Thursday, 15 December 2011

Rock musicians are all timbre-merchants - which makes most cover versions redundant

We can listen to many interpretations of a piece of classical music and, while some are obviously better than others, we can glean some enjoyment from almost all of them: we rarely feel it isn't worth making the effort because a particular conductor, singer or musician isn't involved. But, almost invariably, we associate a piece of post-1955 popular music with an individual performance – i.e. it’s not so much the piece of music that matters as a specific recorded performance of it.

For many years, even after the mass spread of recorded music, the pop industry treated the song itself as the important thing. Denmark Street and Tin Pan Alley song-pluggers flogged sheet music, not records. If you liked, say, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, you might buy the version by your favourite singer, whether it was Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett or (God save us!) Dickie Valentine - but, essentially, it was the song that mattered. This even worked after the advent of Rock ‘n’ Roll – it’s hard to believe now, but British record buyers would go out and buy Marty Wilde’s version of ‘Endless Sleep” in preference to the superb US original by Jody Reynolds. And if, in the 1960s, you couldn’t afford to pay 6/6d for a single - and if you were completely devoid of taste - you’d buy an LP of crappy cover versions at Woolworth’s.

Many British Invasion bands made their reputation doing covers of American R&R and R&B originals – but then most listeners had never heard the originals, and the Brits normally brought freshness and verve to their covers: they weren’t competing with Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters or Carl Perkins – they were simply enjoying performing the music they loved.

In the early ‘70s on, cover version began to die out (I don’t count retreads of classic records ten or twenty years after the original). The record industry – and the public – had realised that the performance was what mattered. Covers still happened, but they tended to be cross-genre – a reggae version of “Hotel California” here, Aretha Franklin smothering “Bridge Over Troubled Water" to death with melisma there. What you didn’t get was Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" being chased up the charts by a rival note-for-note version from the likes of Vince Hill.

So, why did it all change?

Partly, I suppose, because more and more performers began writing their own material, and therefore playing to their to their own musical strengths. And partly because, as recording techniques became more sophisticated, some artists could achieve a sound so unique that even they couldn't reproduce it. That all helped them deploy pop's secret, self-protective weapon - timbre.

I’m reading Philip Ball’s scholarly work, The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It – and it’s fascinating. He calls the chapter in which timbre is discussed “The Colour of Music”, and that seems apposite. He says timbre is almost impossible to define, except by what it isn't
“…it is that attribute of a sound signal that enables us to distinguish it from another of the same pitch and loudness. In other words, if they sound different even though they are of the same pitch and equally loud, the difference is down to timbre.”
Of course, timbre exists in classical music: individual singers, musicians and instruments produce different timbres – but that has nothing to do with the quality or otherwise of the music as written. And all the timbre in the world won’t make up for an inept classical music performance: giving it a bit of welly won't make up for not playing all the right notes in the right order.

In Rock, this doesn't hold. The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” is ineptly sung, played, and recorded – it’s a bloody mess, and not a patch, in terms of quality, on the Richard Berry original. But it has a unique timbre which makes it utterly original, and which has made generations of pop fans fall in love with its goofy charm. On paper, it’s a silly little song – its appeal lies entirely in the timbre of that particular performance in that particular suburban garage on that particular day.

I would willingly listen to a hundred professionally-played live or recorded versions of Vaughan Williams’s sublime Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis or Janacek’s glorious Sinfonietta: for instance, there’s a recording of the latter conducted by Charles Mackerras which seems to me damn near perfect - but that doesn’t stop me wanting to hear other interpretations. I became familiar with The Ring Cycle from George Solti's towering Decca studio recordings, but I'm prefectly happy listening to versions by Furtwangler, Keilberth or Karl Böhm (albeit with with varying degrees of pleasure). With classical music, there are no definitive interpretations. However, I can see absolutely no point in listening to any other version of Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” or Al Green’s “Take Me to the River”. Every component of the original records has a unique, unrecapturable timbre – and the records themselves each possess their own unique overall timbre. 

So why, I hear you ask, do you bother doing covers versions of your favourite records when you’re telling us you wouldn’t bother listening to them? Well, that’s different - I'm hardly trying to compete with the originals: and part of the pleasure for me in attempting to deconstruct and reconstruct old favourites, I now realise, is in gaining a better understanding of the timbre that made it so uniquely great. As for cover versions by my friends - well, it's  a delight to discover depths of talent and character facets you never knew they possessed: this may sound hypocritical, but I love hearing their stuff.

The realisation that it's the uniqueness of a particular recorded performance - its unrecapturable timbre - that enthrals me when it comes to popular music has, oddly, deepened the respect and awe I feel for classical composers. The process by which exact musical instructions left behind on paper, in some cases centuries ago, can lead to a potentially endless series of varied performances by any number of orchestras, singers and solo musicians from around the world, and from many cultures, seems almost miraculous. I suspect  one reason why succeeding generations of conductors, singers and musicians are able to return again and again to the same repertoire without losing interest is that while the instructions included in scores are exact, they can't dictate timbre - and that, I suppose, is where, apart from technical virtuosity, the genius of the interpreters is given full rein. 


  1. Up to a point, Lord Gronners. I have a list of Beatle cover versions that are better than the originals, with Emmylou Harris's version of Here, There and Everywhere pretty near the top. I'd choose the Burritos's version of Wild Horses over the Stones and almost any version of a Bob Dylan song over the original, particularly if the Band is involved.

    As to timbre, the Ball book has it right. That makes two people who have read it! On holiday one year, one of my daughters played me a song called Goodbye and Go by Imogen Heap. When it got to the 15 second guitar solo, just the use of vibrato made it instantly identifiable as Jeff Beck, even though it had been cut up and put through the Pro Tools process. It's not hard for a guitarist to recognise the style even when the player changes guitars and amps. At some point in the 70s/80s, Peter Townsend changed from Les Pauls to Teles, Schechters and Strats (maybe they were cheaper to smash up) and they all sounded exactly the same. The wizard rules the wand.

  2. I think songs transposed to another genre - as with ELH's "H,T&E" - can work fine. As for "Wild Horses", thus may sound like a bit of a stretch, but I'm not sure The Stones would have written it without Parsons' prior involvement with the band - it was more Burritos than Stones in feel to start with! (Phew! Think I got out of that one).

    Like Nick Hornby, I've been all over the place in terms of appreciating Dylan over the years- but I generally prefer His Bobness doing his own stuff (there are exceptions, like The Byrds). Which Band versions are you referring to?

    I agree that when guitarists have their own timbre, it doesn't much matter what sort of guitar they use - Keith Richards is always identified with Teles, but often played a Les Paul. John Fogerty played an LP on all the CCR hits, but now recreates precisely the same sound with a Tele. Maybe that's just because effects have cancelled out the unique "timbre" of individual guitars. I have wondered, though, what The Shadows would have sounded like if Hank Marvin had taken delivery of a James Burton-style Tele rather than the Stratocaster he ordered from the US by mistake!

    I too am amazed and delighted someone else has read the Ball book - not sure I accept all of what he's saying, but it's stimulating, at least and I think I've got a slightly better grasp of what's going on. The timbre stuff really was an eye-opener.

  3. I shall be released?

    You're right about Wild Horses. It sounds like Parsons and if you add to that the notorious Stones' refusal to allow anyone but Jagger/Richard songwriting credits then maybe you have a clue to what in any other profession might be termed grand larceny. They got caught once when KD Lang spotted a melody lift from her Constant Craving to inform the Stones' Has Anybody Seen My Baaaayyybeeee. I think that cost them a bit , which might have prompted mixed feelings for Ry Cooder, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman, Gram Parsons, Stu, Nicky Hopkins ....I could go on.

  4. And there was a period when the Shads were all playing Burns guitars, some of which were reissued in a vintage collector's series a couple of years ago. Top Tip: don't buy.