Top Ten Songs I’d Cover If I Recorded an Album of Covers
et’s get this straight: I don’t play a note on any instrument and I can’t sing. Obviously, wide-eyed music teachers and the like will say “everyone can sing; you just need to find your voice” or some such, and this is probably true, but I suspect my voice to be a deep and rumbling one that would take a lot of finding.
A supposed rarity amongst music critics, I have never been in a band nor ever really wanted to be in a band. I guess the thing that’s always stopped me attempting to make my own music is the fact that I love so much music as it is; I doubt I’d be able to bring anything wonderful or new to the table, so there would be little point in trying to compose my own songs when there are so many great ones already out there.
Nevertheless I have been known to holler along tunelessly to certain songs when driving alone on vatic country roads, and as such a mental checklist of songs that I’d cover if I were given time in a recording studio (and some session musicians at my beck-and-call) has slowly established itself at the back of my brain. I have never actually spoken about this to anyone for reasons that would be obvious if you ever caught me singing, so consider yourselves privileged.
10. “Brothers and Sisters” – Embrace
I thought about picking “Sky Saw” or “I’ll Come Running To Tie Your Shoe” by Brian Eno as the opening song on this list, both because Eno and I share a birthday and because we’re equally slightly rubbish singers, but frankly I’ve written enough about old slap head lately, so I ought to pick something else. I’ve written enough about Embrace over the years too, but there’s a blood-curdling rock ‘n’ roll scream that bisects this punky b-side which I’d love to damage my tonsils by trying to recreate.
09. “Starman” – David Bowie
I’d love to have chosen “Heroes,” but really it’s unfuckwithable and, like the Eno songs mentioned above, its genius is in its arrangement as much as its melodic or structural DNA, meaning any alteration to the inherent sound would be ruinous, and surely the point of doing a cover version is to make the song your own. So I choose “Starman” instead, largely because my housemate at university once caught me karaoke-ing along to it in my room when I thought the house was empty, and said I was doing a surprisingly good job of it.
08. “Wichita Lineman” – Glen Campbell
Obviously Glen Campbell is one of the greatest singers of all time and I am not, but given that this Jimmy Webb masterpiece is one of the greatest songs of all time, I’m hoping, rather vaingloriously, that even a vocal klutz like myself can’t sully its majestic sweep. And if in rehearsal for this mythical album of cover versions I find that I can’t pull it off, I’ll just have to try and learn the drum part from the coda, and play that instead.
07. “Take It Easy, My Brother Charles” – Jorge Ben
There’s a lot of spectacular songs by spectacular artists on the Soul Jazz Tropicalia compilation, but in amongst the praise for artists like Os Mutantes and Gilberto Gil and songs like “Domingo No Parque,” this amazing piece of deranged, largely English-language balladry by Jorge Ben has got slightly lost. Maybe it’s just because the rest are in Portuguese, but this is the Tropicalia song I most often find myself both singing along to and absent-mindedly humming when it’s not playing. Attempting to match Ben’s emotional intensity as he gets more and more caught up in the song is a source of terrifically dramatic performative fun too, as long as there’s no one around to hear you try.
06. “The Things I Make” – Six.By Seven
Really just because I want to sing the line “A quiet life / With my wife / Is all I need / For goodness sake,” because, you know, it is. Also, Chris Olley, regardless of his band’s quality, really isn’t a very good singer, so I must surely be able to carry this off at least as well as him.
05. “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” – The Staple Singers
Clearly the Staple Singers, as a familial gospel group, are pretty good at that singing lark, and for someone with challenged vocal chords to try and do their sterling work on this amazing old Stax single justice would be criminal. So, with that in mind, I’m envisaging performing it in the style of Mark E Smith. I’ll leave you to ponder that for a moment.
04. “Wind in the Wires” – Patrick Wolf
I thought long and hard about trying “Teignmouth” from this album, as it’s about the railway line that literally runs through the cliff beneath my house, but have decided that the title track’s tremulous sense of theatre might suit my cracked baritone slightly better. Read that back; I’m writing as if I’m actually going to record these songs in a studio with a band. This has to qualify as the most deranged top ten I’ve done. Just look at the next entry; farcical!
03. “Send His Love to Me” – PJ Harvey
As well as being almost unutterably fantastic, PJ Harvey is also from the same neck of the woods as me, or near enough. That’s no reason to pick one of her songs to cover, mind you. What is good reason, though, is the fact that… at my most deluded and egotistical, I really think I could carry this off. I know, I know, that’s insane – Polly Jean Harvey is not only one of the most able but also one of the most characterful and powerful vocalists to have emerged in the last twenty years, and this burning, erotically-charged plea for carnal and emotional fulfilment is a particularly fine example of her art. But even so… I’ve sung along with it in the car, and I reckon I can do it. Seriously. Or if not this, “50ft Queenie.”
02. “Living in Another World” – Talk Talk
I had pondered choosing obscure Talk Talk B-side “John Cope,” but as it has barely any lyrics (merely the oblique lines “Weapons at my feet / Some kind of living / Beggar sits to plead / Some kind of giving”) it seemed to go against the spirit of this top ten. And so I choose this enervated, impassioned highlight from their superlative 1986 album, The Colour Of Spring, instead, with the intention that I can wrap my throaty larynx around it like a wrestling hold, and maybe mimic the harmonica part by ululating wildly.
01. “Your Mind and We Belong Together” – Love
Somewhere on the internet there is video footage of me, in the back of a friend’s car, air-guitaring and air-drumming along like a demented banshee to the out of sight solo that makes up the second half of this song. My girlfriend is sitting next to me, determinedly looking the other way. No, I’m not giving you a link.