Monday, November 17, 2008

Covered Up #1

"Many do's and don'ts. First of all you're using someone else's poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing. " - Rob Gordon, High Fidelity by Nick Hornsby

Years and years ago, and I have forgotten how we ended up talking about this subject, my main most man, Chris Reid told me about a pop group called A Teens, who did note for note recreations of ABBA songs. This lead me to think, if they do note for note recreation of ABBA songs, why wouldn't you just go listen to ABBA. Down through the years I have heard alot of cover songs. Some good, some bad. And I have developed a theory on cover songs.

If you are going to cover someone else music, you need to make it your own. A good example of this is Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt". Trent Rezner even said in a Rolling Stone interview, "It was a big juxtaposition for me to hear it as someone else's song now. It instantly became his song after that." And that is the point of doing a cover, to take something you like, but make it new, different, or better.

There are alot of songs that I could have choosen to do for this first article. But I want to keep it simple and to choose a song that everyone knows. That is why, I have chosen to look at Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana. Alot of people have done versions of this song, from Tori Amos to Dokaka to Atari Teenage Riot to Flyleaf to the artist list in this article.

Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana
Of course you have to start with the original. This song, pretty much moved the alternative music scene in America into the mainstream in 1992. It is usually listed as the most important song of the 1990s and as one of the greatest songs in rock history. Plus it was the perfect song, for 15 year old boys like me at the time. I find it strange to see kids, no older than 15, wearing Nirvana t-shirts. A testament to powerful and far reaching nature of this song and Nirvana as a whole.

Smells Like Teen Spirit by The Melvins
From their cover album Crybaby. This, musically speaking, this is probably the cover that most closely resembles the original and is the least interesting. Buzz was a good friend of Kurt Cobain and probably had some hand in helping the formation of the song. Given the usually style of The Melvins, I can only speculate that Buzz did not want to mess with his friends legacy to much. What does makes this cover intersting is the inclusion of 70s pop idol, Leif Garrett on lead vocals.

Smells Like Teen Spirit by Paul Anka
You read that right, Paul Anka covering Nirvana. The strangest of the covers. Anka turns this anthem of apathetic kids into a swinging big band song that would have felt at home in the early 1950s. By my defination, Anka has done what I wanted, he took something, someone else made, and turned it into his own song. I will not lie, I did not care for this version when I first heard it. But repeated listening (and the fact that I do like big band swing) have lead me to see the humor and fun in this version.

Smells Like Teen Spirit by Patti Smith
Saying Patti Smith is a genius, is like saying water is wet, or the sky is blue. Its just something everyone should know. This is be far my favorite cover version of the song. Smith keeps the bass line but takes out the signature grunge guitar riff. Replacing it with with banjos and violins, that mix together with the songs lyrics and her own poetry to form a lullaby that constantly feels like it is going to explode. She released this song this year on her new cover album, Twelve.

Smells Like Nirvana by "Weird Al" Yankovic
While technical not a cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit, this song has two factors that make its inclusion importnat. The first, is the parody is about the Nirvana phenomenon itself and the difficult of understanding Cobain's singing and the meaning of the lyric. The other factor is that Cobain had stated that he realized Nirvana had "made it" when he was told "Werid Al" want to do a parody of his song. Plus it has rockin section on the kazoo.

The importance of this song on those of us who grew up in the 90s can't be fully explained. No matter is you love the song, hate it, or are apathic to it, everyone must acknowledge it huge cultural impact. I am sure that there are all types of covers of this song I have missed. But I felt that these where the ones that gave a good cross section of the musical spectrum. My only complaint is I couldn't find a country/bluegrass version to include.

Next Time: Shake Your Hips!



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