Sunday, October 17, 2010

Cover Without a Mother

I had a very curious idea about songwriting that I might eventually turn into some kind of academic article, though at this point, I have no idea how to do that. I may eventually ask my cousin, who is now a tenure-track professor of jazz performance at University of Victoria’s music school. The story of how I came to this idea is just as interesting, or at least funnier, than the idea itself.

Last weekend, I went with several close friends to Oktoberfest in Kitchener, the largest Oktoberfest outside Germany. I was told to expect utter ridiculousness, and I was not disappointed. After an hour of far too rapid pre-drinking, we took a short taxi ride to the auditorium where our Oktoberfest tickets were. Yes, it was an auditorium, with the hockey ice removed and a series of long red tables cris-crossing the cement floor. The auditorium was ringed with drink ticket booths, bars selling mediocre mass-produced beer (Molson Canadian was the lesser of the two evils), and pretzel and sausage stands. I knew my stomach was unable to handle giant sausages at that point in the night, but I spent $3.50 on the best pretzel I have ever eaten in my life.

At the centre of all this ridiculous insanity was a stage where, about an hour after we arrived, a band started to play. The band was composed of middle aged men, some of whom wore the hairstyles of 1980s hair metal bands whose hairspray was confiscated at customs as deadly weapons. The first song they played was Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name,” and as they worked their way through a variety of songs that night, I realized that they were all radio rock from the 1980s, and with few exceptions they were all Bon Jovi songs. I was at an Oktoberfest in Ontario where the best beer was Molson Canadian and the headlining act was a Bon Jovi cover band. I think I spent about a total of almost two hours laughing hysterically.

I’ll forgo the morning after and the car ride back, during which my travelling companions rediscovered their inner Robert Downey Jr circa 1997. The philosophical insight came to me a few days later, as I walked home on a productive evening of thinking. A mediocre song, like most of the songs in the Bon Jovi catalogue, almost always sounds even worse when a cover band plays it. But most Beatles songs still sound excellent when a cover band plays them. As long as they’re competent with their instruments and can sing reasonably well, a genuinely great song will always be covered well. A song that always sounds so good has a greater likelihood of being played by other people, because the quality doesn’t typically degrade, as in Bon Jovi or KISS covers.

Before the invention and mass production of recording technology, almost every song anyone ever heard was a cover song: someone playing a song that somebody else wrote, sometimes decades or even centuries ago. Today, when someone plays a cover song, we think of it as the player’s version of the writer’s song. And we can refer back to a definitive version of that song to compare the writer’s and the player’s: the album track.

But there isn’t really anything essentially different from the album track and a live reproduction and a cover version. The instrumentation may change, the quality of play may be different, but every iteration of that song is the same song. We’ve come to fetishize the recording to the point that the recorded version is often understood as the essence of the song. The album version is the theme, and all live performances and covers are variations. But by the 17th century, someone playing a song from the 16th century has no idea how it might have originally sounded. Without some definitive recorded version, that musician only has the basic structure of the song and his own skill to play it. There’s no battle between some new version of the song and its pure original.

It made me consider the idea that this understanding of the record as the essential version of the song is a kind of mistake. The musicians can be much more meticulous about the creation of a song in the studio, add effects or instrumentations that are only possible in the studio, and then rearrange everything in order to play the song live. Sometimes, the live version will be completely different from the recorded version.

Coroner ran into this problem a lot, because they created songs with gigantic numbers of guitar tracks all integrated with incredible complexity. But they only ever played live as a three-piece: the guitarist could never, with his single instrument, capture the same power and complexity as a studio version with twenty or more tracks. Their live performances lacked the necessary power that the studio could give them. Meanwhile, KISS only really broke through with their live album: the studio was too clinical an environment to produce the spontaneous, party-like energy of their live performances. KISS thrived on that energy of the concert, and they could never bring that energy to the meticulous construction of the studio.

The studio is just one set of ways of producing the song. It’s a very different set of tools than live performance, so there are very different things you can do. But the studio version is just one more iteration of the song itself, one more variation without a theme. It’s just that the studio version, being the one on record, is most easily referred back to. It’s the version of the song that most people will hear. They can play it at their leisure. They’ll hear it first, they’ll hear it most often, and they’ll probably hear it exclusively. So they think of this version that they hear most often, the most likely become ubiquitous in one’s experience of the song, as the essence of that song, and all other versions judged in reference to it. But the studio is one way among many of organizing musicians and instruments.

The song itself is the organizing principle of all its performances, whether that performance happens in a studio with the instruments recorded weeks apart and assembled on a mixing board, in the middle of an arena stage, or on an acoustic guitar half-drunk at a party.

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