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Cover Battle – “Helter Skelter” November 7, 2014

 

It took me several listens to decide which Beatles version of this song to bring you. I wasn’t really sure if I could discern the subtle differences, so I kept going back and forth between two of them. Then I decided – what the heck? – I’ll bring you both!

 

The “original” recording of “Helter Skelter” sounds rough and raw and primitive. Not unprofessional, by any means, but there’s a sense of wildness to it and an improvisational grit that’s common in early recordings without benefit (?) of modern technology. It has texture. There’s a remastered version from 2009 that sounds a shade cleaner. I think I prefer the first one, but just by a hair. I actually think, however, that some of the covers I’ve heard are better to listen to than either of these “originals”.

 

My first introduction to “Helter Skelter” was through the album Rattle and Hum. I think I knew there was a song named “Helter Skelter”; I knew it was by the Beatles, and I knew that Charles Manson had used it for his own purposes or whatever (resulting in a book by Vincent Bugliosi and a subsequent movie with the same title), but I had never actually heard the song before U2 recorded it.

 

I took an immediate liking to it. Even now, writing this, I’m rocking out in my chair, furiously bobbing my head and putting it on repeat. It’s done before a live audience so you have the energy and appreciation of the crowd, that big arena sound, and the skill, talent and enthusiasm of a band at the height of their worldwide popularity and acclaim. The U2 version takes a rock classic perverted by a madman and, with jangly, driving guitars, hard drum beats and Bono’s impassioned voice, reclaims it for the people.

 

I heard bits of the song, again, in the movie, Across the Universe. It’s performed as part of a scene that starts peacefully with the title song and then goes into the more rebellious fury of the cover battle song. It’s a powerful segment exemplifying the spirit of the 60’s: war, social unrest, groundbreaking activism, and a radical rethinking of the established view of government, citizenship, war, peace, death and life.

 

The figure that you glimpse performing “Helter Skelter” in the movie is actress/singer Dana Fuchs. I have her doing a full version in a live performance. It’s really nice to see this done by a female artist that rocks out just as hard, if not harder, than some of the male artists that usually tackle this. Her voice is strong and raspy ; bluesy and soulful. She has a take-no-prisoners intensity to this and just blows it out of the water.

 

Another take charge, balls to the wall female rocker that handles this without apology is Pat Benatar. Her commitment level is perfectly matched by her band. This is another great performance from a solid artist.

 

Motley Crue gives this the heavy metal treatment: big, bold, noisy and head-bangy. It doesn’t bring in anything different or innovative but it’s a fine enough version.

 

Sir Paul McCartney delivers a truly incredible performance of this during the 12.12.12 Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund concert in NYC. There’re a few instances of vocal strain, but so what? It’s Paul freakin’ McCartney!!! The dude continues to be fantastically awesome. At the age of 72 the man is still creating, still expressing – still kicking major ass onstage, and he never half-steps it. And his band (including Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters) is right there with him.

 

As for Siouxsie & The Banshees:

 

 

stahp

 

 

‘Nuff said. Moving on.

 

I happened upon a sample sound clip from Roger Daltrey of The Who. It’s from an all-star tribute album, The Art of McCartney, that’s due out on November 18. Just this tiny little snippet makes me excited to hear a full version. Should be quite wonderful.

 

The cover version from Oasis really had to grow on me. My first impression was that it was quite unremarkable, and I couldn’t really come up with what, in particular, made me see it that way. But after several replays I’m finding more of an appreciation for it. Paying more attention to the music and the arrangement on the back end of the song, without the vocals, helped me to reevaluate things. Now listening to the whole thing a little deeper I can see that the vocals fit in very well. It sounds like they were using some throwback technology that made the recording, especially the vocals, sound like they were recorded back in the day. There’s an almost tinny echo underneath the whole thing that takes it slightly out of time from modern musical production advances.

 

With Steven Tyler’s trademark yelps, Aerosmith stays faithful to the song while still maintaining their signature style. The guitar work is strong and on point, if a bit rushed. A really good interpretation.


 

   

   

 

Cover Battle – “Love is a Battlefield” September 12, 2014

 

Classically trained as an opera singer, Pat Benatar broke out into superstardom during the 1980’s and became a bona fide badass rock goddess. At the age of 61 she and her collaborator, guitarist, husband Neil Geraldo are still touring and going strong.

 

Her song, “Love is a Battlefield” plays as a kind of empowerment anthem. This theme is actualized in the official video where Benatar (as a runaway) becomes … a dancehall girl (??) and eventually leads her fellow coworkers in a dance/rebellion/walkout against their sleazy controlling boss. I mean, this guy even has a gold tooth. And I think it’s chipped!

 

This song doesn’t seem to be a popular one for covers. Sure, there are random regular people doing various versions all over Youtube but I couldn’t find any name artists that have done one. However, I was inspired to choose this song from a commercial for an upcoming Lifetime movie, Deliverance Creek. I was only half listening to it, then I caught the words and realized what song they were doing. I listened more intently and decided to track it down. And here we are.

 

Holly Knight’s Story of O, featuring Sara Skinner is the group that performed the Deliverance Creek cover. It’s very dark and creepy. It brings an element to the song that is totally fresh, yet haunted. And twisted. And decayed. I love this reinterpretation. And I may actually watch Deliverance Creek, too. Incidentally, Holly Knight is one of the original writers (along with Mike Chapman) of “Love is a Battlefield”.

 

There’s a version done by Canadian artist Jann Arden that I’m not such a fan of. I really liked Jann’s 1994 album, Living Under June, so I was looking forward to hearing what she did with this. She takes it much slower than the original, but not as a slow as Story of O. I think, maybe this midway tempo just beiges it out and makes it the aural equivalent of decorator neutral. It’s blah, meh and uninspiring.

 

The last one I have for you today is not actually considered a cover. It’s billed as a “literal version” where the words comment on and make fun of the imagery of the actual video. The few I’ve seen have been very funny and enjoyable. This one is as well.


 

   

   

 

Cover Battle – “Positively 4th Street” July 11, 2014

 

See what I do for you guys? What I’m willing to subject my ears to?
Dylan – Bob Dylan!!

 

I’ve never really been able to get past the vocals to actually listen intently to a Bob Dylan song, but I have to say I surprised myself by really getting into his song “Positively 4th Street“. The song’s about being betrayed and, as one commenter put it on YouTube, it’s ‘a classy and poetic Fuck You’ song. And they’re right – the lyrics are just perfect and biting, yet the melody of the song easily grabs you, and belies the harshness of the song’s true intent.

 

Now here’s the kicker – the version I really got into wasn’t actually Dylan! In searching YouTube people can title the vids however they want. I found one, clicked on it and listened. It sounded like Dylan to me, only slightly more understandable. It was only after playing it that I read the description. It was actually a version from a Post Productions tribute album that I got into. Apparently it’s really hard to track down a (good?) Dylan version. I found the one above and I was like “Yeah, okay, there’s the voice; that’s why I don’t listen to Dylan”

 

The first time I heard any of the song was a bit of it done by Katey Sagal on “Mary“. Those lyrics always stayed with me. Periodically I would think about but never look for it. Finally I googled that little snippet and found out what the song was. I really wish I could find a video or even just an audio clip of her doing the entire song. But, for now, this will have to do. She sounds beautiful.

 

The cover that Dylan, himself, touts as his favorite was done by Johnny Rivers. I’m a fan of Rivers’ work. It has that Johnny Rivers sound yet it also sounds very folky, and even more melodic and matter of fact than my favorite version from Post Production. Not sure if I’m totally on board for this one, sad to say.

 

The Byrds do it slightly more up-tempo, yet they sound very Dylanesque. But not so Dylanesque that it makes my ears bleed. This also seems to be the shortest version of the song that I’ve found. They do it live and although not done angrily, somehow, I can hear the bitterness more clearly in this than in any other one that I’ve found. Or maybe that’s just a product of listening to so many versions in a short span of time.

 

You can hear The Beatles doing some of the song during a video of their “Let It Be” Sessions (at the 0:50 mark). An official version was never released though. This is another one I would have loved to hear a full recording of.

 

Jerry Garcia, lead singer of The Grateful Dead, and creator of The Jerry Garcia Band, is another example of a musical legend that I’m just not into. His rendition with Merl Saunders grabs me from the first note. It sounds bluesy and the guitar is so masterful. Jerry’s vocal is a bit wistful and just slightly sad. I really enjoyed this one a lot.

 

Lucinda Williams opens this with more of a country-sounding vibe. It’s not twangy, thank goodness. Though I’m not a fan of her voice, I do like the way it serves to bring out and illustrate the hurt feelings behind the song.

 

The punk group X sounds a bit taunting in their performance of the tune and they take it back to that “Fuck You” place with their hard guitars and shouty … not so melodic vocals. They don’t seem to have any regard for a harmonious, engaging way, and they succeed on that point. But you still want to listen.

 

Bryan Ferry keeps it very straightforward and heartfelt. The piano is a nice departure from the omnipresent guitar-focused versions out there. It gives it more of a simple, plainspoken honesty.

 

English group Simply Red brings in more orchestration on this classic. The lead singer Mick Hucknall kind of sounds like Dylan, a bit, here. Just not as eardrum-destroying.

 

Unfortunately, for this next cover, I was only able to find a Grooveshark audio clip. But it’s really good. Violent Femmes brings the rock and the punk and the rockabilly excitement to this song and turn it into, as they say, “a catchy little ditty”. It’s a bit raucous but fun and cool. It’s also so danceable that you might not even pay attention to the lyrics on the first few listens. I do like it very much, though.

 


 

   

   

 

Cover Battle – “Leather and Lace” March 28, 2014

 

Leather and Lace” is a duet featuring members of two legendary groups: Stevie Nicks (of Fleetwood Mac) and Don Henley (of The Eagles), and it’s one of my favorites. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish yourself when you’re part of a group collective, but these two singer-songwriters have never had a problem making their distinctive mark.

 

The song has a bit of that Southern California country rock type vibe to it which fits in with the style of both performers. Stevie’s singular trill melds well with Don’s slight gruff, yet smooth sound.

 

Adam Levine (lead singer of Maroon 5) and country singer Sara Evans do a pretty decent job on their live version. I think Sara is reflecting more vocal chops than Adam, though.

 

The next video is from an unlikely duo – Dave Grohl (of Foo Fighters) and Will Ferrell (!). Will is a very funny man. He is … not a singer. But that’s not even really necessary here. At about the 3:08 mark he starts garbling up mouth sounds for a funny effect. Eventually Dave sings his part and they duet. You just go along with the sheer absurd silliness of their interaction for the enjoyment of this piece.

 

I found the Smoking Popes video at the last minute and decided to add it just because it’s so far afield from the original intent of the song. It’s like “What were they possibly thinking?”

 

It’s a live performance, in concert, so it’s a bit hard to make out at times. It’s just screaming and wailing and loud guitars and fast playing and banging drums and … um, I think the kitchen sink is in there too. I’d have to rate this DSO: Disconcerting, sensory overload.

   

   

 

Cover Battle – “Sweet Child O’ Mine” February 21, 2014

 

The original of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is written and performed by the band Guns N’ Roses. It introduced us to one of the greatest American rock and roll bands ever. Their set is loud, raucous and super tight. There’s not a wasted bit of anything in this track.

 

Now we come to the version that compelled me to choose this song: Miche Braden & Postmodern Jukebox. It’s done in a straight old-time bluesy, jazzy New Orleans style, and it is PHENOMENAL. It’s one of those renditions that takes a piece to places you never imagined it could go.

 

This next one is done by Taken by Trees. It puts a very sweet turn on the song. If I had heard it in passing under any sort of normal circumstances it would be fine. But I didn’t. The first time I heard a snippet of it was in a commercial for a Lifetime movie adaptation of the V.C. Andrews novel Flowers in the Attic. The book, and subsequent sequels, were all the rage back in the day. It’s about a vain, selfish mother (and an abusive grandmother) who hides her kids out in the attic just until she can get back in her father’s good graces and be put back in the will. Of course she starts enjoying the good life and the kids end up staying there for well over a year. Since the two oldest are going through puberty there’s a whole sibling incest thing. That’s what creeps me out about this version. It made me feel really, really icky. Not icky enough to not watch the movie (craptastic in that Lifetime movie sort of way) but still icky.

 

I’m not really impressed with the Sheryl Crow version. Nothing is added to the song. I seem to like her more as a songwriter than as a performer, so my rating on this is “meh”

 

The next one is done by the Irish dance band Lazy Boyz, in a style of “music” that I am just probably too old to handle. It’s all thumping beat, house, electronic, synth, techno, trance music. Perfect for dance clubs and raves and jumping up and down and all around like you’re having some sort of seizure. It’s not actually something you would sit down and listen to; it seems only designed for maximum movement of maximum bodies jammed into a huge neon-lit space. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just never been my thing.

 

Bonnie Tyler’s voice is super scratchy, super raspy and would seem, in theory, to be perfect for such a great rock song. In a way it works, and in a way it doesn’t. It works because she sounds so raw and wild and it’s in keeping with her energy and how she sings. But it doesn’t work because it’s almost painful to listen to. Not because she’s off key or anything (she’s just doing her thing). But my throat starts to hurt when she goes for some of those long notes. It’s a bit distracting (or detracting??) and I can’t get into this as much as some of the other ones.

   

   

 

Cover Battle – “Refugee” December 6, 2013

 

I’ve always enjoyed the song “Refugee“. Originally recorded by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the song is like an anthem. It makes you feel like you can break through, or break out of whatever’s happening, rise above the shite and do things your own way. Tom has a unique vocal style – almost mumbly but not quite. Maybe I’d call it a casual kind of laid-back drawl, even.

 

The rendition by Melissa Etheridge is much softer and sounds less revolutionary in its tone, yet she still brings a solid independent spirit to the song. Her version includes her trademark rock raspiness, expert guitar work and strong vocal prowess. It’s the same song, but changed, in a really elevated way.

 

The next cover is by a Swedish metal band called Vains of Jenna. The leader has a kind of Axl Rose vibe to him and their version is raucous and hard and more anarchic than Tom’s even. It’s really well done.

 

From the first vocal, The Chipmunk’s redoing just makes me laugh and laugh. In some ways it sounds more badass than Petty’s original. Rock on, Chipmunks. Rock on.

   

   

 

Cover Battle – “Dancing With Myself” September 20, 2013

 

Hot. British. Spiky. Punk. Sneering. Badass Attitude. Anarchic. Perfect description of Billy Idol, and this song. But unlike a lot of strictly punk songs, this one has an accessibility to it. It’s not off-putting and doesn’t necessarily make you want to wreck stuff. It’s my favorite version. Although, surprisingly, not the original (!)

 

The original was issued only a year prior, by … Billy Idol. And Generation X. During his stint with the British punk band , Generation X, Billy and his band mates wrote and released Dancing With Myself. After the band broke up Billy remixed the song and released it, effectively helping to launch his successful solo career.

 

The Gen-X original recording is sparser and not as produced as Billy’s solo remix. It has a less polished sound to it. While I guess a real music expert might call this a truer punk version, the solo effort sounds way more punk to my ear. This sounds more like a well-done demo to me.

 

The Donnas version, while fast-paced, still has nowhere near the same level of punkiness of Billy’s original (remix). It’s a nice, serviceable cover. It just doesn’t have the gritty, ballsy, in your face melodic harshness of the original. When Billy Idol sings this you can hear the “fuck you” sneer and attitude. When the Donnas do it, it’s a fun party song. You can even make out all the words, and that certainly doesn’t seem punk.

 

Nouvelle Vague, a group I admittedly had never heard of, takes this to a 20’s sounding flapper type vibe. It’s such an unexpected redo, you don’t know what to think at first. It’s old-style, yet there’s a light freshness to it that you’d think would diminish the song. But it doesn’t. It’s quick, kicky and fun, and I really really like it.

 

I think Blink 182 increases the tempo, just a little. Perhaps they’re attempting to out punk Billy or maybe to add a slight touch of goofiness to it? I’m honestly not sure. To me, it doesn’t really add anything to the song, except maybe put it on the radar of a younger generation of fans that will (hopefully) be interested in tracking down the original.

   

   

 

Cover Battle – “Billie Jean” August 16, 2013

 

Michael Jackson. Legendary, groundbreaking performer. Often imitated, but never duplicated. Who in the world would even attempt to cover one of his masterpieces? Well I found a very unlikely duo willing to go for it, on “Billie Jean“. I think you’ll be surprised at their interpretation.

 

The original song, with its mysterious lyrics, oh so danceable, infectious beat, making everyone think they could moonwalk (they can’t), was an instant classic. Featuring Michael’s signature wails and whelps and high-pitched “hee-hee-hee”, it continued MJ’s ascent into legendary music icon status.

 

The duo responsible for covering this song, The Civil Wars, is a new favorite of mine. Their musical stylings are much sparser than Michael’s, and definitely not what anyone might think of as pop, rock, r&b or soul. They’re decidedly more country, or even folk would be a good description. But they have such great heart and a lovely vocal interplay. I would have never expected a Michael Jackson cover from them.

 

Their version is simple – just 2 voices and one guitar. John Paul White’s voice is a nice harmonious counterpoint to Joy Williams’ delicate tone. They play against each other in a very inviting and engaging way. You should head over to YouTube to check out some of their other offerings.

 

And the Lego tribute? I just included that because I thought it was cute. 😉

   
   

   

 

Cover Battle: “Piece of My Heart” July 12, 2013

 

The first version I ever heard of “A Piece of My Heart” is by the late rock icon Janis Joplin. With her raw, cigarettes and whisky voice she screams out the pain of love’s devotion. But she’s also playful, teasing and sexy on this track.

 

I discovered that the song was originally done in 1967 by Erma Franklin (Aretha’s older sister). I had never heard of this before so I was wary, but I really like this. It’s more of a soul take on it than Janis’s rock and bluesy vocalization.

 

My reaction to the Faith Hill version: what the hell is this southern country-fried piece of crap?! I can’t even call it craptastic; there is no tastic here to be gleaned. This is … it’s … it’s … freaking painful! And despite my extremely brief country music period and my continuing love of the show Nashville, I have a limited tolerance for twang so — good lord, no.

 

Now from the ridiculous to the sublime: Phoebe Snow. Her voice is deep and throat yet light as angel’s wings. She has it all: jazz, blues, soul, funk, passion and … heart. You feel the sexiness of the song, of Phoebe, through her rendition when she slows it down to a simmer around the 3:14 mark. Then she ramps it back up and brings it home with her characteristic fire.

 

I found a track by Dusty Springfield which I think is okay. I like it, but not as much as Janis, Phoebe or Erma’s versions. It’s kind of a typical 60’s pop take on it. I don’t think it has the same power or impact as the other ladies.

 

Now Mary J. Blige. This actually gives me goose bumps every time. In a fantastic live performance Miss Mary tears it up. Mary is so good at revealing the emotion of a song and her voice is literally a force of nature. I think the power is elevated by the fact that she’s doing it in her element: live in front of audience. She has them in the palm of her hand and they’re totally willing to go wherever she wants to take them. Sometimes I prefer to listen to studio versions rather than live because studio versions aren’t generally subject to glitches that happen live. But live can also bring a magic that a sound booth just cannot create, and this is definitely something that should be heard live. Even if you don’t watch the video and just listen to it there’s still that incredible impact of Mary’s spirit in this song. I also found a short clip of her doing it a cappella

 

I think Melissa Etheridge comes the closest to duplicating Janis’s screaming vocals. Maybe duplicating is not the right word. I think she echoes the feeling and rawness of Janis while still doing it in her own way. I have a 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance with just Melissa and her guitar. I also have her 2005 Grammy performance with the fabulous Joss Stone. The Grammy performance came right after the end of her breast cancer chemotherapy.

 

I like, the audience at the Grammy’s, was so ecstatic to see her beautiful (bald) , brave, and strong, and it just made the performance all the more meaningful when she sings the lines … “And each time I tell myself that I, well I think I’ve had enough, But I’m gonna show you, baby, that a woman can be tough.”

 

Pink is another artist that brings back touches of Janis in her cover. Pink definitely has that raw screaming power and toughness that Janis brought to her music.


 

   

   

 

RIP – Anne Francis January 5, 2011

ANNE FRANCIS & LESLIE NIELSEN

Anne Francis on IMDB

Anne Francis on wiki

Portrait of Jenny

Kraft Theatre

The Rocket Man

Bad Day at Black Rock

Blackboard Jungle

Forbidden Planet

Route 66

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Honey West

Black Sheep Squadron

 

 
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