Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question, from Cover Me staffer Mike Misch: What cover song makes you laugh?
I remember the first time I heard Jonathan & Darlene Edwards‘ version of “Stayin’ Alive,” perhaps 8 to 10 years ago, probably as a link from a covers blog, possibly even this one. At the time I was hoovering up cover versions from all corners, avidly trying to build up my own data base, the premise being to make entire playlists of lesser-known interpretations of better-known songs. Sometimes in this difficult job (but someone gotta do it etc etc), ennui can sink in, as yet more “punk”/ “country”/ “electronica” irony-free atrocities threatened my sanity, but this genuinely stopped me in my tracks, needing a few rewinds to fully appreciate the horror. Like a botched face-job, or an ugly baby, this really insists and inflicts itself, worming into your subconscious until the original is but a footnote. As I’m no fan of the brothers Gibb anyway, this allowed me to have some Bee Gees representation in my collection.
It’s true, the joke was a little spoilt as I learned and realized that that was, in fact, exactly what it was – a joke. Darlene Edwards and her piano playing husband Jonathan were the assumed names of Jo Stafford, the top ranked popular female singer in the world (at least in 1955) and the holder of the first U.K. number 1 single spot of her sex, and her conductor husband, Paul Weston. And yes, she was classically trained ahead of her pop career, itself well ahead of her later re-invention, confirming the adage that you really have to be very, very good to be so very, very bad. Between 1957 and 1982 the “Edwardses” produced 5 albums of material, “Stayin’ Alive” being released as a single in 1979, backed with “I am Woman.” I haven’t dared listen to either that or any of the albums, so as to avoid breaking the spell. Dare you?
The Bee Gees disliked this version intensely, it seems. I can’t think why.
Three performers on the downtown New York cabaret scene used to host a monthly pop-covers night called Our Hit Parade, like a funhouse mirror version of ’50s squeaky-clean TV performance show Your Hit Parade. The series quietly ended four years ago, perhaps because they got too busy: Kenny Mellman playing in The Julie Ruin and reuniting his duo Kiki and Herb (he’s Herb), Bridgett Everett acting in Inside Amy Schumer and Lady Dynamite, and Neal Medlyn recording goofy raps with former Beastie Boys. But during its short time, Our Hit Parade delivered some wonderful and hilarious live covers of current pop hits. They would take whatever garbage One Direction or Flo Rida songs were currently topping the charts and bring in cabaret and theater performers to cover them, the more outrageously the better.
My all-time favorite of the bunch is Bradford Scobie’s cover of Taio Cruz’s pop hit “Dynamite.” Cruz’s song is not good and boy does Scobie know it – his dance moves with his deadpan sister are wonderfully half-assed and he periodically stops singing to play patty cake or just mock the song. “You’re already bored, I can feel it,” he says at one point when he’s supposed to be singing the chorus. “Me too, I don’t blame you!” He’s wrong on that front though – this cover is anything but boring. It’s the rare cover that succeeds not by loving the original song, but by gleefully hating it.
Before YouTube, before the Internet, before consumers could record songs onto a compact disc, there was a subset of collectors who hunted high and low for LPs made by famous non-singers. Not for how good the songs were, but for how bad they were; they were non-singers for a reason, after all. But in a time where there were fewer entertainment media to exploit, many an actor succumbed to the desire to express themselves musically for a couple fast bucks. They probably figured on cashing their checks, watching their albums fall into obscurity, and getting on with their lives.
And so it was until 1988, when Rhino Records released the first Golden Throats collection, introducing to the masses to songs that had been forgotten for a reason, but were now unforgettable – and for another reason entirely. You got Dragnet‘s Jack Webb making “Try a Little Tenderness” sound about as tender as a block of wood, Mae West enthusiastically braying “Twist and Shout,” and Leonard Nimoy giving a pointy-eared spin to “Proud Mary” and “If I Had a Hammer.”
But the star of the record, without question, was Nimoy’s Star Trek costar William Shatner. In a time where his “Rocket Man” was little more than a forgotten rumor, Shatner’s performances were a revelation. He sang the same way he (over)acted, giving fuel to all the imitators who sprang up in the songs’ wake – not to mention to Shatner’s own singing career.
Golden Throats featured two of Shatner’s performances. His “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was a hoot and a half, but for me, “Mr. Tambourine Man” was the magic track. He sounded determined, lost, agonized, his emphasis of certain words seeming desperately random. The backing track’s blandness, punctuated by an off-beat tambourine (in case you missed the point), could have been considered amusing by itself, but Shatner takes it into the stratosphere. One wonders what a certain Nobel laureate thought of it.
Me, I loved introducing this song to people and watching them react, their eyes widening in disbelief as the song progressed and their stunned laughter that followed Shatner’s final cry. I went on to buy the following three Golden Throats albums; all of them have their moments (see if you can find Rod McKuen’s “Mule Train”), but nothing could ever top the man, the myth, the legend of William Shatner.
In 1997, Pat Boone covered a slew of rock songs, big-band style, including the now-famous “Crazy Train.” Since then, a bunch of artists ranging from Paul Anka to Postmodern Jukebox have continued this tradition.
One artist who stands out from the rest is lounge singer Richard Cheese. Cheese is the invention of comedian/singer Mark Jonathan Davis. Before he started using that stage name, he had a minor radio hit with a parody of “Copacabana” called “Star Wars Cantina” (until LucasFilm put the kibosh on that).
His first album of covers, Lounge Against the Machine, came out in 2000 and included such greats as “Come Out and Play” by the Offspring, “Closer” by NIN and “Fight for Your Right” by Beastie Boys.
For me, though, the one that stands out is his cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” from the album Tuxicity. I only need to hear him start the one-sided conversation between “Becky” and the other girl at the beginning of the song before I start giggling like a teenage boy.
And then he starts singing: “I like big butts and I cannot lie…”
Songs that make me laugh, while enjoyable, don’t get a lot of repeat plays from me. Which is why Iron & Wine‘s beautiful cover of GWAR’s “Sick of You” tops my list. The AV Undercover project has provided some great music as well as some laughs, but this combines both. First, the juxtaposition of Sam Beam softly singing and finger plucking with the words of GWAR is enough for a smile. But (SPOILER) sit through the whole song to see that he’s been performing for GWAR all along, whose displeasure with his version elicits a “tough crowd” from Beam. The concept and execution come together for a clip I can watch again and again, and a song that is worthy of a spot on my favorite playlists.
If you have a question you’d like us to answer, leave it in the comments, or e-mail it to covermefeature01(at)gmail(dot)com.