Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Covers of David Bowie, OR: Taste and how to recognise it

I thought I could do a post that would prove David Bowie had good taste (after my musings about taste last week) by listing a bunch of his best covers. My thinking was: it's tricky to look at taste based on an artists own work because they are so often reacting against what they've done previously.

The difference between Madonna and Cyndi Lauper is that Madonna had the kind of hyper-selfconsciousness you need to become a pop icon across four decades. She made the right choices, for the most part, about what to chameleon into next. She showed good taste in which movements and which artists she aligned and re-aligned herself with (for the most part).

But her covers? According to The Covers Project, Madonna has only released six cover songs in her long career. You can probably discount 'Don't Cry For Me Argentina' as that was part of the Evita package (a discussion of her film career would also put pay to the idea she has good taste), and 'Santa Baby' (Christmas songs don't count - ninety-seven of UK artists breath a sigh of relief). And what do you have left? Little Willie Johnson's 'Fever' (which owes more to Peggy Lee's feminised cover in 1958), Rose Royce's 'Love Don't Live Here Any More', Marvin Gaye's 'I Want You' and her turrible cover of Don McLean's fiercely over-rated 'American Pie'.

Verdict: forgettable, or worse, covers of okay songs (you'll notice I've done you the courtesy of not linking to any of the songs... you're welcome). It makes me wonder what's on Madonna's iPod.

But David Bowie... he's done some fantastic covers. Again, you can refer to The Covers Project's Bowie page for all his covers (and covers of all his songs).

Here are my top five:

Let's Spend The Night Together (Rolling Stones)

I was tempted to say Rebel Rebel here. While technically not a cover, it is Bowie playing Jagger over a Keith Richards Riff For The Ages. But 'Let's Spend The Night Together' shows both good song selection and the chutzpah to mix it up a little: those Hawkwind spacerock squeals in the intro, the upped funk quotient, the clunky piano, that disintegration outro and slight return... yeah, that's the stuff.

Sorrow (The McCoys)

The best cover in Bowie's 1973 cover album Pin Ups (notable mentions: the Easybeat's 'Friday on my Mind', the Pretty Things' 'Don't Bring Me Down') is the perfect middle ground between the McCoy's sleepy original and the Mersey's too poppy 1966 version. It's like some artists don't actually know what they're singing about. Bowie sure does (here) and his became the definitive version.

Knock on Wood (Eddie Floyd)

Eddie Floyd's version is cool. Bowie wants to ride on the coattails of Floyd's swag, but goes one better by putting the pedal down and racing though one of the best fusions of funk and rock on record. The sax is still there, but it's not the star. There's too much else going on: the guitar that comes and goes, the tinkly piano during the second verse. (If there is a star, it's the MC5-style shout-don't-sing backing vocals.)

China Girl (Iggy Pop)

Any mention of Bowie and Iggy Pop should include the words Berlin and drugs, but let's not. Bowie was one of the first to recognise Iggy's talents beyond the Stooges sludgey power punk, and went on to cover six songs first recorded by Pop. I chose 'China Girl' (co-written by Pop and Bowie), because I think it is more of an Iggy song, that dirty back alley milieu, and Bowie cleaning up Iggy's version and turning it into a more coherent pop song shouldn't work. But it does. After his years as the Thin White Duke, he knew that his voice alone was creepy enough to unsettle a diligent listener.

Helden (German version of Bowie's 'Heroes')

Technically not a cover version, but it shows a couple of things. One, Bowie and Eno were influenced by Neu's 1975 track 'Hero', and recording a German version of their homage nicely completes the circle. Two, good timing to talk about heroism with the whole East German - West German thing going on. Three, I defy anyone not to sing along to this version, no knowledge of German required.

The Inevitable But

Okay, so Bowie has done some great covers, reviving decent songs that might have slipped from the great Western songbook without him, repping cool artists, and putting his own spin on things.

But not every Bowie cover is a gem. In fact, when I really started to dig, the hit rate seemed to be entirely random.

One thing big name artists should avoid where possible is covering other big name artists. Does David Bowie really need to cover the Beatles? No. And yet we have a forgettable version of 'Across the Universe'. Does the world need another cover of 'Waterloo Sunset'? No, at least not David Bowie's poor excuse for a cover. But these are nothing compared to the crime against the aural world that is his version of the Beach Boy's 'God Only Knows'. Ack! Those hokey Tim Curry-esque vocals and broke-baroque Jimmy Webb-esque string arrangement! Double ack!

Then there are cool, lesser known songs/artists that are due a little extra exposure, but the cover never comes close to the original. For example, Bowie's cover of Tom Verlaine's 'Kingdom Come', where he unnecessarily clutters the chorus and generally comes across as whiny and hammed up.

So Bowie is not the God of Covers. Perhaps just the Patron Saint. He's not ashamed of showing people what's on his record player / iPod through the medium of the cover version. The problem is he isn't always able to incorporate his outsized Bowieness without obliterating what was cool about the song in the first place.

Without referring to his own songs and just looking at his covers, I think you'd conclude that David Bowie has good, but not impeccable, taste.

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