"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Friday, December 30, 2005

Da Doo Ron Random 

Okay, bear with me for a moment. First, let's start with this week's Random Ten:
1. "Louie Louie" (Kingsmen)
2. "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" (Ian Dury and the Blockheads)
3. "Me and Billy the Kid" (Joe Ely)
4. "Living Loving Maid (She's Just a Woman)" (Led Zeppelin)
5. "Green Onions" (Booker T. and the MG's)
6. "Heart of Glass" (Blondie)
7. "Don't Worry Baby" (Los Lobos)
8. "Nelson Mandela" (Special AKA)
9. "No One's Hard Up But Me" (Red Brush Rowdies)
10. "We Close Our Eyes" (Susanna Hoffs)

A pretty boring selection, really, with no surprises other than the Red Brush Rowdies track (which comes from this excellent compilation of Depression-era folk music). But it's fortuitous, in a way, because it concludes with the Susanna Hoffs tune - which leads nicely into the subject I really wanted to talk about today.

Susanna Hoffs is most certainly not hip. Even people who will still admit to a grudging fondness for the Bangles readily excoriate Hoffs' solo output, and sometimes with very good reason - her version of Bowie's "Boys Keep Swinging," for example, is simply unlistenable. Still, her version of the Oingo Boingo classic is sublime (due, in large part, to the guitar work of Robert Quine, who I eulogized at the time of his death). And that's the thing about cover versions - you never know who's going to do an amazing version of a great song or, in the alternative, find something special in the core of a song you were just sure sucked the high hard one. Ever hear Wilson Pickett's version of the Archies' "Sugar Sugar"? You should - it's terrific. On the other hand, Chilliwack's version of the brilliant "Arms of Mary" would be enough to get them arrested if I were king of the world.

But even more than most musical phenomena, the appreciation of weird cover versions is a highly personal matter. For instance, I had no idea until very recently that vapid teen idol Mandy Moore had done an entire album of covers. Some of the selections are predictable, and predictably uninteresting (Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move," Elton John's "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters," Cat Stevens' "Moonshadow" - what, was "Morning Has Broken" too challenging for her?). At least one selection - Blondie's "One Way or Another" - is just unspeakably bad, both in terms of being a bad choice and a bad interpretation. But there are some gems, both minor and major. She does credible, if not amazing, versions of Joan Armitrading's "Drop the Pilot" (no thanks to the guitarist, who obviously phoned it in), Joe Jackson's heartbreaking "Breaking Us in Two," and Todd Rundgren's "Can We Still Be Friends." Although her version of John Hiatt's small masterpiece, "Have a Little Faith In Me," leaves me slightly cold, I'm told it was a hit. But - but! - she opens the album with two really odd and truly inspired choices, both of which she performs gamely enough to wow me: XTC's "Senses Working Overtime," and the Waterboys' "The Whole of the Moon." Okay, color me impressed.

But then I read this Amazon.com review:
Okay I decided to give this cd a chance because it's mandy moore. OH MY GODS! It's awful. I mean, what was she thinking singing to crap like this? Most of the songs make Mandy's range go WAY too low. She ultimately sound better by singing a little higher. The song lyrics just suck and it's like nothing she has previously sang. Don't buy this cd. Listen to the clips on Amazon, and you'll hear for yourself!

What?!? "Crap like this"? Todd Rundgren and John Hiatt are crap? "The song lyrics just suck"? Have you actually listened to the lyrics to "The Whole of the Moon"? To quote the reviewer, "OH MY GODS!" What-freakin'-ever! Some people have no taste at all - but that's just one guy's opinion.

Which brings me to Shaun Cassidy.

Keith Partridge's little brother has been something of a running joke around these parts, and a joke he clearly is. There are high school choirs all over the country with better singers; had he not been kinda cute (or so I'm told) and aggressively marketed, he would be selling insurance in Hoboken right now. All that notwithstanding, however, he made one of my favorite records ever:
Shaun Cassidy's unknown masterpiece

Wasp was Shaun's attempt to be hip in the New Wave era. As such, it stands with strange artifacts like Peter Noone's (ex-Herman's Hermits) version of Elvis Costello's "Green Shirt," or the Searchers' version of the Records' "Hearts In Her Eyes." It includes covers of songs by Bowie ("Rebel Rebel"), Townshend ("So Sad About Us"), and a fairly obscure (at the time) band called Talking Heads ("The Book I Read"). It was produced by the afore-mentioned Todd Rundgren, and features Utopia as the backing band.

And you see, it's not just me. Here's Seattle Weekly columnist Kurt Reighley, writing in 1999:
In 1977, Shaun was America's heartthrob. Like other youngsters, I tuned in weekly to watch the foxy blonde's sleuthing on The Hardy Boys. That year, Cassidy racked up three top-10 hits: "That's Rock 'n' Roll," "Hey Deanie," and "Da Doo Ron Ron." According to the young superstar, the Crystals' 1963 original was the first record he'd ever purchased. Coincidentally, Shaun's version, which I procured at the local Woolworth's, was the 45 that started my collection.

Four years later, everything had changed. I'd started high school and discovered punk rock. Now when I visited Woolworth's, it was to snatch up the three-for-a-dollar 8-track tapes that languished unsold, building a library of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed titles that played endlessly while I did homework.

One afternoon, I recall coming across a Cassidy album I'd never seen before in the bargain bins. On the cover, a slightly older, puffier Shaun peered through a pane of broken glass. The titles listed included "Rebel, Rebel," which I immediately recognized from Bowie's Diamond Dogs. Appalled by the ex-teen idol's crass grasp for credibility, I passed over the platter. I never saw another copy.

Dim recollections of that moment have haunted me through a lifetime of record-collecting. Periodically, I'd flip through C sections of used-vinyl dealers, always in vain. Recently, when a colleague wrote a rhapsody on Shaun for a music periodical, I quizzed him about the disc I was beginning to believe I'd imagined; he'd never heard of it.

Then, a few weeks ago in Portland, it happened. Amongst the stacks at Everyday Music, I found Wasp. After 18 years of searching, I didn't dare repeat the same mistake. What I heard when I finally got to drop the needle on this rarity proved my mystery had been worth solving.

And that's what great cover versions are all about, Charlie Brown. If you've never heard the Staple Singers do Talking Heads' "Slippery People" - not to mention David Byrne's version of Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" - you might not get it. But on the other hand, and be honest now, do you think of "All Along the Watchtower" primarily as a Bob Dylan tune, or as a Jimi Hendrix tune? That's what I thought. Sometimes a particular artist and a particular song come together in a way that no one can anticipate, and the result is magical enough to bring either the song or the artist to another level. It's amazing, really - and all the more so when the artist is Shaun Cassidy. Or Mandy Moore.

But not Chilliwack. They just suck.

(By the way, cover version fans should check out Copy, Right? for some tasty cover blogging. And, for the record, my current favorite cover is Marti Jones' version of "Room With a View", originally recorded by Let's Active - guaranteed 100% Shaun-Cassidy-free. Joe Bob says check it out.)




Ack, covers. I am somewhat obsessed with them. My iTunes "cover" playlist is, um, a bit large.

I have been looking for a copy of Wasp for years, dammit. Thanks for the mention of the Pickett track -- somehow, I had missed that one.
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