Master Class: Covers and Cultures (by E.c. Fish)

The oft-told tale of post-WWII American popular music– and baby, that is rock and roll, among others– is a tale of cultural cross pollination, of white musicians adopting African American forms for a mass (that is, white) audience and creating a new kind of music that conquered the world. Depending on your point of view, it can also be seen as a story of outright theft, of riffs, songs, styles, publishing rights, and record sales as conquered colonies of the majority’s cultural empire. It is also the context for the cultural give and take of the second batch of covers in this master class. Notebooks ready, here we go…

“Karma Chameleon,” by Beat Farmers

For “Covers and Culture,” a cover of Culture Club by The Beat Farmers, an ’80s cowpunk outfit. The self conscious irony and DIY ethos of the postpunk era made it a new golden age of covers– Velvets songs, Monkees songs, old cereal commercial jingles, whatever the hell else you wanted to throw in there– mostly because writing songs was something a lot of these bands couldn’t do themselves. While this wasn’t necessarily true of the Farmers, this is a stellar example of the phenomenon, with the band using the original’s already copped from country harmonica line and drummer Country Dick Montana’s natural status as the anti-Boy George to turn the song into a sort of semiotic jamboree that flatly insists on the ridiculousness of both the original and the whole cultural enterprise.

“Dedicated To The One I Love,” by The Mamas and the Papas

A gorgeous record, and a near perfect example of an old school cover. Back in the age of vinyl long long ago, the record business was geared to the sale of 45s like the one you see in this video. LPs (or, for our younger readers, those big round things in the cardboard jackets with the nice graphics down in your parents’ basement) were tacked together from singles, b-sides, and cover versions. Covers were thus common, accepted, and thick on the ground, an A and R tradition that continued clear into the ’60′s and records like this one. It’s also an example of another cover tradition: a bunch of white people taking a song by a bunch of black people, buying it on the cheap, and throwing class privilege in the form of money and studio technology at it. The resulting record is quite beautiful, meticulously crafted, and very, very white. Also an example of a cover too few people know is a cover. School yourselves, people.

“Sail On, Sailor,” by Ray Charles and The Beach Boys

This is arguably not so much a cover as a live take with a guest vocalist, but with this particular guest vocalist that becomes a distinction without a difference: Ray Charles is going to change the Beach Boys much more than the Beach Boys are going to change Ray Charles. This is a nice reversal of the racial politics of “Dedicated”. As a slim and sane appearing Brian Wilson tells us in the intro, it was Ray’s voice that he heard when he originally wrote this song, making this both a performance closer to the original intent of the song than the recorded version and a solid homage to Ray and the African-American roots of rock and roll. Much nicer than the more common practice of taking a song by a black man (for example, Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”), changing the lyrics (to something about, oh, I don’t know, water sports), and claiming the result as original work, thus screwing said black man out of his publishing rights and royalties. Sad but true: Before Brian Wilson was God, he was Pat Boone.

“Norwegian Wood,” by Cornershop

Unless you’re a Punjabi speaker, this comes dangerously close to the cover as novelty record, but it actually represents another turn of the cultural screw twisted by Ray Charles above. Cornershop takes George Harrison’s imperialist hipster rip on Indian music (grafted rather superfluously¬† onto a Lennon song) as an excuse to wrap the whole thing up and ship it to the subcontinent. Plus, as my favorite seven year old music critic aptly pointed out, the sitar is much prettier on this one.

“Tears Began To Fall,” by The Persuasions*

More cultural reclamation. Frank Zappa was heavily influenced by doo-wop, and the Persuasions take that influences right back to the originating genre. One doesn’t even miss Flo and Eddie until after the two minute mark, when, like most middling doo-wop, this gets a little repetitious before (gulp) adding some instruments. Doo-wop fail.

(*Most videos of this song were recently taken off of YouTube. If you find a good video link, send it to Charmcityjukebox@gmail.com and we’ll post it here. Thanks!)

Can’t get enough covers know-how from Professor E.c. Fish? Come back next week for the final Master Class, and check out last week’s lesson.¬†

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