By Todd R. Nelson
For some, it was the appearance of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan that forms a musical benchmark. For me, it was Vanilla Fudge – Jan. 14, 1968. They played their song “You Keep Me Hanging On.” At least I assumed it was their song. I recall their anthem-like rendition and the ostentatious drumstick twirling of Carmine Appice. I wanted to be a rock drummer like him – the man who showed John Bonham those famous bass drum triplets on “Good Times, Bad Times”; he of the double bass drum kit and Fu Manchu mustache.
I was wrong. It was first a Motown hit recorded by The Supremes. I have further confessions. “Summertime Blues”? I thought it was a song by The Who. I assumed Jimi Hendrix wrote “All Along the Watchtower,” and Cream wrote “Spoonful” and “Crossroads.” A lot depends on whose song version you hear first. Bob Dylan loved Jimi’s version of “Watchtower”; Robert Johnson did not get to pass judgment on Eric Clapton’s version of his “Crossroads.”
I soon realized how much of the music I loved was written by American blues musicians. Roll over Beethoven, John and Paul had some news for us suburban kids in the ’60s. They loved Elvis, Little Richard, the Isley Brothers. Mick, Keith, Pete Townsend and Jimmy Page were devoted to American bluesmen. They were appropriators reselling Robert Johnson back to the yanks.
And so much depends on who spins the wax – the airplay you grew up with. My wife knew The Supremes’ version of “YKMHO” probably because she was listening to New York AM radio. I was tuned in to WBCN in Boston, one of the first FM album-play rock ‘n’ roll stations. Vanilla Fudge may have been on both. But the full-length live version of “Spoonful” was not. WBCN favored long, deep album cuts. Game-changer, for me. Heck, I bet they even spun “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” with a drum solo I knew by heart.
I checked in with my high school rocker cohort. Turns out, we all made similar mistaken assumptions.
“I remember reading Cream album covers and discovering who wrote my favorite songs,” said Marc, a guitarist. “Cream added electricity, volume and distortion to acoustic tunes. Personally, ‘All Along the Watchtower’ is the greatest cover tune. Even Dylan does it Hendrix-style.”
Jeff added, “It wasn’t until I started reading the credits on album covers that I learned others wrote the songs.” He recalled a few more for me. The Who’s “Young Man Blues” comes to mind, and several Led Zeppelin cuts. One was lost in a lawsuit that forced the original writer to be credited on the album – “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” by Blind Willie Johnson, and “Dazed and Confused” by Jake Holmes.”
These days, there’s a large “aftermarket” for song covers, like a whole blog about nothing more than covers of “All Along the Watchtower.” There are numerous websites tracking cover recordings or true authors of songs you’ve always attributed to the bands and singers that made a song a hit. This is not just the legalities of writing credits and mechanical royalties. It’s possession – whose sound owns the popularity.
Here’s another cover song twist. Thanks to YouTube, a rock influencer we couldn’t have imagined in our garage band youth, Rick Beato, has imagined a whole new realm of opportunity. What if a certain famous guitar solo was revised in the manner of other iconic players? We are talking of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Now play the epic Jimmy Page solo in the manner of other guitar heroes – Eric Johnson, Peter Frampton or Eddie Van Halen. Look it up. It’s a bit like a cuckoo laying its egg in another bird’s nest. When the cuckoo chirps, you’ve got a whole ’nother song species.
Which leads me to another new realm of possibility: fantasy covers, like fantasy football league with rock ‘n’ roll. Blend a favorite instrumentalist or vocalist with a favorite tune or composer. I have a couple in mind. Eddie Van Halen plays Chopin – Fantasy Impromptu perhaps? It’s already an eruption of notes. Or, Jimi Hendrix plays “Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini” by Rachmaninoff. Could his passionate, soaring phrasing that rewired “The Star-Spangled Banner” earn a younger generation’s appreciation of Rachmaninoff? That’s the benchmark for a successful cover: the original seems superseded by the copier. It’s the sincerest form of flattery, after all. Sound cuckoo? It keeps me hanging on.
Todd R. Nelson listens to all the classics in Penobscot.