Why words will always fuel the revolution

Why words will always fuel the revolution

Rock music is entirely subjective. How you react to it is pretty much up to you. It can be an alternative culture. It can be a means of artistic self-expression where musicians play material that they have written.

Or, it can only be about the songs.

I have to say that as a rather boring literal-minded person with a five-minute attention span, I get a little weary when people start talking about rock culture, have no patience with rock operas and concept albums (oh, let’s not get started on that one again, shall we?) and think that the worst thing t’o happen to the music business was the cult of the singer-songwriter.

Later, the world split in two. Serious bands wrote their own songs. Bob Dylan launched the singer-songwriter genre. And professional songsmiths became an endangered species. Those pop bands that continued to buy songs from other people found they were never taken seriously. Neil Diamond, a classic New York Tin Pan Alley songsmith, wrote I’m a Believer for the Monkees but then decided that he wanted to be a singer himself. Carole King, who with her then-husband Gerry Goffin had written such hits as Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow for The Shirelles, decided to make her own albums (and did her own version of Will You Still…on Tapestry).

In my view, the rule that you had to write your own material to be taken seriously worked to the detriment of the music. Great songs never got the singers they deserved. And great singers never found the material their voices were meant for.

Which is why I am so fascinated by the cover version—a recording of a song by somebody other than the original singer or songwriter. And I have huge respect for singers who are willing to record other people’s material, recognizing that their own stuff might be substandard.

Two outstanding leaders in this category are Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton. Stewart is a good songwriter (remember Maggie May?), but his best songs have been covers of other people’s hits: Reason to Believe by Tim Hardin; Sailing by The Sutherland Brothers and, best of all, I Don’t Want to Talk About It by Crazy Horse (otherwise known as Neil Young’s backing band).

So it is with Clapton. He may be the man who wrote Wonderful Tonight and Layla, but many of his biggest hits have been other people’s songs. I Shot the Sheriff was Bob Marley’s; After Midnight and Cocaine were both J.J. Cale.

Some singer-songwriters, on the other hand, are made to be covered by other people. Bob Dylan is one of them. Joan Baez and Peter Paul and Mary made his early songs famous, but his work remains the best source material for other bands. Everybody (except me) prefers the Jimi Hendrix version of All Along the Watchtower to Dylan’s; The Band (with the great man’s blessings) did a hell of a version of I Shall Be Released; Knocking On Heaven’s Door was a hit for both Guns N’ Roses and Eric Clapton; and The Byrds took Mr Tambourine Man to the top of the charts.

The same is true of Leonard Cohen, who has rarely had hit singles on his own, though Suzanne was a hit for Judy Collins and Bird on a Wire for Joe Cocker. The rock aristocracy have all covered such great songs as Tower of Song and I’m Your Man. My favourite Cohen cover, though, is REM’s version of First We Take Manhattan.

Or, take the case of Kris Kristofferson, whose first album had three great songs, all of which are better known as other people’s hits—Me and Bobby McGee (Janis Joplin); Sunday Morning Coming Down (Johnny Cash) and HelpMe Make it Through the Night (Sammi Smith and then, the whole world.)

Sometimes, cover versions can go wrong. Elvis Costello called Linda Ronstadt’s version of Alison a “complete waste of vinyl". Rare is the Beatles song that has been bettered by somebody else. Even Bob Dylan massacred Paul Simon’s The Boxer (on the Self Portrait album), and the single worst cover of a Simon and Garfunkel song is Frank Sinatra’s puke-inducing “swing" version of Mrs Robinson (Jilly loves you more than you will ever know…Ding Ding Ding —I kid you not). Elvis murdered other people’s songs during his Fat Bastard in Las Vegas phase (if I was Barry Gibb, I would have shot him for his cover of Words). And it is a good thing that Pete Hamm of Badfinger committed suicide before Mariah Carey got her hands on Without You.

Without a doubt, though, the king of the murderous cover is Neil Diamond. As a songwriter (even one who uses only three chords), he should know better. But he has assaulted Leonard Cohen (Suzanne takes you down to a place by the riv-aah), attacked the Beach Boys (his God Only Knows is revolting) and caused physical harm to Joni Mitchel’s catalogue (his version of Free Man in Paris made me want to slug him).

Some songs have improved with their cover versions. Santana’s Black Magic Woman is much better than the Fleetwood Mac original. The Los Lobos version of La Bamba beats the Richie Valens original. Jose Feliciano brought soul to the Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreaming. Gil Evans, Sting and Eric Clapton all did versions of Little Wing that have outlasted Hendrix’s original. Tim Buckley sang the definitive version of the much covered Fred Neil classic Dolphins. And UB4O made Neil Diamond’s Red Red Wine dance.

My guess is that eventually the songs will outlast the bands. Young people have no idea who Dylan is. But they know the songs. They have never heard of Leonard Cohen, but they know Suzanne. Time will prove that rock was not about cultural revolutions or self-expression. It was always about the songs.

Write to Vir at pursuits@livemint.com