Friday, November 20, 2015

Carole King Covers: You've Got A Friend

It's possibly a fact that Ms King's best known song is in itself best known as a cover, namely the comforting and syrupy balm of James Taylor singing "You've Got a Friend", perhaps also "his" best known song. I don't know whether this can or could be proven as, with someone having a career stretching from being a Brill Building manufactured popsmith in the early 60s, to hippie chick troubador a decade later, to damn right, yes, she's still going with a bit of both and everything in between, it's difficult to work out. I guess it's in part generational, with the hepcats of '66 nodding sagely as the by then far and wigged-out Byrds phase their way through "Goin' Back", or the soulsters grooving to Aretha and "...Natural woman", so my generation picked up on "Tapestry", through her old friend and guitar slinger lifting a song from it as his break through single. But this isn't about sweet baby James, being more a tribute to some of the less well travelled versions. (Or is that so far travelled?)

I remain uncertain whether this is the worst thing I have ever heard or whether it is worse even than that, inescapably making me see the Muppets in my minds eye, so expertly do Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire channel Fozzie and Kermit. From the hideous patronising patronage of "contemporary" to the plodding singalongagramps of the performance, any nostalgic buzz for, say, "The Little Drummer Boy" evaporates.

Let's try something a bit more up-tempo, yeah, a James Brown influence:

Nooooooooo, take it off, take it away. Hideous even more than the old groaning above, is this supper club travesty really that Fred Wesley, those J.B.s? No wonder the album was "The Lost Album". I would.

Let's try again, some UK 80s indie, that'll be something, eh?

The Housemartins were the short-lived first band of Paul Heaton, later of "The Beautiful South" as here, and Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook. And this version of the song is awful.

I'm beginning to lose faith and falter here. I mean, how difficult can it be? Hell, premium cover version listings site, Second Hand Songs, lists 125 versions. OK, so the list includes everyone from Billy Ray Cyrus to Barry Manilow, and God knows who in between.

One more, some late 90's acid jazz:

Brand New Heavies were/are a UK originally instrumental band forming in the mid 80s, diversifying into a somewhat bland vocal hybrid between jazz, funk and nods toward hip-hop and dance music, with a string of sultry southern US vocal divas passing through their ranks, Carleen Anderson and N'Dea Davenport being perhaps the 2 best known, but with Siedah Garrett on the above, a minor hit in the UK. Tellingly, it was not even on the US copy of its parent album. I have to say it's the best of the lot I have found today, if purely by virtue of comparison.

So what's my point? Is it a good song? Well, I had always thought so, but maybe there is rather more of the Brill Building professional hit maker weave in "Tapestry" and "You've Got A Friend" than first hearing makes believe, hence the ease with which it sheds any credibility into a nylon leisure suit of schmaltz. And thus, maybe it is just the consummate interpretation skill of Taylor that embues it with any subtlety at all, although, to be fair, the original is pretty damn good too. Carole King was trained to write songs that would sell. 125 versions is a lot of versions and, by virtue of the names mentioned, hideous though to my ears, a lot of royalties. Success by any marker.

Finally, by way of a lift to my sorry conclusion, was it a fluke? Has the song got the capability of rising above it's apparent formula? Well, who better to give us that answer than the writer and the singer already mention, both here together, a mere 5 years ago.

Praise be! No fluke. Song good, interpretations vary............

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Carole King Covers: Don’t Bring Me Down

David Johansen: We Gotta Get Out Of This Place/Don't Bring Me Down/It's My Life

Last week, I watched all 10 episodes of Aziz Ansari’s great new Netflix series Master of None. In addition to being very funny, the show deals head on with issues of racism, sexism and ageism, among other “isms.” So, when I thought about suggesting a cover song theme for the next two weeks, I became sensitive to the fact that over the years we have done nine other themes focusing on cover songs, and in each case, but one, the spotlight artists were male. Joni Mitchell was the only featured woman. (And as I write this, I realize that all nine artists are white, something that also needs to be addressed). And that’s how we ended up with a theme highlighting Carole King Covers. (That’s a lot of “K” sounds, so it must be funny.)

Next year is the 45th anniversary of the release of Tapestry, which was King’s second solo release. It established her as a commercial success as a performer, and is still one of the largest selling albums of all time. Pretty much every song on the album is great, and I loved it when I was a kid, but it is, honestly, not an album that I pull out to listen to anymore. I hope that some of the other writers here write about covers of songs from Tapestry, and I might down the road, but not today.

By 1971, when Tapestry was released, King had already had a 20 year long music career, beginning with her appearance on the Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour as an 8 year old, recording demos in high school with her friend Paul Simon, and, while attending Queens College, writing songs for others, mostly with Gerry Goffin, from an office in the famous Brill Building in Times Square. The number of hit songs she turned out is stunning, as is the breadth of styles—artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin, The Monkees, The Shirelles, Herman’s Hermits, The Drifters and even The Beatles recorded covers of her songs. The Broadway show Beautiful does a nice job bringing this to life, as well as discussing King’s later career. It is, of course, a cleaned up, streamlined version of the story, but it is very entertaining.

The Animals, led by singer Eric Burdon, were created in the early 1960s, and featured a gritty, blues based sound. In 1964, they released their signature song, a cover of the traditional blues song, “House of the Rising Sun.” Their producer, Mickie Most, reportedly called into the offices of Screen Gems music, then run by Don Kirshner, looking for songs. A furious competition ensued among the various writers and teams, which ultimately resulted in three hits—“We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (who were friends and rivals of Goffin and King), “It’s My Life,” written by the team of Roger Atkins and Carl D’Errico, and “Don’t Bring Me Down,” a Goffin/King composition, which was the last hit for the band, before it was renamed “Eric Burdon and The Animals," before breaking up. (Burdon re-formed the band, with new members and a psychedelic style after moving to California in 1966, although the old incarnation also had reunions.)

I had the opportunity to interview David Johansen, I believe in 1981, when he appeared in Trenton at City Gardens. I might even have introduced him. Johansen is one of those musicians who has successfully reinvented himself over the years, from his days fronting the legendary New York Dolls, which was followed by a solo career under his own name, to his partying alter-ego Buster Poindexter and his more recent country-blues work with The Harry Smiths. I was, and continue to be a big fan of the music he released in the early ‘80s, particularly his first three albums, David Johansen, In Style, and Here Comes the Night, all of which received heavy airplay on my radio shows.

Shortly after I graduated from college, and regrettably left the radio world behind, Johansen released a great live record, Live it Up, which capitalized on his justified reputation as a great concert performer. The collection kicks off with an intense medley of the three songs that Mickie Most bought for the Animals from Screen Gems, including a great version of “Don’t Bring Me Down.” Not only is Johansen in total command of the material, his band is tight. It included guitarists Huw Gower, who power pop lovers might know best as the guitarist on The Records’ incredible “Starry Eyes,” and Dave Nelson, who was in Nektar, New Riders of the Purple Sage and The Turtles, as well as keyboard player Charlie Giordano, who now plays with the E Street Band and drummer Tony Machine, who had been in later versions of the New York Dolls.

Math & Science: Battles/Atlas


Why can't land speeders fly higher than five meters above the ground? Why does R2D2, despite being a droid, have feelings and a confidence suggesting the force is in him? How can anyone possibly say that Superman is stronger than Green Lantern when GL can simply make a cage of green kryptonite? Why does Prince Adam get tan after becoming He-Man and why can't anyone recognise him? And in Greek mythology, how can Atlas hold the world on his shoulders and still preside in that world? If he sneezes, does his body shake twice?  Does he also carry the atmosphere and space? I did poorly in science and math, but at least I asked the important questions.

These are questions that still entertain me as an adult, but I keep them to myself unless I'm lucky to find another child man who's been dwelling on them. When musicians mention gods, demi-gods and Titans from myth, I usually take notice. Often it's either sadly generic or so intensely honorific that it's unsettling. (Dead Can Dance's "Song of the Sirens" and "Persephone" do well, and of course Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon").  Battle's "Atlas" is more on the ambiguous side without referring to Atlas himself or the heavens, but it's a hell of a tune, stomping forward into thunderous hypnosis. A flinging guitar riff teases, and then a freaky childish taunt leads you to believe the song will unravel. However, like Atlas, spare a brief time when he passed the world onto Hercules via a trick, the beat is maintained except for one grisly breakdown.

Atlas must have been on the verge of going nuts with all that responsibility, or at least severely pissed off at times. But he was compassionate enough to never let go. Battles presents different versions of "Atlas" and its repetitive madness that could go on for another twenty minutes without tiring you. There are lots of live versions available. This take at the Fuji Rock Festival is one of the best.

text by Jake