Archive for Covers

Play It Again, Jon: Songs vs. Performance Pieces

Jon Brion at the piano

Composer/producer/musician Jon Brion distinguishes between songs and performance pieces. What’s the difference? In a 2006 episode of Sound Opinions (rebroadcast in a 2012 episode of 99% Invisible), he cites Led Zeppelin as an example of the latter. Though he’s “a big fan” of Zeppelin, their songs “are the ultimate performance pieces.” He explains,

And the way I can sort of prove my point is: have you ever listened to anybody else play a Led Zeppelin song and gone “Oh, that was a great satisfying experience”? Except for Dread Zeppelin, who I loved. What people like is that specific guitar sound, that specific performance, in concert with that specific drum sound, with that specific drummer playing that specific part.

Another example of the performance piece, Brion says, is most punk rock.

In contrast, a song stands on its own, separate from any individual performance. As examples of that, he cites George Gershwin, Kurt Cobain, Thom Yorke, and Thelonious Monk.  In the interview, which I’ve excerpted below (and to which you should listen), he demonstrates his point by playing songs on the piano — including a lovely arrangement of a few bars from Nirvana’s “Lithium.”

His distinction between songs and performance pieces is a really useful way of thinking about different types of music.  However, like all such paradigms, the more you look at it, the more the boundaries between songs and performance pieces start to blur.  For example, a key marker for Brion is the cover version.  As he says, you could play a Gershwin song “in the style of Led Zeppelin, and have a completely satisfying experience,” but “when you start playing Zeppelin songs, say, in the style of, like, 1920s music, suddenly it’s laid bare that, oh no, it was about those people, and those people were in a room, and it was great.”

Led Zeppelin in 1970, performing at the KB Hallen in Copenhagen, Denmark

There are two flaws in that otherwise compelling argument.  First, there are great covers of Zeppelin, and of punk. Bonerama does a fantastic version of “The Ocean” (2007). You listen to it and think: why didn’t Zeppelin ever tour with a trombone section? (Or, at least, this is what I think when I listen to it.) Dolly Parton does a lovely bluegrass cover of “Stairway to Heaven” (2002). And then there’s Johnny Favourite Swing Orchestra’s swing version of “Black Dog” (1999)

Bonerama’s “The Ocean” (2007)

Dolly Parton’s “Stairway to Heaven” (2002)

Johnny Favourite Swing Orchestra’s “Black Dog” (1999)

For punk rock, I could point you to Yo La Tengo’s surf-rock-lite cover of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” (1976) or the Indigo Girls’ acoustic version of the Clash’s “Clampdown” (1979)

Yo La Tengo’s “Blitzkrieg Bop” (1996)

Indigo Girls’ “Clampdown” (1993)

So, if (according to Brion’s rubric) punk or Zeppelin resists the cover version, well, there seem ample examples to contradict that claim.

The second problem is that a lot of Zeppelin and a lot of punk are already cover versions. In the case of Zeppelin, they tended to take from African American artists without attribution. “Moby Dick” (1969) borrows liberally from Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step” (1961), “Whole Lotta Love” (1969) lifts a fair bit from Muddy Waters’ version of “You Need Love” (1963, a cover of Willie Dixon).  And those are just a few examples.

Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step” (1961)

Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” (1969)

Muddy Waters’ “You Need Love” (1962)

Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” (1969)

Some of the most famous punk songs are covers — the Clash’s “I Fought the Law” (1979) and Patti Smith’s “My Generation” (1976). The latter is a cover of the Who, and the former a cover of the Bobby Fuller Four (who were covering Sonny Curtis & the Crickets).


The Clash, performing in London, 1979

Patti Smith Group, performing in Germany, 1979

In sum, the line between song (which can be covered) and performance (which cannot) seems blurrier than Brion’s distinction admits.

Patti Smith, New York City, 1976I don’t think his distinction lacks utility, though. As a connoisseur of covers, I would add — in defense of his argument — that there are far fewer good covers of Zeppelin than there are of Nirvana or Radiohead. In this sense, we might see my examples above as exceptions to the rule. Similarly, what’s punk about Patti Smith’s cover of the Who is her performance. You can do a good cover of the Who’s version, but you can’t do a good cover of Patti Smith’s version. The only way to cover of Patti Smith’s version would be as a Patti Smith tribute band, a mere imitation of the original. (In my view, by definition, a good cover brings forth a facet of the song that the original version does not. In their attempts to be faithful, tribute bands don’t meet this standard.)

Brion’s song-vs.-performance-piece distinction is handy, even if it’s not quite the paradigm that it at first seems. That is, his idea is useful less for distinguishing songs from performances and more for giving us a way of thinking about musical taste.

George GershwinUltimately, that’s what his distinction highlights: Jon Brion prefers Gershwin and Cobain to, say, Page, Plant, and Ramone. His too-frequent mentions of his alleged “love” for Led Zeppelin are him protesting too much, giving him rhetorical cover for saying that Led Zeppelin didn’t write songs. And yet, even while his rubric is just disguising personal preference in the language of objectivity, this is one key function of criticism. We find formal terms to talk about what moves us, or fails to move us. Or, to put this another way, we need to find these terms in order to have a conversation with people whose likes and dislikes differ from our own.

Terms like Brion’s help us talk about taste. They don’t need to be perfectly theorized to be useful.

Related posts:

Photo credits: Jon Brion from MTV, Led Zeppelin from Performing Musician, Patti Smith from Morrison Hotel Gallery, George Gershwin from Music Times.

Comments (2)

Top 12 Covers of 2011

Top 12 Covers from 2011Inspired by NPR’s 5 Great Cover Songs from 2011, here are my top 12 covers from 2011 — starting with two of the hardest-rocking, and ending with the quietest ones.

1)    Like a Prayer   Grace Potter & The Nocturnals      6:23

This cover of Madonna’s 1989 hit comes from Grace Potter & The NocturnalsiTunes Session EP, which also includes a cover of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence.”

2)    Get Back   The Jim Jones Revue      2:40

This Beatles cover appears on Burning Your House Down, a title which nicely describes the band‘s explosive  thrash/punk/rockabilly sound.  Wow.  The intensity knocks me over.  Here they are performing “High Horse” (an original) on Letterman in September.

3)    Tubthumping   They Might Be Giants feat. the Onion AV Club Choir      3:22

Recorded for the Onion AV Club earlier this year, They Might Be Giants‘ cover of Chumbawumba’s 1997 pop hit appears on the TMBG b-sides compilation, Album Raises New and Troubling Questions.

4)    99 Problems / Can’t Tell Me Nothing   Aloe Blacc      2:47

Aloe Blacc‘s soulful cover of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” (cleaned up for radio), which pulls in Kanye West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and James Brown’s “The Big Payback.”   He performed the song on BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge.

5)    Price Tag   The Wombats      4:16

The Wombats cover Jessie J’s big hit, described by lead vocalist Matthew Murphy as “a massive bulletproof pop song with quite a nice sentiment.”  I’m a big Wombats fan — if you don’t have their two LPs, well, what are you waiting for?

6)    Hard Bargain   Emmylou Harris      3:23

Such a beautiful cover of Ron Sexsmith‘s song, which originally appears on his Retriever (2004). Emmylou Harris likes the song so much that she also used it for the title of her album.  She could sing almost anything and make it sound transcendent, but when she sings a song that’s already a good one — well, just give it a listen, eh?

7)    When U Love Somebody   The Decemberists      3:11

This doesn’t actually stray that far from the Fruit Bats‘ original version, but there’s something about the Decemberists‘ ragged intensity that keeps bringing me back to their recording.  It appears on their iTunes Session EP.

8)    I Want You Back   Sonos      1:46

Beautiful, melancholic version of the Jackson 5’s 1969 smash hit.  Sonos were one of the best groups on NBC’s The Sing-Off, sent home early for being a bit too experimental in their interpretations.  That willingness to experiment, however, is precisely what made them — and Afro-Blue (another group that should have been a finalist) — so great.  But the judges didn’t get it.  Sonos also recorded a longer version of this for their 2009 record SONOSings.  The version here comes from The Sing-Off: Season 3, Episode 4.

9)    Take Five   Sachal Studios Orchestra      5:52

An “Eastern” version of Dave Brubeck’s classic, recorded in Lahore, Pakistan by the Sachal Studios Orchestra.

10) White Rabbit (Live on Fresh Air)   Gillian Welch      2:59

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings offer their version of the Jefferson Airplane song.  If you’re a fan of Gillian Welch, Terry Gross’s Fresh Air interview is well worth your while.

11) Don’t Fence Me In   Daniel Johnson and Brie Stoner      3:43

There’s a version of this on iTunes, but this is the recording you see in the video below… because I like this version better.  Johnson and Stoner originally recorded their version of this Cole Porter classic for a Nokia advertisement.

12) I’m Going to Go Back There Someday   Rachael Yamagata      4:16

Very nearly all of the covers on the Green Album (new versions of songs that feature in Muppet programs) are great, but I’m particularly fond of this one.  Gonzo the Great brings some pathos to the original version, but Rachel Yamagata singing “There isn’t a word yet for old friends who’ve just met” should touch the heart of even the crustiest curmudgeon.  (Yes, I’m talking to you, Statler and Waldorf!)

Comments (4)