In Praise of Interpretive Artists

When I was getting paid to be a music critic, one of the more entertaining nights on the job was the annual get-together of all my newspapers’ music critics to compile our “Best Of” lists for the year’s Local Music Issue. These editorial lists were based solely on our own subjective opinions and observations, ostensibly filtered through our superior critical experience, while the separate Readers’ Poll represented the vox populi. It was sort of a “what’s good” vs. “what’s popular” dichotomy, to some extent.

The fact that there was very little overlap between the two lists probably says a lot about how music critics exist in little bubbles of elitism that have no bearing on the lives and experiences of most normal human beings. As I wrote in one of the opening paragraphs of Eponymous, music critics are:

“. . . the deeply demented souls who live in a world where a packed stadium equals ‘lowest common denominator failure,’ while eight of their kind gathered in a space of their own making watching a nobody doing nothing anyone else wants to hear equals ‘artistic triumph.”

One of the things that used to cause particular outrage at the annual gathering of the music critics was the fact that the hoi polloi would routinely vote for cover bands in the “Best Local Artist” category that we gave them in the Readers’ Poll. Can you imagine that?!? Lawks, how much we needed to educate the rabble, to help them rise above the humiliation of dancing in public to bar band versions of “Mustang Sally” or “Brown Eyed Girl,” while (shudder) actually enjoying themselves?!? Forsooth, we must select the most experimental, underground, obscure band we can find to counter their ignorance! Excelsior!

One year, though, one of our own turned on us: a normally dependable music critic came to the annual gathering of the rock and roll gadflies and nominated a duo who primarily played other peoples’ music for the “Best Local Artist” slot in our annual critics’ poll. The duo dug up pop obscurities and then completely reinvented their arrangements, he explained, turning them into something unique and fresh. They offered extraordinary vocals and exceptional instrumental talent. They were socially active, playing at the sorts of benefits that we liked to support, on behalf of the sorts of causes that music critics get excited about (e.g. “Hey! Let’s go to the PETA rally and see if there are any naked women painted as tigers there today!”) They collaborated with others in the community, sharing stages with some of the obscure weirdos that we’d already selected in other categories. Why, he pressed, would we not consider them for the top slot in our regional poll, just because they didn’t write their own songs?

Why? Why?!! WHY?!?!? Because . . . because . . . HERETIC!!! ABOMINATION!!! FREAK!!!! OUTCAST!!!! I won’t go through the details, but suffice to say that voices were raised, fingers were pointed, drinks were slammed, cigarettes were stubbed angrily, words were exchanged, feelings were hurt, alliances formed and broke up, more drinks were slammed, and in the end, we gave “Best Local Artist” to a new group composed of three of our friends who had only played two shows out in public to a total of nineteen people (but, boy, that TEAC Tascam 4-track musique concrete deconstruction of ABBA Gold they sent us was awesome!), while the proposed covers duo was grudgingly awarded a prize in a new category we created especially for them: “Best Local Interpretive Artists.”

These days, honestly, I’m generally happier to go out and dance along to cover tunes played by great local bar bands than I am to go shuffle morosely in a seedy bar, hoping to find the next best thing, and having it fail to show up. I still appreciate the act of songwriting, of course, and I love up-and-coming artists who sing what they write, but I also appreciate the act of performing and connecting with an audience, and some of the better shows I’ve experienced in the past few years have been shows primarily composed of cover songs.

So today, I lift up and celebrate our friends the Interpretive Artists by sharing a list of my Top 20 Favorite Cover Songs Ever, below. Feel free to submit additions to this list in the comment section, and I will make sure that no angry music critics show up to stub their cigarettes out on your arm.

  1. “Young Man Blues,” by The Who (covering Mose Allison)
  2. “Morning Dew,” by Einsturzende Neubauten (covering Bonnie Dobson or Tim Rose)
  3. “Whole Lotta Love,” by Tragic Mulatto (covering Led Zepellin, filtering Willie Dixon)
  4. “Rosegarden Funeral of Sores,” by Bauhaus (covering John Cale)
  5. “Shipbuilding,” by Robert Wyatt (covering Elvis Costello, though technically Wyatt’s version went public first)
  6. “Black Diamond,” by The Replacements (covering KISS)
  7. “Sugar Smack,” by The Hanslick Rebellion (covering the Archies and the Velvet Underground, at the same time)
  8. “I’m Not Lisa,” by Killdozer (covering Jessi Colter)
  9. “Stagger Lee,” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (covering Lloyd Price and 1,000 bluesmen)
  10. “Scumbag Pines,” by The Kamikaze Hearts (covering Beef)
  11. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” by Isaac Hayes (covering Glen Campbell)
  12. “Ray of Light,” by Madonna (covering Curtiss Maldoon)
  13. “The First Cut is the Deepest,” by Rod Stewart (covering Cat Stevens)
  14. “Pablo Picasso,” by John Cale (covering Modern Lovers)
  15. “Going Up,” by COIL (covering the theme song of British TV show Are You Being Served?)
  16. “Love Hurts,” by Nazareth (covering The Everly Brothers or Roy Orbison)
  17. “Yoo Doo Right,” by The Geraldine Fibbers (covering CAN)
  18. “Personal Jesus,” by Marilyn Manson (covering Depeche Mode)
  19. “Viva Las Vegas,” by Dead Kennedys (covering Elvis Presley)
  20. “Kaw-Liga,” by The Residents (covering Hank Williams)

6 thoughts on “In Praise of Interpretive Artists

  1. Two of the songs on that list I didn’t even know were covers.

    I’d have to think about this, but I’m relatively certain Current93 and Nick Cave’s “All the Pretty Little Horses” would make the cut. Einsurzende Neubauten’s “Sand” (covering Sinatra and Hazlewood–the original is a favorite as well). Young Gods’ “Alabama Song” and Soundgarden’s “Come Together”, both horribly nasty desecrations of the originals. Spell’s “Seasons in the Sun”? Perhaps…

    • Love that version of “Sand” too . . . debated between it and “Morning Dew,” but the latter has a better Blixa scream in it.

      In terms of nasty desecrations, the last song of my list to make it to 20 was “Play that Funky Music” by Lutefisk. They set out with the goal of making the most unfunky, undanceable version of a funk masterpiece, and succeeded wildly. I could not find an online version, though, so didn’t list it since it’s impossible to appreciate without actually hearing it.

    • Ferry is so perversely fascinating to me . . . . I could very readily argue that he was one of the most important and innovative singer-songwriter-lyricists of the early 1970s, but more than anything else, he just wanted to be a Sinatra-esque song stylist who tackled other (often inferior) writers’ material.

  2. Mark Kozelelk’s acoustic, downbeat version of AC/DC’s “Up to My Neck in You” would certainly make my list. Stripped of its power chords and bombast, it is an excellent interpretation.

    Marilyn Manson would make mine, too, but I’d go with his cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You” which is so lurchingly, grindingly intense that it actually gives the original a run for the money.

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