess of narcissism and/or irony on too many of these albums, where the inherent message isn’t “Look at this song” but “How funny/awesome is it that I’m doing this song, when it’s so obviously a song I should never do because I play in a different genre!”
But The Bridge – A Tribute to Neil Young is different. Released in 1989, back when a tribute album was a breath of fresh air, it featured artists who were ready and eager to use their talents to pay off the debts of gratitude they owed Young. It may not have been the first tribute album, but Bridge set the template for those that followed: take a respected artist with a quality back catalog of songs; get a wide range of known and unknown artists to interpret those songs – some most faithfully, some most unfaithfully; and if the album’s proceeds go toward a worthy cause, all the better.
For designing this template, all credit goes to executive producer Terry Tolkin, a man who not only signed bands like Luna, Stereolab, and the Butthole Surfers to their labels, but who literally invented the phrase “alternative music” back in 1979. After reading an interview with Young, who spoke of his sons’ struggles with cerebral palsy, Tolkin conceived of an album saluting Young’s work whose proceeds would go toward the Bridge School (cofounded by Young’s wife Pegi), which helps people with severe speech and physical impairments communicate and participate in their communities through the use of technology.
Pixies – Winterlong (Neil Young cover)
Having managed and booked many underground acts, Tolkin not only had a big Rolodex of bands to approach, he also knew the reach of Young’s influence – all the bands on the record, he later said, were major fans. When he asked the Pixies to contribute, Blank Francis said, “Wow, that’s fantastic. One of the most important songs of my life is ‘Winterlong.’ I woke up every morning for a year listening to that song.” That deep-seated knowledge led to one of the album’s high points, as Francis and Kim Deal (never more melodic together) duet over the Pixies’ trademark discordant pop.
Sonic Youth – Computer Age (Neil Young cover)
With a catalog as extensive as Young’s, there were a lot of songs to choose from, and most of the artists went for the lesser-known ones – you’ll find no “Heart of Gold” covers here. Perhaps the most valuable excavators were Sonic Youth, who targeted “Computer Age,” from Young’s experimental 1982 Trans album. Trans, with its synthesizers and vocoded singing, perplexed listeners and critics, and it was something of a flop. But Sonic Youth converted “Computer Age” into a hard-driving, feedback-heavy song, with Thurston Moore’s classic disinterested voice the icing on a suddenly delicious cake.
Soul Asylum – Barstool Blues (Neil Young cover)
Some of the lesser-known songs didn’t need so radical a reworking to work, and the musicians settled for giving them solid performances. Soul Asylum, still a few years away from “Runaway Train” fame, found “Barstool Blues” from 1975’s Zuma to be to their liking, and stayed close enough to the original that it could have been performed by a tribute band – which, in a way, it was.
Dinosaur Jr. – Lotta Love (Neil Young cover)
Dinosaur Jr. felt no such need to treat Young’s arrangement as scripture. They took “Lotta Love” from 1978’s Comes a Time, with Young’s fragile tenor in a romantic acoustic setting, and shredded it with go-to-eleven guitars and Lou Barlow changing croon to caterwaul. With Young being so fluent in both quiet and loud music, it made sense for a band to take one of his gentler songs and turn it into the best kind of primitive noise. (They also recorded his “I’ve Been Waiting For You,” which we talked about here.)
Nick Cave – Helpless (Neil Young cover)
Nick Cave proved that it wasn’t necessary to radically rearrange a song to make it his own. He kept the slow tempo of “Helpless,” from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 1970 album Deja Vu, but covered Young’s country-folk sound with a dark shroud, turning it into disconsolate goth that was meant to be performed with his own doom-laden voice. The power of the bittersweet lyrics remained; Cave’s heart may have been heavier, but it beat just as strongly.
And how did the subject of the salute feel about all this? As it turned out, he loved it, saying, “We put that on in the bus when we were on the road and just blasted it over the speakers and were walking round listening, shaking our heads and everything.” It’s a reaction people share with him to this day.
“Barstool Blues” – Soul Asylum – 2:51
“Don’t Let It Bring You Down” – Victoria Williams – 2:53
“After the Gold Rush” – The Flaming Lips – 4:14
“Captain Kennedy” – Nikki Sudden – 4:01
“Cinnamon Girl” – Loop – 2:50
“Helpless” – Nick Cave – 4:32
“Winterlong” – Pixies – 3:11
“Computer Age” – Sonic Youth – 5:13
“Only Love Can Break Your Heart” – Psychic TV – 6:08
“Lotta Love” – Dinosaur Jr. – 2:41
“The Needle and the Damage Done”/”Tonight’s The Night” – Henry Kaiser – 5:54
CD Bonus Tracks:
“Mr. Soul” – Bongwater – 3:30
“My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” by B.A.L.L. – 2:16
“Words (Between The Lines Of Age)” by Henry Kaiser – 6:19
The Bridge is out of print, but many of its tracks can still be found on B-side/outtake collections by the covering artists.