I like Manic Street Preachers in general, but I have to admit I’m not crazy about their cover of the The’s song This is the Day, which is their new single and part of the National Treasures album. Working on (Dawning of a) New Era for the Special-ized charity album already mentioned in these pages has been making me think about what makes a good cover and what doesn’t. With the Manics, it feels like they chose a great song that was particularly well-suited to a retrospective collection (“the calendar on your wall/is ticking the days off/you’ve been reading some old letters/you smile and think how much you’ve changed”), but then didn’t do much with it, apart from bring their characteristic guitar sound to the fore and sanitize the vocal delivery. Matt Johnson’s menacing croon is a hard act to follow, rendering as it does even nostalgia slightly sinister, like a long-stay guest in a flea-ridden motel penning multiple suicide notes before embarking on solo sex-play that involves power cables and plastic bags. I think I would hesitate before tackling any of his work; it would require both confidence and urgency to steer any cover away from the trap of the The “lite”, while still creating something individual and worthwhile.
As far as I’m concerned, the most successful cover songs are genre-bending, sometimes ironic but always respectful: St Etienne doing Elvis, Johnny Cash and Nine Inch Nails, Pet Shop Boys and Willie Nelson; and it’s a bonus if the gender or sexuality or other personal history of the artist gives the lyrical or political content a new resonance (note to self: listen again to the Communards’ Never Can Say Goodbye to feel utter joy, and NEVER contemplate singing Strange Fruit – there is some ground not for treading). It even helps if you don’t love the original, like for me in the case of Susan Boyle’s (yes) haunting version of Wild Horses. And if you do love the original – I’m a fan of Rio, I’m not ashamed it to say it out loud – it helps if the cover version combines hilarity with musical acumen while wrapping the original in a warm bear-hug, as with one of my favorite covers of all time: Reel Big Fish doing Hungry Like the Wolf on the Duran Duran Tribute Album. If I’m shocking any of you with my musical skeletons in the closet, be a sport and let us know what your best-loved cover versions are…I am, after all, a child of the ’80s.
In our incarnations as Summerhouse and Bluebird Parade, we’ve tried a few covers live but never recorded them. Covers tend to sit well in a set, particularly for an obscure band like us, to whose audiences our own songs are often unfamiliar. A cover offers welcome respite from the concentration needed to hear new material, which is precisely why we ended up dropping the arcane Ask Me, Jon by the Ocean Blue (a jangly little gem that has about three lines in total, and as many chords – send a comment if you’ve ever heard of it). Alas, covers need to be recognizable unless you’re a major artist turning the tables and showcasing the talents of a lesser-known songwriter, in which case it’s less of a “cover” and more of a favor. We wheeled out Iggy Pop’s The Passenger for a couple of early gigs; I enjoyed singing it, but it was ponderous at our pace and frankly hard to remember. Every Day Is Like Sunday was tried too, and worked reasonably well despite the Marmite-like Morrissey divide within the band, but it has been covered by artists such as the Pretenders and 10,000 Maniacs, so the female vocal thing was nothing new and felt uncomfortably re-warmed to me. It’s also hard not to want to sing like a parody of Morrissey, with his idiosyncratic inflections (which Nancy Sinatra imitates rather well on her version of Let Me Kiss You). I think two of our current offerings are more successful – Geno, which is unexpected but perfectly obvious when you consider the brass, and Like a Hurricane, which owes more to the cool funk of the Roxy Music version than to the original by Neil Young. I don’t feel offended that audience members are moved to dance for these! I think it makes people really happy to be told, “You might recognize this one”, to lean in and absorb the first few bars before turning to their companions with a grin while chanting out the chorus. In our music, which asks for connection but within which happiness is not always the point, this is a good thing.
It will be interesting, therefore, to commit ourselves to a permanent translation for Special-ized. On Front Row last week, the amazing and surprisingly lovable Kate Bush spoke about her acceptance as a songwriter that each listener may have a different and personal interpretation of her music and lyrics, and how that dynamic is what makes music vital. But there is a difference between listening to a song in the privacy of your own home, and re-shaping it to put back out there and be judged. It wasn’t easy choosing a Specials number that we felt we could make our own. Perhaps it’s partly that, having toured them, the songs are ingrained in Jon’s consciousness, so familiar that it’s difficult to pare them back to bare bones and come up with something new. Perhaps it’s that they are so strong in their original incarnations, so wedded to a band and an energy, that there is something slightly intimidating about trying to honor them. Still, the initial trepidation has passed, and getting the track recorded and shared is an anticipated pleasure as simultaneously self-fulfilling and altruistic as – well, giving to charity. We can’t wait to hear the project in full and listen to the Specials through the ears of others who love them, but who aren’t reverential enough to resist putting their own twist on genius.