Dec 012023
 

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

Shane MacGowan covers

No matter how much longer than anyone’s expectations Shane MacGowan may have lived, the news that this polymath contradiction has died still manages to come as a body blow and a shock. Only last week there were sighs of relief, with his being discharged from his Dublin hospital bed, his home for most of the last year, with his wife Victoria citing he was being discharged for Christmas. Clearly it was to die, which he did, in his own bed.

Our job at Cover Me is not to replay all the tales of MacGowan’s excesses and exploits yet again; Lord knows, there will be plenty of that elsewhere. Here we come to celebrate his supreme gift of songwriting, through a prism of cover versions. MacGowan crafted songs that seemed drawn from the deepest well of Irish tradition, full of arcane and archaic imagery. He used a lexicon drawn from mythology, poetry and the gutter, yet imbued with a recognition of all the current ways and woes of the world. He thus confounded listeners, baffled by how all of this could emanate from his shambling and battered frame. How could someone who seemed barely able to speak manage to produce work of such beauty?

I caught the Pogues but once, early on in their career, mayhap 1986, in a dodgy venue in Birmingham, UK. It was, in turns, exhilarating and terrifying, the latter courtesy the howling, drunken mob of a pre-Christmas audience. Keeping a low profile, I was entranced, as the band rollicked through song after song after song. It was impossible to see the join between the traditional and the new, all soaked in a melee of whistle, accordion, banjo and guitars, the permaslurring frontman both totally out of it and totally in the moment. And this was well before they became TV favorites, on Top Of The Pops, first for their duet with the Dubliners, a version of “The Irish Rover,” and later with perennial Xmas favorite “Fairytale Of New York.” I was instantly hooked.

The first few albums have rightly become iconic–if anything, more so with the passage of time–as the quality of MacGowan’s lyricism has taken focus over the tunes. But, before losing sight of the tunes themselves, riddle me this: how many individuals and how many bands can lay claim to inventing a whole genre? That’s what MacGowan and the Pogues did, founding a genre that continues to have worldwide traction. In the same way as few places in the world fail now to have Irish pubs, so too there are Celtic punk bands from all four corners of the globe. But, returning to his lyrics, Bob Dylan apart, few writers have provoked such academic attention and praise as MacGowan, and there will be a whole lot more now.

So let’s have a look at some of those songs…
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Sep 302022
 

‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

beach boys covers

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.

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Jan 282022
 

‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

best smiths covers

Who was the first band you felt truly understood you? The one who seemed to verbalize your every inexpressible thought with such pinpoint precision, who from the moment you first heard them made every other band that previously occupied your heart cease to matter? If you happened to have come of age in the ’80s, there was only one band in the entire universe that truly understood your pining and suffering. They were called The Smiths, and they totally got you.

The Smiths weren’t like the other (’80s) boys whose blonde highlights, synthesizers, and colorfully androgynous sartorial choices were dominating the pop charts and MTV. While Duran Duran and Wham! swanned on glamorous beaches and aimed themselves straight at your, uh, parts, The Smiths actively avoided the sun and made a beeline for your heart, mind, and bookcase. They didn’t care to make silly videos to promote their wares. Their metaphorical MTV was the music press and Morrissey’s eminently quotable interviews were the key pieces of catnip used to promote the band.

Of course, for all the intellect on display in the magazines, Morrissey was still an immaculately-coiffed heartthrob who knew how to work it in the pictures (Did I write him an unanswered fan letter in 1984 to tell him I loved him? Yes). But the music required no hard selling. Morrissey’s lyrics were revelatory, a magical mix of misery, humor, bitterness, and the embarrassing truth. Who among us hasn’t suffered at some point from “a shyness that is criminally vulgar” or had a “murderous desire for love” or wanted to “hang the DJ”? The union of Morrissey’s immaculate words with Johnny Marr’s chiming guitar melodies made rejection, frustration, and self-loathing sound positively majestic.

Over the years, The Smiths have become something of a code word used to describe the first band that became your friend, the first that looked you straight in your misty eyes, clutched both your hands to their chest, and said “I feel the same way.” This is why the band continues to be covered at such a relentless clip by artists old and new. And it’s why the songs being chosen to cover aren’t confined to the usual cluster of greatest hits. When it comes to The Smiths, it’s just a little more personal.

The Smiths are never, ever getting back together. The years of inter-band sniping far exceed the number that the band was actually together. Hell, as we were finalizing this list this week yet another Moz-Marr dustup occurred. But that’s okay. We don’t need more than they’ve already given. Let’s just celebrate the good times. We now present the 40 most triumphant and charming Smiths covers in the universe. Ready, handsome devils? Let us begin…

– Hope Silverman

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Jan 262021
 

Pete YornPete Yorn is one of those names you know, if not always realizing or recognizing why. His debut album made him a Rolling Stone One To Watch for 2001, going gold to boot, thanks partly to the single “Life On A Chain.” (Aah, that Pete Yorn!) A further six albums have followed, as well as various other live albums and collaborations. He’s been the musical muscle behind some of Scarlett Johansson’s excursions into music, they making one LP and an EP together, another possibly on the way. He is also a regular on soundtracks and tributes, performing the songs of others as varied as The Ramones, Bruce Springsteen and New Order. We have featured him often.

Now comes album number seven, Pete Yorn Sings the Classics. Quite where the parallel galaxy is that considers this quirky set of songs classics, I don’t know, but it’s somewhere I could happily live. OK, many you will know, and some are fitting of that title, with others maybe vaguer memories, perhaps from childhood. But don’t dismiss this, the love here seeps thickly through the grooves and makes this just one great big grin of a project.
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Jan 302015
 

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

Kirsty MacColl was still in her teens when she wrote and recorded “They Don’t Know.” It should have been a major smash, and in a way it was, peaking at #2 on a UK airplay chart; unfortunately, her distributor picked a horrible time to go on strike, which meant the single never got released, which meant it never placed on the sales-based UK Singles Charts. It took Tracey Ullman’s near-soundalike cover four years later to bring the song into the top ten where it belonged. Kirsty helped out with the backing vocals (that’s her a cappella “BAY-ee-BEE-ee!”), and she never resented Tracey for coming up with the brass ring that in a perfect world would have been hers; instead, she said things like “I don’t mind a bit of reflected glory” and “I’m grateful for (her) paying the rent.”
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Nov 152013
 

When Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs recorded their first Under the Covers collaboration, they were surprised that it was released with the subtitle “Vol. 1.” Whatever genius at the Shout! Factory label chose to do that deserves a raise and a promotion, as it led Sweet and Hoffs to record two more volumes. Where Volume 1 consisted of songs based in the ’60s, and Volume 2 was made up of ’70s songs, Volume 3, released this week, is all about the ’80s, the decade when Hoffs came of age as a musician and Sweet wasn’t far behind.
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