Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Cover Me, I'm Going In

Ah, this week's Contrast Podcast is going to be a real treat, I can feel it in my bones. After months of cajoling by her admirers, Liz from The Roaring Machine has joined the CP posse with a cracking theme. The challenge she set was to come up with a cover version that outshines the original song it treats, and our contributors have risen to the task in splendid fashion. I have a story to tell you about my choice, so let me husband my words: download the 'cast here, or plug in via this RSS feed: Oh, and listen for the astoundingly special announcement in one of the intros (not mine). Need further enticement? How about The Wedding Present, The Slits, Linda Ronstadt, Magazine? You like?? Well, they're all featured.

This week was a bit of a toughie; I've got plenty of ace cover versions, but picking ones better than the originals was a true challenge. "Just Like Heaven?" Fantastic song by The Cure, equally groovy, if totally different, cover by Dinosaur Jr. "Running Up That Hill?" A lovely cover by Placebo. "Hounds of Love?" The Futureheads storm it comprehensively. But my heart will not allow either to be actually better than the originals by my Dearest Kate Bush.

In the end, it was Shonen Knife's "Ramones-Meets-An-Andrew-Sister-In-A-Tokyo-Dive" version of the Carpenters' soppingly drippy "Top Of The World" that I chose. There were other equally worthy candidates, I'll admit. But this one had the force of memories on its side. And here's why:

Rewind the clock almost six years and you'll find FiL and his Dearest Wife on board the spartanly tacky MS Queen, somewhere between Fuling and Chongqing on the Yangtze River. We had seized the In-Laws' offer of child care for 18-month-old Darling Daughter and were exhilarated to be navigating the Three Gorges. We sailed past soaring, sheer cliffs clinging to which we could plainly see the coffins suspended on high by the Ba people some 2,500 years eariler. We gasped at the impossible peaks. We marvelled at the sprawling industrial plants that punctuated the shoreline at regular intervals. We explored Fengdu, the mountainside city of ghosts whose temples were a representation of Hell. And we did all this with the dreadful knowledge that in two years time most of what we were seeing would be gone, submerged by the rising Yangtze waters, dammed in the name of progress by the Three Gorges project.

Nocturnal entertainment on board the MS Queen was limited. So it was with great interest that Dearest Wife and I, along with Geordie Retirees Enid and George, went along one evening after dinner to watch the karaoke competition. Of the 175 passengers on board, the vast majority were from Taiwan and Hong Kong, and it soon became clear that the event was geared towards them. There were many attempts at Canto-pop crooning, and one intrepid lad even sang an acapella ode to the Yangtze that he had written just that very afternoon. At least that's what Hsiao Lung ("Little Dragon"), the closet-door-sightly-ajar gay waiter who had taken an instant shine to me upon boarding, told us it was.

After several Chongqing beers, George asked whether we should ask to give it a whirl. I was game; though I couldn't (and cannot) sing for toffee, I was intrigued by the cross-cultural possibilities. So Jackie (for that was the Anglicized name Hsiao Lung wished us to call him) brought to us the skimpy list of English songs available. George quickly chose "You Were Always On My Mind." I was having real trouble picking - no Ramones, no BilyBragg, no Pistols. Sigh. Then my eyes alighted upon "Top of the World," and I recalled not The Carpenters, but Shonen Knife. I had found my song.

So up I went on stage, and all eyes fixed on the gweilo. Well, apart from those of Dearest Wife, who was already cringing wth anticipated embarrassment. The music started, and I gave it real welly. In my mind I was covering the cover, but in reality I was cawing, croaking, prancing and hamming it up something fierce. Three minutes and a smattering of politely enthusiastic applause later, it was over. "I can't believe you did that," said Wife as I regained my seat.

When it came time for the awards, we were stunned to see George get first prize. But it was well deserved; his rendition of the Willie Nelson classic had revealed a first-rate crooner. Second prize went to the lad with he ode. Third prize went to one of the Canto-poppers. Then there was the joint third-place winner: Mr FiL. Whaaaat?? My gob was well and truly smacked. Had Jackie pulled strings for his unrequited crush? Was my barefaced cheek being rewarded? I don't know, but I do know that that night I was the joint-third-best karaoke singer on the Yangtze River. And look here, I have the bit of paper to prove it (name changed to throw off you stalkers). I owned that night.

We all celebrated in style. George and I drank loads more Chongqing and ended up, accompanied by Dearest Wife and Enid, on stage some time later with our arms around a bunch of fat Hong Kong men and their spouses singing karaoke to Michael Jackson's "We Are The World." My cross-cultural possibilities had become reality.

So there you have it. But what else did I consider?

Babes In Toyland - Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (buy here)
Like the Shonen Knife tune, this is another track off the If I Were A Carpenter, erm, tribute album. This one came close. So close. In fact, I think it's only the Yangtze karaoke angle that put Shonen Knife over the edge. Kat Bjelland & co. cover one of the kookiest 70s songs ever recorded. And given how kooky that decade was, that's really saying something.

The Carpenters - Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (buy here)
OK, I couldn't resist: you really must hear the this, especially for the faux DJ intro and proto-Cher vocoder effects. FACT: There are 160 musicians lurking about this recording. And to forestall the tunespotters out there, this is actually the original cover, as the song was first done by Canadian prog-rockers (it ain't all Rush around here, folks) Klaatu. Oh, alright, here you go, just stop whining:

Klaatu - Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (buy here or e-here)
Klaatu barada nikto! Please, Interstellar Policeman, charge them with crimes against taste, lock them up in a polychromatic prison, and throw away the key.

The Muffs - Kids In America (buy here or e-here)
Must...flee...Carpenters. Ah, that's better. Now don't get me wrong, I was partial to the synthy "dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum" of the original. And that 80s siren Kim Wilde had my hormones raging summat fierce. But in retrospect she was only a nice, middle-class, Home Counties girl singing about stuff she knew nothing of. But as for The Muffs, well, they're the real deal.

Animal & Rank Sinatra - Ebony and Ivory (buy here)
Oh, this one came so, so close as well. Animal & Rank chew up this floppy, insipid tune with their steely teeth, gargle the resulting sludge, then spew it back forth for your listening enjoyment. The grandest of Grand Guignol.

For next week, Tim is soliciting Cool Choons for Children. So round up your kid-friendly songs and fire them off! If you need instructions, have a gander here.