I’m not sure I fully subscribe to Jung’s theory of Synchronicity, where causally unrelated events occur at the same time, and seemingly take on a significant meaning; in many cases, a coincidence is just that. But recently I have been forced to consider the possibility that maybe Jung was right.
Over the past few months, I have been reading the 12 novels that comprise Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time”. Although I had never read them before, the books were familiar to me through a BBC Radio adaptation broadcast between 1979 and 1982, and a UK television mini-series from 1997.
Last weekend, and quite unrelated, a friend posted some music on-line – recordings made by the band we were in during the early 1980s. One of the tracks was a song I had written at that time, and whose title had been inspired by Powell’s magnum opus. But I hadn’t listened to or thought about this song for nearly 40 years.
Separately, and also by coincidence, in the last couple of days I have been listening to “The New Anatomy of Melancholy”, another BBC Radio series that draws its inspiration (and title) from Robert Burton’s 17th century tract on mood disorders. This series was first broadcast in May 2020 – no doubt prompted by the onset of the global pandemic, with its lock-downs, self-isolation and increased anxiety. And now the programme is being repeated, exactly 400 years after the publication of Burton’s original treatise – and at a time when we need his sage advice more than ever.
Until now, I hadn’t appreciated how self-absorbed (obsessed?) Powell’s narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, is by Burton – he even ends up publishing an academic text about this prescient Elizabethan writer. On one level, Jenkins is a proxy for his literary hero (as well as being Powell’s alter ego), and much of the 12-novel sequence is a response to Burton’s analysis on the causes of, and cures for, melancholia.
All of which may or may not prove Jung’s theory, but there is for me something of a personal thread between Powell, a song I wrote, and the BBC’s recent update on Burton.
Cover versions are always tricky – for some fans, the thought of another artist messing about with a song by their favourite singer can come across as sacrilege; for many others, a cover version can bring to their attention music that they might never otherwise hear. At their best, cover versions can reveal unfamiliar elements in a familiar song, uncover hidden depths, and add an extra dimension to established work. At their worst, cover versions are simply pedestrian, lazy reworks, or mere replicas (slavish copies). Many renditions veer on karaoke or like those over-hyped performances (which are inflicted on an undeserving public courtesy of “reality” shows such as The Voice, Pop Idol and The X Factor), they seem mainly designed to demonstrate vocal gymnastics, rather than exploring the essence of a song. Far from making an iconic song their “own”, the performer ends up with a Xerox facsimile.
Our preferences for particular cover versions (even over the originals) are purely subjective. The other night I was at a small social gathering, and the host started playing Frank Sinatra’s version of “Mack The Knife”, a recording from late in Ol’ Blue Eyes’ career. Hearing it for the first time, I recognised the song and the singer, but not this rendition. My own reference for this particular arrangement of the Weill/Brecht standard is probably Bobby Darin – but he was following in the footsteps of Louis Armstrong who first brought the song into the Top 40. Perhaps if I had heard Sinatra’s version first, would that be my reference point?
There are probably lots of songs we all know by way of cover versions, rather than the original. Which is understandable. First, in jazz, country and blues, of course, standards and evergreens are the staples of many a repertoire. Second, in pop music of the 1950s and 60s, multiple versions of the same song (usually written by jobbing song writers, rather then by established performers) would be released, often at the same time, to cater for different markets. But in both these categories, these are not so much cover versions as different interpretations – which is not quite the same thing, in my view.
What draws me to a particular cover version tends to be one or other of the following factors: first, what prompted or inspired the artist to record their own version? second, does the new recording bring an unfamiliar artist to my attention, that I then end up exploring further? third, how does the cover version interpret a well-known number, beyond replicating it?
Here are three examples of cover versions, whose original recordings were unknown to me when I first heard them, and which remain my reference points for these songs – but they have also prompted me to explore the original artists’ back catalogue:
“Song to the Siren”, written by Tim Buckley, as recorded by This Mortal Coil
“Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”, written by Sly & The Family Stone, as recorded by Magazine
“My Funny Valentine”, the Rodger & Hart evergreen, as recorded by Elvis Costello (who was referencing Chet Baker’s version)
In contrast, here are three recordings of songs which I love, but I hate these interpretations, because, as happens with many cover versions, they do not add anything, or they are poor replicas, or the vocal interpretations are simply out of kilter:
“Love Will Tear Us Apart”, written by Joy Division, and bludgeoned by Paul Young
“Ziggy Stardust”, written by David Bowie, and made soulless by Bauhaus
“Hallelujah”, written by Leonard Cohen, and rendered overwrought and histrionic by Jeff Buckley (sometimes less is more – as demonstrated by John Cale’s majestic and elegiac interpretation, recorded a few years before Buckley brought out his version)
Of course, a good song will generally shine through, regardless of performer, style or arrangement – revealing itself to be a perennial work of art. A few random examples:
“Computer Love”, originally by Kraftwerk, but turned into a laid back, disco-style torch song that manages to bring warmth and humanity to an electronic classic by Glass Candy
“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, a classic ballad by The Smiths, yet when rendered as “The Light 3000” by Schneider TM & Kptmichigan, it becomes a mournful song of love, loss and regret that could easily have been performed by HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey”
“She’s Lost Control”, Joy Division’s post-punk anthem, given a reggae makeover by Grace Jones that works because it sounds like Ms Jones could easily be singing about herself in the third person…
But for all my reservations, cover versions do have their place. If it wasn’t for This Mortal Coil, I wouldn’t have heard Big Star’s “Third” album; if not for Nick Cave’s “Kicking Against The Pricks” album (which at the time, set off a trend for tribute and covers albums – with varying results…), I’m not sure I would have encountered much of his own music; and without Robert Wyatt’s series of cover versions in the early 1980s, I probably wouldn’t have been as engaged by or aware of the music of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis or even Chic….
Next week:Startupbootcamp – Melbourne FinTech Demo Day
40 years ago this month, an obscure record label in Belgium released a cassette-only compilation album, which became a reference point for many post-punk projects. “From Brussels With Love”, originally put out by Les Disques du Crepuscule, has just been re-issued, so during the recent lock-down, I thought I would exhume my original copy and remind myself of why this was such a landmark album, and why its influence continues to this day.
To add some context, Sony had launched the Walkman cassette player in 1979, the first truly portable device for pre-recorded music. This led to a renewed interest in the cassette format among independent artists and labels, as it was also a cheaper means of manufacture and distribution than vinyl records (and long before CDs, mp3 and streaming services). And in the wake of the DIY aesthetic promoted by punk, some new music was being released on cassette only, such as Bow Wow Wow’s “Your Cassette Pet” and BEF’s “Music for Stowaways” (the title referencing an early model of the Sony Walkman). Some of these cassette-only releases (especially by independent, lo-fi, DIY electronic artists such as Inertia) are now highly collectable.
What made “From Brussels With Love” so significant was not just the format. It was not even alone in combining music with interviews and fully illustrated booklets. Fast Forward in Melbourne also launched their first audio-magazine in November 1980, and other similar projects followed such as Edinburgh’s “Irrationale”, Manchester’s “Northern Lights”, and London’s “Touch” label which began life releasing a series of curated audio gazettes, including both spoken-word and musical contributions.
The importance of “From Brussels With Love” was the cross-section of artists it managed to bring together: mercurial musicians such as Bill Nelson, John Foxx and Vini Reilly; side projects from members of established post-punk bands from the UK (Wire, Joy Division/New Order, the Skids and Spizzenergi); a cluster of emerging European bands (Der Plan, The Names and Radio Romance); and several leading names in modern classical and ambient music (Harold Budd, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Phil Niblock, Brian Eno and Wim Mertens). Oh, and an interview with actor Jeanne Moreau.
This eclectic mix of contemporary artists (and this deliberate approach to curation) was no doubt highly influential on subsequent projects such as the NME/Rough Trade “C81” or Rorschach Testing’s “Discreet Campaigns” – these were not compilations reflecting a single musical style or even the usual label sampler, nor were they simply collections of what was new or current. Instead, they reveal an aesthetic attitude (curiosity combined with open-mindedness mixed with a high level of quality control and a hint of audience challenge) that is harder to find today. Now we have “recommender engines” and narrow-casting streaming services that would struggle to compile similarly diverse outcomes. And more’s the pity.
I know there are a number of on-line platforms and print publications that try to bring a similar approach to their curation, but for various reasons, and despite their best intentions, they generally suffer from being cliquey, self-referencing/self-identifying, and all driven by a need to capture eyeballs to attract advertising, so they quickly lose any claim to independence or even originality. Which is a shame because there is so much great music out there that we don’t get to hear, simply because it is not mainstream, or it doesn’t conform to a particular style, or it doesn’t meet “playlist criteria”, or it doesn’t have enough marketing dollars behind it.
Large parts of Melbourne are again under lock-down during Covid-19. I find myself taking even greater comfort in music during the prolonged period of working from home.
This is a personal selection of music that has accompanied the lock-down over the past four months:
1. “Sleep” by Max Richter – if you can’t take the full 8 hours, the 1 hour version “From Sleep” is a perfect way to end the day – music to fall asleep to
2. “The Piano Sings” by Michael Nyman – very personal interpretations of some of his best-known film scores, and as used evocatively throughout “The Trip” series of films (and not to be confused with Nyman’s soundtrack to “The Piano”)
3. “Playing the Piano for the Isolated” by Ryuichi Sakamoto – a specially-recorded live performance for these unsettling times – I’ve also been listening to his recent collaboration with Alva Noto, “Two (Live At Sydney Opera House)”, and Alva Noto’s minimalist interpretation of The Cure’s “A Forest”
4. “Erratics & Unconformities” by Craven Faults – long-form ambient and hypnotic analogue synthesiser compositions that embody the Pennine landscape (which I probably won’t get to see again for some time)
5. The “Selbstportrait” series of albums by Hans-Joachim Roedelius – reflective collections that act like musical diaries
6. “Music for Installations” by Brian Eno – what better soundtrack for lock-down than a series of works created for interior settings…
7. “In A Slient Way” by Miles Davis – nowhere near as famous as “Kind of Blue” or “Bitches Brew”, but just as ground-breaking as a transitional album in the Davis’ catalogue (and a contender for earliest ambient album before the term existed)
8. “New Energy” by Four Tet – for a downtempo/chill-out album, this is incredibly uplifting and joyous – in fact, any of his recent releases are worth investigating
9. “Five Years in The Dark” by Pye Corner Audio – hopefully, we won’t be five years in lock-down…
10. “Live at Empty Bottle/Chicago” by Fennesz – highly abstract but totally absorbing live performance revealing complex harmonics and sublime electronic textures
Next week: Open Banking and the Consumer Data Right