New Jersey Stage

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Snubbing The Snobbery, or, How I Learned To Stop Complaining And Love The Cover Bands

by Donald W. Dunphy

Summertime along the Jersey Shore can mean many things, but often includes one in particular – local clubs, bars, and amenable restaurants will be inundated with cover bands playing everything from doo-wop to stuff from the Bruno Mars' Doo-Wops and Hooligans album (not that I'm really sure I need a lounge version of "Grenade," but whatever). At one point I would have thrown my nose way up into the air, righteous in the belief that these bands were taking the easy way out, that they hadn't the courage to be a band, and questioning whether four or five people playing music from anyone but themselves could justify being called a band at all.

I've since changed my mind on the subject, with lingering reservations.

While I still am prone to getting my snob on when it comes to shows like American Idol, The Voice, and the upcoming The X-Factor, believing them to be at their worst moments nothing but glorified karaoke, the cover band indeed has a fight to wage, and that fight is the one any band, no matter what they play, has to take on: the right to exist. After all, what is the difference if your performance of an original song, or Guns ‘N Roses' "Paradise City," sucks? To amp up the degree of difficulty, do you approach the cover in your own style or as G'NR would have. The latter flirts with dangerous stuff and can force an audience to question whether they're in Jersey or Branson, Missouri.

I prefer the cover bands that dare to tweak the originals, just enough to make the songs their own, but not enough to turn the dude in the back row shouting, "Play "Free Bird"!" violent. For example, I saw a contest (on YouTube) a bar held for best cover band of Such and Such County (the locality now escapes me). Most of the bands played it straight-faced, mimicking body language, inflection, riffs, and the whole sordid story. There happened to be the world's worst Freddy Mercury impersonator there and he didn't even have the moustache. I know Mercury didn't always have the lip-fuzz, but if you're covering Queen in their prime, at least have the moustache (and try to stay on key, if you positively cannot sing like Freddie), but I digress.

A band came up to the stage and did Judas Priest's "You Got Another Thing Coming," but they did it like gut-bucket Delta blues. At first the audience had no idea what was going on, since the arrangement was so radically different from the original, but by the end the band had each and every one of them in their pocket. Did they win the contest? Well, no. The winner was a young woman with plunging cleavage. Scandalous.

We also have to consider the endless parade of bands who have not released new music in years, sometimes decades, and are still trooping around the world playing their oldies, and doing quiet well at it. Never mind that they've had to drop the key several steps down just so the singer can get through the biggest hits without passing out, if the attendees did not get their favorite song in some vaguely relevant form, they would have left the show feeling cheated.

While this is understandable, have they not reduced themselves to a cover band status? Most of these groups are more like symbols of foster care, adopting soundalike members that drift in and out of the organization, than a band unit. I think there are currently three sets of The Temptations touring America and, dare I say it, I believe most of the original Temptations are dead by this point. Unless every audience member gets a Ouija board with their ticket, it is impossible to classify them as the "Original Temptations." And still, if they don't do "My Girl," or "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," many will leave the venue sans gruntle.

We also have to account for the artists that never really recorded original tunes to begin with, who made their bones on reinterpretation and never took crap for doing so. As far back as the earliest days of rock & roll, white artists were co-opting the songs coming from the black R&B labels, and some of them became huge stars. In the 1960's, that stardom was increased exponentially. Consider that, in their formative stages, The Beatles were just as likely to cover Chuck Berry as they were to play an original track. Led Zeppelin was formed, not only as an extension of The Yardbirds under Jimmy Page, but from the roots of Willie Dixon.

The 1970's found the LA Scene, Laurel Canyon, Troubadour singer/songwriters arm-in-arm with interpreters, and alongside James Taylor you would be hard-pressed not to find Linda Ronstadt. Now, Ronstadt has done original songs, but what were her biggest hits? Tunes from Buddy Holly, the American Songbook under Nelson Riddle's direction, and so forth. Another ‘70s stalwart from another continent entirely, Rod Stewart, left the Faces with a little original material, but was just as often found singing (in later years) Robert Palmer ("Some Guys Have All The Luck"), Tom Waits ("Downtown Train"), etc.. His box set, Storyteller: The Complete Anthology, is just as much about the material he chose as it was about the material he wrote.

So the lingering belief of inferiority some apply to cover bands, and especially Jersey Shore cover bands, is misplaced in the face of rampant precedence, provided what they do is, you know, good. A lousy cover band, while initially entertaining, loses their cache quickly when they move on to mangle your all-time favorite tune. Fortunately, most of the coast-dwellers are music fans themselves, and many wish they could have an independent career in music. The problem is simply that the industry is prohibitive when it comes to newcomers, and grows more constricting with each successive talent-show TV entry. The flash success of YouTube darlings are just as quickly turned around into flash demise, and just as frequently are taken for a joke and not seriously at all. Will we see Rebecca Black in five years? Will she be forced into a lifetime of "Friday"s?

So for those who have found decent, stable day-jobs, or are writing material in batches of stolen moments, or just want to be able to play for the joy of playing, and for the positive energy from a crowd (who may or may not be half-buzzed at the time) the cover circuit is not a bad place to be.

Sitting in front of hairless Freddy Mercury; now that's a bad place to be.