Sunday, July 25, 2010

Minstrels of the Air: The Greatest Stories Ever Sung

The narrative in song has had a long and storied history. The oral tradition of Nordic skalds, Irish Bards and Anglo-Saxon scops chanting such renowned tales as are found in the Völuspá, Táin Bó Cúalnge and Beowulf, are the precursors of 13th century minstrels of London and Paris and troubadours of Provence, who in turn are the forebears of Bob Dylan, Martin Carthy and Neil Young. In fact, if you squint your eyes really hard and ignore the poorly-tuned strings, one can see a bit of the blind bard Turlough O'Carolan, the last, great harper of Ireland, in every guitar-playing busker singing for change in a subway station.

Here then, in my estimation, are the best of the modern-day narrative songs -- short stories put to music -- complete with exposition, climax and dénouement. Some even have a moral...or immoral, as the case may be:

A BOY NAMED SUE by Johnny Cash (from Johnny Cash at San Quentin)

-- I am always amazed that this song was written by Shel Silverstein (the author of the children's book 'A Light in the Attic'). But then I did some research and found out that Silverstein penned, among countless other tunes, "The Cover of the Rolling Stone' (a hit for Dr. Hook) and 'The Unicorn' (made famous by the Irish Rovers), as well as another Cash hit '25 Minutes to Go'. Needless to say, I can't imagine anyone but Johnny Cash singing this song and having it sound so believable...and funny.

THE WRECK OF THE EDMUND FITZGERALD by Gordon Lightfoot (from Summertime Dream)

-- Unless you lived in Michigan or Wisconsin, I am not altogether sure that in 1975 the rest of the world knew that what we call 'Lake Superior' is so vast a sea of freshwater that 'when the gales of November come slashing' freighters with a capacity of 26,000 tons can sink without a trace in its frigid depths. Gordon Lightfoot solved all that by relating 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald'. Another interesting aspect of the song is that it was composed by Lightfoot in the 'Dorian Mode' (which amounts to playing only the white keys on the piano). Other songs that share that odd bit of useless trivia: 'Eleanor Rigby' and 'Scarborough Fair'.

ALICE'S RESTAURANT MASACREE, PART I by Arlo Guthrie (from Alice's Restaurant)

-- As in thousands of households across America, listening to 'Alice's Restaurant' on Thanksgiving has been a holiday tradition in my home for decades (a part of the song takes place at a dinner on Thanksgiving, but not at the restaurant). This 18 minute-long 60's epic, based on real incidents and people (yes, there is an Alice and there was a restaurant), is perhaps the funniest song ever written. There are so many hilarious sequences in the song that I'll just let you listen to it and not add spoilers here...
...okay, I lied. My favorite parts are 'Officer Obie and the case of American blind Justice' and the mother-stabbers and father-rapers on the 'Group W' bench. Guthrie's dry delivery and sardonic wit are exceptional here.

CATS IN THE CRADLE by Harry Chapin (from Verities & Balderdash')

-- If you have kids and even a smidgen of parental guilt, this song is guaranteed to tug at your heartstrings. You'll probably go right out and buy your kid a PS3; you know, rather than actually playing with them. I could've also added Chapin's 'Taxi' on this list as an example of sterling narrative, but I think 'Cats in the Cradle' has more of an emotional impact.

HURRICANE by Bob Dylan (from Desire)

-- I could have chosen Dylan's 'Tangled Up in Blue', 'Visions of Johanna' or 'Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts', but once again, the profligate Sony Corporation has removed all free internet access to them (bastards!). So, I managed to find the original version of 'Hurricane' with Spanish subtitles. 'Hurricane' chronicles the alleged 'frame-up' of boxer Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter by New Jersey police and district attorney. The argument Dylan presents is compelling. Perhaps he will become a lawyer when he grows up and drops this silly fantasy of becoming a successful musician and composer.

LIVING FOR THE CITY by Stevie Wonder (from Innervisions)

-- The story of a poor, southern black boy raised on a hard-scrabble farm in Mississippi who, with the encouragement of his well-meaning parents, seeks his fortune in the big city (as always, New York, the corrupt capital of broken dreams). The tension in Stevie Wonders voice mounts as the song progresses, reflecting the anger Wonder felt at the oppression, racism and crime of that era (or this era -- nothing has really changed). Finally, Wonder is singing in a guttural growl of inchoate rage as the song ends and the protagonist is sent to jail for a crime he did not commit. Masterful.

FAMILY SNAPSHOT by Peter Gabriel (from Peter Gabriel 3/Melt)

-- Sing a song of assassination. The original inspiration for the song was the interviews of Arthur Bremer (published in the book 'Assassin's Diary' in '73). Bremer, who was more interested in fame than politics, had attempted to assassinate Alabama governor George Wallace in 1972 (Bremer was also the inspiration behind Martin Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver'), but Gabriel notches up the intensity and drama by grafting scenes of the 1963 Kennedy assassination onto Bremer's accounts, and then offers a full-blown psychological profile at the end of the song. Gabriel's use of suspense and internal monologue are superb.

'39 by Queen (from A Night at the Opera)

-- Queen guitarist Brian May has a PhD in Astrophysics and is an author of note in astronomical circles (I guess that would be astronomical ellipses, as opposed to circles). This would explain the premise of the song '39. It is a science fiction story wherein a score brave volunteers set out in a spaceship in search of new worlds to inhabit. They believe they have only gone for a single year, but as they were traveling at approximately 99.995% the speed of light, in actuality they had been space truckin' for nigh on 100 years. They return to find their old lives gone faster than you can say Rip Van Winkle. Shock and sadness ensue.

FAIRYTALE OF NEW YORK by The Pogues (from If I Should Fall from Grace with God)

-- Besides being one of the greatest Christmas songs ever written, The Pogues' 'Fairytale of New York' is an exceptional reflection on the effects of drugs and alcohol on a once-promising relationship. The internal monologue of the down and out junkie sitting in a drunk tank on Christmas Eve recalling his lost love is painful and full of regret. Definitely not your mother's idea of a Christmas carol.

MR. BOJANGLES by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (from Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy)

-- First, this song has nothing to do with renowned dancer and actor Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson; rather, it concerns a man the composer, Jerry Jeff Walker, actually met in a New Orleans jail. The story is poignant and induces a sniffle from me everytime the song mentions Mr. Bojangles' dog dying. I'm getting teary-eyed as I type this. *sniff*

AND A BANG ON THE EAR by The Waterboys (from Fisherman's Blues)

-- A clever autobiography of Waterboys' leader Mike Scott, as told in relation to each of the women he loved (and he was in a band, so there were several of them). Regarding the term 'a bang on the ear': 'bang' means a kiss, and so the phrase is the Irish equivalent of 'a peck on the cheek'.

THE DEVIL WENT DOWN TO GEORGIA by The Charlie Daniels Band (from Million Mile Reflections)

-- Sorry Johnny, but the devil kicked your ass. Good story and fiddlin' though.

AFTER THE GOLDRUSH by Neil Young (from After the Goldrush)

-- Filled with allegory and double-meanings, 'After the Goldrush' presents Neil Young's haunting vision of the apocalypse and the few 'chosen ones' who leave the dying earth and take the last ship into outer space.

TICKING by Elton John (from Caribou)

-- The height of the songwriting collaboration of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, 'Ticking' is the tale of a troubled young man who becomes a mass-murderer in a New York bar (yes, New York again). It is basically a compelling and well-written short story by Taupin set to John's dexterous piano score.

SPACE ODDITY by David Bowie (from Space Oddity)

-- This song, taken at face value, is the tale of an astronaut who becomes enamored of the skies and cuts his chord while taking a space walk, leaving Ground Control helpless with a dead circuit. However (and you were expecting a 'however' here, weren't you?), the underlying theme has been hypothesized into two major theories: 1) Major Tom is a drug-user, and having popped his pills he goes on a trip and overdoses. This is in relation to Bowie's own lyrics from 'Ashes to Ashes' that 'We know Major Tom's a junkie/Strung out in heaven's high/Hitting an all-time low', or 2) Major Tom is Bowie himself, becoming withdrawn from conventional society and the overexposure of the media, becoming introspective in a chrysalis of his own design. Choose whichever suits your fancy or moral imperative.

AMERICA by Simon and Garfunkel (from Bookends)

-- Paul Simon's eye for detail is remarkable in this precious vignette of two young lovers on a bus ride in search of America (and not a rhyme in the entire lyric!). What starts out as a winsome journey full of promise ends in a wistful feeling of disillusionment, a sibyllic chorus that predicts the abrupt ending of the brightly tie-dyed 60's and heralded the cynical and introspective 70's:

"Kathy, I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping.
"I'm empty and aching and I don't know why."
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike,
They've all gone to look for America.

PIANO MAN by Billy Joel (from Piano Man)

-- Perhaps because I played in bar bands for years, I readily identify with this song. Billy Joel reflects on the losers and the lost that inhabit every bar, pub & grub and roadhouse in America (or the world, for that matter), and then with a touch of irony, he discovers that he's no different than the rest of them:

And the piano sounds like a carnival
And the microphone smells like a beer
And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar
And say "Man, what are you doin' here?"

MATTY GROVES by Fairport Convention (from Liege and Lief)

-- 'Matty Groves' is the most famous of all English 'murder ballads', and the Fairport Convention version of the song, featuring Sandy Denny's ethereal vocals and David Swarbick's roguish fiddling, is sublime. Originally published in the 'Child Ballads' in the 19th century, 'Matty Groves' was first alluded to in a Beaumont & Fletcher play in 1613. Basically, Lord Darnell's wife seduces young Matty and takes him to bed. The cuckolded Lord Darnell finds out and confronts the naked Matty while he still snuggles with his wife. Darnell and Matty have a sword fight and Matty is killed. Lord Darnell gives his wife a choice: either dead Matty or me. The wife prefers dead Matty. Lord Darnell in a rage kills his wife. Then Lord Darnell makes the famous pronouncement of class preference:

'A grave, a grave,' Lord Darnell cried,
'To bury these lovers in,
But won't you bury my lady at the top
For she was of noble kin.'

SHEEP by Pink Floyd (from Animals)

-- This is not your grandpa's or great-grandpa's fable; unless, of course, great-gramps was George Orwell. In any event this Orwellian tale gone hay-wire features once docile sheep who learn judo (trading mutton chops for karate chops, I suppose), run amok and slay their masters (I am not making this up), eventually becoming as despicable as those they slew. 'Sheep' features Roger Water's famous parody of Psalm 23 (spoken through a Korg Vocoder voice synthesizer):

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me down to lie.
Through pastures green
He leadeth me the silent waters by.
With bright knives He releaseth my soul.
He maketh me to hang on hooks in high places.
He converteth me to lamb cutlets.
For lo! He hath great power, and great hunger.
When cometh the day we lowly ones,
Through quiet reflection and great dedication,
Master the art of Judo,
Lo! we shall rise up,
And then we'll make the bugger's eyes water.

BOY WITH A MOON AND STAR ON HIS HEAD by Cat Stevens (from Catch Bull at Four)

-- Once upon a time, before he wrapped a turban a bit too tightly around his head and endorsed Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Cat Stevens was a actually a sensitive and sensible composer. Somehow, he forgot his own compassionate lines:

And people would ride from far and wide
Just to seek the Word he spread.
"I'll tell you everything I've learned,
And love is all"...he said.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thirteen Great Blues Cover Songs

Following up on Thirteen Great Cover Songs, I thought I'd continue the series with a few great blues covers. As with the previous list, I suppose I should include a caveat just to keep the conversation honest.

As far as the blues, I am sure everyone is by now quite aware of the amount of outright thefts of songs by white rock/blues bands in the 60's that all but trampled on the original artist's copyrighted material; however, one should be also aware of the cannibalistic nature of the blues idiom throughout its history, and the inveterate 'borrowing' of material from one blues artist to another dating back to the early 20th century. In addition, the reverence and deference shown to many older blues artists by their younger idolaters saved many a broke musician and rejuvenated many of their careers (like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon, for instance). So cannibalism can be a good thing -- as long as you share body parts with the less fortunate.

But I digress (and I digress at the drop of a hat). The blues covers I offer here all exhibit virtuoso musicianship, but they also take the next step and transform the original song into something altogether different and exceptional. There are thousands of variations of these tunes, but these are the ones I cherish (both the originals and covers).

P.S. For an additional bunch of blues covers, go here... Thirteen More Great Blues Cover Songs

WHEN THE LEVEE BREAKS by Led Zeppelin (originally recorded by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy)

Memphis Minnie version
Led Zeppelin version

-- Zeppelin has covered many blues tunes, but most are just electrified reiterations of previous material -- not so on 'When The Levee Breaks'. This version is a tour de force of studio mastery: eerie phased blues harp, monstrous drumbeats and downright evil slide. This was the song one listened to at three a.m. in the morning -- just before losing consciousness and then waking up on the neighbor's front lawn covered in early morning dew. Not that that ever happened to me, of course.

I AINT SUPERSTITIOUS by The Jeff Beck Group (originally recorded by Howlin's Wolf)

Howlin' Wolf version
Jeff Beck version

-- A great pairing of Beck and Rod Stewart make this version special. Beck's masterful use of the wah-wah, inducing sounds unheard of from a guitar at the time, still gives me chills a hundred years later. Okay, I was exaggerating. Fifty years.

CROSSROAD BLUES by Cream (originally recorded by Robert Johnson)

Robert Johnson version
Cream version

-- I could have used Cream's rendition of 'Spoonful' here or even 'Rollin' and Tumblin'', or anything from Clapton's Bluesbreakers period, but I've already included a few tunes from 'Slowhand'. But the inclusion of 'Crossroads' recognizes that the song was a phenomenon at the time of its release. It was a huge hit, and based on the limited amount of research I did, most likely one of the biggest selling blues tunes up to that point. The song itself was enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as historically significant, which one has to take with a grain of salt, as both the Bee Gees and Abba are in the Hall as well.

SHAKE YOUR MONEYMAKER by Fleetwood Mac (originally recorded by Elmore James)

Elmore James version
Fleetwood Mac version

-- The original Fleetwood Mac (with Peter Green, Danny Kirwan, Jeremy Spencer, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie) were one of the first and most authentic British blues bands, not merely stealing old blues tunes, but recording with blues masters such as Otis Spann, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy, recording the seminal 'Fleetwood Mac in Chicago/Blues Jam in Chicago, Vols. 1-2' in 1969. 'Shake Your Moneymaker' is a raved-up bit of exuberant blues, just as fun on the Mac version as it was on Elmore James' original.

HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED by Johnny Winter (originally recorded by Bob Dylan)

Bob Dylan version mimicking Johnny Winter's version of the original Dylan version
Johnny Winter version

-- The Sony Corporation is a greedy, moneygrubbing bunch of proliferate wankers. But then you knew that, right? I would offer you the original (and very interesting) Dylan version of 'Highway 61 Revisited' from the stellar album of the same name, but Sony has removed all free recordings of the song from the internet for their own sordid purposes. Instead, I offer you a later live version that obviously owes more to the superlative Johnny Winter's bad-ass slide version than Dylan's own original.

KEY TO THE HIGHWAY by Derek & The Dominos (originally recorded by Charles Segar)

Charlie Segar version
Big Bill Broonzy version
Derek and the Dominos version

-- Okay, Charlie Segar originally penned 'Key to the Highway', but Big Bill Broonzy somehow got credited along with Segar for writing the song, because, as Broonzy put it, "Some of the verses he [Segar] was singing" were the same as Broonzy had sung in the south. Broonzy then made the ultimate comment about blues music: "You take one song and make fifty out of it...just change it a little bit." Broonzy was an early Clapton influence, and the Derek and the Dominos version reflects Big Bill's recording. The Dominos' jam offers stunning exchanges of burning blues riffs between Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, who trade guitar salvos like armies trade bazooka and mortar fire.

COME ON (LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL) by Jimi Hendrix (originally recorded by Earl King)

Earl King version
Hendrix version

-- Naturally, anything Hendrix decided to play that was originally played by someone else would end up transformed, dwarfing the original (see Dylan's 'All Along the Watchtower'). I had considered 'Hey Joe' as appropiate for this list, but I think 'Come On' has more guitar virtuosity and the song's inflections and nuances were influential to later blues legends like Stevie Ray Vaughan (who also covered this tune).

GIVE ME BACK MY WIG by Stevie Ray Vaughan (originally recorded by Hound Dog Taylor

Hound Dog Taylor version
Stevie Ray version

-- Another fun blues tune. I've always loved Hound Dog Taylor, the legendary but dirt poor Chicago Bluesman with the cheap Silvertone guitar, buzzing amp and a cigarette dangling from his lip who died before receiving international recognition. Stevie Ray's version is a tribute and a damn good one.

ONE WAY OUT by The Allman Brothers (originally recorded by Elmore James)

Elmore James version
Allman Brothers version

-- Perhaps my favorite blues tune of all time. The rhythm is infectious and the raccous style seems to reincarnate Sonny Boy Williamson jamming in some crowded roadhouse. 'One Way Out' is from The Allman Brother's 'Eat A Peach', the posthumous album in honor of the fallen Duane Allman, who drove his motorcycle into a peach truck, and thus literally 'ate a peach'. Great guitar work from both Allman and his sidekick, Dickey Betts, and great growls from brother Gregg Allman.

BALL AND CHAIN by Janis Joplin (originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton)

Big Mama Thornton version
Janis Joplin version

-- Divorce yourself from the absolutely dreadful, cliche-acid-trippy 1960's sloppy musicianship of Big Brother and the Holding Company and just listen to Janis Joplin's booming, whispering, plaintive and powerfully pained voice. In fact, find a way to superimpose Big Mama Thornton's tight band over Big Brother, and Joplin's version of 'Ball and Chain' would be the greatest blues tune of all time. As it is, a document of the 60's and the height of Joplin's craft, it is awesome. I considered 'Summertime' here, but that is a Gershwin tune, and not necessarily blues in its first inception.

I DON'T NEED NO DOCTOR by Humble Pie (originally recorded by Ray Charles)

Ray Charles version
Humble Pie version

-- It is politically correct in America to revere Ray Charles. Yep, apple pie, Chevrolet and Ray Charles' Ray-ban sunglasses. Unfortunately, Brit Steve Marriot's howls and growls makes Humble Pie's 'Live at the Filmore' version of 'I Don't Need No Doctor' the definitive rendition of the song. I still crack up hearing Peter Frampton singing background vocals. This is the same guy who recorded the dreadfully sappy love song 'I'm In You' in the mid-70's.

SHAKE YOUR HIPS by The Rolling Stones (originally recorded by Slim Harpo)

Slim Harpo version
Stones version
ZZ Top theft

-- The Stones' 'Exile on Main Street' is their bluesiest album. It is also their best album. It is also the last Stones' album I give a damn about. So, in honor of actually giving a damn about the Rolling Stones, I offer up their excellent and reverent take of Slim Harpo's 'Shake Your Hips'. I also give you the direct lift of the song by ZZ Top, who merely changed the words and made it louder, and in the process neglected to give Slim Harpo his just due as the Stones did.

BACK DOOR MAN by The Doors (originally recorded by Willie Dixon)

Willie Dixon version
Doors version

-- When Jim Morrison bellows "I am...the back door man!" it is quite believable. One can imagine Jim, horny as usual and stoned out of his mind, dressed in just his leather pants and hippy beads, trying vainly to climb through a bedroom window while barely clutching a half-empty whiskey bottle. He has no idea where he is, or whose house he's breaking into, but that's beside the point. In any case, save for Ray Manzarek's sinuous organ, The Doors version is totally dominated by Morrison's roaring, growling vocals (Robbie Krieger never seemed to have actually finished his guitar lessons, but neither did half the guitarists in the 60's). It is over-the-top and campy, but no one could vamp like Morrison.

~Honorable Mentions~

GOOD MORNING LITTLE SCHOOLGIRL by Ten Years After (originally recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson)

Sonny Boy Williamson version
Ten Years After version

-- I actually prefer the version of Sonny Boy Williamson's 'Help Me' from Ten Years After's excellent 'Recorded Live' (1973), but couldn't find a good version on the net. So, as a place marker, I offer you the naughty 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl'. Whereas Williamson uses sly innuendo to tell us what he'd like to do to the 'schoolgirl', Alvin Lee comes right out and screams "I want to ball you/baby want to ball all night long". Of course, I was quite impressed hearing this song for the first time as a teenager, as that is precisely what I had in mind regarding schoolgirls -- every 3 seconds or so throughout my high school years and straight into college.

STORMY MONDAY BLUES by Jethro Tull (originally recorded by T-Bone Walker)

T-Bone Walker version
Jethro Tull version

-- There are literally a million-bajillion covers of 'Stormy Monday'. I really enjoy the jazzy take offered by Tull from the BBC's 'John Peel Sessions' in 1968 (love Peel's comment comparing Tull and the Stones). And dig the flute solo! Man, that Jethro Tull dude is far out!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Thirteen Greatest Cover Songs

This list of great cover tunes is slightly different than the rest, in that there are some caveats, pro bonos, adeste fideles, quid pro quos and other foreboding latinate terms used to assure it meets the rigid standards I set for this particular exercise in musical disquisition. In any case, here are the commandments:

1) Though shalt not list cover tunes grave-robbed from old blues musicians or revised from traditional songs. I really love Led Zeppelin's reworking of When The Levee Breaks, but who the hell has ever heard the original by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie from 1929? Likewise, I could argue the merits of The House of the Rising Sun as covered by The Animals or Frijid Pink, but one would need to be a musicologist on the level of Alan Lomax to track down the original. I could say that the cover of Matty Groves by Fairport Convention is the best of all time, but who was around in the 1600's to hear it first sung?

2) Thou shalt only compare covers to original songs written by a well-known band or artist. The original song must have been a hit in its own right or on a comparatively well-known album and then covered by someone else. So I won't be discussing Manfred Mann's monster hit Blinded by the Light in relation to the original Bruce Springsteen composition penned for Greetings from Ashbury Park, N.J., because poor Bruce only sold a grand total of 25,000 albums in 1973, or Soft Cell's wonderfully warped Tainted Love which appeared originally as a B-side on a single by Gloria Jones in 1964. Exactly -- Gloria who? Likewise, the cover tune has to be a hit or on a well-known album and not one of the myriad number of awkward revisions found on tribute albums or extraneous filler added to live recordings.

3) Thou shalt be technologically savvy. This is the internet, after all, so both the cover tune and the original must be available on youtube in order to discuss the relative merits of each song from a comparative standpoint.

4) Thou shalt only include songs that are deemed favorably in our eyes. I have to like the songs if I am to write about them. This is my blog, after all, so I admittedly chose songs I enjoy. This flies in the face of the usual modus operandi of more famous critics who give their reviews the veneer of objectivity as a mere pretense for being subjective as hell and pushing their cynical agendas under the aegis of fair-minded and open critique. Subterfuging wankers!

So, without further digressions, preambles or modifications, here now, for your edification, are the Thirteen Greatest Cover Songs in Rock and Roll...

ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER by Jimi Hendrix (first appeared on Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding)

Jimi Hendrix version
Bob Dylan version

-- There have been thousands of covers of Bob Dylan songs, many of them very commendable, but Hendrix's take on 'All Along the Watchtower' is, without equivocation, the greatest cover tune ever recorded. Argue amongst yourselves if you wish, but I am incontrovertibly convinced of the fact. Bob Dylan should have sent Hendrix a thank you note and a dozen roses. Maybe even gave him a head job. The single, peerless sustained guitar note at the end of 'Watchtower' ranks right up there with the ending piano note of the Beatles' 'A Day in the Life' as far as...ummm...notable notes.

BLACK MAGIC WOMAN by Santana (first appeared as a single by Fleetwood Mac)

Santana version
Fleetwood Mac version

-- 'Black Magic Woman' is a superb cover of the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac song, but I still like the original blues version. What is that you say? 'Black Magic Woman' was a Fleetwood Mac song? Yes, my dears, a long, long time ago, before Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, Fleetwood Mac was one of the best British blues bands of the 60's era. Unfortunately, Peter Green cared more for his drugs than his music, you know the rest of the story. In any case, Santana's version of 'Black Magic Woman' is actually a double cover. If you listen to the instrumental outro (a jam entitled 'Gypsy Queen') you will definitely hear direct lifts of several musical sequences from Hendrix's 'Third Stone from the Sun'. Carlos Santana es el bandido de música.

THE LETTER by Joe Cocker (first appeared as a single by The Boxtops)

Joe Cocker version
The Boxtops version

-- Joe Cocker is on this list twice. In fact, Cocker has made a career of stealing great songs from fine artists and reworking the tunes until they are so totally his own that it becomes difficult to listen to the original. I could have easily added Cocker's versions of 'Delta Lady' (Leon Russell) and 'Feelin' Alright' (Traffic) to this list of superlative covers. But let's take 'The Letter' as a prime example of Cocker's one upsmanship: once upon a time there was a band named The Boxtops who had a number one hit with 'The Letter' in 1967. Then Cocker got his hands on it. No one heard of the Boxtops ever again.

TWIST AND SHOUT by The Beatles (first appeared as a single by The Isley Brothers)

The Beatles version
The Isley Brothers version

-- We've all heard the tale of the legendary Beatle studio session where the song 'Twist and Shout' was recorded. They had been jamming for nearly 12 hours and John Lennon was so hoarse from a cold that he could barely speak. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, Lennon belted, shrieked and coerced his voice to finish the song. They got it in two takes.

SWEET JANE by Cowboy Junkies (first appeared on Velvet Underground's Loaded)

Cowboy Junkies version
Velvet Underground version

--I was never a Lou Reed fan. Or Andy Warhol for that matter. I guess you have to live in New York or be a clove cigarette-smoking twat to appreciate them. Be that as it may, if you listen to the original version, you'll find Reed so desperately trying to sound like Bob Dylan that it becomes annoying. The Cowboy Junkies offer a completely different take on the song, and Junkie lead singer Margo Timmins is certainly a lot easier on the eyes than Lou Reed. And she can actually sing, unlike Reed, who obviously went to the Leonard Cohen School of Monotone Sing-Speak. Mott the Hoople does a commendable but more textbook rendition of 'Sweet Jane' on 'All the Young Dudes'.

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER by Talking Heads (first appeared on Al Green's Al Green Explores Your Mind)

Talking Heads version
Al Green Version

-- You've got to love Al Green. The man has more soul in his little finger than the entire College of Cardinals in the Vatican. But the Talking Heads updated Green's 'Take Me to the River', complete with submarine synth sounds and David Byrne's quirky vocals, and delivered one of the more memorable tunes of 1979.

WITHOUT YOU by Harry Nilsson (first appeared on Badfinger's No Dice)

Harry Nilsson version
Badfinger version

-- I've always liked the band Badfinger, particularly their singles 'Day After Day' and 'Come and Get It' and 'No Matter What'. Unfortunately, they signed with Apple Records and became indelibly labeled as 'Beatle-Clones'. The song 'Without You' was fairly forgettable as recorded by Badfinger, but became a thing of awesome beauty in the hands of Harry Nilsson. Nilsson's sublime version of the song is perhaps one of the ten best love songs ever recorded.

ME AND BOBBY MCGEE by Janis Joplin (first appeared on Roger Miller's Roger Miller 1970)

Janis Joplin version
Roger Miller version

-- Kris Kristofferson wrote the song and Roger Miller recorded it first. It became a hit for Miller in 1969/70, reaching #12 in the U.S. charts. Listening to Miller singing it now, it sounds like a hokum-hick country parody. Janis Joplin's version encapsulates the hippy/gypsy wanderlust of the 60's and the heartache that Joplin wore on her sleeve and carried in her voice. Simply stunning.

I KNOW I'M LOSING YOU by Rod Stewart (first appeared as a single by The Temptations)

Rod Stewart version
Temptations version

-- I like The Temptations, and I like their version of 'I know I'm Losing You', but Rod Stewart -- together with the entire Faces line-up (Ron Wood, Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones) backing him -- delivers a tour de force of white soul (I know that sounds silly but work with me here). Eventually, Stewart became a strutting disco-rooster caricature of himself, but this song on his fine first album 'Every Picture Tells a Story' was the best solo work Rod has ever done.

LET'S SPEND THE NIGHT TOGETHER by David Bowie (first appeared as a single by The Rolling Stones)

David Bowie version
Rolling Stones version

-- I don't really care for the Stones early stuff, and I really dislike their later stuff. The only Stones studio albums I feel are truly great are 'Let It Bleed', 'Sticky Fingers' and 'Exile on Main Street'. The Stones as a group were literally spent by the time they released the abysmal 'Goat's Head Soup' in 1973, but then along comes David Bowie's 'Aladdin Sane' album with a rave-up rendition of 'Let's Spend the Night Together' in the same year. Complete with crazy piano runs, the slashing guitar of Mick Ronson and the coked-up vocals of Bowie, this version of 'Let's Spend the Night' is the Rolling Stones at 78 rpm, with Bowie outdoing the Stones and even outpunking punk.

WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS by Joe Cocker (first appeared on The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band)

Joe Cocker version
The Beatles version

-- Cocker's version of this song is magnificent and it is one of the few instances in the storied history of rock 'n' roll where an artist actually stole a song from the Beatles. Sorry John, Paul, George and Ringo, but you got owned.

BLACKBIRD by Crosby, Stills and Nash (first appeared on The Beatles' White Album)

CSN version
The Beatles version

-- Not a case where CSN plays a better version of McCartney's beautiful 'Blackbird', it is just different. But it is different enough, particularly with CSN's soaring harmonies, that it stands on its own as a great cover with a reverance for the original material.

LITTLE WING by Derek and the Dominos (first appeared on Jimi Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love)

Derek and the Dominos' version
Jimi Hendrix version

-- As with CSN's version of 'Blackbird', Eric Clapton and Duane Allman do not offer a better rendition of Hendrix's great 'Little Wing'; rather, they reverently rework it and offer it in a different, more dramatic context. The interplay between Clapton and Allman is flawless and moving and the flourishing guitar intro is very memorable and grand. Stevie Ray Vaughan also does a notable instrumental version of 'Little Wing' on the album 'The Sky is Crying'.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Tales of a Dark Continent

Check out the novel-length epic of 4th Age Middle-earth:

Tales of a Dark Continent

Winner of a Middle-earth Fanfiction Award (MEFA), Tales of a Dark Continent is the untold history of the Far-east of Middle-earth as told by the great chronicler of the 4th Age, Greagoir the blind scribe, whose life and love was inextricably wound with the shadowy lore of the East.

Exerpt from Tales of a Dark Contintent --

And then came the snoring. It punctuated the end of each chapter with a blunt finality. Greagoir was a master at keeping just enough wind in his bellows to complete a point, before suddenly dozing off. His mind might run far afield at times as well, but even his digressions were relevant to his overall narration, and he remained remarkably lucid and lively for his advanced age. He had much to say, but he felt there was too little time left to say it in; hence, his tendency to ramble. But he always returned to the crux of his tale, no matter how circuitous the route to arrival.

Greagoir's apprentice carefully spread some drying-sand on the wet ink of his parchment, then briskly waved the cramp from his writing hand. Splaying then clenching his fingers until the circulation returned to his fingertips, the apprentice leaned back in his chair and prepared for some well-earned rest himself. The master would remain asleep for perhaps an hour, depending upon his exertion. Rarely did he sleep for any lengthier period of time, choosing to regiment his days and nights with these 'catnaps', and he expected his apprentice to do the same ("Sleep is the refuge of the indolent," Greagoir would say; "no ballads were sung or great battles won while snoring."). Needless to say, the apprentice, named Tatya Reecho, was a rather pallid youth of seventeen years with great circles under his eyes; but after nearly five years of apprenticeship, he had become accustomed to catching a few winks while his master slumbered.

Before Tatya fell asleep, he watched his master for a moment as the old man grumbled and snorted in his fitful rest. The other apprentices of the Scrivener's Guild often referred to the Master-scribe as a 'pompous old windbag', and many a hapless scribeling had been frightened off by him over the years; yet to Tatya, Greagoir was a marvel, and the greatest Lorist of his day (Tatya was given a tongue-lashing of immense proportions the one and only time he mistakenly referred to Greagoir as a 'Loremaster'). And while Greagoir insisted that Tatya copy verbatim the master's recitations on long-dead heroes and ancient chronicles, the apprentice considered Greagoir's reminiscences as interesting, if not more so, than the lore. So the apprentice kept a secret diary of his master's memoirs, deeming that both story and story-teller were equally important; thus, the two themes became inextricably woven into the fabric of an even greater tale.

Invariably, Greagoir awoke to the sound of his own snoring. "Tatya, you lazy lay-about!" the master boomed irritably, "you have fallen asleep again in the middle of recitations! Curse these useless eyes! I cannot see when you've nodded off!"

"Forgive me, master," was Tatya's well-rehearsed reply, "shall we continue where you left off then?"

"No, slothful scribeling!" Greagoir replied in vexation, "read for me what you've managed to commit to parchment. I only pray you haven't lost the entire narrative, damnable loiterer!"

Tatya smiled and reiterated the entire prologue and first chapter word-for-word (interrupted now and again with timely emendations from the master). Satisfied that his apprentice had faithfully copied the entire piece (and had not fallen into what the master would term as 'pernicious laxity'), Greagoir mumbled some quiet words of praise for Tatya, and continued on as if the confrontation had never occurred.

The Compleat Monty Python's Lord of the Rings Parody

Okay, so perhaps it is not quite 'compleat', but brought here at great expense (and much cutting and pasting) is the epic saga in totality, at least up to this point (that would be Monty Python's The Hobbit, Monty Python's Fellowship of the Ring and Monty Python's Two Towers). Winners of Middle Earth Fanfiction Awards (MEFA), as well as the coveted Necrotic Albatross Lesion of Honor (a fictitious organization dedicated to the elimination of ulcerous dermatitis in seabirds), I now introduce to you 3rd Age Middle-earth absurdist revisionism as perpetrated by Monty Python's Flying Circus***:

Monty Python's The Hobbit

Excerpt from Monty Python's The Hobbit --

The elvish guards dragged their hapless captives before the angry ElvenKing, while Invisi-Bilbo™ lurked unobtrusively in the antechamber of the throne room. The ElvenKing (or, as he was named in 'The Lord of the Rings', Thranduil, which means 'malaprop' in Sindarin) glared haughtily at the bedraggled dwarves, and sneered, "Ees der vun åmunk yøu dörfs who cån træt vis å Keeng?"

The dwarves were at a loss for words. Bombur leaned over to Götterdämmerungsdottir, the elvish captain, and mumbled, "What'd 'ee say?"

Götterdämmerungsdottir replied, "The king asks who among you dwarves has the authority to speak to him."

"Ah, right," Bombur nodded. Bowing to the ElvenKing, Bombur replied, "Lookie 'ere, yer Maggie's tea, I aint much fer speechifyin' an' all, but I'll do in a pinch."

The ElvenKing cocked an eyebrow at the rotund dwarf, and then looked to Götterdämmerungsdottir. "Våt vas dåt?" he grumbled.

The elvish captain rolled his eyes and explained, "The fat one will speak for the rest."

"Ja, gud, gud!" the ElvenKing said. Then the king straightened his plaited platinum locks, and trained his piercing cerulean blue eyes (pervasive elven traits promulgated by Peter Jackson) upon Bombur and shouted, "Yust vhy før vere yøu in der vørest mitout læve, und pesterink our vølk?"

Bombur bit his lip uneasily and looked plaintively at Götterdämmerungsdottir, who elucidated, "The king wishes to know why you were trespassing in the forest and bothering his people."

Bombur answered the king, "Truth to tell, yer Maggie's tea, it weren't that we be a loiterin' lot; nay, we were just wantin' a bit and a bite is all."

The ElvenKing glanced in annoyance at his captain. "They were looking for drink and food, majesty," Götterdämmerungsdottir sighed.

"Vell, dörfs sure götts a vunny vay øv gøink aboot tings," the king muttered.

Bombur gaped at Götterdämmerungsdottir, who shook his head and said, "No need to answer, the king was speaking rhetorically."

The ElvenKing then continued, "Yust våt shöuld ve dø vis yøu den, eh? Nåughty 'lil dörfs! Ye yust håd tø gø und rile up dem dere schpæders, didn'chå? Und den fer å tøpper, måken much håvoc vile ve vere håvink dem silvan væsts!"

Bombur looked to Götterdämmerungsdottir, who merely shrugged and glanced over to his second in command, Fjalarvilhjálmsson. Fjalarvilhjálmsson conferred in whispers with the third in command, Þórssonorðlenska, who finally said, "I'm not sure, but I believe the king was referring to something about spiders and feasts."

"Yer darn tootin' schpæders und væsts!" the ElvenKing bellowed, now utterly exacerbated at the tedious translations. "Yust zend döse collöqvial-schpækink dörfs åvay 'til ve påss our yudgment øn dem."

And so, the dwarves were dragged off, placed in chains, thrown into individual holding cells, and forbidden to speak with one another (why the elves had so many jail cells at this period of the 3rd Age is up for conjecture). Fortunately, the still-transparent Bilbo had followed the rather shabby proceedings and took careful note of where the dwarf's were imprisoned. In addition, he discovered that Thorin, too, was being held captive in an adjacent wing of the palace. Over the next few days, the stealthy hobbit passed messages back and forth between the incarcerated dwarves and planned their escape. Dwalin's suggestion of building another bridge –- this one a cantilevered steel structure with great stone aqueducts to power the raising and lowering of the spans – was hotly debated; but as the dwarves only had wooden spoons for tools (not to mention being underground without forges or a water source), the proposal, though intriguing, was shelved indefinitely. But the resourceful Mr. Baggins had ideas of his own.

Monty Python's Fellowship of the Ring

Excerpt from Monty Python's Fellowship of the Ring --

Suddenly, to his chagrin, Frodo noticed that the drunken Pippin was talking in an animated fashion to the sour and swarthy-looking Southrons, who were all looking intently at Frodo. "Oh ye-a-a-ah, Fro-o-o-d-o-o… Frodo Underhill…thas' 'is name," Pippin said loudly with an exaggerated wink. "It seems the name 'Baggins' is 'baggage' if you get my drif'."

Flustered and desperate, Frodo hurriedly jumped upon the stage, nearly running into the stripper pole in his haste. He whispered something to the DJ, who reached into his bag of karaoke classics and began spinning a tune while Frodo threw out some gang signs and shouted, "Yo, yo, yo – wa'sup y'all?" to the crowd. He then began singing some scat swing, which he approximated to be proto-hip-hop, for as a jazz aficionado he could never reconcile himself to the idea that rap was considered by some to be a musical form:

Hey diddle-diddle, there's a kitty on the fiddle,
The cow done shot the moon -
Just shakin' her udder like a hoochie mutha,
She was cokie when she took up the spoon.

Elsie starts swingin', her G-string flingin'
And her bovine hooves in the air,
Singin hey diddle diddle with her titty in the middle,
And you swing like you just don't care!

And Elsie sang: Hey diddle-diddle, the cat's cookin' on the fiddle.
Come on Little Boy Blue, show us what you gonna do -
Play a nursery rhyme in syncopated time,
When only them blue notes will do!

Mary, Mary quite contrary,
how does you garden grow?
Well there aint no grass on a well-worn path,
So goodness only knows.

Drivin' your car to a downbeat bar
To listen to them saxes moan.
The wolves get in line just 'bout closing time,
To see who will take you home.

And Mary sang: Hey diddle-diddle, the cat's cookin' on the fiddle.
Come on Little Boy Blue, show us what you gonna do -
Play a nursery rhyme in syncopated time,
When only them blue notes will do!

Caught up in the moment (and with several beers under his belt) Frodo then went off on a prolonged bit of impromptu improvisation:

Sing a song of Threepenny, Finnegan has died,
Gatsby dreams of Zelda while Atlas shrugged and sighed.
Basie is the Count again, Rene Magritte broke his nose,
Punched by the Duke of Ellington for painting on his robes.

The King of Swing was Calloway; 'Fatha' Hines was Earl,
Morton salts his Jellyroll while Ella snatched the Pearl.
Satchmo blew his Beiderbecke, and Dorsey drummed a Krupa,
Gershwin took the A-train after boxing Joe Palooka…

Unfortunately, the sheer amount of musical and literary allusions overcame Frodo, and his wild theatrical gesticulations sent him careening off the stage. He had been fingering the Ring on its gold chain as he fell, and somehow the Ring had slipped onto his finger. POOF! He vanished. A few Hobbits began clapping, thinking it was all part of the act, but the applause became tentative and stopped altogether as a nervous murmur thrummed through the crowd, becoming a dull roar as the drunks caught up with the more sober folk in voicing their disbelief.


The walls of The Prancing Pony blew away and Frodo found himself in the howling vortex of a whirlwind. It seemed that the virulent storm had sucked the color from the room, or what remained of the room. Frodo could barely make out the other patrons of The Pony from the corner of his eye, but they were thrown into vague, abstracted shadows, as if they were now negative photographic impressions of life slowly consumed by chaos. All that remained was the swirling distortions of the wind, and a daunting presence searching, ever searching, for Frodo. No, it is not searching for me, Frodo thought; it is looking for the Ring! And then he perceived, as if from a great distance, a horrific lidless eye wreathed in flame, its relentless glare piercing the shadows. And the howl of the wind coalesced into a low, rumbling voice:

"Olly, Olly oxen free!"

Frodo shifted uneasily and looked about for a place to hide, but he was alone and naked before the great eye.


Frodo felt the strange urge to cry out "Polo!" but he placed his free hand over his ring finger in an effort to shield his prize. This immediately drew the sharp glance of the eye directly towards him, and the voice growled:

"Peek-a-boo…I see you!"

With a tremendous effort, Frodo tore the ring from his finger, and he found himself once again in the friendly confines of The Prancing Pony restored.

Monty Python's Two Towers

Excerpt from Monty Python's Two Towers --

By now they had made their way into the realm of Rohan, the verdant, rolling land of revisionist Anglo-Saxon horsemen who would have defeated William the Bastard and his nasty Normans at Hastings if, by Tolkien's Francophobic approximation, King Harold and his housecarls had had a standing cavalry; thus, the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy would have remained in England to subjugate, overtax and generally make miserable the lives of the peasantry, rather than have foreigners do the same more efficiently. In any case, the Three Hunters crested a hill and below them lay a green valley where they espied the first sign of trouble. Hundreds of protesters were milling about carrying placards and signs (most of which had X and O symbols, or spatters of paint mimicking writing, as very few folks were literate at the time). The mob was listening to the exhortations of a rather unkempt demagogue trying to rally the masses with his shrill oratory. Stealthily, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli scrambled down the goat paths that scarred the hillside, and then mingled with the crowd in order to hear what the fuss was all about.

"A spectre is haunting Dunland," the shaggy speaker shouted through a megaphone of sheepskin, "the spectre of Rohirrism!"

"Wha's a spectre?" One old gaffer asked a shrewish hag standing next to him.

" 'Ow should I know?" The shrew replied. "Just quit yer yammerin' an' wave yer sign! I've 'eard they'll be 'andin' out prizes for the most enthusiastic demonstra'ors."

"All the old powers, that of Gondor and Rohan, have entered into an unholy alliance to quench the bright flame of Liberty lit for the Dunlendish people," the orator bellowed with contempt. "Where is the party that would oppose these reactionary adversaries?"

"Yes! Yes! The party!" several oblivious protesters cried. "Where is the party?"

"To this end, the Executive Administrators of the Council of Propaganda and Pasturage, duly endowed with plenipotentiary powers by the General Secretary for Bureacratic Affairs, were sanctioned to form the first Revolutionary Constitutional Congress of DUFF, the Dunland United Freedom Fighters. And by the gracious invitation of Saruman, both of them gathered at Orthanc and completed a Manifesto!"

"Wha's a manifesto?" the geezer wheezed. "Is tha' an Eye-talian dish? Sort 'o' like Manicotti, but wi' pesto?

"I should 'ope so," the hag replied, "I'm starvin'!"

"The history of society has been one of class struggle!"

"Ye got 'at roight, guv'nor," a shepherd shouted. "I aint ne'er made it past first grade, wha' wi' conjugatin' verbs 'n' danglin' me par'iciple at recess!"

"Freeman and slave, lord and serf, in other words, oppressor and oppressed, have continually opposed one another in a nearly uninterrupted fight that each time has ended badly for we, the mute masses. There has been no revolutionary reconstitution of society at large for us - on the contrary, it usually resulted in the utter victory of them what has, as opposed to them what has not. Now Dunland sits alone in chains of degradation; but, at the turn of fortune's wheel, we can become the oppressors and the hated Forgoil of Rohan the oppressed! We can become that which we hate!"

"This is, like, so-o-o-o boring!" a teenage girl whined.

"Like, we should have so gone to the mall," her BFF chimed in.

"I wish they'd serve the manifesto," the gaffer grumbled. "Me tummy's rumblin'."

"To that end, we shall join with Saruman the White, our sorcerous friend and benefactor, who has offered us his wizardly assistance in ridding Dunland of the hated horsemasters. Join us now! Join us in this righteous rebellion! We may be casting off one master for another even more tyrannical despot; but he has such a pleasant, fatherly way of making our gullibility seem noble - almost intelligent. Besides, we shall get a brief glimmer of freedom before our hopes are ruthlessly crushed, which is all we peasants could possibly expect at this juncture in history, given the inadequate means of mass communication only made possible by the printing press, which will not be available, technologically speaking, until the time of Herr Gutenberg. But enough of anachronistic platitudes, what say you, people of Dunland? Shall we fight for freedom, however short-lived?"

There was a prolonged, dumb silence punctuated by sneezing, rheumy wheezing, lip smacking and tubercular coughs. The speaker sighed in defeat. Despite his best efforts and his Ciceronian dialectical rhetoric, he felt he was losing the mob. And so, as with all demagogues past and present, he decided to plumb the depths and cater to the crowd's basest emotions. "Of course, there will be other benefits…" he said with a polished smile.

"Wha' benefits?" the old hag shouted.

"Yes, yes, what's in it for me?" A one-eyed, legless beggar cried as he shifted nervously on his stumps. "Please, I can't stand the suspense!"

"And when do we get our manifesto?" the grizzled geezer grumped. "Will it be at th' party you was mentionin' earlier?"

…"There will be rape and pillage."

And there was a great cheer that arose from the throng, and they immediately fell into beating each other with cudgels, staffs and canes.

"NO, NO, NO!" the orator shrieked through his megaphone. "I was referring to raping and pillaging the people of Rohan!"

"O-o-o-oh!" the bloodied crowd cried in unison and stopped their infighting, except for one stout shepherd who punched the shrewish hag again for good measure.

"Now, I want the folks to my left to start right in on the raping, and the ones on my right to go off and pillage."

"Well, why can't we just do both?" the shepherd shouted in dismay, his staff clinched tightly in his left hand and his other staff now gripped firmly in his right.

The speaker gave the suggestion some thought and then finally shrugged. "Sure, why not!"

The mob screamed in a blood-curdling frenzy and scattered off in all directions to practice their raping and pillaging skills, leaving the Three Hunters alone in the valley.

***COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER: These are not-for-profit stories (ie., speculative literature, or in more pedestrian, guttural terms fan-fiction), and are in no way meant for publication; therefore, both the Tolkien Estate and the members of Monty Python can rest assured, there will be no royalties due and nothing forthcoming in the way of monetary remuneration for the meager author of these farcical romps through Middle-earth. So bugger off.