Sunday, August 11, 2019

Let Me Tell You 'Bout Phaedra

As I said, I freakin' love cover versions. I also love the chance to use a euphemistic expletive like freakin' now and again. I associate it with Power Man and Iron Fist comics from the early 1970s as well as blaxploitation movies, books and comics in general. Probably not cool to admit to that but if I just add the word "ironically" we should be fine.

Freakin' is especially appropriate here, anyway,  because euphemisms are cover versions. If we've heard the cuss word we all know what the original sounds like but if we haven't then the supposedly polite version becomes an actual swear word in our vocabulary.

To appreciate a cover version you have to know the original. Otherwise you're just listening to a song. And since popular songs can have incredibly long lives, it's not at all unusual for a cover version to take on the mantle of an original as the original original fades into obscurity.

Some songs attract a multitude of covers. Standards, naturally, get covered constantly. That's why we call them standards. Sometimes, though, songs you might not expect to be on anyone's radar pick up ridiculous traction. Everyone wants to take a run at them.

For some reason that I find hard to imagine, an awful lot of people seem to want to test their chops against Lee Hazelwood's psych-pop cult classic Some Velvet Morning. Lee was a maverick genius along the lines of Van Dyke Parks or Brian Wilson. He somehow managed to straddle country, pop, psychedelia and make himself an essential adjunct to Nancy Sinatra all at the same time.

Together the unlikely duo turned out a whole raft of weird, warped, pop curios that must have infuriated father Frank. Some Velvet Morning is one of the oddest of them all; lyrically abstruse, structurally bizarre, entirely inaccessible and reeking of altered states it nevertheless managed to make it to number 26 in the Billboard charts in 1968.

The Daily Telegraph, that hotbed of radical subversion, described it in 2003 as ""One of the strangest, druggiest, most darkly sexual songs ever written - ambitious, beautiful and unforgettable." I can't do better than that.

Here's the original, complete with Lee's weirdly stretched horse, which looks like it ought to have six legs.

Lee Hazelwood & Nancy Sinatra

It really isn't the sort of song you'd imagine anyone wanting to cover. How are you going to top that? But many have tried. Of all the versions on YouTube I think Beloved Enemy's (I have no idea who they are) is the best. It takes things fairly straight but adds an intensity and passion that very few of the other covers can match. Also those studs in his face are weirdly fascinating.

Beloved Enemy

Bobby Gillespie, once the stand-up drummer with the Jesus and Mary Chain, later better-known as lead singer of cultural magpies Primal Scream, makes the song his own to the degree that several people covering it seem to believe Bobby wrote it himself. I like the motorik synth riff and the way non-singer Kate Moss floats about deliciously in the video but Bobby's decision to sing Lee's baritone part in falsetto was probably a mistake.

Primal Scream & Kate Moss

Some of the takes treat Hazelwood's curio as though it was Sondheim, if not Schubert. Then again, Alison Godfrapp has a tendency to elevate everything she sings into some aesthetic statosphere of her own making. Add a full orchestra and the Albert Hall we're definitely not in California any more.

Alison Goldfrapp & John Grant

For others it seems to be the psychedelic overtones that matter most. Les Marionettes, who hail disconcertingly from Dublin rather than Paris, somehow manage to combine a full-on faux-60s video with a synth sound reminiscent of Depeche Mode circa 1983 and make it work. The singer's spectacular sideboards make a good stand-in for Lee's 'tache, too.

Les Marionettes

Next up we have another kaleidoscopic kolor video (literally) to go with a glorious, lush, booming, version with an epic feel. Entirely unexpected from a band most of whose members were once the public face of commercial twee-pop in The Primitives. I somehow managed to miss out on Starpower entirely until now but on this evidence they're worth looking into. Shame about the sudden fade-out, though.


At this point there's a distinct chance things are starting to feel a bit, well, reverent. Time to put a stop to that. If there's one thing a good cover should do it's trample on the original in hobnail boots. Space Dust were based in Christchurch, New Zealand, a country second only to Canada when it comes to churning out great bands no-one's ever heard of. This has a particularly fine video that intercuts atmospheric movie footage with shots of the band looking positively feral on stage.

Space Dust

At the other extreme, welcome Fee Lion, who I already knew and liked  before I came acorss this cover, and the exquisitely named Chemise Cagoule, of whom I was previously unaware. I like the sinister, stealthy way this builds. The video emphasizes the pace well, too. And it's nice to see the lyrics laid out. The duo are appearently part of Chicago's icy underground and practitioners of crypto-confessional anti-pop, so now you know.

Chemise Cagoule & Fee Lion

To prove that anyone can cover anything, here come Entombed to put their death-metal touch on the fragile melody. I can't stand death metal but I don't hate this this so I'm guessing Lee's life-affirming pop sensibility is strong enough to overcome death itself.


Just as a palate-cleanser after that, here's another highly respectful version, albeit with some swagger, from two Australian alumni, Glenn Richards of Augie March (no, me neither) and Amanda Brown, ex of The Go-Betweens. I think Glenn possibly gives it a bit too much towards the end but it's class all the same.

Glenn Richards & Amanda Brown

I include the Thin White Rope version only because people keep popping up in the comments to other versions on YouTube to claim it's is the best cover of them all. It's not. It's quite poor. There are worse, though, and some of them by people I like. Roland S. Howard and Lydia Lunch for example, and Slowdive. Not to mention the horrific Vanilla Fudge version that was a hit in the late 60s. If you want to hear any of those you can go look them up yourself.

Thin White Rope

The TinkeyTone Orchestra version isn't all that, either, but it is odd.  It seems to have been recorded, badly, probably in someone's bedroom, by two people playing a dozen different instruments between them. This is the kind of thing you find if you keep scrolling down.

TinkeyTone Orchestra

And keep on scrolling is my advice. That's when you start to come to the "good " stuff. I was vaguely aware of Birdeatsbaby but I couldn't have put a name to one of her tunes. The magnificently-monickered Oli Spleen is new to me, though. He looks quite scary. I think it might be quite a while before a morning comes when Oli's straight enough to open anyone's gate.

 Birdeatsbaby feat. Oli Spleen

Up to now, no-one has actually pretended to be Lee ansd Nancy. That's about to change. My guess is that Nancy Synesthesia and Lee Hazelnut don't take themselves too seriously but they look fantastic and this is actually a pretty good cover, too. I particularly like the toytown instrumentation.

Nancy Synesthesia & Lee Hazelnut

If that still felt too respectful, allow me to introduce you to Dutch post-punk outfit Rats on Rafts. As one YouTube commenter observed, "Sounds like a bunch of witches". It does indeed.

 Rats on Rafts

Last and definitelty not least, here come Marc Benecke and Bianca Stücker with a Germanic synth-cruncher that has the feel of the autobahn all through it. We're finishing  a very long way from where we started, which is just as it should be.

 Mark Benecke & Bianca Stücker
That's a fairly extreme introduction to the wonderful world of cover versions. I wouldn't recommend watching and/or listening to all fifteen plus the original in a sitting. I did, so you don't have to.  

It has given me some ideas for regular Inventory Full future features, though. I'll think on...


  1. Following this theme of cover versions, I'll introduce you to two wildly different cover artists who have each done many songs quite well.

    This is the popular song that was all over the airwaves a couple of years ago.

    Despacito by Luis Fonsi. This is I believe the original.

    A cover by J.Fla

    A cover by Leo Moracchioli

    1. Wow! The J. Fla is really lovely, to the point of being unrecognizeable as the same song and the Leo Moracchioli gives the horendous original the kicking it richly deserves. Despacito is one of the worst super-popular songs I've heard in half a century but J Fla proves you can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear after all.

  2. Both these cover artists have done many different songs. Heathens by 21 Pilots is another that they have both covered. I'm not too sure there is any other overlap but both have a great many other songs to listen to - some significantly better than the originals!


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide