Tuesday, September 20, 2016

10 Offbeat Bruce Springsteen Cover Songs

In honor of Bruce Springsteen's new memoir, Born to Run, here are some of the more unusual, offbeat, unknown and in some cases wildly great cover versions of the Boss's catalog. I've deliberately avoided obvious choices like Patti Smith's "Because the Night" (especially since her version is essentially a collaboration more than a cover) or versions already well-known (at least to fans) by artists like Dave Edmunds and Gary 'U.S.' Bonds. I'm hoping that even the most ardent students of Springsteen's oeuvre will find at least a few surprises here.

10. Dion, "Book of Dreams"

This song off 1992's Lucky Town was covered by the great Dion DiMucci ("Runaround Sue", "Abraham, Martin and John") on his 2000 album Deja Nu . Bruce is a big Dion fan and even contributed to that album's liner notes. This is Springsteen as doo-wop, delivered only as Dion could do it.

9. Bettye LaVette, "Streets of Philadelphia"

Bettye LaVette was born in Muskegon, Michigan in 1946. She released her first single at the age of 16 and went on to an impressive and busy career that included a stint with James Brown, several R&B hits in the 1970s, and performed for six years on Broadway in the hit Bubbling Brown Sugar. Here she takes "Streets of Philadelphia" and turns it into a howling cry of pain and grace.

8. Aram, "Something in the Night"
Speaking of howling, this track in its original form on 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town is alternately sung, snarled, and choked out by Bruce in a tour-de-force of vocalizing, and for my money remains the searing heart of  Darkness. Here, Aram (Arslanian) takes the song and turns it into a drawling, sprawling country chugalong that remains no less affecting than the original. And his band is hot as a pistol.

7. The Reivers (originally Zeitgeist), "Atlantic City"

I first discovered this version on a 1986 album from Rhino Records entitled Cover Me, which featured the earliest cover versions of Bruce's work from performers like Greg Kihn ("For You") and The Hollies ("Sandy"). Though there have been probably at least a dozen "Springsteen Tribute" albums over the years, this was one of the first (if not the first), and is notable because many of the songs were recorded before Springsteen was superstar famous, which liberated these cover versions from being 'tributes' and instead they stood simply as products of the artists who covered them. A marvelous example of this is "Atlantic City", recorded by the Reivers (at the time under the name Zeitgeist), who picked it up and ran with it. There have been several covers of "Atlantic City" since. but for me this remains the best.

6. Mrs. Fun/Tina and the B Side Movement, "Janey Don't You Lose Heart"

Originally released by Springsteen as a b-side to the single "I'm Goin' Down" from Born in the USA, "Janey" was covered by Mrs. Fun and co. on a 1997 Bruce tribute album that also featured Aram's contribution above. This is a sly and sultry take on one of Springsteen's prettiest songs, and adds to my belief that some of the best cover versions of his music have been performed by women.

5. David Bowie, "It's Hard to Be A Saint in the City"

In which Bruce's song from his 1972 debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, about a kid trying to look and feel badass in the big city is performed by a guy who actually was badass in the big city.

4. Mavericks, "All That Heaven Will Allow"

Florida's legendary Tex-Mex country rock stars bring more twang, this time to a great track from 1987's Tunnel of Love.

3. Crooked Fingers, "Mansion on the Hill"
Crooked Fingers was a solo project formed by singer Eric Bachmann in the wake of the demise of his previous band, Archers of Loaf. Here, he takes a similarly minimal approach to this track from Bruce's 1982 album Nebraska, adding a swirl of electronic sounds and percussion that makes the song as dreamlike as a childhood memory.

2. Patti Griffin, "Stolen Car"

Hey, what did I just say about say about women doing the best covers of Springsteen songs? Here's further proof. Patty's grief-stricken vocals tell a different version than Bruce's, originally released on 1981's The River.

1. Big Daddy, "Born to Run"

Had to save Springsteen's greatest song for last. There have been several memorable covers of "Born to Run" over the years, including versions by Wolfsbane, Suzi Quatro, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood (no, really), but what better way to top this list than everyone's favorite lost-in-the-jungle 50s band?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

If You're Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From... Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

By Curt Alliaume


Updated 1/21/2023, after the death of David Crosby.

This is actually going to be a long one – not because there’s a lot of CSNY hits sets out there (there aren’t), but because going over their solo stuff will take some time.

I suspect we’ve heard the last of the four of them performing together (of course, we’ve written them off before). In 2014, Crosby criticized Daryl Hannah (“a purely poisonous predator”) after Young had left his wife of 36 years to start a relationship with the actress (who’s now 55, so get the image of the mermaid from Splash and the geezer Young out of your head); he apologized a few months later, but the damage had been done. Meanwhile, Nash (who had been critical of both Young and Crosby in a 2013 autobiography), announced that CSN was over earlier this year, criticizing Crosby using language not generally read in newspapers or heard on television. I suspect they’ve said this to each other in person before (and I wonder, given all of them are in their 70s, how much of it is cranky old guys with a little bit of dementia sinking in), but still, I wouldn’t hold my breath on any new material coming.

My opinions of the band have changed over the years – I took a Rolling Stone critic seriously in 1980 when he described their harmonies as “pinpricks to the brain.” Between that and a fraternity brother being a Neil Young uberfan (although his love was tested after Trans came out), I avoided them during most of my teens and early 20s. But I came around after taping Young’s Decade compilation and Freedom came out, which introduced me back to the rest of the group.  And my fondness for the group was cemented during their 2002 appearance at the United Center:  they had a great backup band (keyboardist Booker T. Jones and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn of Booker T. & The MG’s, plus Jim Keltner on drums) and played a great set (including several then-unreleased Neil Young songs, plus the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”). Young was at the top of his game, and it’s possible the three-hour plus concert would have gone longer had (reportedly) Crosby not gone over to Young during the encores and pointed at his watch. If only that concert were available…

There’s no easy way to say this: all the hits choices stink, for various reasons.  As you might have gathered, these guys can be pretty bull headed sometimes, so getting them to agree on what to put on a disc isn’t easy. Here’s what I would get first, given the choices now available both in print and for download (all links lead to the corresponding Wikipedia pages). Important update: the CSNY albums should be available to stream on Spotify, but the songs written and sung by Neil Young within those albums are (mostly) greyed out. Young yanked his songs off Spotify after they started promoting Joe Rogan's goofball theories on his podcast; the other three originally follow suit but eventually allowed the songs to return.

This was issued in 1974 (in time for a tour) after the group had released just two LPs and a single (“Ohio”), so all of the group albums after this are unrepresented (and there’s some good stuff there). Five songs are from Crosby, Stills & Nash (their debut) and four are from Déjà Vu (their first studio album with Young).  But I’ll go through the remaining albums and explain why this is the best option (hint: because Neil Young allowed his songs to be used). It's out of print on CD and vinyl from what I can tell; $10.49 for the download on Amazon, $10.99 on iTunes.

Replay (1980) – This appears to have only been manufactured as a vinyl album and cassette, and it’s really weird. Stills and Nash were getting along well and working together at the time (Crosby was in the midst of his cocaine madness, and Young wasn’t speaking to the others), so they proposed a future Stills-Nash project to Atlantic Records. (Crosby and Nash had recorded a number of duo albums in the 1970s, but that project had pretty much reached its end.) Instead, Atlantic let the two assemble a greatest hits set, which included no Young material, three solo Stills songs, one from the Crosby-Nash duo, and skips five of the first six singles by CSN and CSNY (“Marrakesh Express,” which was left off So Far, shows up here). Crosby called it “an obvious money trip,” and he’s not wrong. It was available for a few years as a download but now appears to be gone; there are a couple of alternate mixes on the album, which gives it some collectable value. YouTube appears to have the entire album available for listening, but I'm not sure if those alternate mixes are included.

CSN (1991) – Not to be confused with the 1977 studio album of the same name, this is a four-disc box set featuring every different combination of the foursome except Neil Young solo (which is why it’s just called CSN). Young’s at least present on some of the songs (don’t worry, “Ohio” and “Helpless” are here), and it’s basically a treasure trove for fans. It even went platinum (which means less than you think; since it’s a four-disc set every sale counts for four of the 1,000,000 copies needed for platinum status). It was outrageous that this wasn’t available for download but the half-assed Replay was; if anybody at Atlantic/Warner Brothers has an explanation for this decision I’d sure like to hear it. Let’s put it this way: if this were available for download, this would easily be the choice over So Far. The good news is it’s $20.59 for a new copy on Amazon – but it's from a third-party seller. I burned a copy from the library edition ages ago; my instinct is to stick with that.

Carry On (1991) Two-disc distillation of the CSN box set; available almost everywhere except America, and used copies are crazy expensive. There are even less copies of this at Amazon than the CSN box, and it costs more, so why bother?

Greatest Hits (2006) – The most recent compilation would be an option if it weren’t completely Neil Young-free – he doesn’t appear on any of the songs, apparently (three of them are from Déjà Vu: “Our House,” “Teach Your Children,” and “Carry On/Questions”). Frankly, there’s no point calling anything without “Ohio” a greatest hits set. All of the songs are from their first four studio albums; their last four are completely unrepresented (they couldn’t even dredge up some live versions?). $14.49 for the download on Amazon (in fairness, this is nearly twice the length of So Far) and $14.99 on iTunes, but the disc is out of print.

Demos (2009) – Exactly what it sounds like; not the originally released versions.  I’ve included this to make sure there’s no confusion.

Now, as for solo hits sets – they’re primarily box sets (and, obviously, there will be overlap with the CSN box).

Crosby:  Voyage (2006) is what I have, and it’s pretty good. Three discs, including a few Byrds songs (“Everybody’s Been Burned” is a personal favorite) and an alternate take of “Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?” performed with Paul Kantner’s early version of Jefferson Starship. Unfortunately, it's now unavailable; apparently Sony no longer wanted to allow the Byrds songs on a Rhino anthology. It's been replaced by The David Crosby Box, which I don't have and has a shorter track listing without licensing complications; it's $24.99 for the download on iTunes. No other hits sets from him solo, but of course there’s plenty of Byrds compilation options, as I’ve noted here; I’ve listed some Crosby-Nash options below.

Nash:  Reflections (2009) is also good, and has a weirder dichotomy: the Amazon version is 11 songs shorter by my count (including three Hollies songs, which again had to be licensed), whereas the iTunes version appears complete. (I mean, you can't download those songs individually, but how hard is to find On a Carousel?) Actually, Nash compiled the box sets for Crosby, Stills, and himself (at a time when he was better disposed toward the others). The truncated Amazon version is $28.49 for the download; the full iTunes version is $29.99. (If somebody at iTunes sees this, please just leave it be!)

Obviously, there are lots of Hollies compilations available (note that Nash was only with that band for the first few years, plus a short-lived 1983 reunion when it looked like CSN was kaput). Finally, there are two best-ofs from the Crosby/Nash duo: 1978’s The Best of Cr.osby & Nash, encompassing their years on Atlantic Records, probably has the stronger material (it includes three solo songs, in addition to much of 1971’s Graham Nash David Crosby album), but it’s never been available on compact disc or for download. 2002’s The Best of Crosby & Nash: The ABC Years reflects their material after jumping to ABC Records in the mid-1970s (the label collapsed around the same time Crosby’s cocaine issues made working together problematic – not that the two events influenced each other) and comes from two studio albums and a live set. It’s $9.49 for the download on Amazon ($9.99 on iTunes) and $19.69 for the CD, and probably will only be of interest to the diehards and completists.

Stills:  Carry On (2013) is Stills’ box; it’s more expensive than the others primarily because it’s four discs instead of three – unlike Crosby and Nash, Stills’ group prior to CSNY, Buffalo Springfield, was also with Atlantic/Warner Brothers, so the label didn’t have to license their songs (The Byrds and Hollies were both with Columbia/Sony, which is why only three of their songs were on Crosby and Nash’s set – but hey, it’s better than nothing, or was, anyway). Consequently, there are 11 Springfield songs on the set, along with a couple of very early efforts, and the usual shuffle of material from his solo years and with various CSNY configurations.  $37.99 for the download on Amazon, $39.99 on iTunes, and the physical box set is out of print.  Still Stills is an out-of-print set (probably never on CD) from his solo Atlantic years, while Turnin’ Back the Pages does the same for his years on Columbia (and includes selections from a one-off album Stills made after Buffalo Springfield collapsed but before CSN started, Super Session with Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield); it’s not available for download but physical copies can be found. 

And then there’s Maude Neil Young, who’s released 38 solo albums of original material, but so far has only released four compilations, three of which contain Buffalo Springfield and/or CSNY material. Hes released two monster box sets full of previously unavailable material as part of his Archives series; unfortunately they also contain entire live sets he had previously released separately (for example, the first volume has Live at Fillmore East and Live at Massey Hall), which many of his fans (myself included) had already bought. It’s kind of galling having to purchase a second copy of a few albums to get the stuff you actually want. In the interim, however, you can’t go wrong with Decade (1978), a three-album/two-CD compilation of his first 10 years; Greatest Hits (2004) seems like a decent sampler for those who dont own anything by Young and want to learn more. 


(Crossposted to Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.)

Thursday, September 1, 2016

If You're Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From... Ringo Starr

Let’s do Ringo first, then George.  Ringo’s always the last of the four Beatles to be introduced; he deserves to be moved up a notch.

Ringo’s drumming has undergone a critical reevaluation in the last 20 years or so.  For a long time during the Beatles heyday and after, he was considered the guy just lucky to be there.  But, if you read enough about the band, he was really the last piece of the puzzle – it’s been pretty well established that Pete Best was nowhere near the talent the other three were, and it took Ringo’s presence, ability, and difference from the others to make it work. 

Also, Ringo brought something else to the band – a sense of humility.  The Beatles have always been my favorite band, but John, Paul, and George weren’t really known for their modesty.  Ringo, deservedly, is.  And he’s a hell of a drummer.  My son’s a drummer, and his teacher has told him repeatedly that there are two drummers he should emulate with the sticks – John Bonham and Ringo Starr.  I have no reason to argue.

As for his solo career, Ringo had a few great years, a bunch of years lost in an alcoholic haze, and about two decades doing pretty much what he wants to do – he tours with his friends (he seems to get along with just about everybody), and he releases the occasional album under his own name.  He also is now the owner of the longest Beatle marriage (he’s been married to Barbara Bach for over 35 years).

In any case, there aren’t a ton of best-ofs from Ringo, and a few are out of print.  There’s really only one obvious choice:

This has every song from his first hits set, 1975’s Blast From Your Past (these include “It Don’t Come Easy,” “Photograph,” “You’re Sixteen,” and “Oh My My”), and includes his next two (and final two) top 40 hits, “A Dose of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Wrack My Brain.”  It also has a few more recent songs (although, unfortunately, nothing from the All-Starr Band groupings).  Not overpriced ($7.39 for the disc and $7.99 for the download at Amazon), but do note a variation – the disc has “Hey! Baby!” “A Dose of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “King of Broken Hearts,” while the download contains “Oo-Wee,” “Have You Seen My Baby,” and an extended version of “Six O’Clock” instead.  I’d buy the disc, download the other three separately, and burn a new disc with all 23 songs; it’ll still come in just under 80 minutes.

Here are the other options:

Blast From Your Past (1975) – as noted above, every song here is included in the Photograph compilation, and this is out of print, so there’s no real reason to search this out.  (I have it, but I bought it years before Photograph, thinking it was going to be the only option.)  I mean, if you see it used for a buck or two, sure, but that’s really the only reason to get it.  This appears to be out of print, which is fine; it’s superfluous at this point.

Starr Struck: Best of Ringo Starr, Vol. 2 (1989) – this is a weird one, and it’s got a long story.  After 1975, Ringo bolted from Capitol/Apple and was with a ton of labels (Atlantic, Portrait, Boardwalk, RCA in Canada), with sales dropping consistently.  Partially this was because he wasn’t getting the material (John, Paul, and George had all contributed to Ringo’s solo albums before, along with other friends), and partially because – well, Ringo had become an alcoholic.  (In fairness, it appears all of the Fab Four except Paul dealt with addiction issues at one time or another.)  I have a vinyl copy of 1976’s Ringo’s Rotogravure, and the inside sleeve has Polaroids of Ringo and all the players on the album – every picture Ringo’s in has him holding a drink.  And that was the best seller of the bunch – by the time 1983’s Old Wave was ready, no UK or US label would release it.  Anyway, by 1989 Ringo had sobered up, and Rhino Records (which was and is a terrific label for reissues and compilations) rounded up what was worth hearing off those albums and put them on a CD.  Again, it had the two top 40 hits from that era, as listed above (George wrote and played on “Wrack My Brain,” recorded for Boardwalk Records in 1981), but there’s a lot of other stuff you probably won’t miss.  It’s out of print, but it’s probably worth picking up if you find it in the used record bins as a curio.  (It’s not particularly cheap through Amazon because it’s scarce, however.)

The Anthology... So Far (2001) – this draws entirely from the All-Starr Band discs.  It’s all live, it’s three discs long, and there are only one or two “Ringo” songs on each disc – the rest of it is songs by other artists.  It’s a heck of a compilation – Dr. John, Levon Helm, Clarence Clemons, Billy Preston, Joe Walsh, Nils Lofgren, and John Entwistle, and that’s just on the first disc – but it’s not a true best-of.  $19.99 on Amazon as an import; not available for download.

Icon: Ringo Starr (2014) – once UMG got ahold of the Capitol backlist, you knew this was going to happen:  a slipshod “budget” release.  11 songs, eight of which are on either Ringo or Goodnight Vienna (Ringo’s two big albums from the 1970s, both of which are still in print).  And the “budget” compilation is $6.87 (not available for download), which makes it 52 cents cheaper than Photograph, which contains nine more songs.  I mean, if you’re desperate for something to listen to on a car trip and find it at a truck stop, I guess that’s okay – but there’s no other reason to order this over other options.