Jan 202023

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

Roches Hammond Song covers

In 1975, after an apprenticeship with Paul Simon and two years of grueling touring on the college circuit, Maggie and Terre Roche released their debut album, Seductive Reasoning, which featured songs written by Maggie. The album was not a success, and the sisters became disillusioned by the process and the music business. Telling their label that they were no longer going to promote the album, Maggie and Terre retreated to Hammond, Louisiana, where they slept in a friend’s kung fu studio and worked as waitresses.

In 1976, they returned to New York, where they tended bar at Folk City. With younger sister Suzzy, who was studying acting, they busked on street corners singing Christmas carols. The trio performed at clubs throughout the Village, creating a buzz about the sister act with the quirky harmonies and great songs, and they signed with Warner Brothers Records.

In 1978, the sisters went into the studio to record their first album as a trio. In what seemed an odd pairing, the producer was Robert Fripp, whose philosophy of simply recording what they sounded like (he called it “audio vérité”) was appealing, especially after Maggie and Terre’s experience with the more traditional process of using studio musicians. The self-titled debut album was a critical success–it was The New York Times’ album of the year, and finished at #11 in The Village Voice’s prestigious Pazz & Jop poll.

One of the album’s standout tracks, “Hammond Song,” was written by Maggie about her experiences in Hammond, Louisiana, but like many great songs, it is really about more. It’s about independence and making your own decisions—but it also includes the other side of the argument. And it features the incredible harmonies that the Roches are known for–Terre taking the high part, Suzzy holding down the middle, and Maggie anchoring the bottom. It also sees Fripp taking a guitar solo that’s one of The Roches‘ highlights. The notoriously finicky Pitchfork named it the 170th best song of the 1970s.

Maggie died after a long battle with breast cancer on January 21, 2017–a battle that she hid from her sisters for some time. As Suzzy posted on Facebook, Maggie “was a private person, too sensitive and shy for this world, but brimming with life, love, and talent. She was smart, wickedly funny, and authentic — not a false bone in her body — a brilliant songwriter, with a distinct unique perspective, all heart and soul.” In a more recent interview, Suzzy elaborated, “Her place on stage offered her the ability to communicate through her music, which is what she wanted to do.”

Typically, in an In Memoriam piece here, we look at covers of a number of different songs written by the honoree, but covers of Maggie Roche songs are few and far between–except for “Hammond Song.” So we are going to meld the In Memoriam and Five Good Covers styles, and focus on that song. For the most part, we’ve eschewed covers by bands you might have heard of, like The Colourfield and Whitney, in favor of lesser-known artists whose covers were just that much more interesting than the rest. But if you want some more pretty good other living room-type covers, we’ve gotem (and there are more!).

Indigo Girls featuring Lucy Wainwright Roche – Hammond Song (The Roches cover)

The Indigo Girls have long been fans of The Roches, which makes sense, considering how their two voices harmonize so well. Back in 2013, I wrote a piece about the Indigo Girls and featured a 1985 acoustic duo performance of “Hammond Song” by Emily and Amy. It’s a song that has continued to feature in their live shows over the years. Lucy Wainwright Roche, the (very underrated) daughter of Suzzy and Loudon Wainwright III, is a regular opening act for the Indigo Girls, and Lucy often performs with them (covering the high harmonies that they sometimes have trouble hitting these days), including on her Aunt Maggie’s song. (I’ve seen them do it with both Lucy and Suzzy, but if it isn’t on YouTube, it didn’t happen). Here’s one performance from 2016 in which Emily acknowledges her love for the song and their fandom for the Roches, with Lucy and badass tour violinist Lynis Hung joining in.

salyu × salyu – Hammond Song (The Roches cover)

We have two covers in our list that are endorsed by surviving Roche sisters. This cover, by the Japanese singer Salyu collaborating with producer Cornelius, was released in 2011 on the album S(o)un(d)beams, and is remarkably faithful to the original, if you discount the Japanese-accented English, and the replacement of Fripp’s guitar with synthesizer. It’s very beautiful, and in the comments to the YouTube video where I first heard it, Terre Roche (using her real estate rental business account Moonswept Villa) commented: “Wow, what a beautiful job you ladies have done. And a real honor for me to hear. I am Terre Roche. Your version of Hammond Song gave me goosebumps. Good luck with everything…”

Choirantine – Hammond Song (The Roches cover)

I know that the choir cover has become a little bit of a cliché, like the ukulele cover or the string quartet cover, but for songs by the Roches, and certainly for “Hammond Song,” having a full choir perform the song transcends the cliché. Choirantine bills itself as a “Worldwide Virtual Chorus,” which gathers its members–who do not have to have any singing talent at all–for occasional Zoom sessions run by its founder and pianist Tim Burns. For any of you who have tried to sing together on Zoom, you know that it is a mess (thanks, latency), so apparently the Choirantine singers are all muted, and sing along with Tim. At the end, participants are given “the option to record yourself at the end for a compilation of the whole arrangement.” It’s a little unclear to me, but it seems as if they then compile the recordings and turn them into a YouTube video. The one for “Hammond Song” works well, with the choir not only taking on all of the vocal parts, but to some degree, the sweeping guitar and other musical accompaniment in the original. The notes to the video state, “According to Suzzy Roche’s touching message to Tim Burns a few days after the song release, Choirantine’s version is by far the most accurate cover of their song.” Do you want to fight Suzzy on this point?

Goblin Cock – Hammond Song (The Roches cover)

Time to vary it up. A lot. Based on the band name alone, you should be able to guess that this is not a pretty cover featuring sweet female harmonies. Nope–it’s “Hammond Song” done in a fast, pounding metal style. Goblin Cock is one of many side projects of Rob Crow, best known for his work with Pinback, and it features members billed as Lord Phallus, Bane Ass-Pounder, King Sith Braindeath, and Loki Sinjuggler. Did I need to include those names here? Of course not. But they are funny. It was released on an album called Roses on the Piano, which consisted of covers “mostly all recorded in different studios, public bathrooms, bus stops, or Guitar Center drum rooms,” which was made available only to subscribers to Crow’s Artist in Residency project in 2018. If anything, this cover shows that “Hammond Song” holds up even when handled roughly, and that maybe Maggie Roche should have written some headbangers.

Victoria Falconer – Hammond Song (The Roches cover)

How does a song best known as the collaboration of three different voices united by genetics sound if performed by a single performer harmonizing with herself (and also playing piano, bass, accordion, percussion, and violin)? Turns out, it works quite well, in this version by Victoria Falconer, an Australian “cross-disciplinary performer, musical director, multi-instrumentalist, writer, composer and creative mentor, [who] works across cabaret, musical theatre, drag and live music.”  Recorded “on a rainy day in [her] makeshift home studio vocal booth,” Falconer’s cover channels the original through her own, admittedly, lo-fi sensibility.

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  5 Responses to “Five Good Covers: “Hammond Song” (The Roches)”

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  1. For decades, this has been the signature song of Yale’s female a cappella group, Whim ‘N Rhythm (the counterpart to the Whiffenpoofs), their finale in every live performance, which often involves alumnae joining them on stage to give it a multigenerational impact. Beautiful every time.

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