by Cullen James
Today I step a little further outside the confines of my self-imposed guitar-centric theme and discuss a more general music topic – cover songs.
When I joined the Army in 1994, the school for my career field (Public Affairs) was in Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana. It closed down shortly after I graduated, but there will always be strong memories I associate with that place. There are certain activities I will associate with that place also. One of them is developing film. Another is cover songs.
Part of the Print Journalism PAO program is Photojournalism, and 12 years ago when I went through we were still using wet film. There was an intro to digital manipulation, but it was all of a two-hour class. The rest of the time, we were shooting with old full-manual Canons (the kind that could double as a mace) and developing the film. The building where the Photojournalism instruction took place had been a jail in World War II. The individual cells had been converted to individual darkrooms. Two students were paired and shared a cell.
Before the IPOD and the portability that MP3 players brought, the smallest CD players we could get our hands were about the size of a breadbox. But that’s what we had, and my darkroom partner and I had ours set up every day while we made our contact sheets. One disc I was burning out at the time was The Breeders’ Pod. One of the songs often replayed (the meat, FINALLY!, such a circuitous route to get here, eh?) was their cover of The Beatles’ Happiness is a Warm Gun. The other day, that song popped up in rotation on my MP3 player and I thought, “What a good topic for a column!”
So, here is my list of my personal favorite cover songs and my reasons why. They are in no particular order, just some of the cover tunes I really like.
Stevie Ray Vaughan – Little Wing: Jimi Hendrix was a genius and most guitarists that have come after him have been pale imitations or have had to work hard to distinguish themselves in some other fashion. Vaughan was one of the few guitarists brave enough to play a lot of Hendrix tunes. He not only played them, but he played them well. In the case of Little Wing, this is one of the few cases where I believe the remake surpasses the original. By cutting the vocals and focuses on mood and tension, Vaughan changes the dynamic of Hendrix’s original version. However, while you don’t get the specific identity that Hendrix gave with lyrics, I believe that Vaughan far more successfully conveys the mood the song portrays.
The Breeders - Happiness is a Warm Gun: Well, this one had to be on the list, being the catalyst for the entire piece. The original Beatles song is a classic and arguably one of their very best songs. Musically, The Breeders’ version is very true to the original. I mean, the music is a bit tighter and production value is modern, but there’s no major divergence from the source material. The main difference is in how Kim Deal chose to sing almost under the music. Her vocals add a subtlety that the original doesn’t possess. Now, I still prefer the original, but there aren’t many other cover songs that do as good a job as covering as this song.
Joe Satriani - Sleep Walk: Another cover song that is very true to the original. What Satch does though is take the song off the steel guitar and puts it entirely on a normal 6 string. Where the song greatly benefits is modern production and Satch’s ear for tone.
Slayer - Dissident Aggressor: When I first heard South of Heaven, I was not a big fan of Judas Priest. The only songs I knew were the mass consciousness ones like Breaking the Law or Living After Midnight. So, I didn’t know that this song was a Priest tune. When I first heard it I thought it was a very different sound for Slayer, but I still thought it sounded good. It’s a fun song to listen to, especially with Slayer’s dissonance added to it. Since hearing the Priest original, I have that much more respect for Slayer by making a good song out of that steaming pile of platypus crap.
Ramones - Palisades Park: This one was tough. The Ramones did so many covers, but they did such a great job with Palisades Park it rises to the top. I could have easily put the Spiderman theme song, R.A.M.O.N.E.S., Have You Ever Seen The Rain?, or others. Palisades Park is such a fun song and the Ramones do a great job of capturing the feeling of the tune while still being the Ramones.
Well, those are a few of mine, what are some of yours?
Cullen once did a death metal cover of the Canadian National Anthem