Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
I’ve chucked a couple of these into the odd “best covers” choices since we have been doing those, meeting with not a little interest, if likewise not a lot, but sufficient enough interest to feel it worth digging a tad deeper into the repertoire of Jim “The King” Brown, Belfast’s singing postman. With a name like his, clearly there was little option other than to pursue a career as an Elvis Presley tribute act, and his days as postman were short-lived. Caught performing in a local pub by Bap Kennedy, brother of Brian, both notable in the local music scene, he was given both a shove and the opportunity, Kennedy producing.
Now, Elvis impersonators are two a penny in any country you choose to tread, so Jim, whose voice is as close to his source as any I am familiar with, needed a trick to be a step ahead, and the one he chose was a doozy. He picked out songs that Elvis should have covered, and, further to that, songs by or featuring artists similarly deceased. You know the idea, the concept of the celestial band “up there,” featuring the best of the dead, playing together and having a blast. (Sorry, that’s not best of the Dead, capital D, but I am sure Jerry would be a shoo-in for any such band, if not the myriad keyboards men in his old band.)
I first caught this King in one of those late night weekend shows the minority channels in the UK put out, so as to catch those coming home from the pubs. Playing, I think, “Come As You Are,” all in full black leather and sneer, the King hooked me and hooked me hard.
Gravelands, the album (must I explain the title?), came out in 1997, initially fairly quietly, ahead of a major label relaunch. In all it sold north of half a million copies, no small feat for a “novelty act.” But that was the point: this was no spoof, this was no piss-take, this was a genuine and affectionate recreation of what if, with a solid production, more than competent arrangements, and an is-it-live-or-Memorex Elvis. The song choices were spot-on, and stand up alongside more sober covers of any of them.
It wasn’t the King’s last crack at this sort of thing. 2000 saw a rerun, Return to Splendor. This time, a double; this time with, not a team of anonymous session men, but an actual band. Awkwardly, when the subsequent tour took place, supporting Stereophonics and Fun Lovin’ Criminals, he had to replace them with a new band – standard contractual issues, I gather. Whilst still a good (double) album, I think this suffers from the sameness of the musical backing, the range and style of songs needing more than the composite heavy rock brush applied to all the songs. A third album bombed, the mistake of assuming the world was ready for original material.
Here below are some highlights from Gravelands. I continue to feel it has a place in the world of covers. What would Elvis say? Uncertain. I don’t feel Col. Tom Parker would buy it, but maybe that was always the problem with Elvis.
The King – Come As You Are (Nirvana cover)
Opening the album with a flourish, this really sets out the stall, the shock of Presley confronting Cobain in a heady rush of old vs. new that proves totally credible. Once you suspend belief, the whole conceit is cemented. Even the twang in the bass motif is somehow twangier, a greater slug of gravitas, making the original slim by comparison. And whose idea was the violin (which appears frequently throughout the album)? Whoever came up with it, it’s a masterstroke. This is one cover that’s made it so I can’t listen to the original anymore.
The King – Song to the Siren (Tim Buckley cover)
There are so many great versions of this song – so many, in fact, that you forget how positively loopy is Tim Buckley’s original. Here, reined in a little, it accentuates the beauty in the voice and the tune. Indeed, I wonder if Brown is covering a cover, it mattering not a jot, such a good job is done of it. (To be fair, who is to say that recent covers have not been covers of this version, naming no names……..)
The King – Working Class Hero (John Lennon cover)
Elvis actually did cover a few songs by the Beatles, four to be exact, but never any written by John. One of the odder lyrics to get your head around the idea of Elvis singing, the very Rolling Thunder-style violin again provides sufficient counterpoint to take your mind away from the daftness of the idea. Would Elvis even know what a working class hero might be?
The King – Dock of the Bay (Otis Redding cover)
Possibly one of the few songs that really could have been sung, should have been sung by Elvis in his lifetime. My favorite bit is the throwaway ‘yeh’ as he watches the ships sail away in the first verse. I can imagine this in Vegas, a bloated Elvis well-pleased with himself. Alas, no whistling.
Gravelands track listing: