If you were to look at the charts, the Beach Boys basically stopped having giant hits after 1966’s “Good Vibrations” (with the obvious exception of 1988’s “Kokomo”). They’re a singles band whose singles mostly dried up six years into their sixty-year career. They had a brief run of good-time hits about girls, cars, and surfing, then faded. They’re the band preserved forever in that cornball publicity photo up top.
But that’s not the story these covers tell.
The big hits are here, sure. “Surfer Girl” and “Fun Fun Fun” and “I Get Around” etc. But so are many now-iconic tunes that weren’t hits. “God Only Knows,” the Beach Boys’ most covered song, peaked at #39. By their standards, that’s a straight-up flop. Many other covered songs didn’t even make it that high. But “God Only Knows” has of course belatedly been recognized as one of the great pop songs of the 20th century. As has the album it came off of, Pet Sounds, itself a relative commercial failure.
Pet Sounds, of course, has long since been recognized as a classic. So some artists dig even deeper. “Lonely Sea” is an album cut off their 1963 album Surfin’ U.S.A. “Trader” comes off the 1973 album Holland. Three separate songs here originally came off Surf’s Up, now the go-to pick for artists who want to show they know more than Pet Sounds. Even a song not released until the ‘90s, “Still I Dream of It,” gets a killer cover.
You can trace the story of the Beach Boys’ reputation through these covers. A group once perceived as a lightweight singles act have been fully embraced as musical geniuses, all the way from the hits of the ’60s through the then-overlooked gems of the ‘70s and beyond. Some of these songs below you probably won’t know. Others you will know every single word of…but you’ve never heard them sung like this.
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)
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.
Mose Allison is possibly best known these days through his association with Van Morrison, who released Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison in 1996. Morrison probably gave Allison’s career a late boost, presenting him as a somewhat kindred spirit, albeit having a few more years on him, and hopefully a more benign presence than Van the Man, if even harder to classify.
I had always filed Allison under jazz, though blues was probably closer to his idiom, yet here we have If You’re Going to the City: A Tribute to Mose Allison, which sees him being covered by a slew of largely rock music gentry from the past few decades. Listening to this selection, it becomes easier to see that blues is at least the template to Allison’s songs. Not necessarily a version familiar to the backstreet bars of Chicago, this is a more polished version of the blues, with echoes of both supper club and Tin Pan Alley – though in Allison’s hands and voice, they sound perhaps a shade less archaic. These are fine songs and, if these covers succeed in pointing attention back to the originals, then at least part of the work of this collection has been done. Continue reading »
Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
I know, I know, cheating with a compilation album, but believe me, I tried, hell, I tried. I wanted to cover the 1972 debut, Roxy Music/Roxy Music, not least as it is “their best,” but also to celebrate this year’s inauguration of the band (or brand) into the R&R Hall of Fame. But let’s face it — however good (most of) the songs are, the cover versions, give or take, are decidedly not. And so few anyway, most being limp copies and ersatz imitations. (And I’m talking about you, Velvet Goldmine, with your Thom Yorke and your faux recreations.) Indeed, it seems, as I researched, that the only person regularly covering Roxy was Bryan Ferry himself, either in solo mode or, now and gloriously, in a jazz age great Gatsby style, both ruled out automatically by default. But they are good….. So I have had to resort to this 2nd best, even if it misses out the sole reason I wanted to take this on in the first place, the superb Tin Machine/Bowie take on “If There is Something,” my favorite-ever Roxy track.
I loved the Roxy, being just the right age as they emerged, in my mid-teens, looking for the hit of new to fertilize my hungry ears. I recall listening to the debut in a Brighton record shop. There was a wiring disconnect in the headphones, giving a buzz in the left ear. I didn’t realize this wasn’t part of the sound for some time (years, actually), thinking it part of the process, and it added to the band’s mystique. The succession of records continued to enthrall, arguably better put together songs as more of the experimental gradually fell by the wayside, not that I could allow myself to admit it. As Eno and every bassist in turn left, so the musicianship upped, the Eddie Jobson years an especial highlight. A few years silence and back they bounced, now a smoother beast altogether, a trio of Ferry, Mackay and Manzanera with the pick of sessiondom’s finest, still great, if mellower. Did they ever really officially fold? There was always the promise of some new undertaking, inevitably subsumed into more Ferry solo projects, his live shows increasingly and ever more Roxy-based. I don’t suppose it will ever happen now, but maybe the memories are stronger.
Fifty years ago, a covers album wasn’t called a “covers album.” It was called an album. Full stop.
Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Billie Holiday – most albums anyone bought were “covers albums” as we’d think of them today, but that’s not how folks thought of them then. Once the public began putting a premium on singers writing their own songs in the ’60s the concept of course shifted, so that an artist doing a covers album has to be like Michael Jordan playing baseball – an okay diversion but let’s get back to the main event please.
More so this year than ever before though, that pendulum seems to be swinging back in small but meaningful ways to what an album originally meant. More and more artists are releasing LPs saying, this is not my new quote-on-quote “covers album,” this is my new album (that happens to consist of covers). The attitude showcases a confidence and surety of purpose that shows they take performing other peoples songs every bit as seriously as they do their own.
That holds true for both of our top two covers albums this year, and plenty more sprinkled throughout. Which isn’t to knock anyone doing a covers album as a lark, novelty, tribute, or side project – you’ll see plenty of those here as well – but any blurred lines that put a “covers album” on the same level as a “normal” album have to be a good thing.