Song #1: Aztec Camera “Jump”

Written by Pam Thurschwell

I want to talk about ironic and non-ironic covers, and how you can tell the difference, and if it’s possible that not being sure whether or not a cover is ironic or not-ironic might be one way in which a cover becomes great, or maybe terrible.

When I first heard Aztec Camera’s wistful version of this, at least in my hazy memory, Van Halen’s 1983 song had not yet released its ceaseless hold on MTV and Philadelphia “classic rock” radio Classic rock was the “always already” of my adolescence. It was 1985, I had just finished high school, and was attempting to assert some kind of incoherent habitus of my own, by listening to Madonna and The Jam and Bob Dylan. It was a confusing time in pop music (as all times are.) But I knew that I didn’t like Van Halen in twelfth grade. Nobody I knew liked Van Halen in twelfth grade.

This was the first cover version that showed me that an original that I had openly disdained was actually great. Aztec Camera’s cover is superb for many reasons—it brings out the double-edged nature of the categorical imperative masquerading as a nonchalant “might as well” jump. Are we picking up someone at a club? For a dance? (So that we can give in to the abandoned joy of jumping, as in the Pointer Sisters “Jump (for my love)” which also came out in 1983?) Or is this nonchalantly threatened jump a sinister one; will rejection lead to suicide? A jump off a roof? Roddy Frame’s slowed down, mournful, wasted take, brings out the melancholic desperation of the original. “Can’t you see me standing here, I’ve got my back against the record machine. I ain’t the worst that you’ve seen.” That’s beautiful. Roddy Frame’s back against the record machine was not the same as David Lee Roth’s back, and yet Roddy Frame’s back helped me appreciate the subtleties of David Lee Roth’s back. Aztec Camera’s version is pliant, gentle, fed-up perhaps, but I think finally, not parodic. This song brings out the poignancy of the original, by de-snottifying it.

One version of what a great cover song does then, is to make you finally appreciate a debased original, turn back to it with a newfound, if potentially still grudging, respect. Van Halen, it turns out, could write a great song. Was Roddy Frame thinking “this is actually a great mournful twee-80’s band kind of song?” or was he thinking “this is a song I could milk a hit out of?” Does it matter?

Aztec Camera’s “Jump” singlehandedly acted out an MTV battle of the mid ‘80s—those of us (and at that point it seemed we were legion) who were yelling “More Human League! Less Van Halen!”, were momentarily silenced when this song forced us to admit that we were all part of the same project. The record machine was big enough for Eddie Van Halen and Roddy Frame.

Song #2: David Bowie “Let’s Spend the Night Together”

What we have here is a great artist on a great album, covering a great song by a great band. So why does it suck so much? This should have been fantastic; instead this is a cover that manages to make it sound like spending the night with David Bowie would be awkward and embarrassing, maybe even kind of dull. (Um that was very nice, can you take the screechy synths and just leave now please?)

One generous way of reading this would be to see Bowie attempting to ironically queer the boys’ club that is the Stones—deconstructing their hetero-come-on with a combination robotic and camp intervention, but something goes horribly wrong. (Devo would do the mechanical bit perfectly a few years later with “Satisfaction”—another best cover, in some world historical sense.) There’s a grim, grinding determination to Bowie’s “Let’s Spend the Night Together”; he’s just trying too hard in too many different directions. What happens to desire in this song? David doesn’t seem to have any desire in this song, except maybe his desire for Mick, or at least Mick’s chart presence. However, that’s not necessarily a problem—a lot of Bowie’s ostensible love songs are pretty desireless; he traffics in wasted decadent narcissism; come-ons are spent before they even start. My favourite Aladdin Sane song, “Drive-In Saturday”, begins “Let me put my arms around your head/Gee it’s hot, let’s go to bed.” It sounds already pre-exhausted. But this is exhaustion on speed. Bowie attempts to sound eager but it’s an eagerness cut through with irony. He’s trying to be eager but in a really sucky way. I’m still not sure where all the multitudinous failures of this song are located. The piano plinks along nicely with that great Aladdin Sane dissonance; the band sounds fine—there is no one to blame but Bowie: Ziggy Stardust just can’t make a dent in this one.

The best bad covers are generative; making you turn back to the original’s brilliance to figure out where the cover tripped up. Rolling Stone’s contemporary 1973 review of Aladdin Sane verged on the homophobic, calling Bowie’s version, “campy, butch, brittle and unsatisfying”, suggesting that Bowie was trying to queer the song. It makes me squirm a little to think I may be buying into some similar rhetoric in my own reaction. But I don’t think that Bowie here fails to queer a thrusting hetero anthem. I think the problem is that the original is already pre-queered—his reading seems to slide right off it.

The Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is obviously just barely interested in the girl it’s ostensibly sung to. Any desire in that song rushes toward the doo-doo-doo moment of terrible parody Beach Boys harmony, when the Stones show us that they are far more interested in their homo-social thing with each other than they are in any girls. It’s a song that is already taking the piss, and I think, doing so rather brilliantly. Can you have a good cover of a song that’s already taking the piss? If the original is already queer, is it somehow painful, or slightly embarrassing to re-queer it? Listen to the cringe-worthy verse that Bowie added (“They said we were too young/Our kind of love was no fun/But our love comes from above? Let’s make love”) “Let’s make love”. Really? This is the song that makes me just say no to David Bowie.

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