cover songs vol 1: Piece of My Heart

I’m fascinated by cover songs. For whatever reason – trust me, I’ve thought of a lot of reasons –  I think covering a piece of music is one of the most interesting artistic things you can do. I’ve decided to start a category here to only talk about that. This week, it’s Piece of My Heart.  Originally sung by Erma Franklin, but famously covered by Janis Joplin, I’ve been thinking about how the song could stand in for a whole approach to music by white and black America.  It was written by two white guys, Jerry Ragavoy and Bert Sterns, who also gave the world “Time is On My Side”, and first recorded by Erma, Aretha’s little sister.

Listening to the two different versions, one is struck by how Joplin belts and screams her way through it, emphasizing all the big notes, and stopping the song with that famous heart-rendering shout in the middle.  The whole, id-driven personality captured in Joplin famously raspy voice forces you to notice Joplin, her fashionably-raggedy appearance and her shaggy backing band, as they notably speed up the song, showing off their soul chops.

But what I like about Franklin’s version is exactly the opposite.  Listening to the lyrics, one might also envision a more nuanced, subtle, interpretation of the lyrics.  It’s not to say that Franklin doesn’t shout it out with the best of them, but maybe this is the thing about covering a song, that it becomes about you and the way you’re covering it, instead of the actual content;  it’s moving in a form, rather than expressing that which the form was invented to express.  Franklin hits all the high notes, but she, and the band, also bring it down, and hit the softer notes with all the desperation and sadness required of the song’s lyrics.  At the moment that Joplin has to belt it out, Franklin solidly hits the notes in a way that suggests the uptight, constricted, tension of 1960’s black America.  There’s a sadness beneath the notes that Joplin can only hint at, that no amount of drugs or alcohol – typical youthful white replacements for actual experience, actual blues – can substitute for.  No one ever told Joplin she wasn’t anything other than an amazing singer, whereas not only did Franklin have to toil in her sister’s shadow, she also, like her sister and every other black woman in 1960, had to toil in White America.  The sadness is there, the happiness is a kind you can find in places like Russia or North Korea, places where to laugh at all might be in and of itself, a little funny.  What could you possibly be laughing at?  Well, having a party isn’t just a rebellion against your parents, it’s a rebellion against a society that would rather you disappear.  When Marvin Gaye sings “Going to a Go-Go” it’s a defiant call – despite everything, we are going to have a party, motherfuckers.

And if things go bad, if you find yourself in love with a man who won’t love you back, there’s a deep, fathomless pool of misery from which to pull your grief from.  The thing to do is to start the song with a quiet piano, a little sideways slide into the lyrics, that starts with a question: Didn’t I?” …and the backup singers start to support you, and the bass slides through to the chorus, and the horns kick in, and you find your voice, and the thing you wanted to say… “And you know that you never ever hear me cry at night…”

uptight. alright.

Look at this video!  The weird disco-synth soul!  Paul Weller looks like he drives a taxi! What’s the deal with the painting?!  But every time I listen to this song, I want to dance silly all over the apartment.

If you’re listening to this now, and if you’re anything like my wife, you are rolling on the floor laughing.  And I get it. Or at least I used to get it.  I can’t hear the funny part anymore.  Shout it to the Top (and all of the Style Council, really) is that rare music that hits a blind spot in my critical taste.  It’s incredibly cheesy – although I assure you, if you think this is bad, their attempts at hip-hop are far far worse than cheesy.  The video doesn’t help much – it’s either too high concept or too Euro or both.  But something about them makes me drop my critical stance.  Maybe it’s because this 80’s synth/disco/pop sound swirled around me on the radio when I was too young to do much about it.  It’s somehow very easy to slip back into a mindset where I’m half-awake in the backseat of my mom’s car, listening to top 40 hits that sound very much like this one.  And then, there’s this approach from the other side of things, my punk side, where I’m 15 years old and seeking out the music that mattered to me.  One such band was the Jam, Paul Weller’s band previous to this one.  With their tough mod pop sound and politically-oriented lyrics, they pointed my way towards thinking critically about the world.  When Weller broke the band up to form the Style Council, much of the world was baffled.  However, coming at them 20 years after the fact without the urgency of the moment, the two parts of my musical mind meshed.  The simple joy of dumb pop is made complex with Weller’s wry politcally poignant lyrics.  Just as often, Weller veers too far to the rote or didactic and then the sophistocated jazz of Mick Talbot saves the day.

and though I wasn’t asked
I may as well stay
and promise myself
each and every day
to Shout it to the Top!…”

• this is a good soul/disco song (disco strings!), but something about it stops it from being a great soul song.  Part of the problem is The Style Council don’t quite know where the good parts of their songs are.  There’s a great moment when the main riff comes back in, hand claps are in the background and the vocals start again “when you’re knocked on your back and your life’s a flop…”.  All that staccato rhythm all at once suddenly makes the song take flight.  And then, just as quickly, it lands on the ground again: “shout it to the top. Oh yeah, we’re gonna shout it to the top.” It’s like they run out of things to say, and also forgot they were in a song that was supposed to have swing.

• That said, I really think the Style Council are really the most interesting artistic statement Paul Weller ever made.  It’s the most outside of his comfort zone he ever moved. At the moment when The Jam were at the peak of their influence, he broke them up and released song after song of soft synth-pop soul. Their first record was filled with music best suited to an elevator, and their last record was a House record, oddly.  But every time, the politics in the songs were extremely left-wing and incendiary.  Written by any other punk band, they would have been youth anthems, but sung in semi-falsetto with synth bass and a piano, they force you outside your own comfort zone as a listener, something I think is arguably more subversive and transgressive than a million Crass records. You can see that influence in music projects from Elliot Smith to Le Tigre and I think it’s a powerful statement in a moment when transgressiveness is hard to come by.

• The Style Council didn’t act alone, though.  It was altogether a fascinating moment in English music – the post-punk era had worn itself out on too much macho posturing and too little innovation, and a soul revival had gripped the nation.  Amazing art was made by all these people no one thinks about anymore – Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Julian Temple’s movie Absolute Beginners, The Style Council, Neneh Cherry – Neneh Cherry! Remember the Buffalo Stance?!?  Sade, for those who like her – she came from the Style Council.  Major acts had soul-influenced moments: Elvis Costello did Get Happy!, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Paul Simon, David Bowie (although he’s done it 10 years earlier too). It was a weird moment, and I’m not sure it had any lasting influence, but it SO pervasive for a second – it’s like finding evidence of a lost civilization located entirely on YouTube.

• The political aspect of this video is hilarious, if embarrassing – it’s overwrought, propagandistic and simplistic.   Later Style Council videos had them visiting East Berlin, touristing around with these curious looks on their face while the citizen’s of the town I’m sure rolled their eyes.  Also, why are the band so angry at each other in this video?

• Despite the above, true to their name, the Style Council were the most stylish Paul Weller ever got.  He changed his look about a million times in the band, but each time you find yourself checking the date on the photo – “ohhhh, sooo 1996! what? It was only 1983?”  And each time he came out with a new look, he pushed his audience too.  Punk had a costuming element to it, of course, but the effete, dandy look the Style Council promoted went well beyond the macho land of spikes and spray paint.  Had one committed themselves to the Jam and all their gruff rock, it took a lot to convince yourself about long bangs and soft rock. Paul Weller gets you there, and if you learnt a couple dance moves on your way to bringing down the government, all the better.

PS: Oh right, the title of this blog post. So, there’s a suggestion that “uptight” used to have good connotations – i.e. Stevie Wonder, etc.  And the argument is that it slowly changed to mean, well, uptight. And no one really knows why, but I like the weird meaning you get now – “everything is alright – uptight – clear out of sight.” like there’s this underlying tension to whatever’s going on…I think that’s what you get when your celebration song is about speaking truth to power…

what i do for a living

In the spirit of Kerouac’s first thought, best thought dictum, let’s begin this post with the most stylish thing I can think of right now: This video of The Small Faces playing “Whatcha Gonna Do About It” in 1966 on British television:

When I think about things that motivate me to do what I do, I think about what it must have felt like to be here at this show – the Small Faces, the perfect examples of mod fashion, before they got into silly psychedelics, playing perefct R&B. Great looking instruments, great black and white footage, but what really pulls it all together for me is the shot of the audence that comes right at about 1:12 of this video.

A group of kids dance slightly behind the beat, not staring at each other, heads cocked slightly to the side, like they were really wondering if they left the toaster plugged in at home.  They’re dressed in clean mod style without over-doing it – the guys in polo shirts or button downs, a couple suits, the girls in mod dresses and skirts.  Their self-assured, blasé style is in direct contrast to the pounding R&B coming from the stage.  Are they too serious?  Disinterested?  Acting? All of the above?

Something about that tension of the sound and the movement make the moment click for me – the music is asking you to move, and the audience is respecting some other call to keep themselves in check.  The way you hold your self together in the face of overwhelming pressure makes a stylish moment.  Like Peter Meaden once said, Mod was “clean living under difficult circumstances”

Other Thoughts:
1. “Blow Up”, the Michelangelo Antonioni movie from 1966, has a similar scene when David Hemming’s characters has to explain to Vanessa Redgrave’s character to smoke “against the beat”. It’s this awkward scene and Hemming’s character tries to lighten the mood by playing some Grant Green-style blues-driven jazz. Redgrave looks hilarious bopping her head to the 16th notes. She slows down, smokes, and the moment clicks, eventually. The fast-paced music swirls around the room while the action on screen slows down…

2. The music of “Whatcha Gonna Do About It” is a note-for-note cover of Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody” What I think is so interesting about how the Small Faces changed the song is how they took Burke’s lyrics – gospel-influenced, community-building, universal and preacherly – and made them rude, aggressive, male-dominated and sexual, in a way that I think is a great example of the history of white interpretation of black music.

Because of the stigma that black music had/has in white culture, to embrace it was to rebel, to be an individual and therefore, white interpretations of black music have a rebellious, individualistic message to them. What I think is a shame is the loss of the community-driven, shared message of the original black compositions, of which “Everybody” is a great example. Burke, known for the way he brought gospel music into the secular realm (and coining the term “soul music” along the way) exhorts the audience, audible on the track, to come together and affirm his belief in connecting people.  The Small Faces instead let the women in their song know they will be making their move on you, and the song’s title tells you how they feel about your opinion on the subject. That could be an attractive proposition in the correct context, but that’s not really the point here; a musical form built around providing community has been re-thought as a way of demonstrating individuality, and it’s the community that gets built around the cult of the individual that most easily sacrifices collective wisdom for the dubious interests of one (small) man.