Apr 052024
 

Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.

Labour of Love

I’m on a bit of a Nick Lowe bender at present, provoked by a question I was asked around how many versions there are of the timeless glory of (“What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding.” (A: 70, as a bare minimum, and counting.) And no, here on this page, surely I don’t have to explain that isn’t him covering Elvis Costello, do I? Take it from us.

Lowe has had a curious career, currently riding the wave of celebrated elder statesman, something that, at one time, seemed inconceivable. Indeed, pub-rock was never deigned or designed to build legendary status, being more about a rowdy night out, three-minute songs and sticky carpets. For pub-rock is where he emerged first, that early ’70s response to the prevailing mood of the music of the day, then all sprawling epics, awash with endless lookatme solos and preening prima donna frontmen, more in touch with their accountants than their audience. Pub rock was fun and uplifting, by people that looked like you, for people that looked like you, a good time, recycling the best of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, country and soul. Solos were for sissies and the chorus was king.

Brinsley Schwarz, the band, had a shaky start fifty-four years ago today, but they picked themselves up and dusted themselves down. Songs and haircuts shortened, they joined a joyous circuit of largely London pubs, along with Dr. Feelgood, Ducks Deluxe, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers and many more. Predating punk by a year or three, the enthusiasm and excitement was the same, if garbed with a touch more experience and age. Nick Lowe was bassist, lead singer and main songwriter for Brinsley Schwarz, and they made a good run for themselves before splitting. Schwarz, the guitarist who gave his name to the name of the group, hooked up with Graham Parker and was the linchpin of his band, The Rumour, whilst Lowe joined forces with Welsh retro-rock guitar man Dave Edmunds to form Rockpile.

The Rockpile years saw a stellar uplift in Lowe’s writing. Whilst his influences remained obvious, his magpie tendencies with a melody were less overt, and the run of records, whilst short, was wonderful. (Rockpile, the band, only really made one record, but Edmunds and Lowe’s solo albums were Rockpile records in everything but name, as was, arguably, Musical Shapes, an album by Lowe’s then-wife Carlene Carter.) As that band subsided, so Lowe advanced on a solo career, with more acclaim than sales.

The story goes that, down on his luck and thinking of jacking it all in, plop, a letter arrived in his mailbox. Unbeknownst to him, a cover of “Peace, Love and Understanding” had been picked up for a film. Curtis Stigers, in case you didn’t know.) And when that film is The Bodyguard, with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, a massive worldwide hit, with the soundtrack album going likewise global, the royalties on that one song were rather more than just an unexpected bonus, effectively paving the way for his career to continue.

Since then, Lowe has continued to ply his idiosyncratic path, with almost deliberately unfashionable songs of self-deprecation and sly humor, allied to melodies culled from musical styles seldom at any cutting edge, becoming a UK national treasure. His production work, with early Elvis Costello and the Pretenders, has also planted a reputation for a sound yet simple approach, where the melody is master, the surroundings there merely to reflect the song rather than to divert attention elsewhere. Content to follow his own muse, he is as likely to play live in a solo setting, just his voice and an acoustic guitar, rattling through his “hits,” as to turn up with oddball Tex-Mex rockabilly renegades Los Straitjackets, who have become an unofficially regular backing group for him.

Labour of Love is one of at least three Lowe tributes, there having been also Lowe Profile, featuring the likes of Dave Alvin and old Brinsley’s bandmate, Ian Gomm, and Lowe Country, with Amanda Shires, Ron Sexsmith and Chatham County Line, amongst others. I could have featured any of the trio, but collectively, I think this tops the other two. Curated by L.A. power popper Walter Clevenger, himself in thrall to the styles embraced by Lowe, and to the singer himself, this 2001 double disc captures most of Lowe’s moods and re-presents them in the hands of his peers, the affection often palpably obvious.

Continue reading »

Jun 202014
 

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. — Lester Bangs, 1979

I was so shocked when I was teaching a seminar at Princeton just a couple years ago, and out of 16 students, four of them said their favorite album was Astral Weeks. Now, how did it enter their lives? We’re talking about an album that was recorded well before they were born, and yet it spoke to them. They understood its language as soon as they heard it. — Greil Marcus, 2009

To paraphrase the singer of “Sweet Thing,” Astral Weeks is dynamite and we don’t know why. The album Van Morrison created in his early twenties has detonated in more psyches than thousands of better known works, but when its biggest fans try to explain its greatness, more often than not, their tongues get tied every time they try to speak.
Continue reading »