Messing With Classics

mclemore_1200_720

Reinventing the wheel is dangerous business.

Having remade Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon in 2009 as well as releasing a very rare take of The Stone Roses’ self titled debut in 2013, The Flaming Lips have made a name for themselves as a band unafraid to tackle classic material on their own terms. They continue in that same vein with their new rendition of The Beatles’ 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Says Lips’ Wayne Coyne: ‘Mostly we do it because it’s fun… I don’t think we have any agenda. I mean we make so, so much music that it can be a relief not to be working on your own songs…everyone who makes their own music has this secret joy of playing songs that aren’t theirs.’

Coyne goes on to suggest that these albums we call ‘classics’ aren’t as sacred as we hold them to be, their resonance in people being, to an extent, ‘dumb luck.’ While there may be some truth to this statement, any artist so bold as to take on one of these works ought to anticipate the expectations they are setting up for themselves.

An act far beyond covering a single track, and far more rare, remaking a full album is a risky business, especially when it comes to legends as the Pink Floyd or The Beatles. The Flaming Lips do it their own way and for their own reasons, but they’re not the only ones stepping into thin air. Here are 10 other interesting attempts at full album covers.

Easy All-Stars:
Dub Side Of The Moon
(Easy Star, 2003)

dark_sideThe original:
Pink Floyd:
The Dark Side Of The Moon
(Harvest, 1973)
The Dark Side Of The Moon is quite simply one of the most iconic, best known and best-selling albums of all time, remaining on the Billboard charts for a stunning 741 weeks in a row. That’s 14 years, folks! Using some of the most advanced studio techniques, such as multi track recording and tape loops, this was state-of-the-art at the time – but its the human quality of the songs and the artistry of entire album that make it simply timeless.

dubside_240What is this about?
This is the debut album by the New York-based reggae collective Easy Star All-Stars, and one that gave them instant stardom. Just as the original album has been a regular on the world’s sales charts since the release, Dub Side of the Moon has steadily remained on the Reggae charts all the way since 2003. The band followed up their success with Radiodread (2006) and Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band (2009), and of course, Dubber Side of the Moon in 2010.

Why should I listen to it?
Does a dub-reggae interpretation of The Dark Side of the Moon sound a good idea? Well, not really, but this actually works out amazingly well. This is a complete makeover, though with the actual song structures kept fairly intact, even sticking to the same time-pace as Pink Floyd, which many have said synchs perfectly with the first hour of The Wizard of Oz. Try to leave your stoner jokes at the door, but it’s hard not to giggle when the chiming of clocks on “Time” is replaced with the bubbling of a bong, followed by a smokey cough. Bringing their own kind of psychedelic haze into the magical mystery tour of the original songs, including roots reggae, jungle and dancehall, Dub Side of the Moon is heading for the same directions, but on a different space shuttle.

The Dirty Projectors:
Rise Above
(Dead Oceans, 2007)

black_damagedThe Original:
Black Flag:
Damaged
(SST, 1981)
A true hardcore cornerstone; Damaged is one of the most influential punk albums of all time. Black Flag defined the entire L.A punk scene and paved way for American underground rock with ferocious anger and rambling anthems like “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie,” “T.V. Party,” and “Police Story.”

dirty_riseWhat is this about?
Dirty Projector mastermind Dave Longstreth hadn’t heard Damaged in 15 years when he decided to remake it basically from how he remembered it in his youth. Longstreth, being a complete opposite of Henry Rollins in every way, turns angry riffs into lush orchestration, and angry yelling into sweet harmonies.

Why should I listen to it?
This is something completely different, that’s for sure, and not an album aimed at the typical Black Flag-fan – or hardcore enthusiast at all. Longstreth and his Dirty Projectors reache far beyond such categorization, and this is probably a love-hate kind of work. The critic’s stayed mainly positive, ‘That the album has a concept – a song-by-song ‘reimagining’ of Black Flag’s Damaged – scarcely matters to the listener, although it seems good for Longstreth: It gives the illusion of an anchor,’ wrote Pitchfork (8.1/10), while in a more lukewarm response, Paste Magazine stated, ‘This is either one of 2007’s most refreshing or most grating albums, and there’s a hair’s breadth in between.’

Laibach:
Let It Be
(Mute, 1988)

beatles_beThe Original:
The Beatles:
Let It Be
(Apple, 1970)
The final studio album released by The Beatles, even though it was mostly recorded prior to Abbey Road in the early months of 1969. The quartet was already in steaming ruins at the time of its release in May 1970, but the grandiose, orchestral production of Phil Spector manages to even out the frictions within the band. A second proper version of the album was released in 2003 without his heavy-handed touch, as Let It Be… Naked.

laiback_beWhat is this about?
In the history of odd combinations, this one really stands out. The industrial/neo-classical Slovenian outfit Laibach doesn’t compromise their strict, military sound and guttural singing when turning towards the gentle pop of The Beatles. Their beautiful version of “Across The Universe” aside, this shows another side of The Beatles. Laibach decided to drop the title track on their version, and replaced “Maggie Mae” with a German folk tune.

 

Why should I listen to it?
For Beatles-lovers, mainly because you’ve never heard The Beatles like this before. As All Music Guide puts it, ‘In some respects, Let It Be wasn’t that hard of an effort – songs like “Get Back”, “I Me Mine,” and “One After 909” simply had to have the Laibach elements applied (growled vocals, martial drums, chanting choirs, overpowering orchestrations, insanely over-the-top guitar solos) to be turned into bizarre doppelgängers. The sheer creepiness of hearing such well-known songs transformed, though, is more than enough reason to listen in.” But this is also a political statement. Made at the dawn of the Slovenian independence movement, it evokes living behind the Iron Curtain at a time when the people no longer would ‘let it be.’

Booker T. & M.G.’s:
McLemore Avenue
(Stax, 1970)

abbey_beatlesThe Original:
The Beatles:
Abbey Road
(Apple, 1969)
The real swan song by The Beatles, and the last sessions where they all participated, is nothing short of a masterpiece, bringing them into brave new musical directions (again and for the last time), completed with standout tracks like “Something,” “Sun King,” and “Come Together” – and of course the iconic cover art. Fun fact: a 19-year-old Alan Parsons worked as an assistant engineer in the studio. Known not only for his own subsequent artistic career, he also did the engineering on the aforementioned The Dark Side of the Moon.

booker_mclemoreWhat is this about?
Booker T. Jones was so awestruck when he heard Abbey Road, he just had to pay immediate homage to it, and together with Donald “Duck” Dunn, drummer Al Jackson and the rest of the M.G’s, he made McLemore Avenue just a couple of weeks after its release. The album cover is even a remake of the original, McLemore Avenue being the street passing Stax studios in Memphis. You can even spot the famous “Hitsville USA” sign back there.

Why should I listen to it?
This is a soulful, instrumental and quite improvisational interpretation, where the single tracks are bundled into three lengthy medleys – except for “Something”, the only standalone track – securing a sweet Southern flow that suits the songs surprisingly well.

Petra Haden:
Petra Haden Sings the Who Sell Out
(Bar/None, 2005)

who_selloutThe original:
The Who:
The Who Sell Out
(Decca, 1967)
A concept based tribute album to pirate radio, complete with fake commercials and jingles in-between the songs. A milestone in their catalog, The Who Sell Out is far from a sell-out. This masterpiece is a perfect blend of mod pop and hard rock, wonderful vocal harmonies and with some of the bands finest songs, including “I Can See For Miles.”

haden_selloutWhat is this about?
This daring project came to life when Mike Watt (of Minutemen fame) handed his friend, singer-violinist Petra Haden (that dog, The Decemberists, many others), an 8-track cassette tape with the original Who album recorded onto one track and the other seven empty, for her to fill with intricate vocal harmonies. Haden decided to remake the classic by herself, and only herself. This a cappella version features just her, singing all the voices, all the instruments and yeah, even the jingles and the mock radio commercials.

Why should I listen to it?
This could’ve ended up a total train wreck in the hands of others, but Petra Haden has the vocal capability and keen musical understanding to transform one masterpiece into another. And Pete Townsend himself approved of it, speaking with Entertainment Weekly in 2005, ‘”I heard the music as if for the first time. I listened all the way through in one sitting and was struck by how beautiful a lot of the music was. Petra’s approach is so tender and generous. I adore it.”

Camper Van Beethoven:
Tusk
(Pitch-A-Tent, 2003)

fleetwood_tuskThe original:
Fleetwood Mac:
Tusk
(Warner, 1979)
Actually the most expensive album made at that time, with a stunning $1 million price tag. According to author Rob Trucks’ in his 33 1/3 book Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, the group started their recording session with a cocaine fueled celebration of Mick Fleetwood’s new $70,000 sports car, before he got a phone call saying that the uninsured car was broadsided and demolished while being towed to his home. The album itself also became a commercial car crash, selling ‘only’ four million copies – something like 20 millions less than Rumours. It is now generally hailed as a keystone album within the AOR segment.

camper_tuskWhat is this about?
This is nothing less than a re-recording of a re-recording. First done by Camper Van Beethoven in 1987 around spare time of making their delightful Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. This song-for-song remake didn’t get a proper release until 2003 when they returned from a 12-year long hiatus. They dug up these old demo tapes, and decided to give it another shot, more or less as an experiment to see if they still could play together and work as a group.

Why should I listen to it?
And they sure could. Camper Van Beethoven gained popularity as one the most beloved alternative rock bands in the mid ‘80s; combining garage/punk roots with jangle pop, ska and country-folk. All elements are present here, on a collection where the song material of course is excellent – the performance loose and joyous. Even if it’s not up there with Camper’s best albums, it’s still a treat.

Macy Gray:
Talking Book
(429/Savoy, 2012)

wonder_talkingThe original:
Stevie Wonder:
Talking Book
(Tamla, 1972)
An undisputed classic from the glorious creative highpoint of Stevie Wonder; Talking Book secured him multi-platinum sales, several hit songs (“Superstition”, “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”) and a swath of Grammys.

 

macy_talkingWhat is this about?
Not promoted as a covers album, but rather labeled a ‘love letter’ to Stevie Wonder on the occasion of the original’s 40th anniversary, Macy Gray did her tribute in a pretty straightforward way, leaning on her raspy voice and keeping the funky edge more or less intact.

Why should I listen to it?
This album received various critics. Popmatters.com stated that ‘some of these versions just seem unnecessary, more a product of the let’s-cover-the-whole-album concept rather than songs that anyone was dying to re-record;’ while The New Yorker wrote in a much more positive review, ‘Gray hits all the right notes, both as a singer and an interpreter: it’s a marvelous, expansive, eccentric performance that lifts off into gospel toward the end. The original version was about romantic love. This one may be about matters more divine (there’s one explicit mention of prayer), unless it’s just Gray’s way of reiterating her devotion for Talking Book itself. Either way, it’s a stirring closer, and a reminder that the most important thing about a love letter is how it ends,’ referencing the closer, “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever).”

The Walkmen:
Pussy Cats
(Record Collection, 2006)

harry_catsThe original:
Harry Nilsson:
Pussy Cats
(RCA, 1974)
In 1974 John Lennon temporarily separated from Yoko Ono and left New York for a period, settling in Los Angeles and rambling around with Harry Nilsson in what is commonly known as the “Lost Weekend.” Fueled by large amounts of booze, the pair entered the studio together and recorded Pussy Cats, with a worn-out Harry Nilsson at the microphone and Lennon filling in as producer. The album is guested by, amongst others, Ringo Starr, Jim Keltner and Keith Moon. It must have been a hell of a party.

walkmen_catsWhat is this about?
It started out as a joke, but ended up as a full album. Indie/post-punk outfit The Walkmen did a track-by-track, note-by-note remake of one their favorite albums, recorded in the last days of their Marcata studio in New York City. Together with a bunch of friends they created their own Lost Weekend while the studio fell apart around them. Oddly enough, we get a couple of covers of covers here as well, since Nilsson/Lennon themselves versions of “Many Rivers To Cross” and Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

Why should I listen to it?
It’s kind of hard to revitalize the ramblings of the drinking buddies, and wisely enough, singer Hamilton Leithauser does not try to impersonate Nilsson growls. As the little sister to the band’s main album of that year, A Hundred Miles Off, this one might be considered a parenthesis in their own catalog; but it’s in some ways just as good. The band catches the vibe while creating their own mood into it. And hopefully it helped gain more attention to an often-overlooked gem from the mid-‘70s.

Carla Bozulich:
Red Headed Stranger
(DiCristina Stairbuilders, 2003)

willie_strangerThe original:
Willie Nelson:
Red Headed Stranger
(Columbia, 1975)
Being dissatisfied with is relations with Atlantic Records, outlaw cowboy Willie Nelson turned to Columbia in 1975 for more artistic freedom. His first statement was Red Headed Stranger, a concept album about a fugitive on the run from the law after killing his wife and her lover. With a production so sparse even Columbia thought it was just demo tapes, but they kept their promise of artistic liberty and hesitantly released Stranger – to wide acclaim from the public and critics alike. It was Nelson’s big breakthrough, sold multi-platinum and is generally ranked among his finest works to date.

carla_strangerWhat is this about?
Singer/songwriter Carla Bozulich first gained attention as the singer in Ethyl Meatplow and country-based post-punk band The Geraldine Fibbers, later performing as Evangelista. Red Headed Stranger is her first solo album, and an escape from the pressure of writing new songs. She turned to this classic, aided by, amongst others, longtime partner Nels Cline, Alan Sparhawk of Low – and hey, Willie Nelson himself.

Why should I listen to it?
The result is nothing short of gorgeous. Adding instruments like Autoharp, electric mbira and tamboura into the mix, Bozulich does more than a remake, this is a true rediscovery with new soundscapes within a whole different aural texture. As All Music sums it up in their rave review, ‘As downtrodden and spiritually haunting as its predecessor, this new Red Headed Stranger is vital and necessary, a work of new Americana — not the radio format, but the mythos itself.’

Dave Depper:
The RAM Project
(Jackpot/City Slang)

macca_ramThe original:
Paul McCartney:
Ram
(Apple, 1971)
The second solo album from Macca, made in the shadows of breaking up The Beatles and darkened by his sour relationship with John Lennon. Ram was not received favorably in its time (nothing less than “monumentally irrelevant” according to Rolling Stone’s Jon Landau), but its reputation has grown steadily throughout the years, and it is now considered as on his best solo albums. Same Rolling Stone, different writer, called it, in-retrospect, a ‘daffy masterpiece.’

01, 12/7/10, 3:42 PM, 8C, 4920x4936 (528+1736), 100%, Custom, 1/60 s, R46.0, G28.0, B51.0

01, 12/7/10, 3:42 PM, 8C, 4920×4936 (528+1736), 100%, Custom, 1/60 s, R46.0, G28.0, B51.0

What is this about?
In 2010 Dave Depper decided to re-do Paul McCartney’s Ram completely by himself in is own bedroom. For one month he carefully recorded every single instrument, with just a little aid from Joan Hiller in the role of Linda McCartney. What started as a bedroom project turned out to be a proper release, and one that has continued to live on for Depper, being something much bigger than he initially intended.

Why should I listen to it?
This is a pretty impressive piece of work, clearly done with lots of passion and love. More a re-built creation than anything else, an exercise in imitation. As with the approach of the Flaming Lips, sometimes music is just about having a good time, and stumble upon brilliance now and then, even if that brilliance belongs to other people.

Bjørn Hammershaug

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