Aug 032022
 

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

“Willie O’ Winsbury” is all about gender-fluidity, and it’s about the rejection of all things patriarchal. But it didn’t come out of some woke college campus; it’s a Scottish ballad that goes back to 1775, if not earlier. Some argue that the events it describes took place in the 13th century.

For those keeping score, “Willie O’ Winsbury” is Child Ballad #100. The Child ballads were not for children: the name comes from FC Child, the 19th century song-catcher who compiled hundreds of English and Scottish ballads from past centuries.

Even in the most modernized version of the song, its old-fashioned language isn’t easy to parse. You can listen carefully (like I did) and still miss the juicier implications and its revolutionary flavor (like I did, until I heard Scottish comedian Stewart Lee discuss it). Normally it’s best to let lyrics speak for themselves, but in this case I will write some notes in the margins:

  • The first shocker is not that the king’s unmarried daughter Janet became pregnant when he was away, or that the king rather brutally inspected her body in court in order to confirm this. The shocker is that she slept with Willie, a peasant. In feudal Europe you didn’t do this.
  • The next surprise is not that the king decides to hang Willie, but that upon seeing the strapping young man brought before the court the king’s heart melts. He admits he’d sleep with this hottie, too, if he (the king) were a woman. This king is kinky enough to realize his daughter was doing the right and natural thing after all.
  • The king invites Willie to marry his daughter and offers to make him a lord of the land. A pretty sweet deal, especially for someone being fitted for a noose.
  • Plot twist: Willie declines the offer. Oh, he’ll marry the king’s daughter all right, but it’s purely out of love, and he rejects anything to do with the king’s wealth or power. That’s the implication, anyway. The couple rejects the social order for a natural order. (Either their heads are full of early Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau, or they are too horny to think straight.)
  • When the couple gallops off into the sunset, the song’s narrator implies (in not so many words) that the couple have more wealth in the form of individual liberty than any knight or lord could claim.

Of course, all this is merely one reading of one version of a popular ballad. Variants of the song exist under various titles, with this verse or that inserted, deleted, or altered. In some versions, Willie is a man of wealth in peasant disguise.

So much for the story. The tune itself–the melody and chord progression–is also worth appreciating. How the chord sequence fails to resolve harmonically at any point, but circles back on itself like a staircase in an Escher print. It never seems to lose momentum. (Well, at least not in the arrangements I like.)

And speaking of arrangements I like…
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Jul 162022
 

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

Thunderstruck

From 1990’s The Razors Edge, “Thunderstruck” has become one of AC/DC’s best and biggest hits. Their most played video on YouTube (last fall it racked up its billionth view), it has also become a magnet for unusual covers, from babies to Buddhist monks to bagpipes. We thought we’d take a look at the instrumental side of the “Thunderstruck” equation, to go with this week’s Q&A, and pick out the best vocal-free performances. It wasn’t easy, spoiled for choice as we were, but we’ll stand by our top three…

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Jul 082022
 

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

Liverpool band The La’s were famously not happy with the version of “There She Goes” that became a UK #13 single for them in November 1990, especially not the singing La’ who wrote it, Lee Mavers. They were not happy, either, with the numerous other versions of the song they recorded for Go! Discs during 12 expensive sessions, with a string of different producers, over the preceding three years: The Bob Andrews version, the Mike Hedges version, the John Leckie version… They complained bitterly that they hadn’t nailed the song, or indeed any of the songs that appeared on their debut album, with Mavers memorably telling the NME in October 1990 that they sounded “all fucked up like a snake with a broken back.”

So what chance do other artists have in getting “There She Goes” right?
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Mar 182022
 

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

Where Eagles Dare

Let’s start with the chorus. “Where Eagles Dare” by the Misfits has one of the most insanely catchy choruses ever written, one that demands to be sung at the top of one’s lungs. Ironically, it’s a chorus that you’ll never hear on commercial radio, what with its using swear words (no matter what Archie Bunker says). But when you do hear this song, whether in a club or a set of headphones, just try not to bang your head or punch the air.

Seeing as how it’s impossible not to sing along, you can be sure it’s not impossible to find covers of “Where Eagles Dare.” Many of them are musical soundalikes, landing their punches just as hard as the original did (and does). But, as always, the ones we’re most interested in are the ones that take the song to another place. Of these…

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Jan 112022
 

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

Anyone who followed Tom Waits’ career through the ’70s probably didn’t like the odds of Waits staying relevant–or even staying alive–into the ’80s. In his personal life Waits courted ruin, and artistically he was stuck. His beatnik schtick was played out; the booze-hound tropes were tired. Waits had become the sort of lost soul he’d always pretended to be in his act. When his Elektra/Asylum label dropped him in 1982, the setback looked to be self-inflicted–a sad but unsurprising turn in a once-promising career.

Then Waits re-emerged in 1983 and unveiled Swordfishtrombones. The chaotic gem of an album that Elektra/Asylum couldn’t deal with changed everything. Its surreal title and curious photography told you in an instant that Waits had a brand new bag.

Still, the new Waits was the same as the old Waits in some ways. His voice was still ravaged, the piano still needed tuning. His lyrics dealt with the usual fixations in the same old vocabulary: car parts and pawn shops and a greasy breakfast. Waits world. But musically and conceptually, Waits was stepping out–far out. “Field recordings and Caruso and tribal music and Lithuanian language records and Leadbelly,” he said. “There’s a place where all these things overlap.”

Waits now took his characters into outlandish emotional extremes; weird raw cinematic sounds evoked their fevered ruminations. He adopted bothersome instruments no one else else wanted: marimbas, calliopes, glass harmonicas; bagpipes, banjos, and brake drums. Musical orphans. All the while his peers were getting busy with MIDI (born 1983) and synth-pop possibilities–even Neil Young, with Trans. Not Waits.

The follow-up album dropped two years later: Rain Dogs. The project doubled down on the eccentricity and experimentalism, revealing Swordfishtrombones as an opening move in a larger game. Rain Dogs may stand as peak Waits; it is certainly the crowning centerpiece of the trilogy that concluded with Franks Wild Years in 1987. Right in the center of the centerpiece is where you find “Hang Down Your Head.”

The song is not a standout track on the album–not in terms of popularity or creativity. It competes for attention with eighteen (!) other tracks, all of which are keepers, many of which are more developed both lyrically and musically than “Hang Down Your Head.” It’s the album’s most conventional and safe song (probably why Island selected it for the first single). Its only cutting edge is the stabbing guitar-work of Marc Ribot.

But “Hang Down Your Head” does stand out in this way: it’s the only song on Rain Dogs or Swordfishtrombones not solely written by Tom Waits. The credits go to Kathleen Brennan and Tom Waits. Kathleen is the inspiration for Waits’ “Jersey Girl” (one of Waits’ best sellers, thanks in large part to Bruce Springsteen’s cover) and for “Johnsburg, Illinois.” The couple would go on to co-write many more songs on the albums to follow, but “Hang Down Your Head” is their first effort.

Waits himself credits Brennan for his ’80s resurgence, considers her the catalyst for his brave new approach to sound and songcraft. It’s curious that their first song together is not about starting over, but about loss, the train that takes you away from the unrequited love, the end of the affair.

In terms of covers, the musical world has somewhat overlooked “Hang Down Your Head.” But our three choices leap out from the pack, and we rank them as follows…
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