Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Until 2010’s Scratch My Back appeared, Peter Gabriel had been an artist more covered than covering – arguably a pity, given the cracked wistfulness of his croaky beauty. But I guess if you can write material of the quality and diversity that he has, why bother with someone else’s material? The problem was, Gabriel hadn’t been writing that kind of material – this was his first album in eight years.
So was Scratch My Back just, as covers projects can so often be, a stopgap sales pitch to keep his brand alive during a creative lull? Who knows? I think not and hope not, feeling this a deliberate if somewhat failed experiment on two levels. Flawed, maybe, rather than failed.
Gabriel had been initially intending a back-to-back double set of Scratch My Back, featuring songs covered by Gabriel, alongside And I’ll Scratch Yours, featuring the same artists covered now covering Gabriel songs. Sadly this noble aim withered when some of those covered declined or were too slow to return the favor. (And I’ll Scratch Yours eventually appeared, in 2013, featuring six artists who had responded positively to the initial request, along with some others. Maybe it will get a piece of its own some day.) So with some further/different songs, Gabriel’s project had to become realized as a single album.
The second aim, conceit even, was to deliberately espouse the whole beat combo expectation of modern music, specifically by excluding percussion and guitar, or most, but secondly by applying a full orchestration. This was a step further than the rather commoner cliche of adding a few strings to a rock band, more often spoiling the two genres rather than adding anything to either. Indeed, the orchestrations here, arranged by John Metcalfe, are lavish and luxurious, a world apart from so-called symphonic rock, an oxymoron extreme.
The songs chosen by Gabriel are an eclectic mix of well-known and WTF, of celebrated peers and small-print surprises. For every David Bowie and Paul Simon, there is an Arcade Fire and a Regina Spektor (her song, interestingly, the only piece chosen from a female voice and perspective). Quite how husky emoter Gabriel came to choose a song by husky emoter Guy Garvey and his band, Elbow, I can only guess, but I’m sure it’s done the standing of said band no harm. (I’m also sure I am not the only listener coming anew to Elbow and wondering could that be who he sounds like on vocals!)
Peter Gabriel – Heroes (David Bowie cover)
“Heroes” is Scratch My Back‘s opener and possibly the best known song, but for me, annoyingly, it’s also the weakest. Whilst I read it was deigned to invoke Arvo Part (and indeed, it well might), it displays the schism between classical and rock, sorely missing the rhythmic drive of drums, electronic or otherwise, and with the wittering strings detracting rather than propelling. It just sort of runs out without going anywhere.
Peter Gabriel – The Boy in the Bubble (Paul Simon cover)
The next track, “The Boy in the Bubble,” should so not work. Indeed, I was almost willing it not to, after the travesty that had come before, so I could bin the record there and then. But Gabriel lands this one in the plus column by removing any vestige of the townships, simply decanting the tune into its simplicity with, as the lyric says, “miracle and wonder.” I am sure there was temptation to give it more muscle than ever appears, and I’m glad this was resisted. A true transformation and one that reveals the true craftsmanship of writer Paul Simon.
Peter Gabriel – The Power of the Heart (Lou Reed cover)
I hadn’t known “The Power of the Heart” was a Lou Reed song and I still haven’t heard his version, but for me, this is the first song on Scratch My Back that really nails the enterprise as worthwhile. A spare Gabriel sings to piano alone, ahead of glorious muted brass and, later still, glissando strings, reminding me as much of a colliery silver band as any orchestra. Utterly glorious, always putting dust (and a lot of it) in my eye.
Peter Gabriel – The Book of Love (The Magnetic Fields cover)
“The Book of Love” is the other standout, even if it’s actually quite similar in style to the song above, perhaps making me a sentimental old fool, but perfect for the orchestration. I understand Stephin Merritt, the author, was initially less than complementary, feeling Gabriel lost the original’s humor in his maudlin take. Well, Stephin, that’s fine by me, ‘cos I’d sooner cry than laugh to music.
Peter Gabriel – Apres Moi (Regina Spector cover)
This Regina Spektor track is possibly the kitschiest of the album, the arrangement making more than the most of the author’s Russian roots, throwing in all and every trope of the whole Bolshoi experience. Yet somehow, Lord know how, howling and all, it works. (I’m not sure how many times in a row I could bear it, though.)
The rest of the songs on Scratch My Back vary between dreary drone and mournful masterpiece, the whole becoming way more than the sum of its parts. Although opinions differ, Gabriel takes one of Neil Young’s weaker efforts, Oscar nominee “Philadelphia” (the better song won), and gives it back its tune and its heart. I could only find live YouTube clips for it, frustratingly, as I would have otherwise included it. Live, Gabriel voice doesn’t quite make it…
And live is where he took the album, the ultimate rockstar indulgence, the full orchestra on the road schtick. Firstly a worldwide tour to promote this project, latterly another with re-interpretations of his own oeuvre, with the live set, 2011’s New Blood coming out of that 2nd tour. The next tour? Oh, well, he was back to guitar, bass, keys, drums and vocals……
So is Scratch My Back a classic? In my mind, yes, definitely, even if I only actively seek out perhaps half the songs, probably only repeatedly listen to three. But those three, sometimes four, still make this an essential. It was a brave step by Gabriel and I am disappointed it didn’t quite pan out as initially conceived by him. Who, I wonder, were those who declined to participate? And were their songs thus removed from his shortlist? Those I would like to hear!!
Overall 4 stars in my mind, 3 in the real world.
Scratch My Back track listing:
1. Heroes (originally David Bowie)
2. The Boy in the Bubble (originally Paul Simon)
3. Mirrorball (originally Elbow)
4. Flume (originally Bon Iver)
5. Listening Wind (originally Talking Heads)
6. The Power of the Heart (originally Lou Reed)
7. My Body Is a Cage (originally Arcade Fire)
8. The Book of Love (originally the Magnetic Fields)
9. I Think It’s Going to Rain Today (originally Randy Newman)
10. Après Moi (originally Regina Spektor)
11. Philadelphia (originally Neil Young)
12. Street Spirit (Fade Out) (originally Radiohead)
(13. Waterloo Sunset (originally the Kinks), appeared as a live extra on a deluxe edition, with live cuts of 2 others and a Heroes remix)