Sunday, February 17, 2013

Tommy James Finds Himself With A Hit In The '80s - And Not For The Last Time

She may have been talented in many ways, but Joan Jett doesn't appear to have been the most prolific songwriter; most of her big hits have been cover versions of other people's songs. But hey, Elvis didn't write songs, either. Anyway, its not what you cover, but how you cover it.

"Crimson and Clover" was a #1 hit for Tommy James & the Shondells in 1969. Tommy James is the kind of artist who had about a thousand hits that everyone still knows, but nobody realizes that they were all by Tommy James & the Shondells. That's partly because his hits didn't always sound the same, and partly because he had no unifying artistic vision. Also, at a time when rock bands were starting to make albums, Tommy James was churning out shamelessly catchy singles. In a sense, "Crimson and Clover" was hipper and edgier than most of them, with its trippy lyrics, spaced-out wah-wah guitar solo, and infamous vocal phasing where it sounds like someone is hitting Tommy James repeatedly in the chest.

Well, Joan Jett does away with all that. She strips the song to its balls. It's almost as if she had no time to rehearse or add any extra flourishes and she just had to do it in one take and not fuck anything up. No trippy wah-wah guitar solo for her. The woman even bites roses in half, all right?

But that's the key to a good cover: come up with some cool production and don't ruin what was already good about the song to begin with. Rule #1: if a cover version of a song just makes you really want to go listen to the original version, then you blew it.

For example: Jett's cover of Sly & The Family Stone's "Everyday People"(!). Perhaps not all Joan Jett covers of #1 hits from 1969 are created equal. While the appeal of the original "Crimson and Clover" was rooted in its abstract lyrical imagery and studio trickery, the appeal of the original "Everyday People" was rooted in its soulful groove and sincere plea for racial tolerance, or, in other words, it was Sly & the Family Stone. I have no doubt that Jett loved Sly & the Family Stone. Well look, I love Sly & the Family Stone too, but you don't see me trying to do a glam rock cover version of "Everybody Is A Star" now, do you?

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