Thursday, March 15, 2007

Let’s cover an old tune!

Sometimes, the pull of banging through an old tune with bigger, fatter, chunkier, sexier (whatever) sounds gets too much for an artist, and they commit what can be one of the worst sins in music, ie. the cover version.

Now, sometimes they work (see almost anything of Bob Dylan’s done by other people), but most of the time they don’t (Robbie Williams ‘doing’ swing or blaspheming the memory of Saint Freddie by laying a cable on the altar of rock that is We Are The Champions, the Sugababes/Girls Aloud raping of Walk This Way for Comic Relief and so forth). Sometimes they can be funny, sometimes they can add another dimension to a song that you hadn’t previously realised was there and very, very rarely can take your breath away (Eva Cassidy’s breathtaking rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow springs to mind).

“What brings you on to this subject?” I hear the sum total of no-one ask. “Well,” I reply to the corner of my lavishly padded cell, “it was this post by Will D, so blame him.”

Cover versions of films or old TV shows. Not that it hasn’t been done, and probably really well in some places, but maybe it might be an idea to come up with some new ideas. Or am I going to get a kicking for suggesting that? I don’t mean agonising over well-thumbed copies of Joseph Campbell story-analysis or berating oneself for plagiarising things like, ooh, having a story with a beginning, middle and end. If you must take inspiration from an old idea, why no ditch the name and use the basic concept as a launch-pad? I really don’t think that there’s as much cachet in old TV show names as middling marketing executives have told their bosses there is. In order to make their jobs seem, in some small and oleaginous way, worthwhile.

What musos have known for years is that, generally speaking, cover versions rarely hold a candle to the original. This is, in my opinion, to do with the writer/original artist’s intimate knowledge of the truth of the piece. Pretentious as that sounds, give it a moment’s thought. Would you feel the sentiments behind a given tune as well as the writer? There may well be huge chunks of the song that resonate with something that happened in your life at the time you first heard it. It may well lyrically sum up some aspect of your emotional journey through life, or may just have an atmosphere that moves you incredibly (Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees has always been able to move me to tears, but the lyrics themselves are a bit on the incomprehensible side).

However, while I may be able to do a bit of investigation of the how and why Thom Yorke arrived at that performance, it’ll all be academic. It won’t turn me into him, and it won’t give me any clues to a way of re-recording the tune and improving it. This would seem to be the point of doing a cover - if you can bring something new and innovative to the table, give it a blast.

This doesn’t mean that several ‘flawed but nonetheless excellent’ covers should be binned because the originals are so good (Tori Amos did a starkly bleak version of Smells Like Teen Spirit which worked, while a UK disco artist Annabel did a version* which was appalling). Peter Gabriel, certainly an individual artist known for pushing the boundaries of production and exploring new sonic territories, was asked to perform John Lennon’s Imagine at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in 2006. Sadly, Big Pete took the tune and proceeded to drop a barge on it. Ugh.

The strangest thing about cover version films is the sheer “you’re kidding, right?” decision-making behind them. The Avengers for example, another bloody old ITC show which had moments of interest (mainly to do with a woman in tight-fitting clothing) was certainly an odd choice for a film aiming at being a worldwide hit, being very, very British in its demeanour. Now there’s talk of a Prisoner film and a ‘big-budget’ new TV show. Dear god, why? A show so incredibly rooted in its time, with visuals and setting straight out of the 60s/John Lennon/Beatles/Floyd/Warhol and a setup familiar to those who were currently living through Vietnam and the mess of the Cold War/Bay of Pigs fiasco. So, a film about the 60s. That’ll work, chasing a new, young audience in 2007/8. Thing is, if it’s not going to have all the 60s stuff in it, why call it The Prisoner? Why not consider the core of the story (a former intelligence operative who angrily retires from the agency. The agency suspects he knows something he shouldn’t, he doesn’t let on whether he does or doesn’t. They kidnap him and somehow place him in a situation in which he can trust no-one and has to rely purely on strength of will and self-belief to resist attempts to break him) and rework it from the ground up?

I realise that may not be the most perfect reading of The Prisoner, but that’s partly the point. I can watch The Prisoner on DVD - I want to see something new. In the modern world, an agency would not waste time dropping a former spy into a cartoony world of quaint, bonkers Englishness. They’d drug him and/or beat the crap out of him until he gave in. Wouldn’t take too long and wouldn’t be all that pretty (or terribly watchable, I imagine). The holier-than-thou US administration are having a jolly time trying this sort of thing out in Gantanamo Bay while the rest of the world sits on its hands, so I can’t see why somewhere like the UK, for example, wouldn’t discreetly lamp a former agent in the face with a two-by-four if they thought he could tell them something of interest. Work the numbers...

Infernal Affairs becoming The Departed is, I’d say, a good example of getting it right. What was it that made the original film so gripping? It’s not the actors or the location - it’s the intrigue, the duplicity, the shifting sands of loyalty and disloyalty. These are the things that got transferred, not stylistic or direct visual riffs. If any were, they’ve been ‘re-rooted’ in US culture, rather than attempting to shoe-horn Hong Kong cultural idiosyncrasies into a US movie. Approaching Infernal Affairs, there were fairly evident ways in which the organised crime in Hong Kong would have echoes in 1970s Boston. A big shout-out should go to William Monahan for his work on adapting the script, I feel.

Perhaps the Avengers film just didn’t go far enough with its adaptation. Personally, I think DMC’s on the right track with the bald fact that having a script might have been a good one to check off the list before cameras rolled.

Still - can’t wait for the three-hour epic re-imagining of Gilligan’s Island or Last of the Summer Wine starring Tom Cruise and featuring the entire universe blowing up. They’ve already made a movie of the Trailer Park Boys, haven’t they? ...snigger...

Any suggestions (and your reasons why they should be done and not left to moulder quietly away) for franchise re-animation should be sent to your humble blogger, so I can maybe make some money out of them and ignore you once I’m weighed down with stupefying amounts of cash...

* Yeah sorry, I recorded and mixed that one for her. My bad.


At 8:19 pm, Blogger wcdixon said...

excellent musings...I suppose it all fits with the trend of the past several years of more adaptations, remakes, sequels, etc. either because of studio fears of trying/taking chances on something new or convincing themselves they can find a big 'new' audience for those who didn't grow up with shows/books etc.


At 10:03 pm, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

Indeed, Will. Not that I’m against the idea per se, it’s just sloppy, lazy attempts at it, I suppose.

I’d take a guess that a lot of the audience that made the Lord of the Rings movies such a hit only read the books afterwards. Most of the fans that would queue for hours to meet Billy Boyd or Craig Parker for an autograph were in their teens and hadn’t read the books at all - though they had bought all the action figures. Bless... ;-)


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