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Playing cover songs is a sign of creative fatigue

The covers (and cover art) of Bob Dylan's Self Portrait were equally lackluster.
The covers (and cover art) of Bob Dylan's Self Portrait were equally lackluster.

There's nothing wrong with cover songs. In fact, before Sam Cooke and the Beatles shifted the established paradigms, singer and songwriter were two entirely separate professions. And there's also nothing wrong with a musician recording a cover album in the twilight of his career (Johnny Cash's American Recordings attests to that). Yet when you catch a once-great artist leaning heavily on their childhood record collection, you can be pretty sure their creative juices have gone dry and sticky.

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While tribute bands have their own post-modern, fourth-wall-crossing appeal, there is something undignified about a band whose celebrated work is several years behind them masking their creative impotence with crowd pleasers. It's a classic trick of illusionists: Distract the audience from the rusty mechanics of the show with a busty female in sparkly underwear -- or, in this case, a classic rock cover that gives the listener a dopamine boost of recognition.

The most recent example of this is Beck's use of Ford Motor Company cash to recreate David Bowie's Sound and Vision with a 160 piece orchestra. While the L.A. innovator has released a collection of decent albums in the last decade, we all must admit that Sea Change was the last time he recorded anything you'd play for your grandchildren.

The use of a giant orchestra can also be a sign of inspirational lag (Metallica, Elvis Costello), but in Beck's case the first three minutes of his performance -- where he playfully conducts a bizarre instrumental with the orchestra -- was possibly the second most interesting thing he's done in years (second, of course, to last year's Song Reader album of unrecorded sheet-music). Yet when he launched into the familiar melody of Bowie's 1977 classic, the show takes on a dreary uselessness that undermines the entire project.

When we look to Beck, we look to have our aesthetic perceptions challenged. This was the man who linked hip-hop and bluegrass, who basically created Flight of the Concords, and swirled our heads with imagery of "beef-cake panty-hose" and a "hepatitis contact lens." And we've come to expect the same from Beck's one-time backing band and eventual adversaries, the Flaming Lips, who have, in recent years, climbed even deeper down the rabbit hole of oldies appropriation.

This was a band whose performance art antics lead to significant bar-raising of the live show experience, a band that went from writing about a girl's lack of jelly usage to singing anthems on love in the face of death. Yet like their former collaborator, the Lips have yet to reach a fraction of the mind-blowing power they had a decade earlier with Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.

Consequentially, their once-boundary-bursting live show now depends greatly on tracks from their Dark Side of the Moon project, as well as predictable radio hits like "I Am The Walrus" and "Bohemian Rhapsody." Often, this is a sign that a band should just pack it in. We would love to be proved wrong on this, that Wayne Coyne's imagination keg hasn't been tapped dry, but looking at the issue from a historical perspective, getting stuck in the creative cul-de-sac of tributedom doesn't have many happy endings.

While briefly estranged from soul-mate Yoko Ono, John Lennon became a booze-soaked mess while shacking up in L.A. with "personal" assistant May Pang in the mid '70s. While there, the two are reported to have visited the set of the nostalgia-opiate TV series Happy Days, which allowed many post-Vietnam stress-balls to escape back to a simpler time when rock and roll was still confined to a poodle-skirt-and-coca-cola innocence.

Ever the sentimental-softie, Lennon drifted easily into this idea, recording an album of 1950s rock and roll covers, presumably trying to resuscitate the childhood wonder he once held for playing in a band. By all accounts, Lennon's life was a cup of diarrhea at this time, from drinking heavily and getting into fist-fights to vomiting in closets and missing his estranged wife to the point of madness. He was also dealing with an increasingly frenetic Phil Spector, who reportedly drove Lennon to temporary deafness by firing a pistol inside the studio.

The resulting album, Rock 'n' Roll, was not the creative, commercial or critical success that Lennon needed to pull him out of his funk. The tactic equally failed for Lennon's roommate at the time, Harry Nilsson, who had released one of the greatest albums of the decade two years earlier with Nilsson Schmilsson, but had gone down the hard-partying road with his ex-Beatles buddy to the point of madness, the two of them blacking out on coke and brandy in the studio, Lennon encouraging Nilsson to scream into the mike until flecks of blood appeared on the filter.

They were two luminaries who thought the open-bar on inspiration didn't have a closing time, only to find themselves dry-humping their muses at 5 a.m. with "Rock Around The Clock". Released in 1973, A Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night, while displaying Nillson's virtuosic tenderness as a singer, is a mostly useless collection of standards like "It Had To Be You," "As Time Goes By," and "Makin' Whoopee." Neither Harry Nillson nor John Lennon ever completely revived the spark they had in the '60s and '70s, turning their disastrous cover albums into historical guideposts for any band wondering when to pack it in.

For a more clear example of rock-recycling being the final nail in the coffin of career, look no further than Rage Against The Machine's 2000 cover album, Renegades. After nine years of recording some of the most viscerally charged political rock in history, Rage seemingly threw this album together as a contractual obligation, churning out ridiculously emblematic versions of classic rock hits like "Street Fighting Man" and "Maggies Farm" (though admittedly, their covers of Afrika Bambaataa's "Renegades of Funk" and EPMD's "I'm Housin" are pretty badass).

The fact that RATM decided to split up months before Renegades even hit the shelves was testament to both A) how much the band members sincerely hated each other, and B) that they were, at the very least, not very proud of the record they'd just finished. Thankfully, Rage's late-career blunder has become a half-remembered footnote in the band's otherwise impervious catalog.

While a creative stinker can ruin a band's reputation in the present, it rarely ruins their legacy. In 1970, Bob Dylan seemed to have completely fallen off the artistic wagon. Disillusioned with the counter-culture he'd created, it appeared as if Dylan were afraid to invent anything new, lest he create another Frankenstein that won't get off his lawn (as many hippies wouldn't).

First he retreated into the country-folk style of his younger days with John Wesley Harding, then he straight-up covered himself with the Johnny Cash duet of "Girl From The North Country," inevitably leading him to a bunch of weird renditions of mostly forgotten rock and pop songs on Self Portrait. In his review of the album in Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus wrote one of the most memorable opening lines in rock journalism: "What is this shit?"

Though this would only be the first of many creative dry spells followed by inspired bursts in Bob Dylan's career, to write him off then would be to write off the number of decent-to-amazing albums he'd make in the decades to come. An album of covers isn't even always a sign of a creative dip, as seen in David Bowie's 1973 tribute, Pin Ups, which is bracketed by some of the best work in his career.

It is nice to have exceptions like this, giving hope to our generation's sufferers of creative erectile dysfunction, who must now be propped up by the ghosts of rock in order to crawl into the 2010s. Perhaps Beck and the Flaming Lips will regain the ability to surprise us in the years to come -- but even if they don't, they've at least left behind some good albums for future generations to cover.





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