September 24, 2004

SHAKIN' STREET NO. 4

The Value of Good Taste:
When cover bands do it right

There are no two words in music that can make someone run for cover like "cover band" can.

They make you think of the guys who could have been in the guitar store scene in Wayne's World or in some Jersey Shore bar wailing away on Southern rock and Sammy Hagar B-sides, doesn't it?

Yes, there should be a five-day waiting period and a background check for anyone looking to start a cover band. Even worse is the "tribute" band, where sounding like one's favorites is not enough, but trying to look and act like them also. This usually brings things to an embarrassing new low.

But if handled properly, doing all or mostly covers in an act can be tasteful, even more original than some "original" artists. Hey, Frank Sinatra never wrote a song. Neither did Elvis Presley ("Heartbreak Hotel" doesn't count. The King was given a one-third writing credit, reportedly as enticement to have Col. Tom Parker pick the song as Presley's first RCA single). Tom Jones has panties thrown at him by singing other people's words. Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and Willie Nelson wrote some of the classic, enduring American songs of the previous century, yet didn't shy away from a good cover. More than half their respective outputs are tunes written by others.

But some still attach a stigma to those who don't write their own songs. Perhaps it goes back to when the then gospel-speakers at Rolling Stone and other "hip" mags in the '60s ridiculed The Monkees for not doing their own stuff. That paved the way for the singer-songwriter era. Thanks a lot!

There is a new crop of -- brace yourselves -- cover bands that should change all this for good. Like many other positive developments in rock 'n' roll these days, Detroit is at the epicenter. Detroit Cobras, The Fondas and the Sirens are among the bands that not only know how to pick a great set list from their own record collections, they know how to have fun.

Detroit Cobras are easily the most well-known of this new crop of covers aficionados. They've landed a tune in a TV commercial for a giant soft-drink company, had songs in several films and have built up to headlining national tours. Any backlash by hipsters against this band is puzzling because if the members didnít admit to being a cover band, no one would know it. The Cobras' not-so-secret weapon is the soulful, sultry vocals of singer Rachel Nagy fronting a revolving cast of characters.

The Cobras have been filling dance floors across America with soul obscurities by Mickey Lee Lane, Ike Turner, Otis Redding and others. They've also served their Detroit history well by bringing to light great Motown songs that have been phased out over the years by ever-shrinking play lists on oldies radio statons ("Bye Bye Baby" by Mary Wells and "I'll Keep Holding On" by The Marvelettes, to name two). The Cobras haven't been that prolific in the studio, releasing albums in 1998 and 2001 on Sympathy for the Record Industry and a seven-song import EP on Rough Trade in 2003.

The Fondas emerged as a Cobras spin-off, releasing a CD in 2003 on the aforementioned Sympathy label. The band was started by ex-Cobras guitarist Steve Shaw and features the sultry tones of Julie Benjamin, who also can be heard in Detroitís indie shoe gazers Slumber Party. While they mine much of the same predictable soul territory as the Cobras, The Fondas shine best when Benjamin wraps her pipes around the slow numbers. Unlike these other bands, The Fondas album has two originals on it, both of which were featured on a 7-inch single release on Sympathy, "Wanna Be" backed with "Hey Pretty Baby." This could signal the band heading down a similar road as other acts like, say, The Chesterfield Kings, who spearheaded the 1980s garage-rock revival with an all-covers first album before working in original material on later albums.

The Sirens put a glam-rock gloss and power onto a varied set of cover tunes. The band includes members of other fine Motor City combos (Outrageous Cherry, the Come-Ons, Gore Gore Girls and others) and is known for its wild costumes and theme stage-shows. They stomp out tunes from Roky Erikson, Suzy Quatro, Gladys Knight and the Pips (!), the Equals (Eddy Grant's pre-"Electric Avenue" outfit), the Hollywood Brats and even one from the Woggles.

Also out of Detroit but a generation older comes Nikki Corvette with a new covers album titled Wild Record Party on the Rapid Pulse label. Corvette proved her writing chops while leading Nikki and the Corvettes, when punk still had some bubblegum fun before being co-opted (read: ruined) by hardcore. Think a rougher version of The Go-Go's. Anyway, Corvette picks up where she left off in 1981 and pays tribute to some of her favorites, including Generation X, Saints, MC5, The Beat, Shangri-La's, Alice Cooper, Wanda Jackson and more.

While yet to make a dent on the national scene the way the aforementioned Detroit bands have, two acts based in New York, the Spittoons and the Small Potatoes, also are helping audiences learn how to have fun again, restoring the roll to the rock 'n' roll. Both bands are led by Sam Elwitt, who you should know from his work in the Sea Monkeys and with the Nutley Brass.

The Spittoons, a power trio, basically Ramones-ify a good oldies station play list. Their set includes revved-up versions of tunes by Tommy Roe, The Dave Clark Five, The Kinks, a few R&B chestnuts and Who album tracks. There's even a few bona fide Ramones tunes thrown in for good measure ("Swallow My Pride" and "Carbona Not Glue"). Pick up their self-released CD from them at one of their many gigs around the five boroughs. The Small Potatoes are anything but, rescuing obscure songs by famous '50s and '60s artists and/or great songs by obscure artists from the same period.

Another project puts a new spin on the tired tribute album format. Norton Records has released 12 split-singles (yes, actual vinyl) of Rolling Stones covers. The records feature replicas of the old London company sleeve and blue label logo, right down to the lettering, which spells Norton in the style of the old London logo. As far as the tunes, only Stones material from 1967 or earlier is covered. The acts range from today's garage and punk rockers (Little Killers' "Think," the Greenhornes' "Sad Day," Thee Shams' "Under My Thumb" and The Swingin' Neckbreakers' "It's Not Easy") to legendary acts (Question Mark & the Mysterians' "Empty Heart," Andre Williams' "The Spider and the Fly," the Real Kids' "Out of Time" and Kill Bill stars the 5.6.7.8's "19th Nervous Breakdown"). The Norton flagship band the A-Bones even reunites to cover "Miss Amanda Jones." There could be three more split-single releases on the way, with the possibility of a CD compilation of the singles in 2005.

So don't be in a rush to disparage a cover outfit. Speaking of Rush, even those guys finally realized they are out of ideas and have put out a covers album. But then again, there are bad examples of doing this, like Guns N' Roses' ill-fated pasta album -- just more proof that covers aren't to be taken lightly anymore.

-- By Joe Belock

* Shakin' Street is a regular column by writer-at-large Joe Belock, the host of the Three Chord Monte radio show on free-form WFMU-FM in New Jersey.

Posted by medleyville at September 24, 2004 08:28 PM
Comments

in response to the fondas doing covers and a couple of originals,
at the Little Stevens Garage fest at Randalls Island, the fondas performed three originals,
two of which will be on their next lp,
which will also include six other original fondas compositions. Also on that LP will be covers including Upset my Soul by Maxine Brown,Thats All by Al Garris, Just One More Time by J.J. Barnes and the new unreleased Greg Cartwright composition Dont Come Back.

Posted by: Steve Shaw at October 14, 2004 09:02 PM