[SoundStage!]Synergizing with Greg Weaver
Back Issue Article
April 2000

The Changing Face of Popular Music -- Old Tricks and New Roles

One more time, ad nauseum …

The impetus for this column actually came many months ago when, while training at my local gym, I was appalled by a tune I heard wafting throughout the club over the so-called music system. What I heard was a cross-pollination of two of the most unlikely songs I would have ever expected could be mixed into one track. I had first recognized the droll lyrics from an insipid hit from the king of the '80s dance-pop scene, Michael Jackson. I identified the line I heard as the refrain from his smash "Billie Jean." Then mid-stream, as I had just come to grips with this overly produced and techno version of the trite tune, and with just a slight hiccup in the beat mix, the next words I heard were from the hip New York rocker/jazz-ters Steely Dan, saying "Get back, Jack. Do it again." Well, I was taken aback, and in more ways than one. That anyone could find any commonality in these two totally disparate works, let alone feel compelled to merge them into a new release, was beyond me. It gave me pause to think about the differences that have occurred in the recording industry since my adolescence.

I grew up during the age of the super groups of rock and roll, and it seemed, whether it was completely true or not, that rock groups of that era mostly went into the studio when they had something to say. Now, this may not have been true of all bands working and writing in the late '60s/early '70s, but it was certainly much more so the case than today. Though the occasional group was economically exploited by its management or label, the drive to get to the studio was by and large fueled by artistic endeavor and/or the band's or songwriter's desire to say something. Most rock music of that era was politically or emotionally motivated. Love songs were common, as was the standard protest anthem -- often they were mixed together. But when you examine it, all rock songs are about sex. Think about that for a second, and you will inevitably have to agree.

It often seems that the sole motivation for going to the studio these days is to make money rather than music. Now don’t think for a second that I am so naive as to think that there is something wrong with making money or the business of record making. Hey, they call it the music industry for a reason. I will concede that the nature of the business is, after all, business; yet it seems that it used to be clad more in the trappings of art. So come on, let’s craft a product that is new and worthwhile, not just try to repackage an old one. Don’t just remake something that was already done, and done considerably better the first time, only for the sake of coming up with enough tracks to fill a demo tape. And please, stop feeding me the pabulum of a band that sounds just like that other band whose album sold a few million copies. There is something inherently wrong with signing a band to a recording contract because they have the same sound as, the same appeal as, or the same look as some other band that made some money because they too had the same sound as, the same appeal as, or the same look as that other band that did so! Let’s get back to CREATING music, may we?

Back then, there were only a handful of bands that came out of nowhere, released only one album and subsequently disappeared, leaving behind the legacy of a one-hit wonder. Today this practice is commonplace. And more to the point, many of today’s bands ride the tide of success garnered on the airplay and revenues from a lackluster remake (or cover) of a track from the classic-rock era. I submit that it would be different if it were done out of homage to that particular band’s influence upon or inspiration of their own entry into the music field. But this is rarely the case. And what I find most disturbing about this trend is that the radio jocks spinning these tunes, as well as their intended listening audience, are themselves unaware that these "new" tunes are remakes! This new generation of listeners is led to believe that this tune was written and performed by the new band. This first came to a head for me with the Great White song "Once Bitten" from the 1986 album of the same name. At least in their case, they did pay the writer of the song, and actually had him in the studio when they remade it. The song was originally titled "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" and was penned by Mott the Hoople's lead singer and songwriter Ian Hunter on his 1975 eponymous album. To merely say that it was better than the remake would be a gross understatement.

One afternoon not too long ago I was playing the original "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" for a friend who was totally fascinated by the vast amount of creative and powerful '70s rock I had been introducing him to. When this particular track from the previously mentioned Ian Hunter album started, he said, "Oh wow, this is a cover of the old Great White tune." It took much control to restrain myself from launching into the young man. After showing him the date on the original, he just stopped, scratched his head and asked what else he should know about this whole cover issue. Maybe this young man was to be an apt student after all. So with his question I found myself on a mission. It was almost sunrise when we finished our tour of '70s and early '80s rock.

Some of the most offensive violators of the remake issue come easily to mind. In 1993, Natalie Merchant fronting with 10,000 Maniacs covered "Because the Night" on their MTV Unplugged gig. The song was originally written by Bruce Springsteen and first appeared on Patti Smith’s third (and real breakthrough) proto-punk album Easter in 1978. Nineteen Ninety-Two saw the Cowboy Junkies release a version of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground’s "Sweet Jane." More recently, 1999 found Pearl Jam garnering heavy rotation with their cover of J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers’ 1964 hit "Last Kiss" -- which wasn’t even released on an album. It was released as a single only! I’ve even heard a techno remake of the Simon & Garfunkle classic from the 1968 film The Graduate, "Mrs. Robinson." What bothers me almost as much as the fact that many of these covers went deliberately unidentified as remakes is the amazing lack of emotion and feeling behind the newer versions. They were all less, in every respect, than the originals. Give me a break!

I’ve even had the displeasure of hearing the rather uninspiring remake of The Clash’s rousing "Rock the Casbah" from their 1982 release Combat Rock. And I won’t tell you of the degree of my negative reaction to hearing a female-fronted remake of Rockford, Illinois’ home-grown Cheap Trick's "I Want You To Want Me!" At least I don’t have the faintest clue as to the identity of the groups who were responsible for these trashed remakes. But the supreme duplicator has to be George Thorogood, who would have had NO career at all if not for the great blues artists of days gone by. His covers of songs by such artists as Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson and Hound Dog Taylor reads like a who’s-who list of blues talent. I’m hard-pressed to name a single hit of his that wasn’t written by someone else.

Now this is not to say that all remakes are inherently bad or that they are all perpetrated at the original artist's expense. Take Garage, Inc., the 1998 Metallica release. This is one example of the proper attitude for covering an oldie but goody. Here, rather that just try to profit from the catchy hook or haunting riffs of a classic-rock standard, the band pays tribute to the bands that had tremendous influence on them in their formative years. Listen to the all-star jam on "Tuesday's Gone" -- complete with Lynard Skynard original cast members Gary Rossington, Jerry Cantrell and John Popper contributing their own solos. This album (yes, I own it on vinyl!) also includes splendid covers of Bob Seger’s "Turn the Page," Blue Öyster Cult’s "Astronomy" and Black Sabbath’s "Sabra Cadabra." All were tastefully done, with deference apparent, and made with tribute in mind -- not indolently knocked off for the sake of selling a record.

With my little rant in mind, let’s not forget that there is a host of wonderful new talent out there NOT content to merely cover old standards, but with enough talent and drive to create new, powerful and engaging music -- some of which may be covered by future generations. Whoa! There’s a scary thought, eh?

Changing commercialism

One other aspect that has tickled my musical fancy of late is the pervasive use of classic rock songs by Madison Avenue in television and radio advertising. It seems that the rebellious and dissentive music created during the boomers' youth has now come to be seen as motivational. I guess advertisers think that by associating with music that reminds boomers of their youth, a typically simpler, happier, more care-free time, the mere relationship is powerful enough to convince them that buying and using the product in question will somehow bring back those long-gone and often cherished times. How many of you remember the pounding "Mississippi Queen" by Mountain or the moving "Locomotive Breath" by Jethro Tull used to promote Milwaukee’s finest suds?

I think the best example of what I’m trying to illustrate comes from the current use of two of the Who’s most popular works. Keep in mind that the Who, one of the most outrageous and outspoken groups of the original British invasion, was perceived by those in power in the early '70s as the antithesis of Western civilization. I mean, they openly took and encouraged the taking of recreational pharmaceuticals, they destroyed their stage equipment and instruments at the close of their performances, and they set the record for the loudest concerts of their time (no wonder Pete Townshend is nearly deaf!). Talk about fear and loathing? No other band of that time inspired as much disdain and furor among the adults who populated my life in those times.

But of late, we see ads for Gateway computers, with their black-and-white bovine-inspired boxes, being hocked to the sounds of "Who Are You," the title cut on the last Who album that featured the syncopated antics of madman drummer extraordinaire Keith Moon before his death. And then one finds the Who’s most rebellious anthem, arguably the most well-known and defining work of the classic-rock repertory, "Won’t Get Fooled Again," as the bed for a series of commercials promoting and selling the latest, greatest Japanese sport utility vehicle. I find it particularly ironic that the hits of a band previously seen as the height of counter-establishment, one that created the highest level of revulsion and contempt from the parents of an entire generation, are now used to sell the two products that most aptly capture and define the purchasing trends of the end of this century -- the PC and the SUV. Whoda thunk it?

...Greg Weaver


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