A couple of days ago I wrote a slightly-alcohol-inspired lament that there weren’t any good covers of the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday, one of my favorites from the Stones, back before they turned into zombies and continued to shamble through the music scene for eternity. I had intended to do a little more research before that episode went live, but then I forgot about it completely, and out it came.
This morning I fired up eMusic and drifted through covers of Ruby Tuesday, and I learned a little bit; I now have a musing or two to share about music in general and covers in particular. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.
It turns out there are a lot of covers of the song. It’s just that most of them suck. In my lament I asked where the guitar/folkie covers were, and I have since found the answer: “Right where they belong”. There are quite a few of these, and while some of them don’t suck, none that I found were particularly good. Overdone, overwrought, over-engineered. And while I applaud artists who change the original material to put their own identity into the music (fundamentally that’s the appeal of covers), those changes still have to make some sort of sense. Singing “When you change with every new day stillI’mgonnamissyou” with the last phrase crammed into the tightest space possible is jarring and doesn’t reflect the emotion of the song. Amazing how many times I heard this.
I suspect that one musician decided on this musical tic and then a host of others copied that cover, without referring to the original source material as well. So there was a lot of Band B covering Band A covering the Rolling Stones. It would be interesting (but not interesting enough to actually do it) to trace the family tree of the song based on mutations introduced along the way.
And thinking of songs going through generations and mutating, it would stand to reason that later mutations would be more fit to survive in the new market conditions. Darwin should totally work, here. As musical tastes and economics changes, the covers literally evolve with them, and songs diversify into different niches. Ruby Tuesday has certainly done that.
Take country music, for instance. A cat name Don Williams has put out several albums with his take on the song. It’s… OK, but it lacked a little something. Then I listened to a performance he did with Dolly Parton, and it was massively improved. It wasn’t necessarily that Parton was putting in the performance of a lifetime, but I realized at this point that vocal harmony on the chorus makes an incredible difference. You hardly notice it’s there in the original, but you would definitely notice if it wasn’t there. Without the harmony, it takes a great arrangement or a voice more versatile than any I sampled to pull off the cover of this deceptively simple song.
One of the tricky parts, and one that the Stones don’t do that well either, is handling how different the verses and the chorus are. Most of the guitar/folkies tried to manage that by adding a bunch of annoying stylisms. Yes, I’m talking to you, Jade Leonard.
On I searched. There were the inevitable elevator-jazz instrumentals and Philharmonic “do arrangements of pop songs to pay the bills” renditions. Lullaby versions so boomer parents (and grandparents) can indoctrinate further generations into “their” music. Single-synthesizer efforts programmed by some kid in his basement. Massive electronic efforts that sounded just like the one the kid in his basement did. There was one I was tempted to buy just for comedic value – I’d bet my favorite molar that it’s by the same guy who arranged William Shatner’s Mr. Tambourine Man, only on this one there’s no vocal and it’s 13 minutes long.
I heard a lot of vinyl pops while searching.
The first cover I liked enough to pay for was one of those impulse buys I’ll likely regret later. Sheena and the Rokkets is a classic bad-singer-in-front-of-reasonable-band outfit, with the added bonus that they are Japanese and Sheena has a tough time with a lot of English words. Words like, for instance, “Ruby”.
I came across a Scorpions cover that has its moments, and fits the definition of a “good cover” — there’s no doubt the Scorpions are performing, they do it their way, but they maintain the essence of the original that motivated the cover in the first place.
Momentum improved. I came across Don and Dolly as described above, and surprisingly, Twiggy, closer to the original but nicely done. Then the inevitable lounge versions started coming in, vapid and vacant. A modern-punk song called Jack Ruby Tuesday came up, and I simply could not tell if it was a cover or not, since I couldn’t make out a single word (or note, even) in the solid wall of fuzz.
After downloading the Don and Dolly version, I went back and listened to the whole thing. Ouch! Someone shoot the arranger and get the trumpets the hell out of there. Wow, what a difference between the 30-second preview and the entire song. There are times I really don’t miss the ’70’s.
Lars Brygdén did a reasonable country-ish cover on an album called “Songs I wrote”, which seems deceptive – I hope in the song data it gives proper credit to the actual writer.
Then there’s Melanie. She’s taken more than one crack at this tune, and one of them isn’t bad. Toward the bottom of the search list is the album “Pan Pipes Play Rod Stewart” in which we have the inevitable Peruvian interpretation, and the Young@Heart Chorus wheeze out a version in which the lead singer sounds like she has loose dentures. (Yes, that is mean to say, but it’s also true.)
No Hip-Hop. No Riot Grrl. A few that were labeled ‘alternative’ but really weren’t — this seems like excellent emo/shoegazer material, but none was represented. I despaired of finding a punk cover until Thee S.T.P. cranked out a definitive version that is two minutes of pure fun. We have a winner!
Ultimately, I have to conclude that maybe this is a tough song to cover, despite its surface simplicity (or because of it?). Bands with more instruments and voices seemed to do better, along with bands who are able to turn their amps up (and then turn them back down).