Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Richard Thompson is a Cover Me favorite, and for good reason. His songwriting and playing are brilliant, and his songs are often covered by musicians who recognize his genius, even if he has escaped widespread popularity. Not only that, he has, since his early days as a teenaged guitarist in Fairport Convention, performed many wonderful covers of other artists. Thompson also has a wicked sense of humor, which is hinted at in his lyrics, but more often displayed in his writings, interviews and stage shows. Rarely does Thompson perform without unleashing a zinger or ten, often directed at audience members who mistakenly believe they can best him in a battle of wits.
So when Playboy magazine came to him in 1999 and asked him to join other musicians in providing a list of the ten greatest songs of the millennium, it is not surprising that he mischievously took them literally. As Thompson wrote:
Such pretension, I thought. They don’t mean millennium, do they? Probably about 30 years is the cut-off: Tears for Fears might sneak in, Cole Porter probably not.
He called their bluff and did a real thousand-year selection, starting with a song from 1068 and including one effort from the 20th century. Playboy, which is rumored to have articles, chose not to print Thompson’s list, sparing their “readers” the opportunity to consider a toe-tapper by St Godric.
Thompson decided that it would be fun to perform these songs, and in 2000 he did his first 1000 Years of Popular Music show at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Over the years, he has performed it around the world, initially with percussionist Michael Jerome and vocalist Judith Owen, and later with percussionist and vocalist Debra Dobkin replacing Jerome. The set list is not consistent, but it typically begins in 13th century England and meanders through the centuries, stopping in places as diverse as Medieval France and Italy, early America, England during many different eras, New Orleans, and the modern pop charts, with many unexpected choices.
In 2003, Thompson released a CD of the 1000 Years show, which was recorded at Joe’s Pub in New York, and in 2006, he released an expanded 2 CD/DVD version from two shows recorded in San Francisco. The set lists are somewhat different, and they are not only fun, they provide an insight into the influences that helped to create Thompson’s distinctive musical vision. And also Britney Spears.
Although Thompson, with typical humility, claims that he is “unqualified to sing 98% of the material” on the album, not surprisingly, he does more than a fine job. And anyway, isn’t trying something out of your comfort zone what a cover album is all about?
MP3: Richard Thompson – Sumer Is Icumen In (W. de Wycombe cover (maybe))
This song, the oldest on the album, is possibly the oldest rota or round in the English language, but it is almost certainly the first song in the Wessex dialect of Middle English ever to be featured on Cover Me. Written down in the 13th century, the manuscript can be viewed in the British Library. Here is a picture and a history of the manuscript, which may have been owned by a monk at Reading Abbey, William of Winchester, best known not for his piety but for being charged with incontinence with a number of women, including a nun. If you look further on that page, you’ll see there even are instructions about how to sing karaoke to it, which is guaranteed to make you a hit at Renaissance Faires. (Huzzah!) The song is a celebration of the arrival of summer, and catalogs all of the wonderful things that happen in summer — plants blooming, baby animals being born, birds singing, and more. It is a sweet, happy song that, however, probably was banned from medieval radio stations because it mentions goat farts.
MP3: Richard Thompson – Shenandoah (traditional)
“Shenandoah” is a classic American folk song that, like so much true folk music, has no definitive version. The song’s basic message is of a traveler’s longing for home. It has been sung as a sea chantey by sailors long at sea, and has been interpreted to be about traveling traders, escaped slaves as well as Confederate soldiers, pioneers, and college alumni (including graduates of the fictional “Sentinel” in an episode of House of Cards). Thompson’s touching and mournful cover is a fairly straightforward one that does not reveal a particular perspective, thus rendering its message universal.
MP3: Richard Thompson – Orange Coloured Sky (Nat King Cole cover)
Discussing this silly, jazzy love song, made popular by Nat King Cole, is going to take us down some odd paths and highlight some unusual musical connections. It was written by Milton DeLugg and Willie Stein and published in 1950. DeLugg was a musician, composer, arranger and bandleader, who among other things produced Buddy Holly’s classic “Rave On” and either wrote or arranged much of the music for Chuck Barris’ TV shows, such as The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, on which he occasionally appeared. Stein was best known as a TV producer, mostly of game shows, as well as David Letterman’s short-lived morning show. The song has been covered many times by artists other than Cole, including Danny Kaye, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Lady GaGa, The Muppets with Wonder Woman actress Lynda Carter and, strangely, by the actor Burt Ward, of Batman fame (that truly awful version was arranged and produced by, yes, Frank Zappa). Thompson plays up the humor, but doesn’t forget to display some nice jazz guitar chops.
MP3: Richard Thompson – Drinking Wine Spo-dee-o-dee (Sticks McGhee/Jerry Lee Lewis cover)
Although Thompson may be considered more of a folkie, he was also influenced by rock music, and if you don’t think of him as a rocker, check out any of his live electric, full band recordings. This song was originally written and recorded by “Stick” (or “Sticks”) McGhee, a jump blues guitarist, songwriter and singer, and brother of the better known bluesman Brownie McGhee. Written while Sticks was in the military during WWII, it was originally a profane ode to getting drunk and fighting. When it came time to record the track, the song was toned down a bit; still, it was pretty risqué for its time. Jerry Lee Lewis’ version, referenced by Thompson in the liner notes, was recorded in 1959, but had been part of Lewis’ shows since the 1940s. Thompson’s version translates Lewis’s piano to his acoustic guitar and retains the edginess of the vocals.
MP3: Richard Thompson – Kiss (Prince cover)
The idea that Richard Thompson would do an acoustic cover of Prince’s “Kiss” sounds bizarre, but it really isn’t; Thompson clearly appreciates the Purple One, referring to this song as “one of the best pop songs of the ’80s, by one of the best artists.” But even beyond that, Thompson’s acoustic arrangement takes the song back to its roots. In 1985, Prince was working in the studio at the same time as a band called Mazarati, which included Revolution bass player Brown Mark. They asked Prince for a song, and he took an acoustic guitar and a boombox into another room, reemerging a few minutes later with a demo featuring only his voice and the guitar. Everybody hated it. But it was a song from Prince, so Mazarati took it, funked it up a bit and came up with this, which in many ways sounds like the Prince version. That’s because after Prince heard it, he decided to reclaim the song, as Mazarati apparently failed to say “no backsies.” He stripped out the uninspired vocals and the bass, added acoustic guitar (including the signature riff) and his own falsetto vocals, and voila, a hit single. Mazarati was forced to settle for background vocal credit. Thompson notes that he “strategically” sings it an octave lower, which makes sense.
MP3: Richard Thompson – Marry, Ageyn Hic Hev Donne Yt (Britney Spears cover)
In addition to the straight cover of “Oops, I Did It Again,” which was recently featured in the Cover Me Q&A, Thompson ends the album with a fragment of the song, arranged like a medieval song, with a mock Middle English title. And, he cheekily states in the liner notes that the song was from “the 13th century, possibly from Brittany.”
Bonus Video: Richard Thompson – 1985 (Bowling For Soup/SR-71 Cover)
This uptempo pop-punk tune was made famous by Bowling for Soup, although it was originally recorded, with less success and slightly different lyrics, by SR-71. Generally the newest song performed as part of the 1000 Years shows, it was on the DVD, but not the original CD, and as you can see from the video Thompson appreciates its nostalgic lyrics. It is also kind of fun to hear the man who has written some of the most beautiful and literate lyrics ever sing “shake her ass on Whitesnake’s car.” Thompson’s performance of “1985” is a definite crowd pleaser, and even teenaged girls get up and dance and sing along when he performs it. And when they do, Thompson sometimes notices and hugs them backstage.