A few weeks ago, I was playing The Clash’s Combat Rock in the record store (where I work). When the song “Straight to Hell” came on, the clerk I was working with gave me a look and said something along the lines of “I didn’t think you liked MIA” (in reference to MIA’s song “Paper Planes”, which features a sample of “Straight to Hell”). For the record, I don’t like MIA, but I quickly corrected her as to what it was we were listening to. She responded, “Ah, I knew it sounded familiar, but the tempo was different.”
This got me thinking about so many contemporary songs that feature samplings or interpolations of previously recorded material. In today’s musical landscape, the use of another’s material is a bit ubiquitous and, at times, overwhelming. When samples are used with skill, the listener often doesn’t even realize that the song isn’t truly original; so, it’s almost forgivable (to a point) when mistakes like MIA vs. The Clash pop up.
Despite today’s prolific tendencies of borrowing, this is by no means a new phenomenon. Instead of sampling, artists just simply covered songs, especially if they had to fill up space on an album. Many times, though, the cover song became bigger than the original, to the point of overshadowing the original songwriters or performers. Below is just a small sampling.
“Crazy” – Patsy Cline / Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson wrote “Crazy” in 1961. At the time, he was a songwriter named Hugh, working his way up as a journeyman by providing material for artists like Faron Young and Billy Walker to perform. Patsy Cline, however, was one of the biggest names in country music. After years of developing his craft as a songwriter, Nelson’s “Crazy” would be the song that clinched it.
The song, as sung by Cline, is very obviously a ballad. However, Nelson’s original version somewhat defies a simple categorization. “Crazy” is not written like a traditional country song. Nelson borrowed heavily from jazz and classic pop songwriting when composing the tune. The verse and chorus smoothly meld into one another rather than standing rigidly separated like in most country songs. This jazz-like lean is most often recognized when Nelson performs the song live, never performing it the same way twice.
Originally intended for, but declined by, Walker, Nelson managed to get a demo of the song to Cline after meeting her husband, Charlie Dick, at a Music Row watering hole. Nelson’s style of speaking his lyrics rather than singing them did not sit well with Cline, who rejected the song upon initially hearing it. After her producer, Owen Bradley, rearranged the song as the ballad we’ve become familiar with, Cline fell in love with it, recording the vocals in a single take. Though it didn’t have the success of her previous hit, “I Fall To Pieces”, the song did signify Cline’s return to music after surviving a near fatal automobile accident. “Crazy” was released in 1962, peaking at number two on the country charts.
I remember as a child hearing stories about Cline (or someone in her camp) stealing this song from Nelson. I can’t remember if it was just my grandfather spinning a yarn, a Jessica Lange movie filling in my historical blanks, or what, but I found no such evidence indicating those sentiments. In 1993, Nelson said that he felt Cline’s version was his favorite song of his that anybody had recorded. Maybe at the time he got a little less than what he thought he should once the song became a hit. Regardless of any of the fine print, the success of Cline’s version not only cemented Nelson’s reputation as a songwriter, but it also opened the door to his own recording career. Based on the success of “Crazy”, Liberty records signed Nelson to his own recording contract.
“Head On” – Pixies / The Jesus and Mary Chain
Admittedly, this one might be stretching it somewhat, as most people might not even realize that an alternate version of this song exists. “Head On” originally appears on the Jesus and Mary Chain’s 1989 album, Automatic. Engineered by future shoegaze mastermind Alan Moulder, the song features the signature feedback sound that JAMC were known for, and it ups the tempo into a fabulous pop song. The ambiguity of its lyrics can give the impression that the song could either be a boy-meets-girl ditty or a psychedelic drug experience swirling around your head.
The true ambiguity of the song comes from the Pixies’ cover version. Around 1990, a year or so before the Pixies would release their fourth album, Trompe Le Monde, they had begun covering “Head On” in concert. The original version of the song started to achieve a moderate level of popularity on modern rock radio on its own merits, but with the Pixies covering it, an argument could be made that the song received a Colbert style “bump.” The Pixies version became slightly famous for the video and the production behind the making of the video. The band had agreed to provide a video for the single only if it was recorded live. Using 12 cameras divided among the four band members, the song was played, the video was recorded, and everybody was happy. I don’t know the reason for the band’s (or perhaps Black Francis’s) stubbornness regarding the making of the video. Maybe it stems from a time when the band was covering “Head On” during a show, and Francis looked down into the audience to see Jim and William Reid, the song’s writers, looking back at him. True story.