Cover Genres: Box

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Jun 092023

Cover Genres takes a look at cover songs in a very specific musical style.


Herewith the last in the unholy triumvirate of banjo, bagpipes, and box. Time now to unwrap the wonders of melodeon, accordion, concertina, bandoneon and all their squeezy family upon your eager ears. Actually (maybe) a primitive  precursor of the synthesizer, the squeezebox family started life as a way of letting one player give a more orchestral sound to proceedings, the rich textures replicating the play of a whole bevy of musicians. Indeed, in the same way as the Musician’s Union decried the synthesizer, so too will the equivalent of its day have decried the box, taking work away from honest pipe’n’taborists.

This family of instruments casts, arguably, far wider a net than the two B’s that have preceded it here, banjo and bagpipes, with a right of place across very many cultures and categories. Broadly occupying a space in ethnic roots traditions, this has never stopped appearances crossing over into territories that might be more squeeze-averse. Which to me is the joy.

Johnny Allan – Promised Land (Chuck Berry cover)

Top place goes to this belter, which contains, officially, the best ever accordion solo in rock music. Yes, the tune is “Wabash Cannonball,” but Chuck Berry appropriated the tune and added some words of his own. Whilst that version is good, it was the Elvis Presley version that gave the song the fame it deserves, since which time it has been covered by a plethora of artists, in myriad styles, from the Grateful Dead to James Taylor, The Band to Meatloaf. Johnny Allan spices it up with some Cajun sauce, with the fiery accordion solos coming courtesy Belton Richard. Such a good solo, in fact, that is was later picked by Los Lobos for their cover version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Johnny 99” for a Nebraska covers project.

Jo-El Sonnier – Tear Stained Letter (Richard Thompson cover)

Sticking with a (broadly) Cajun base, how about this cracker. Already one of the rockier stars in the ex-Fairport man’s repertoire, it took Jo-El Sonnier to add the exaggerate the obvious ingredient. It is true that, in Richard Thompson’s original iteration, there was squeezebox, c/o John Kirkpatrick, but mixed somewhat lower in the mix than the Rayne, LA player applied to it. Thompson liked it so much they have played it together a number of times.

Beast of Burden – Buckwheat Zydeco (The Rolling Stones cover)

Would it be overdoing it to sneak in one more from this neck of the swamplands? Strictly speaking, this is zydeco rather than Cajun, being the slightly more bluesy and less country black music of the state. Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural, Jr, was one of the best known players. This version of the Stones’ classic positively sways, as he squeezes every ounce of hot sauce out the material. One of many convincing covers he would make his own.

Gotan Project – Chunga’s Revenge (Frank Zappa cover)

Heading deep south now, way south, into the south of South America, to Argentina and the iconic Gotan Project. Of course, even if the musical style morphed and melded is Argentinian, the music actually came together in Paris, always a friendly hub of expatriate world musicians. The brainchild of Eduardo Makaroff, from Buenos Aires, along with Phillipe Solar and Christoph Muller, of French and Swiss background respectively, their modus operandi was to revitalize and ignite the tango. It is fair to say Frank never sounded quite like this, with little overt link to the original, unless you are concentrating.

Flaco Jiménez – Love Me Do (The Beatles cover)

A bit like “Tear Stained Letter” above, Jimenez does little here other than to translate the harmonica of the original to his own accordion. The two instruments don’t even sound that different, based, after all, on the same principle of airflow over reeds. But, in so doing, the whole ambience, even at the same rhythm, is translated fully from Liverpool to some Tex-Mex cantina on the outskirts of Botines, TX. Jimenez is the undisputed king of Norteño and Texan music, as well as having an extensive cross-over career, playing alongside the likes of Doug Sahm and Ry Cooder. He’s great and well worth looking out.

Those Darn Accordions – Stairway To Heaven (Led Zeppelin cover)

Lest we get too worthy, let’s attend to gimmicks and cliche. Those Darn Accordions, or TDA as their fans have it, no doubt see themselves as entirely valid; serious orchestrators and arrangers. To be fair, this isn’t that bad, if maybe not the one you would find yourself searching for, time and time again. I like the conceit whereby, bas and drums aside, it is nothing but various boxes of one form, size, shape or another. The band have actually managed quite a career of this sort of transformative whimsy, covering everything from the classics to kitschy standards, with a whole lot of rock and pop for good measure. In truth, I prefer their medley of “Whole Lotta Love/Black Dog.”

Edward II – Night Nurse (Gregory Isaacs cover)

Morris dancing and reggae weren’t an obviously-made-in-heaven partnership. But that was before Edward II and the Red Hot Polkas, who showed them to be perfect bedfellows. The lineup was initially just some hardcore UK folkies, later coming to the attention of some Manchester Rastas, the band evolving into a rocksteady rhythm section and vocals, the folk influence lingering to give melodeon pride of place, possibly where melodica might otherwise be. The band play on and are festival favorites in the UK. This is from their first full fusion record.

Ashley Hutching’s Big Beat Combo – Telstar (The Tornadoes cover)

Did you catch the melodeon player in the above video? Well, it is him again in this, Simon Care. Hutchings, of course, is the ex-Fairport bassist, who later founded both Steeleye Span and the various stages of the Albion Bands, to include Albion Dance and Albion Country amongst their titles. He also “invented” Morris rock, with the various Morris On recordings. The album from which this track comes is a a tribute to the early ’60s instrumental rock music of the Shadow and similar, morphed and melded into the English folk repertoire.

The Cobhers – Staying Alive (The Bee Gees cover)

Luke Daniels, the melodeon player here, is not widely known outside his own specialist field, but, almost surprisingly, he and this band of other “name” folkies, show how much crossover there can be. They manage the layers and intricacies of the song darn near perfectly. They also do a neat “Pick Up The Pieces,” amongst other songs.

Reel & Soul Association – Green Onions (Booker T & the MGS cover)

Were it not for the whistle rather than bagpipes, this final track could have been the swansong of this short compendium of beastly bios beginning with b, but don’t let stop you searching YouTube for that full house. As it is, this is another situation where a selection of distinguished serious folk artists decided they had all wanted to be rock stars after all. Or, in this case, a funky soul band. Whether they succeeded is in the ear of the beholder, but, given there are a few such indulgences out there, this is actually one of the best. John Kirkpatrick is possibly the doyen of English squeezebox play, devoting his career to melodeons, accordions and concertinas. But, having soiled his status by hooking up with Richard Thompson (that man again), he has been known to plug in and boogie with the best.

Eläkeläiset – Smells Like Humppa(Nirvana cover)

Finally, to end without a feeling that the anglo-concertina is all, some humppa music from Finnish faves, Eläkeläiset, who specialize in this format, together with the slower style, jenkka. With a prodigious back catalog, they are huge in Germany, and this is an example of their MO, to cover a well-known song, at either humppa or jenkka speed, translating or rewriting the lyric into Finnish. (Which this? I haven’t a clue.) I guess humppa may translate as oompah, which seems as bonkers a place to end as this post started.

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