One of the greatest musical events I've experienced recently was the Matt Groening-curated All Tomorrow's Parties at Butlin's Holiday Centre (don't ask) in Minehead, England. That's where Britpop stars Spiritualized, which is actually one guy – Jason Pierce (AKA J. Spaceman) – and a bunch of hired hands, performed Pierce's glorious 1997 psychedelic breakup album, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, in its entirety. Horns, strings, and a wailing gospel chorus joined the usual rock lineup for a show that took off within about thirty seconds and didn't let up until the last drop of heroin nostalgia had been wrung out of us. If you happen to be in New York City and want to give it a spin in person, Spiritualized is bringing this moving extravaganza to Radio City Music Hall on July 30 for the only North American performance of their Exile on Main St. for the '90s.
Spiritualized's sublime set got me thinking about bands covering albums – their own and others – and about when it works and why it sometimes doesn't.
What doesn't (quite): When rock icons of a certain age deign to perform the albums that made them famous decades ago – almost cynically, and at top dollar to boot. Example: Van Morrison's recent Astral Weeks tour.
But is it more creative for a band to cover its own album(s), or to drop a guaranteed crowd pleaser by covering a beloved chestnut, no matter how classique? The most obvious recent example of the latter is Flaming Lips' slightly gimmicky and punked-up Dark Side of the Moon. Pink Floyd's greatest hit is easily the most covered album around, having been covered by Phish, moe., the Squirrels (The Not So Bright Side of the Moon), dub-reggae group the Easy Star All-Stars (Dub Side of the Moon), a cappella group Voices on the Dark Side, and Dream Theater. As I said, the album could probably use a vacation. After all, it's more or less held a place on Billboard's pop albums chart since its release, and someone's reckoned that one in every fourteen US citizens under the age of 50 owns a copy.
Covering your own album these days is more often than not the final refuge of the geezer band. Brian Wilson resuscitated his career in 2003 by finally completing and performing Smile, the 1966 "teenage symphony to God" whose release was scotched by Brian's abusive father, Murray, and brother, Mike. Brian's current backing group, the Wondermints, and the project's original lyricist, Van Dyke Parks, convinced Wilson to polish up Smile, after it had lain dormant in his brain for nearly four decades, and take it around the world. I saw Wilson and company perform it at Carnegie Hall, where it felt a little too formal but grin-worthy nonetheless.
Steely Dan performed Aja and The Royal Scam in their entirety during their Mo' Rent Party '09 tour. Which was a little strange considering how much better Gaucho and Pretzel Logic are. To me, tongue-in-cheek jazz-rock mercenary geniuses like the Dan are slightly more appealing than old-fashioned money grubbers like the Who, who took their 1973 masterpiece, Quadrophenia, on a long British and American tour beginning in 1995. They blew the roof off of Madison Square Garden in 1996 and demonstrated, even more than Smile did, that they don't call it "classic rock" for nothing.
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space was part of the All Tomorrow's Parties series Don't Look Back, in which groups cover their own classic albums. At earlier Parties, the Stooges have played Raw Power, Suicide has played Suicide, and the Raincoats have performed The Raincoats onstage in their entirety. It's a cool idea, one you think more American groups might indulge in. Isn't it about time that Pavement played Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Prince played Purple Rain, and Phish played Rift? The ATP concept reportedly almost inspired the Rolling Stones to take the plunge. As recently as May, Keith Richards was hinting that the Stones might play Let it Bleed or Exile on Main St. from front to back. Noise rockers Unsane whipped out their 1995 squalling Scattered, Smothered & Covered this summer. And Spiritualized no doubt inspired Primal Scream to begin performing their own 1991 Britpop hit Screamadelica later this year.
The rock norm used to be that fans attended shows in order to hear bands play their latest album. Yet few groups have ever played those albums onstage as an organic and self-sufficient work of art, probably because fans also like to hear music they're familiar with. I have no idea how many bands have ever simply played new albums from beginning to end prior to Phish – who of course ripped through all of Hoist (minus "Riker's Mailbox") during their legendary "GameHoist" gig on 06/26/94. But don't you wish the Beatles had played all of Abbey Road, rather than just three songs from Let It Be, on their headquarters rooftop in 1970? And don't you wish the Grateful Dead had performed six of their albums during their heyday rather than waiting for Furthur to do it at their recent festival?
Hidden Tracks reminded me that Phish's musical Halloween costumery has inspired several other groups to try their hand at gathering up other bands' spillage. Rose Hill Drive alone have performed Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies, Aerosmith's Toys in the Attic, and Led Zeppelin II. And the Easy Star All Stars have created rich reggae versions of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Radiohead's OK Computer in addition to Dub Side of the Moon. But covering albums is one of those great ideas that seems to have gone the way of, for example, improvising new scores to movies (like when the Disco Biscuits jammed their asses off to the anime classic Akira to cap New Millennium's Eve).
Do cover bands count? Probably not so much. Still, it's always great to hear the Fab Faux work through the Beatles because the quintet don't simply mimic the bandmembers (à la Dark Star Orchestra) but rather re-creates Beatles music as faithfully as possible no matter who's playing or singing what. (The Fab Faux will also convince you that "I Am the Walrus" hinges on the tambourine.)
Cover albums are such a dependably commercial prospect that I've long expected the concept to explode any day into a nostalgic apocalypse that's more Broadway than barroom. What rock's greatest improvisers really should do, in the end, is take a tip from Beck, who's been quietly recording the most innovative cover albums as part of a project he calls simply Record Club, "an informal meeting of various musicians to record an album in a day. The album chosen to be reinterpreted is used as a framework. Nothing is rehearsed or arranged ahead of time. A track is put up here once a week."
Record Club's latest album, believe it or not, is that old PBS fund-drive stand-by, Yanni Live At The Acropolis. Thurston Moore and Tortoise join Beck and a rhythm section in the studio for some of the most smartest and skronkiest outside music you'll ever hear/see (the videos of each track provide only slightly self-conscious, and often revelatory, moments of studio spontaneity). Beck and posse have also covered Songs of Leonard Cohen, Skip Spence's obscuroid masterpiece Oar, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and Kick by INXS. Even if you never creamed for the album in the first place, Beck and his famous guests always make it new. They let you hear it again for the very first time better than anyone else around.