Patrick Robbins

Patrick Robbins lives in Maine, where he moves through life with the secure knowledge that, as Penn Jillette said, "In all of art, it's the singer, not the song," On Wednesdays he goes shopping, and has buttered scones for tea. He is the author of the novel To Make Others Happy.

Mar 082019
 

Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.

Wikipedia reports that Imaginary Records, an indie label founded 1985 in Manchester, England, specialized in indie rock and post-punk. What it really specialized in, though, was tribute albums. Roughly a third of their album catalog saluted other artists. These ranged from the usual suspects (Dylan, the Stones) to decidedly unusual ones (Captain Beefheart, Syd Barrett).

In 1992, they released Brittle Days: A Tribute to Nick Drake. This was at a time when Drake was still more a cult favorite than a favorite. Anyone who bought the album was as likely to be being introduced to Drake as to the artists singing his songs therein. These artists were themselves destined to remain cult favorites; no future jackpots here like there were on Imaginary Records’ first Velvet Underground tribute. Instead, devotees expressed their devotion to other devotees, resulting in an album that was quiet, reverent, and more than a little haunting.

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Mar 012019
 

That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.

The term “groupie” was just starting to get a toehold in the American vernacular in the late ’60s. Groupies were written about in lengthy articles in Rolling Stone and Time magazines. They were the subject of a 1969 book (Groupie) and a 1970 documentary (Groupies). They were, in the words of Hall of Fame groupie Pamela Des Barres, the Mary Magdalenes to any and all Jesuses in the rock bands that came through town. And Rita Coolidge thought they would make an ideal subject for a song.

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Feb 222019
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

When David Bowie moved to Berlin, he took an apartment over an auto parts store. Iggy Pop shared a room with him. There were no chairs – they had decided chairs were unnatural. One night they were sitting on the floor waiting for Starsky and Hutch to start on the Armed Forces Network. The show started with a call signal – beep beep beep, beep beep beep beep, beep beep beep. Bowie picked up a ukulele (“it might have been his son’s,” Pop later remembered) and wrote out the chord progression. “Call it ‘Lust for Life,'” he told Pop. “Write something up.”

Describing their songwriting process, Bowie said, “I often gave him a few anchor images that I wanted him to play off, and he would take them away and start free-associating.” Pop later realized that Bowie’s title came from the Kirk Douglas film about Vincent van Gogh. “In the two albums we made,”said Pop, referring to Lust for Life and The Idiot, “I think Bowie wanted to make the comment that I was an idiot à la Dostoyevsky and insane à la van Gogh. Like, ‘Here I am producing albums for this insane idiot — let’s see what happens!'”

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Feb 152019
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Gordon Lightfoot

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.
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Feb 082019
 

“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty-odd years.

party doll

“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.

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Jan 252019
 

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

This is the year Roxy Music finally gets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Babies have been born since they were first eligible who are now old enough to legally drink. Would that they were also being introduced to the stylings of Bryan Ferry and company, who married prog and glam and were New Romantic before New Romantic existed. How is it possible that a band had to get rid of Brian Eno because he was holding them back?

Eno was more than gracious about that – he’s declared Stranded, the first Roxy Music album without him, to be his favorite. His taste proves impeccable once again – Stranded has a (UK) hit single in “Street Life,” a perfect ode to heartbreak in “A Song for Europe,” and one of the greatest centerpieces of all ’70s rock albums, “Mother of Pearl.”
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