At the first show of their recent three-night run in NYC, The Decemberists brought out singer Olivia Chaney for a mysterious song they didn’t really explain. Featuring Chaney leading on harpsichord and vocals, it was weird and proggy in a similar way to the Decemberists’ own album Hazards of Love. Now, a few weeks later, we know what the performance was teasing: an upcoming Decemberists/Chaney covers album under the band name Offa Rex.
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.
I came early to the Bee Gees. For the barely teenage me they gave a plaintive, yearning sound to well-constructed ballads, with keening mid-range harmonies that totally belied their higher pitched ’70s second coming (which, incidentally, is where I left again). And never mind the earnest re-appraisals of their disco years – when is someone going to give a punt for their still-remarkable ’60s canon? Do we have to wait until the original Bee, Barry, last man standing and eldest sibling of the brothers Gee (Gibb), departs this earth? Whilst today I but celebrate this sole song, “New York Mining Disaster 1941.” Was there a mining disaster in New York in 1941? It seems not, but since when did the truth need to bother a decent song.
This is the song that started the Bee Gees down their yellow brick road – it’s reputedly the one which, when played by their staunch impresario/manager Robert Stigwood to Paul McCartney, led to their being signed to a recording contract. In turn it was their first worldwide hit, reaching #14 on the Billboard chart in 1967. And I dispute the latter-day dismissal given of it by Maurice, who didn’t write it anyway, it being the product of his twin, Robin and aforementioned elder brother Barry. (Maurice had suggested it was a deliberate rip-off of the Beatles, whereas the only Beatle link was to do with some duplicity in the disc jockeys of the day, making out it may have been actually by them.) It appears on their imaginatively titled first LP, Bee Gees’ 1st, and I commend it, along with later double concept album Odessa, as both dated but overlooked artifacts of a time blessed with more ideas and experimentation than is now remembered of the three toothy brothers from Melbourne, Australia (but actually all born in Manchester, England).
To all reports, Ewan MacColl was a difficult man. It’s perhaps hard to believe that a man who could write as sensitive a song as “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (for Peggy Seeger, Pete’s half-sister and MacColl’s third wife), the song made into a cross-genre standard by Roberta Flack in 1972, could be so uniformly feared and vilified, yet still admired. I guess it’s the usual case of ignoring the man and embracing the music, and this man, who arguably invented the UK folk boom of the late 1950s and early ’60s, had little interest in embracing any of the young acolytes drawn to his flame – he called Bob Dylan’s work “tenth-rate drivel.”
Born James Miller in Manchester, his life was a series of reinventions, as he became a communist rabble-rouser in his teens, then a George Bernard Shaw-admired playwright and, in his mid-30’s, self-acclaimed champion of a fiercely curated folk idiom, wherein such modern anachronisms as make-up for women (and possibly women in general) were decried and denied, while Dylan, Paul Simon, and others of those young acolytes were freely liberating the repertoire into their own.