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Covering all the bases

September 1, 2013

Prompted by a review in The Guardian yesterday of a new album by The 1975, a Manchester band, I downloaded two of their EPs. It was the reference in the review to the films of John Hughes that got my attention, that and the fact that I like to listen to new music when I go for a run.

I was struck by different versions of the two tracks, ‘Sex’ and ‘Chocolate’. Both EPs offer not just the studio version but also what are described as acoustic versions (despite one of the tracks being accompanied by electric guitar). They have the feel of a demo, consisting of minimal accompaniment and no studio tricks. But they’re much more than that. At a much slower tempo and with less layers of sound, the focus is naturally the vocal delivery, creating a greater sense of intimacy and foregrounding the lyrics. Side-by-side with the more slick, rhythm-driven studio versions, one also gets a deeper understanding of the harmony and melody, the fundamental characteristics of the song. As such the acoustic versions shine a new and interesting light on the ‘original’ versions. And vice versa.

We’re in the realm of the ‘cover’ version here, of course, though it’s rare for an artist or band to offer such different interpretation of their own material other than on the concert stage (where every performance is effectively a cover version of the album cut). Usually covering a song is left to others, the original seen as the definitive one, its cover a pale imitation. Occasionally, though, the later version effaces the original. Think of Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s Alleluia or Judy Collins’ version of ‘Both Sides Now’, who released the first commercial recording of it. Collins’ rendition was so ubiquitous that it came as a surprise to discover that Joni Mitchell had written it. And, of course, there’s a whole generation who watched Donnie Darko and think that Gary Jules wrote ‘Mad World’, whereas those of us who grew up in the 80s still prefer the original Tears for Fears version. Nevertheless, when a good cover comes along it engages us in much the same way that I found myself enjoying The 1975’s reflective and reflexive takes on their own songs.

Some people think that the originals are unchallengeable and can never be bettered, though it’s not going to stop people from trying. Such veneration, which effectively attempts to protect songs from interpretation, canonises the work, an ideology that’s all-too familiar in the domain of high art, classical music included. No surprise, then, that when it comes to The Beatles, artists tend to resist radical interpretation. When Radio 1 celebrated the 50th anniversary of the group’s first album by recording all the tracks according to the same studio schedule, people stayed remarkably – respectfully – true to the originals.

The Beatles are the exception, though, and in general one of the striking things about cover versions is that they don’t care a hoot about authenticity. Rather than seeking to outdo the original performance and performers, they seek to reinvigorate a composition and make of it something quite different. Bands are similarly unconcerned about performance practice; they make use of their own line-up rather than drafting in other players. And nor do they make any claim to represent the composer’s intentions, often because the composer was the original performer.

If they did honour authenticity, performance practice and the composer’s intentions then, to all intents and purposes, they would be a tribute band. And, in the pop world, such homage, even if well-intentioned, is deemed a rather sad pursuit.  Yet in early music that’s exactly what we do (I’m reminded here of a comment by Alex Ross, music critic of the New Yorker, who said that The Tallis Scholars have too many imitators). In slavishly adhering to each new performance-practice discovery, the early-music movement has chased after a chimerical and ultimately unverifiable vision of an original performance. And, like a tribute band, they have taken the name of a composer as the name of their group, as if it alone has some hotline to the composer’s imagination. All of which makes me wonder if Dufay, Josquin or Tallis would particularly have cared how their music was performed today or if, like me, they might have preferred modern artists to take a few risks and might have performed their own compositions in different ways. Time to step off the tram then, as Blackburn would have it. Or, in my terms, time for some interesting cover versions of old favourites. 

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