May 062022
 

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

Strangers in the Night

SecondHandSongs says that the two most-covered songs written in 1966 were by the Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby” and “Here, There and Everywhere.” That’s no surprise. The next two most-covered songs from that year were written by another songwriting team; Burt Bacharach and Hal David came up with “The Look of Love” and “Alfie.” Also no big surprise.

But then comes the fifth-most-covered song of 1966: “Beddy Bye” by Bert Kaempfert. Ring any bells? If not, perhaps you’ll recognize it from the movie it appeared in – the James Garner comedy-thriller A Man Could Get Killed. Still no? Well, at the time it had no lyrics, but once they arrived, and once Frank Sinatra sang them, it became immortal as “Strangers in the Night.”
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Apr 082022
 

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

Beatles Yesterday covers

This post has been a long time coming. Any cover song site worth its weight in scrambled eggs has to touch on the most covered song by the most covered band of all time. So now we arrive at “Yesterday” by the Beatles, a song they recorded four days before Paul McCartney turned 23. (They recorded “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “I’m Down” during the same session – not a bad day’s work, Paul.)

“Yesterday” was the first Beatles song to feature only one member, and the first to feature a string quartet. The lads weren’t especially keen on the song, burying it deep on side two of Help! and not allowing it to be released as a single in the UK. Matt Monro stepped up to release his version two months after the Beatles released theirs. Après Matt, le déluge – over a hundred covers in 1966 alone, over three thousand covers total according to the Guinness Book of World Records (you get the sense that they eventually threw up their hands and stopped counting).

Sinatra, Aretha, Dylan, Elvis – all of them recorded terrific versions. Many more great ones were recorded by artists who weren’t known by only one name. Parodies were recorded by artists from EuFourla to the Beatles themselves (on their 1965 Christmas record). In fact, never has the topic “Five Good Covers” felt more woefully inadequate than it does for this song. Nevertheless, we persist, and we hope you enjoy these five drops in “Yesterday”‘s ocean.
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Mar 172022
 

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

I can’t judge the person who thinks that “Every Breath You Take” is a song of pure devotion, or that “Born in the USA” is a patriotic anthem. I can’t judge, because for years I insisted “Dirty Old Town” was a traditional Irish ballad. We all make mistakes.

The truth is that “Dirty Old Town” has nothing to do with Ireland, and it’s not all that old. Ewan MacColl wrote the song in 1948 about the northern England industrial town of Salford, where the songwriter was born and raised. He came up with the song as a quick fix for a play he had written about Salford—he needed a bit of filler to facilitate a costume change. A humble beginning for a song about MacColl’s own beyond-humble beginnings.

Despite his place of birth, MacColl long claimed to be Scottish. As an upcoming dramatist, he allied himself with the Scottish literary renaissance then taking place. His Scottish parents christened him James Henry Miller, but he renamed himself in honor of a nineteenth century Scottish poet.

So how did the song’s connection with Ireland take hold? It’s mainly because popular Irish trad folk band the Dubliners recorded a version in 1968. At that point the Dubliners had played and recorded traditional Irish material almost entirely. Presented in this context, it’s no wonder the song about northern England passed as Irish.

But it’s also a matter of timing: the Dubliners’ version came out the same year that “The Troubles” began in Northern Ireland—the bombings, riots, protests, and paramilitary campaigns that would last for 30 years. The violence in the song’s climax—“I’m going to make a good sharp axe […] I’ll chop you down like an old dead tree”—could not help but resonate with the political and sectarian resentments erupting in Belfast and beyond. For Ewan MacCall, an avowed Marxist, the song’s anger had to do with the brutal labor conditions in the industrial north (axe = communism, tree = capitalism, at least according to some interpretations), but this is a classic case of a song transcending its own origin story.

MacColl had another passion and pursuit: he was a key architect of the post-war folk-song revival—a sort of Celtic Alan Lomax. In fact Lomax—the champion song hunter from Texas, the man whose field recordings brought to light Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, and hundreds more—joined forces with MacColl when the American decamped to the U.K. and Spain during the 1950s. MacColl along with Lomax had everything to do with the blossoming of folk music clubs and folk recording labels on both sides of the Atlantic. In other words, it was MacColl’s efforts to give folk traditions legitimacy and popularity that created the very cultural conditions in which songs like “Dirty Old Town” could thrive.

Here’s our selection of covers, the big influential ones and the overlooked ones both.

Frank Black–“Dirty Old Town” (Ewan MacColl cover)

Pixies founder and frontman Frank Black (aka Black Francis) hails from Boston, probably the most Irish city in North America. But the city we need to talk about here is Nashville. Black’s cover is so infused with southern soul music and country music influences, you might think for a second it’s Clint Black, not Frank Black. This rendition is from 2006’s Fast Man Raider Man, an album Black recorded with a bevy of Tennessee studio legends (Steve Cropper among them) and younger country notables like Marty Brown (in a vocal duet with Black). It’s a variant that shrugs off the usual associations we make with the song and with the ex-Pixie himself. After Black and Brown trade verses, the volume swells and they sail away on a wave of shouty harmonies. They bring a sharp edge back into the song, especially the part about the axe.

Steve Earle and Bap Kennedy–“Dirty Old Town” (Ewan MacColl cover)

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For a native of San Antonio, Texas, Steve Earle has formed impressive connections to Ireland and Irish music. The Pogues guested on his first album. His mid-career hit “The Galway Girl” is accepted in Ireland as an Irish standard—which might remind you of another non-Irish writer of a song adopted by Ireland.

This track comes out of Earle’s collaboration with Belfast-born Bap Kennedy. Despite Kennedy’s partnerships with high-profiler like Van Morrison and Mark Knopler, the singer-songwriter flew below most people’s radar. He led a band called Energy Orchard, and released a few solo albums before passing away in 2016 at age 54. This track is particularly obscure: it is an unlisted bonus cut on Kennedy’s solo debut (produced by Steve Earle and released on Earle’s label). In fact it’s really an Easter egg, coming on after something like 25 minutes of silence on the album’s last track.

Earle later covered “Dirty Old Town” on a MacColl tribute album, but this duet with Bap Kennedy has the correct level of rough, with Jerry Douglas on dobro providing the smooth.

Bettye LaVette–“Dirty Old Town” (Ewan MacColl cover)

As we’ve noted on a few occasions in the past, Bettye LaVette is a singer known to take command of a song in anyway she sees fit. If the lyric needs some rewriting, a rewriting it gets.

“Dirty Old Town” is a song that has always lent itself to renewal. Its first line originally ended with the phrase “by the Gasworks croft.” Interpreters usually change “croft” to another one-syllable word—“glow,” “door,” “walk,” “wall”—because “croft” is obscure. The original lyrics also referred to “the Salford wind,” until altered to “smoky wind.” These modest retrofits helped modernize the song and make it more relatable.

When LaVette sings “Dirty Old Town,” it’s Detroit she’s singing about. MacColl starts with the gasworks, LaVette with the Graystone—the famous dance hall that was Detroit’s citadel of jazz and Motown music. In MacColl’s original, “cats are prowling,” but in LaVette’s version “cops are prowling.” The violence that occurs in LaVette’s version may be racially motivated, but LaVette unites with MacColl in bearing witness to brutality in its varying forms. LaVette also celebrates her city, and in the climatic verse she throws us a curve she expresses pride in the fact that Detroit resisted the axe that tried to chop it down. She’s a soul survivor herself, and in her hometown’s defiance sees a reflection of her own story.

The Pogues–“Dirty Old Town” (Ewan MacColl cover)

If the “Definitive Version” medal doesn’t go to The Dubliners for their cover, the award must go to The Pogues. After all, it’s got the proper lineage – the songwriter’s daughter Kirsty MacColl herself was affiliated with the Pogues (though her stint came some time after the “Dirty Old Town” recording).

Frontman Shane MacGowan pretty much presented like a bloke fresh off a shift at the gasworks–he sounded like one, too. That’s part of the charm of the Pogues’ cover. In a parallel to Ewan MacColl’s bio, the Englishman MacGowan came to identify strongly with his Irish immigrant parents’ background. After his punk incarnation, MacGowan reinvented himself musically with an Irish roots concept. Pogues-style “Dirty Old Town” borrows from the Dubliners version and from the original version. The band gives it an instrumental verse, and they do a change key on the verse, too, which boosts the song’s energy most rousingly. No wonder their cover re-ignited interest in the song.

The Dubliners–“Dirty Old Town” (Ewan MacColl cover)

We close with a (not the) definite version of the song. (It’s a split decision with The Pogues—and the split is along generational lines.) Usually we talk about cover versions bringing a fresh new angle or sound to an older, somewhat stale initial take. The Dubliners version of “Dirty Old Town” somehow feels older than MacColl’s 1952 original, more trad than the original, which after all had an early modern jazz feel to it, complete with clarinet solo.

If The Dubliners thought The Pogues somehow piggy-backed on their work or stole their thunder, they sure didn’t show any resentment about it. The two bands teamed up numerous times afterwards; they appeared on each other’s albums, and sometimes shared the same stage at the same time (with Joe Strummer joining in on at least one occasion, in case the stage wasn’t crowded enough). Both bands probably loved crossing generational divides in addition to nationalistic ones. They were all of them rakes, rebels, and rovers.

Feb 182022
 

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

Hey Ya covers

Outkast has been hugely influential in the rap genre, and the duo has been innovating since their first album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was released in 1994. Big Boi and André 3000  began to crossover to pop with songs like “Ms. Jackson,” but the Speakerboxxx/The Love Below album quickly became the duo’s biggest commercial success. In this double album, Speakerboxxx represented Big Boi’s vision while The Love Below represented André 3000’s. The first two singles promoted one song of each: “The Way You Move” (which definitely deserves its own Cover Me post at some point) and “Hey Ya!”. Both became instant dance-floor classics.

“Hey Ya!” really has it all. A call-and-response, a coined dance move, and references to Beyoncé and Lucy Liu. Is it a happy song? Is it a sad song? Do we really care? The song topped FiveThirtyEight’s data-driven ultimate wedding playlist, and this checks out. I have personally been the one shaking it like a Polaroid picture on the wedding reception dance floor and wow, do I want to be doing that again. With the backlog of weddings postponed because of the pandemic, will 2022 finally see the resurgence of this essential rite of passage for a newly married couple? Time will tell. Until then let’s hear some others reimagine “Hey Ya!”

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Feb 142022
 

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

Blue Monday covers

“Blue Monday” is feels too darn recent to be almost 40 years old. That may be due to the number of times it has been re-released, each time never outstaying the welcome the immediately discernible intro offers. Which is one of the problems, but we’ll get to that.

New Order, having emerged phoenix-like from the ashes of Joy Division and the suicide of frontman Ian Curtis, appeared to have hit the ground running with the iconic “Blue Monday.” But it was actually a year or two into their formation, 1983, earlier recordings having been more akin to the maudlin gloomcore of their earlier incarnation. Only after a wider exposure to techno and house music, along with the absorption of synthesist Gillian Gilbert into the band, did they have the conviction to fully embrace and add such textures to their existing sound.

“Blue Monday” epitomized where guitars and dance music might meet, making for a new breed of visceral electronica, with some organic frailty heightening the robotic artifice. The biggest selling 12″ single ever made, it remains a perpetual in the live repertoire on the still functioning band, who, according to setlist.fm, have played it 448 times in their 41 year history.

There are more covers of this song than you might expect. Broadly, they fall into two categories: the copycat, identifiable in seconds from the staccato drums, and the ambient acoustic deconstruction. They make up, between them, well over half the field available. The former seems sort of pointless and the latter, well… Much as I love that style, they are all a bit samey and a bit, given they are mostly Gallic in origin, vieux chapeau, which made the decision for me that they would not be included here. (Except, in passing, the one by Nouvelle Vague.)

No, I like my Blue Mondays to stand out. Like these five here…
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Jan 212022
 

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

California Dreamin' covers

Michelle Phillips had never seen snow before. She grew up in Mexico and California, so when she went to New York to stay at the Earle Hotel with her husband John, she didn’t have the right clothes. The couple had spent the day walking together, stopping by a church to warm up in the process. The next morning, John woke her up and told her to write this down.

“This” was the start of “California Dreamin’,” the Mamas and the Papas’ first big hit. It was earmarked to be Barry McGuire’s next big hit after “Eve of Destruction” – they’d recorded the backing vocals for him and everything – but then the powers that be decided to strip McGuire’s lead and add Denny Doherty’s. The Mamas and the Papas version came out first, and in Los Angeles, it did nothing. But in Boston, a town that knows a thing or two about wishing for warmth in the dead of winter, it hit big, and from there it soon made it to all of America. (Even if most of America, including Cass Elliott herself, misheard the lyric “I got down on my knees / And I pretend to pray” as “I began to pray.”)
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