Sufjan Stevens -
What Goes On
The Skatalites -
Independent Anniversary Ska
Paul Weller -
Do you know that song "Chicken Reel" or "Turkey in the Straw?" Your first answer might be 'no,' but if I hummed a few bars you'd most likely reply, 'Oh, that's what that song is called.' Through Looney Toons and commercial jingles, you've most likely been exposed to these songs; they have entered the collective unconscious.
And while I'm deathly afraid of the folks who think "Surf City" is a Beach Boys song, I have a feeling they are growing in number. As music becomes "ubiquitous as water" in our culture, it stands a chance of becoming just as bland and rote. If you were forced to listen to your local Oldies station daily, you'd probably get completely sick of their 20-song playlist. You might not care to remember that Them sang "Gloria," like you might not have bothered to find out that Caplinger's Cumberland Mountain Entertainers do a killer version of the Chicken Reel. Or that name of the song played in every cartoon when an assembly line is featured is "Powerhouse" by Raymond Scott.
But there is something potent and relevant in approaching a song that everyone knows, that hold a place in the collective unconscious. The main reason you have tunes that are considered 'standards' in a genre like Jazz, is the heavy reliance on improvisation within that genre. There was a time when most people knew the melody to "Misty" or "Take the A Train," so when they heard an avant garde arrangement they could recognize where it was being altered, improved or broken down. A standard could also be an opportunity for showmanship and impressaro performance. When the listener has a context for the tune, the musician can play with the listener's expectations.
Maybe that's why I'm a sucker for tracks like Ted Leo covering Kelly Clarkson or Arcade Fire playing Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Maybe these are today's 'standards' and maybe their life-span is growing increasingly shorter. (Or backwards as with Iron and Wine and Postal Service.)
These three tracks all start with a Beatles song and treat like a standard. There is no rock-god reverence, just using a song in the pop music vernacular to launch their own creativity. The beauty in these tracks in how much they reinvent these songs, like a good cover should.
When I listen to Rubber Soul, I usually skip "What Goes On." I've never really been able to get into the Ringo songs, but Sufjan's version completely flips the script. And I don't usually go for much pre-Rubber Soul material but this ska version of "I Should Have Known Better" (dubbed "Independent Anniversary Ska") by The Skatalites makes perfect sense to me. And Paul Weller brings it all together with his blue-eyed soul rendition of "Sexy Sadie." And while Mr. Weller doesn't push the original nearly as far as Stevens or the Skatalites, maybe there's just enough of a difference in arrangement to hear what he's going for... taking a shot at recreating one of the most beautiful songs ever written. You can hear his respect for the original maybe just a little more than you can hear his desire to remain fresh. So as a "standard cover" goes, I think Sufjan just left The Jam man in the dust. (But it should be noted that I believe Weller is honoring the song, not deifying it, nor trying to pass it off as his own a la Quiet Riot covering "C'mon Feel the Noise.")
But if you never paid attention to the Beatles, then maybe these are just some more pop songs floating about in the ether. If you never thought it was important to remember just who sang "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," then you probably aren't even reading this, but I think we all know people like this. Maybe it's someone at your job, at school, or maybe even a relative, but surely we all know people who just don't care. I think I just feel sorry for all they miss out on. And I shudder when I imagine a future where listeners relate to "Love Me Do" like we relate to "Turkey in the Straw."
"Ignorance of your culture is not considered cool."
(Buy This Bird Has Flown
(Buy The Skatalites at Amazon.
(Buy Paul Weller at Amazon.