Thursday, June 09, 2005

Hiding Under the Covers

As I sit down to write there is a commercial playing on the radio for a Honda dealer with a music track specifically written to sound like the Beach Boys singing, “Help me Honda, help help me Honda, gotta get a new car.”

Now, its one thing to use Led Zeppelin to sell Cadillacs or The Beatles to sell sneakers or any number of original artists who have seen the popularity of their music wane and then squeeze out a few more bucks by selling the use of their recordings for commercial purposes. But it’s entirely different when producers bring in sound-a-likes to sing similar words - usually with enough differences in vocal inflections - to be an obvious and poorly done “cover”. It’s just too much like Muzak. Its only one-step above Karaoke!

I haven’t heard Muzak in a long time. In the 70s and 80s, it was used in offices and laboratories to promote a “more professional atmosphere” and a “more productive work environment”. I always wondered how that was - it always made me want to vomit, not work harder! The producers would hire third-rate amateurs to sing or play popular music so poorly, we welcomed the fact that it was played quietly enough to barely be audible. Why not just keep the professionals to play the music and leave the amateurs to do special music at churches and weddings? For the record - I am an amateur - and even I don’t want to play music at churches or weddings. Been there - done that - no thanks!

There were always certain taboos in live music. Either you played covers so well that you couldn’t tell the difference from the original artist - note for note - or else you so re-interpreted the music, you were able to make it your own. Any effort to do otherwise is an embarrassment if you are trying to a good job on someone else‘s material. The latter being the more preferable way, as "top 40" bands were always ridiculed for lack of originality. Whenever I hear someone do a Beatle song - I am embarrassed for them. Especially when their egos let them take a “Beatle bow” at the end of the song. Then I think they get the ridicule they deserve. Even the Beatles eventually didn’t do their songs live - why don’t amateur musician understand that?

I can see where doing a commercial has constraints where “good enough” is good enough considering budgets and studio time and available talent to sell a Yugo or a Civic. That is why we have Country Music - good enough is good enough. You figure cost verses return and before you know it, you have kids dressed up to sound like the Beach Boys and standing on a car platform at the grand opening. It’s not something I would cross the street to see.

On the other hand, I remember a band back in my home town, whose stated goal was to have as much fun as they could get away with. Reputations be damned. They were all excellent musicians, had the “chops” to play just about anything and did so without much in the way of practice. 634-5789, Mustang Sally, I Had Too Much To Dream, I Feel Good, Dancing In The Street, as well as about every song you heard growing up. In the case of “Dancing in the Street” they could play it like Martha and the Vandellas or they could play it like Van Halen and sound convincingly enough to make you enjoy their music either way. They never did a Beatles set. One night at the Red Dog Saloon they came back from break, dressed only in fright wigs, hefty bags and tights and did a whole set of Alice Cooper songs. It was a hilarious - spur of the moment - tour van haze induced madness. Alice Cooper deserved to have his work covered - especially by hefty bagged imposters. The Dive Kings as they were called then - had way too much fun… and so did all of us who went to hear them or spent the lost weekends at the parties they had after they got paid. The night they opened for John Cougar was a trip, they took all of the money they made and rented out half of one "party floor" at a big hotel downtown - only to find out the police had rented the other half for a dance and some sort of service recognition banquet - but that is another story. The goal of the Dive Kings was to have fun, not work too hard and get paid easy money. If that was their business plan - they were a success. It didn’t matter to them that they be taken as serious musicians - the last thing they wanted was to be serious. They just wanted to have fun.

It all boils down to this - The Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Clapton all just did what they did - either being original or re-interpreting their music in a way that no one had thought of and making it their own. It took guts and determination and talent. Guts mostly though. They had to walk out on a stage and do “their own” songs. Originality carries a price tag. Either you end up with your ego handed to you at the door or else you are indeed a success. The middle ground is a no man’s land and you may as well be doing commercials for used cars.

When it comes to the internet and forums in general, one of the all too often repeated problems is the bad habit of reposting. Or in other words - excessive long quotes as a proof text for one side or the other in an argument. At least with proof texting with quotes - it is to make a point about something. Its not terribly original but it is to make a point. That in a way is akin to playing cover songs for fun and profit. To spend most of your time only contributing reposted news articles - without any originality to your message - is simply akin to selling used cars. Something not worth crossing the street to witness.

Be original. Commit to your vision. Take no prisoners. Have fun.

But most of all - “Don’t let anybody tell you, there isn’t going to be a judgment day”

Someone - or someone - will indeed judge your actions no matter what you do, that is inescapable - so make the most of your efforts.

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