Sunday, September 26, 2010

When Bad Songs Happen to Good Artists

GE linked to a video of the musical miscegenation of Willie Nelson singing A Whiter Shade of Pale -- or in his case, A Paler Shade of White -- and that got me to thinking about other odd musical couplings that are just wrong, wrong, wrong.

For example, how about Waylon Jennings' game attempt at MacArthur Park?

Love Waylon, but you can't be singing about cowboys one minute and crying over a melted birthday cake the next. At least he gets the title right -- it's MacArthur, not MacArthur's, as incorrectly sung by Richard Harris in the hit version of 1968. I know it's MacArthur, because when I was a young 'un, my grandmother used to take me there to feed the ducks. She still called it Westlake Park, even though they renamed it in 1942.

That's just how she rolled, especially after dementia set in. She actually met her second husband there on a park bench. Turned out the bench was his home. He was an unemployed (technically never employed) actor who called himself Rudy Rudaché. My only real memory of him is of sleeping on the couch in his briefs. He also had a very hairy -- even furry -- back, which was his best feature. He would probably call it "luxuriant" if he knew the word.

Here's one of the strangest couplings, both literally and figuratively, Gregg Allman and Cher (says the embedding link is "disabled by request" -- everyone's). Did Cher ignore some red flags before diving into this marriage? Probably. Like the time they were at an Italian restaurant and Gregg was face-down in a plate of spaghetti. But what doesn't kill you makes you stranger.

Ironically, or maybe not, her first husband, Sonny, became a right-wing populist, but he died as a result of planting his face into a pine tree while skiing on vicodin and valium. But Gregg -- who is still shambling strong -- could have told him: leave it to the professionals.

What's Christmas without Bob Dylan doing a zydeco Christmas song? At least it has some weirdness value, but I wouldn't want to hear it more than once:

This is just sad -- the Kinks doing a disco song back in the late '70s. In their defense, it was beginning to look like disco would never go away. What can one do but adapt to the new musical environment? The Stones also had their disco moment with Miss You, but they were always musical opportunists anyway. Ray Davies had some artistic integrity.

Keith Moon -- who went to his grave believing that he should be the lead singer of the Who -- released a solo album in 1975. He was a huge fan of surf music, and here he mangles Brian Wilson's classic Don't Worry Baby:

I wish I could give you a link to James Brown's version of Mona Lisa, but it's probably for the best.

It's things like this that make people forget that Buck Owens was one of the great Cosmo-American artists:

But this only proves that even the greatest Cosmo-American artists can make mistakes:

Even better -- Frank's version of Mrs. Robinson, with improved lyrics, such as: So how's your bird, Mrs. Robinson / Mine is fine as wine and I should know / ho ho ho. ("Bird" was Frank's universal term for genitals, which opens up a whole new dimension in his music. In fact, John Lennon's song And Your Bird Can Sing makes reference to just this fact. And now you know the rest of the story.)


julie said...

I can never hear "Downtown" without thinking of Willie.

ge said...

Author of “MacArthur Park.” interview

AVC: The back-and-forth that you’re talking between writing songs, which is a form of self-expression, and then not wanting to reveal too much about yourself, plays out in a song like “MacArthur Park.” People have called it incomprehensible; they can’t figure out what the cake is doing in the rain. But it’s based on a place you went, a relationship you had, and things you saw. It seems like a lot of the details in it are fairly straightforward, at least to you.

JW: Sam, I thank you for that. You are a gentleman and a scholar. Yes, it is, for the most part, a quite detailed song that’s very linear. It’s just that there were a couple of lines that get under the skin of a certain group of people, and it rankles them, because they think I’m deliberately tampering with them. I’m not. I was just a kid. I was like 18, 19 years old, writing this thing, pouring it out, a victim of Dylan Thomas. Just pouring out these lyrics, hoping that somehow the end result would be greater than the sum of its parts, which is one of the great hopes of the poet, is that somehow this mess will magically organize itself into a great work of art. So much of poetry is that, and I think I was much more the poet then than I was the lyricist. If I had to go back and do it all over again, believe me, I would go back and change it to something else. But it’s too late. Just the other day, I had a Ph.D. write me and say, “I would like you to know, Mr. Webb, that as much comfort as this may be to you, that I am a Ph.D. of Letters—” at somewhere. I’m not going to say the university. It was a big university. And he said, “I’m the head of the English Department. I am the Dean. I have been listening to the lyrics to ‘MacArthur Park’ since I was 6 years old. They have always made exquisitely perfect sense to me. Yours truly, Dean so-and-so.” [Laughs.] It’s like he just wanted to get his shot in. He just wanted to say, “Look, it makes sense to me.” It’s interesting. You know what? Sometimes I have felt badly about it because some people have reviled it so terribly—Dave Barry, among others. Somebody said he had recanted in his column. He took it back, and said, “Well, it wasn’t the worst song in the world.”

AVC: Another backhanded compliment.

JW: I don’t care. It has made so much money for me. He should have a tiny percentage of the money that it has made for me. I still feel good about it. It’s seven and a half minutes of classically influenced music that actually moved through several different movements and built to a cataclysmic ending, almost in the Russian romantic style. That was quite something to put on the radio in the ’60s. You can quibble all day about the cake in the rain, but stand back and look at the record we made. I’m glad that we did it, and I’d do it again...,44819/

ge said...,44819/

[recent interview w/ author of MacArthur Park, see p 2 on that song]

ge said...

anybody home?

well the converse of yr examples GB might be:
FILE UNDER 'Surprising-inspired reimaginings of cover material.'
the first that comes to mind in my life would be:
this version

Gagdad Bob said...

Aretha was really good at re-imagining songs, starting with Respect and on through I Say a Little Prayer, Eleanor Rigby, Don't Play that Song, You're All I Need to Get By, Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing, Until You Come Back to Me, etc., etc.

Gagdad Bob said...

And Joe Cocker, of course... In jazz, Sonny Rollins did that a lot, e.g. There's No Business Like Show Business, or I'm an Old Cowhand....

SippicanCottage said...

As G-Bob can well imagine, I love this essay with the fierce urgency of a four-year-old in the back seat of mom's minivan, forty miles from the nearest restroom.

As far as Aretha goes, I used to work construction with my little brother. We had the battered radio going, of course, and Aretha was singing Bridge Over Troubled Water, and by "singing" I mean she was really beating the hell out of it, starting on the last note and going up from there; I mean just pounding it like a cutlet. About halfway through, my brother turned to me and said mordantly: "I can't even hear Garfunkel." Funniest thing ever spoken to me.

I have an entry! Smells like... well, something

ge said...

ah yes Cocker--
i one day met the the aging author of BYE BYE BLACKBIRD Ray Henderson [Brost]; he mentioned someone's giving him Cocker's album, i wish i remembered his exact words...this dude also penned: "That Old Gang of Mine", "Annabelle" (both 1923), , "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue", "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" (all 1925), "The Varsity Drag" (1927), "You're The Cream In My Coffee" (1928), "Button Up Your Overcoat", "You Are My Lucky Star" "I'm A Dreamer, Aren't We All", "Keep Your Sunny Side Up" (1929), "The Thrill Is Gone", and "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries"
which makes him almost the elton john of that roaring era!

jwm said...

Johnny Cash has a cover of "Sloop John B".


Joan of Argghh! said...

Pat Boone doing heavy metal.

No, we don't need examples.

The Crop-Dusting song was awesome, Mr. Sippican!!

debass said...

Russel Malone-

Theme from Gunsmoke and The Price is Right.

lorraine said...

As I read this post - one I can possibly understand from some of rest of your stuff, I am listening to John Fogerty, full blast doing his live "Premonition" album. Did he ever make any mistakes? I'm a
1948er so I grew up in the 60's and never remember any mistakes by CR or John. Pure hogwaller as far as I know. love you

Gagdad Bob said...

Did he ever make any mistakes?


But first it is interesting to note that while the vast majority of popular music songs are about the 1001 varieties of young love, Creedence recorded not a single conventional love song on any of their albums. The only exception is the b-side of their first single, Call it Pretending, which didn't appear on an album.

But the mistake? His first solo album, Blue Ridge Rangers, at least as far as I can recall (haven't heard it since it came out). I think because he was so bitter at his former bandmates and wanted to rub their faces in it, he plays all the instruments, which ends up sounding flat and artificial -- which Creedence never sounded like.

Those other three guys weren't just stiffs, especially as a whole. None of them were virtuosos, but they had a band feel that had developed since the early sixties, way before they had any commercial success.

His other mistake? Letting those other stiffs contribute songs to their last album!

ge said...

JF mistake # 1---signing with Fantasy's Saul Zaentz
who caint daince

meanwhile no list of revolutionized covers'd be complete w/out:
Donovan's Colours

Gagdad Bob said...

I've read elsewhere that Zaentz was a great guy, and that Fogerty was the d*ck.

ge said...

well you know my taste--JF is too straight clean successful & normal for me to be interested