Cover Versions, Gone but not forgotten, Sampled

James Brown Samples

So, the most surprising, genuinely uplifting and fist-pumping pop moment of this week was, of course, the sneaking-out of the new David Bowie single with all the silence and stealth of a top-secret Radiohead campaign. And with an album to follow too! I like Where Are We Now?, it kinda reminds me of Wild Is The Wind or Loving The Alien or Always Crashing In The Same Car or any other of those other slow-burning beauties of his that appear fully-formed and worm their way into your head forever.

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By sheer coincidence, about 10 minutes after hearing the Bowie single on 6 Music, the iPod threw up an old James Brown tune as I drove grudgingly to face the day. Not a tune that I had played very often (never?), I had to check as I drove what it was actually called. Turns out it was called Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved) and by the sounds of it was a classic example of mid 70s funk-period Brown. Y’know, not the pop-soul James Brown of Sex Machine or Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, rather the big girl’s blousey James Brown of velvet flared suits and Rumble In The Jungle moustache. Less than a minute into it and I was asking myself where I’d heard it before. A classic stabbing Blaxploitation brass intro replete with Brown grunts before breaking down into the instantly recognisable groove – all super-slinky rinky-dink riffing and fluid, four-to-the-floor bass, conga breakdown and electric piano. Had I been trying to sleep, this would have caused me a sleepless night. Where had I heard it before? Where?

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It came to me in the middle of the afternoon. Bowie! Fame! Fay-yame! Fay-yame, makes a man think things over. Fame fame fame fame fame fame fame fame fame! Bully for me! Bowie had nicked the riff to Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved), added some bitchy lyrics with the help of John Lennon (who sang the backing vocals and may or may not have played additional guitar, depending on what and where you read), changed the melody and passed it off as one of his own. Even the wee high chord that punctuated the verses was there. Bowie, in his mid 70s plastic soulboy incarnation had appropriated every tiny bit of it from James Brown! He even had the nerve to go on Soul Train and sell coals back to Newcastle.

Or so I thought…..

Checking the credits later on that night, I notice that Bowie’s Fame is credited to Bowie, Alomar and Lennon, and following some detective work on that last outpost in truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, Wikipedia, I discovered the track was built around a Carlos Alomar riff. Aye right, I thought. James Brown is the most sampled man in music. You’ve just gone one further, Bowie and ripped the whole thing off. Then I dug deeper. Turns out Carlos Alomar was in James Brown’s band for a bit in the mid 60s. Not only that, but that last outpost in truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth claims that James Brown based Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved) on David Bowie’s Fame. He ripped off Bowie! There’s no mention of a Bowie credit on the James Brown version (not on my Star Time, Disc 4 info at any rate), so if Wiki is to be believed, James Brown turned from funky gamekeeper to funkier poacher. And got away with it.

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Both tracks, it turns out, were recorded sometime in 1975 at Electric Lady Studios in New York, Bowie’s in January and Brown’s later on in the year. Carlos Alomar, having played with many of the band still backing James Brown at this time was, by all accounts, absolutely livid by the steal. Bowie was a bit cooler, agreeing to sue if the track became a hit, which it never did. It’s interesting to note that in the fully comprehensive booklet that accompanies the James Brown Star Time Box set, where recording personnel are meticulously listed, under Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved) it just says ‘backing by unknown personnel’, which, for me, is just about as good an admittance you’ll get that James Brown took the original Bowie track, dubbed out his voice and sang his own melody across the top. Just my theory, at any rate.

Contrast and compare:

David Bowie Fame

James Brown  Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved)

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Cover Versions, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find

Under The Covers With Sarah Cracknell

Cor! Eh? You beauty! (Nudge, Nudge). Knowotoimean? (Adopts Sid James cackly wheeze). I mean, ‘oo wouldn’t? Eh? Eh! Ow’s yer father? Eh? Eh? She’d get it! And no mistake! Let’s slip into sumfink more comfortable, shall we?

Yeah, let’s slip into something more comfortable. Like the honeyed tones of La Cracknell and her backing band of boffins and beard strokers tackling some of the finest moments in thinking man’s pop. With mixed results. Saint Etienne annoy me. Not in the way that wasps annoy me. Or paper rustlers in the cinema. Or blue-blooded ‘n bigoted Rangers fans. Or those paranoid green-tinted Cel’ic supporters and their uncouth manager after a decision goes against them. But Saint Etienne get my goat. I can’t put my finger on it or tell you exactly why. There’s no one reason. I’ve got tons of their stuff, vinyl and CD, bought in faithful chronological order as and when released, up to a point around How We Used To Live. I’ve always liked their way with a sixties-inspired piece of London pop and the sly wink of an eye towards the reference points therein. They’re a true ‘record collection’ band, that’s for sure, but with that comes a feeling that they’re just a wee bit too hip for their own good, just a shade too arch for those in the know and slightly smug in the knowledge that no-one is quite like them. Suffering from something of an identity crisis, they’re too ‘indie’ for pop when they themselves’d probably consider themselves too pop even for pop.

That said, they probably wet their collective knickers when asked to produce a version of Kylie covered Nothing Can Stop Us with a coolness that even Sarah would find difficult to cultivate. This was Kylie BH (Before Hot Pants), the Kylie of mid 90s hell, when only Nicky Wire and ironic students paid her any attention. And here she was, covering obscure, non-charting singles built around old Dusty Springfield samples. Of course. Great version, Kylie! Really!

Saint Etienne’s best known cover is surely Only Love Can Break Your Heart, a pre-Cracknell track where they dismantled whiny old Neil Young’s campfire strumalong of angst and re-tooled it as a Soul II Soul-styled shuffler for the dancefloor. But you knew that already. Dig deeper into the Saint Etienne ouvre and you’ll find all manner of cover versions. Available on the rare-as-can-be fanclub-only Boxette, you’ll find their version of David Bowie‘s Absolute Beginners. I saw them do this live, at the Mayfair in Glasgow, with a pre-fame Pulp supporting. I’ll need to dig out the ticket some time, as the band’s name is written as St Etiene, with one ‘n’. Anyway, their version was rubbish that night (no Bowie aping bap-bap-ba-ooos, surely the best bit?) and the studio version, despite the inclusion of the aforementioned bap-bap-ba-ooos, remains kinda rubbish to this day. Some shouty sampled bit or other by the boys whilst Sarah sounds like a Dalek on downers. Not their finest moment. Maybe they should’ve tackled The Jam track of the same name instead.

On the Deluxe Edition of So Tough, you’ll find them having a go at Teenage Fanclub‘s Everything Flows. A staple of TFC’s live set since their first gig, Fannies fans froth at the mouth for its meandering Neil Youngesque solos and melancholic ruminations on life. Saint Etienne, surely having a laugh at our expense, render it practically unlistenable. Now, some folks say that the best cover versions are when the band takes the song and makes it their own (see, for example, Only Love Can Break Your Heart), but when the heart and soul of the track (in this case the insistent, wailing guitars) are replaced by synth washes and a politely skittering drum machine so bland a yoga teacher would have trouble chilling out to them, well, you can imagine….

Going some way to redeem themselves, this year found Saint Etienne taking a shot at the holiest of holies, The Beach BoysWouldn’t It Be Nice. It‘s not bad – starting acapella before morphing into a soft focus mush of warm harmonies, ticking clocks and half-speed backing tapes, keen scholars of Wilson pop will easily spot the odd nod to the Smile-ear Barnyard amongst the mix. See – they’re too fucking smart for their own good, that Saint Etienne.

I love ’em really. Wrinkles ‘n all…

Cover Versions, Peel Sessions

Brand new, you’re retro

I’m quite enjoying The Last Shadow Puppets single just now. ‘The Age of the Understatement’ isn’t quite the lost track from ‘Scott 4’ that the band would like it to be, but it twangs in all the right places and rushes past like Morricone beating The Coral to the finish line in the 100m sprint. There’s even a nice whiff of the Electric Prunes in the string arrangements.

Even better to these ears is their cover of David Bowie‘s ‘In The Heat Of The Morning’. Originally recorded for Deram back in the 60s, this is one of the lesser-well known gems in the Bowie catalogue. All strings and weird chords, in the scheme of things it falls somewhere between ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’. You could be forgiven for thinking that The Last Shadow Puppets based their entire sound around this record, cos it sure sounds like it. But in a good way. Bowie likes it too. “That’s wonderful,” he said. “A daymaker.” Go on…make your day….

*The Last Shadow Puppets‘In The Heat Of The Morning’

*David Bowie‘In The Heat Of The Morning’ (Deram Records original release)

David Bowie‘In The Heat Of The Morning’ (John Peel’s Top Gear BBC Session, broadcast Christmas Eve, 1967, features Tony Visconti and T.Rex’s Steve Peregrine-Took on backing vocals)

Today’s blog has been half-arsed and lazy. Better quality blogging will resume as normal next week.