Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
By 1998, John Martyn had lost the teen-idol good looks and the equally angelic voice of his debut recordings. He’d been through a few bumps along the way as well, distressingly, walking proof of what happens when you don’t “just say no.” Let’s just say his appetite for a self-destructive intake was prodigious; when his website describes him as a “maverick,” often you can paraphrase that into “drunken bum.” The irony is, at the time of his demise in 2009, he was several months sober and about to embark on new work. I have difficulty when character is allowed to impact on appreciation, with individuals being disappeared on account their attitudes. After all, across the centuries of artistic endeavor, to paraphrase Ian Dury, “there ain’t half been some clever bastards,” with the emphasis on the latter word as other than a term of affection or illegitimacy. Sure, there is a line to be drawn, but, I ain’t drawing it here.
Most folk know only the early stuff, with “May You Never” the frontrunner amongst the songs known to civilians, even if only from the versions of others, like Eric Clapton or Rod Stewart. I freely confess it was only as he became more ragged and less reliable that I took to him, and to his later work. In fact, it wasn’t until the Glasgow Walker album that I plucked up enough interest to fully engage, any residual folk singer in him long since buried. Now he planted his feet very much more in a smoky jazz club dive ambience, where his superlatively slurred delivery matched the swirls of brass, often embracing elements of the then-new trip-hop movement.
It was around about this time that he put out The Church With One Bell, his only collection of covers, sourced across an enormous range of styles and influences. How often would Portishead and Billie Holiday find themselves as bedfellows? His 20th studio release, it was actually put together in 1998, so two years ahead Glasgow Walker, and was made with long term associates Spencer Cozens (keyboards), John Giblin (bass) and Arran Ahmun (percussion). Remarkably, or not, depending on your opinions as to whether the sometime murkiness of sound is deliberate or not, it took barely a week to conceive, choose and put together. And the church on the cover? Martyn’s. The deal was, apparently, that his fee was the purchase, for him, of the same church as pictured, along with its solitary bell, as he liked the look of it. Fair enough?! Whether the company recouped is left unsaid, the record only attaining a peak position of 51 on the chart of the day. Irrespective, it has remained a core favorite amongst his following and deserves a place in this ongoing series.
Bobby Charles’ own version of the opening number is a slow panhandling shuffle, so it comes as quite a surprise to hear how Martyn and co. instill it with a whole heap of muscular Windy City swing, quite removed from the N’Awlins delta vibe it was written in. If Martyn’s voice sounds every bit as fragile as Charles’, the feel is more of a crouching beast to cross at your peril. (So about right, then.) The solid rhythm section plows through relentlessly, shimmery electric piano the main vehicle, aside that voice. “God’s Song” might have seemed an odd choice, but it works a dream, and sounds then how Randy Newman sounds now, in a bizarre iteration of history imitating art. They push the hint of blues in the original to the hilt, with a piano that could have come straight from St James’ Infirmary. It is a triumph, especially if you choose to bypass the lyric, perhaps too wordy for the slurred drawl of delivery. Listeners at the time were unenthusiastic; I’m waving a flag for it!
So far the songs are relatively orthodox for a singer from a folk background, increasingly flexing his jazz and blues chops. So to choose a song from the decidedly outré canon of Dead Can Dance, with lyrics from Bertolt Brecht, no less, might seem quite a leap. However, the “Host of the Seraphim” hitmakers were never really the goths they were often lumped in with; many of their songs were sprawling, soaring power ballads, usually with arrangements drawn deep from the the well of melodrama and doom. Their version of “How Fortunate the Man With None,” sung by Brendan Perry with lugubrious clarity, becomes a murky bog of jittery rhythms, over which a surprisingly upbeat Martyn babbles and synths burble, not so distant from the style of Dr. John at his most bonkers Mardi Gras. Triumphant or complete misstep? Your choice, but maybe some relief as he retreats to the safety of another Bobby Charles cover, “Small Town Talk.” His voice here is sweeter and softer, a throwback to the timbres of his earlier work, the whole a delightfully gentle sway of a version, the arrangement apt for the mood offered up. If it sent listeners scurrying back to the altogether scuzzier original, and the sometimes overlooked output of the Louisiana singer, all good. Sticking with this sort of territory, Ben Harper’s “Excuse Me Mister” is perfect for him, a song that, bizarrely, sounds like a Martyn original. Even when sung by Harper.
“Strange Fruit” is the perennial most shocking song of all time, and innumerable covers over the decades since Billie Holiday gave it its debut in 1935. By 1998 it was slightly less well remembered outside the jazz and r’n’b markets, with Nina Simone the most obvious template. Sure, Sting, Siouxsie and, memorably, Robert Wyatt had taken potshots at it, but they had dived nowhere so deep as Martyn. From the slightly dissonant tone of the piano, he extracts a well of despair from the stark lyric, his voice beseeching in abject yet objective horror. By keeping it simple, and by having you wait a bit for him to start singing, is is as gaunt and as beautiful as any.
You would think an Elmore James song, “The Sky Is Crying,” would be safe territory, right? Well, not quite, deconstructing the song out of any recognizable links to the other received versions: James’ own, Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan. For a start, guitar barely features, with the song opening with a falsetto wail that could almost be a muezzin. Over a drone of keyboard strings, Martyn intones the lyrics in a spectral croak. The only something else that ever happens is the entrance of drums two-thirds of the way through, an emphatic entrance at that. First listen, WTF; second listen, it’s a miracle. Eric Clapton later covered the song and there is little doubt he had heard this one as well as the others.
“Glory Box” is one of the songs that define not only Portishead, but the whole trip-hop movement. That Martyn was listening and aware is one thing, but with this, the penny perhaps drops that Portishead were likely listening to Martyn. Certainly Beth Gibbons was; her preternatural wail is indebted to the eccentric phrasing Martyn applies to lyrics. With acoustic bass and a simplistic and hypnotic drumbeat, Giblin and Ahmun out-trip the machines and loops of Portishead, Martyn’s guitar solo a brief flurry of economical fire. It is a wonderful version, and, live and electric, even that much more so.
“Feel So Bad” is almost an anticlimax after that, sounding almost pedestrian. Except, Martyn having near outgunned himself for “Glory Box,” still imbues features of his own into the distinctly conventional first outing from Chuck Willis (check it out here). Possibly owing more to Little Milton‘s later and more soulful stab at it, Martyn is back at his sweetest, oozing wry sorrow out the lyric, as the rhythm section halter along regardless. At any other position in the playlist it would be one of the best songs here. But the closer is exactly where and what it should be, a spooky testimonial that, with an echoed drums and sepulchral organ, brings back all the gospel into the blues of the Reverend Gary Davies. Hellfire gospel, that is, a warning as to the inevitability of the end, a brooding promise. The bowed bass adds further drops of earth onto the coffin. With an additional verse of his own, the desperation and horror ramped high, Martyn nails it (shut). If there were any doubt, this is how to perform a cover version, maintaining the power of the original but with layers all of your own.
Frankly, who cares if some of these songs work better than others; critics at the time were certainly often quite sniffy. Taken with the passage of time, The Church With One Bell more than makes up for the slighter cuts, which are still pretty darn good, by the heft of the blockbuster trio, “Fortunate,” “Fruit,” and “Glory.” (Yup, the first mentioned, as it sinks further in, has become a high water mark in this floodplain.)
The Church With One Bell tracklisting:
1. He’s Got All the Whiskey (Bobby Charles cover)
2. God’s Song (Randy Newman cover)
3. How Fortunate the Man With None (Dead Can Dance cover)
4. Small Town Talk (Bobby Charles cover)
5. Excuse Me Mister (Ben Harper cover)
6. Strange Fruit (Billie Holiday cover)
7. The Sky Is Crying (Elmore James cover)
8. Glory Box (Portishead cover)
9. Feel So Bad (Chuck Willis cover)
10. Death Don’t Have No Mercy (Rev. Gary Davis cover)