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Songs vs. Performance Pieces [Uncertain Principles]

Tuesday, November 22, 2016 10:19
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At dinner the other night, Kate mentioned this podcast, which excerpts a bit of a Jon Brion interview from 2006 where he makes a distinction between “songs” and “performance pieces.” As an example of the latter, he uses Led Zeppelin, saying that their recordings, as great as they are, are about those specific people in that specific time, and nobody is all that excited to hear reworked Led Zep covers.

It’s an interesting claim, but I don’t really agree (influenced in part by the fact that I don’t especially care for the examples he uses as “songs”). I had a hard time coming up with a counterexample, though, until it occurred to me this morning. I offer the following two YouTube videos, which are very different versions of the same song, both of which were hits at the time of their release:

Now, you can question whether it was really necessary to do an unplugged blues-y acoustic version of “Layla,” but Clapton did it, and it was surprisingly successful. But prior to that release, I most likely would’ve been inclined to regard the original as a “performance piece” in Brion’s sense– it’s a brilliant tune whose brilliance is all wrapped up in the specific circumstances of its creation. The whole Clapton/Duane Allman supergroup thing, plus the backstory about George Harrison and Patti Boyd. If you’d asked me in 1992, I would’ve said that an attempt to re-work and cover that would be pointless, and probably fail.

I suppose you could argue that there might be an exception coming into play given that the guy who did the cover was the same guy who wrote the original song, but I don’t think that really works, either.

I think what’s really going on is that doing interesting cover versions is really hard, and not that many people are genuinely good at it. Greg Dulli has a knack for it, and Ryan Adams. Maybe Ben Folds? Anyway, the list of bands I’d go to see thinking “Boy, I hope they cover a song by somebody else” is not long.

I would agree that there are some styles of song that lend themselves to reinterpretation more readily than others, and that songs whose appeal relies on the musical virtuosity of the original artists– like “Layla” or most Led Zeppelin– are harder to imagine covering in an interesting way. But I think that’s largely because it’s hard to do an interesting cover of any song, and that difficulty is just more obvious when you’re covering somebody who’s incredibly good at performing the way they do. Even when you look at songwriters whose work generates a lot of cover version– Bob Dylan, say, or the late Leonard Cohen– most of those covers aren’t really all that interesting. Most people who play Dylan songs do it pretty straight, adjusting a bit for their particular band’s instrumentation and so on. Only a handful of people take those songs and re-cast them in a way that makes them seem like something completely and radically new– Jimi Hendrix doing “All Along the Watchtower” being the screamingly obvious example.

(It doesn’t need to be that radical, of course. The shift from the Clash doing “Lost in the Supermarket” to the Afghan Whigs version isn’t all that drastic in terms of instrumentation or even tempo, but it feels like a whole new song in a way that’s really interesting.)

There’s probably a connection to literary parody/pastiche, here, which is another thing only a tiny handful of people are genuinely really good at. But I really ought to stop fiddling around on the Internet and go give the final exam for my class…


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