One of the things that’s always fascinated me about Jazz is that it is an act of creation combined with interpretation. Each artist strives to take a common standard and find their own peculiar take on it – particularly in the earlier decades of the form where there was a strong bleed-through from other forms of music, before things started to feel genrefied. When I was a kid I used to make mix tapes of jazz covers and variations, and the most popular songs sometimes stretched to almost a whole side of tape. The first major retrospective of the Yehudi Menuhin and Stephane Grappelli was called Menuhin and Grappelli play ‘Jalousie’ and Other Great Standards, and indeed they do; Dave Brubeck put out Dave Digs Disney, with the definitive “Heigh Ho”, amongst others. I think without that culture of adaptation and adoption, we’d never have had Yehudi Menuhin the jazz artist – we’d have had to settle for him as the great cross-cultural musician (West Meets East was actually my first Menuhin experience, though I didn’t know who he was until I’d heard him with Grappelli); I idly wonder which was the greater cultural leap for him. Outside of Jazz, playing someone else’s songs is something done as an occasional tribute, or opportunistic shot at a hit single, rather than occupation. Bowie’s Pin Ups is perhaps the best statement from a major artist about the power of sharing, unfortunately rare.
In our post-modern post-ironic world, we seem to be getting a swell of genre-switching covers acts, and that always seems like a really awesome idea to me. I tend to find that parodies and genre-switched covers work a lot better for me when I like the original. I always loved Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus”, and when Marilyn Manson covered it and made it his own, I loved that pretty hard – even more than Johnny Cash’s version from The Man Comes Around, which was both his swan-song and a covers tribute to music that he loved. Cash’s “Hurt” absolutely demolishes the Nine Inch Nails original – just one man’s opinion, no hate mail please. Perhaps my favourite story of discovering music through covers was from Hayseed Dixie, who said they did a show live on a local radio station and were told they could play any cover they wanted except “Walk This Way”. When they protested that the station played the original every other day, they were told “yeah, but when you play it you can hear the words”. In addition to improving virtually everything they touch by making it Bluegrass, Hayseed Dixie are by a country mile the best and most engaged band I’ve ever seen live – even better than the Foo Fighters, who had previously been head-and-shoulders better than their nearest rivals.
But when all’s said and done, my favourite covers band is Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine. I think what I like most is that Richard Cheese is always irreverent and playful while at the same time actually producing music that’s got all the hallmarks of the genre he’s using as the basis of his adaptation. His versions of different songs are ironic, but they’re also actually just great songs in their new form. They can be taken as ironic, or post-ironic, depending on your mood. Importantly, he’s adapting a lot of music I love into a genre I love, so it’s the perfect combination of flavours. He’s put out a lot of albums, but the one that’s got the best hit-rate for me is Aperitif for Destruction, which has got some of my all-time favourite interpretations, and which made me revisit my dismissive view of Alanis Morisette. I kinda get Jagged Little Pill now, having given it a serious try again on the basis of his by perfectly covering “You Outta Know”. Richard Cheese, musician and music doctor. Having picked one of the dozen or so of his albums I’ve got, I think you basically can’t go wrong as long as you like music and fun.