Uncover version

On any given night, in any given bar across the globe, one can find a band, onstage, playing the music of another artist. Many years ago I stopped for a drink at a local establishment. Four lads were on stage and as I nursed my drink long since lost to the sands of time, they began to play a song – a familiar song. It was a Pink Floyd song, but nobody seemed to know or notice what it was. I did. The song was “Free Four” from Pink Floyd’s 1971 soundtrack recording for the wacky French film La Vallee. I’ve seen La Vallee; totally strange and wacky and, frankly, kind of boring. Floyd recorded two soundtracks in their early career, one entitled “Soundtrack from the film More” and “Obscured by Clouds,” the LP that bore this interesting choice of cover. I don’t remember anything else about that band in the bar or their sound, but I will always remember the count in and the faithful rendition of this faded number from the Pink Floyd catalog.

Cover versions are strange things. There really are only two ways to cover a song, good and bad. It is far, far easier to record a bad cover version than a strong cover version. In the mid ’90s Atlantic Records released a disc of Led Zeppelin cover songs. It stunk. Too many songs were too faithful while others were just too wacky to make a difference. It is a fine line, what makes a successful cover version versus an unsuccessful one. Recently I stumbled onto a cover of a Wire song, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W” by the Ann Arbor artist Dykehouse. I love it, absolutely love it. I love the original as well; how can you not love the first three Wire LPs? But this version was slightly different. And I remembered that one of the last recorded bits of music from the always entertaining My Bloody Valentine was a cover of “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W.” What I was listening to was a cover version of a cover version! Finding the MBV version showed me the version covered by Dykehouse. Strange that a version of a version was so enjoyable, but it was. It glistens and glimmers and sounds like a wall in the sky. It is tremendous. Of course if the source material was weaker, the cover song may not carry the same heft. I’m not saying that there aren’t great cover songs or that some bands can’t hang when it comes to covers. Yo La Tengo contributes to the WFMU pledge drive in New York by taking listener requests. They’ve released a CD of these versions called Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics wherein they play the music of everyone from T Rex to Yoko Ono. The band also sprinkles choice covers on their discs from quality source material in a quality way. Yet their versions are faithful, filtered through the band’s sensibilities. There is fearlessness in covering someone else’s work. Rarely has there been a sense of artistic fearlessness greater than in the case of Mick Harvey.

How can you describe Mick Harvey to someone who isn’t aware of Mick Harvey? He is an Australian. He is an artist. He was a member of the Birthday Party. He was a member of the Bad Seeds. For the past 30 years he has been synonymous with his Australian counterpart, Nick Cave. Harvey met Cave, as well as the rest of the men who would form the Birthday Party, in the early ’70s. Who were the Birthday Party, you ask? That’s a tough question to answer. I think of them as musical confronters; a strange, isolated hybrid of punk music, filtered through a certain Australian mindset. Theirs was a music of cacophony and confrontation. It was thrilling and terrifying to behold. In 1983, the band split and around the nucleus of Cave and Harvey formed the band Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. The Bad Seeds continue to this day as a linear, lyrical group driven by Cave’s unique voice, presence, and poetry. Mick Harvey left the Bad Seeds in 2009 after 25 years in the band (30 years if you factor in his time at Cave’s side in the Birthday Party). That is quite the tenure working with one artist. Many would assume that his role was more of a sideman. When you hear about members of a group, you do tend to think that the leader is the one who does the lion’s share of creating for the group. One tends to forget about the band in the face of the lead singer of a band. Mick Harvey was a multi-instrumentalist and arranger. He was more than a side-man. Harvey recorded and released his first solo record in 1995, mid-way through his Bad Seeds tenure. The record demonstrated Harvey’s artistic fearlessness, and the record featured nothing but the music of Serge Gainsbourg. The record is called Intoxicated Man.

I first heard the disc in 1995/1996. I had not yet discovered the music of Serge Gainsbourg on my own. No, I came to the music of Mick Harvey after listening to Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads over and over. I don’t know why I didn’t skin dive deeper into the murky world of the Bad Seeds, but I gravitated towards this solo disc. I bought the disc and its follow up, Pink Elephants, itself another disc of 100% Gainsbourg. Truth be told, I didn’t care for them at the time and quickly sold the discs. I didn’t give them much thought even as I got into the music of Serge Gainsbourg. Or maybe it is the other way around; maybe I got the discs once I got into the music of Gainsbourg. Whatever the time frame of my introduction, the end result was the same: I sold the discs. Y’see, many a time in my life I have rushed into buying something only to listen, grow tired, or not quite get it, only to sell it. What generally happens next takes place over the following years: I catch something from the disc that makes me take another chance and on that last chance I find the beauty in the music I initially missed due to my own ears. David Bowie’s Low, Something Else by the Kinks, and both Pink Elephants and Intoxicated Man all fall into the same realm of rediscovered music. Recently, when my daughter wanted what she calls “ballet music,” I put on the Comic Strip collection from Serge Gainsbourg. As I listened, for some reason, I really wanted to hear Intoxicated Man. I took the plunge and downloaded the LPs and began to re-listen to the songs. Instantly I was hooked.

In the realm of covers, these LPs stand alone on their own merit. The arrangements are faithful, which is a 50/50 shot. It even feels like the singing is very close to the original. What makes these covers so essential is the nature of the material Harvey is working with. These are French songs originally, translated and set to English. After having heard so many of the original songs thousands of times, finding out what the songs are actually about makes these discs essential listening for a fan of Serge Gainsbourg. As albums go, these are really just songbooks meant to shower light on the writers, no different from the volumes of songbook LPs Ella Fitzgerald produced in the ’50s. Yet as a listener you understand the words; you let the sounds of the words fall into the context of the music and let it all come together in your mind. To me, both LPs are a triumph of creative covering. By stripping away the primary language of the work you are left to marvel at the odd wit and wordsmanship of the originals. I would also say it is a fun way to work out what words in French are words in English. Essentially, these ARE faithful cover versions; the music is virtually identical. Perhaps the organ is a bit punchier but apart from that these are not great departures from the source material. There is even a female voice on the recordings – that of Australian singer Anita Lane. To me, this is where this gets interesting. See, Anita Lane was an early member of the Bad Seeds and was the girlfriend/wife of Nick Cave, who we all know and love from my description above. There is one other voice featured on both Pink Elephants and Intoxicated Man (stop me if you can see where this is going) and that voice belongs to one Mr. Nicholas Edward Cave. What song did Cave sing? None other than “Je’Taime Moi Non Plus,” (!) titled on this LP “I Love You…Nor Do I.” Cripes, if you thought the song sounded sleazy in the original French, this sucker just goes up a notch or four in the dirty scale. The line about kidneys is replaced but you can’t listen to the song the same way after listening to this version. “Physical love is a dead end” is just a knife in the ribs of romance. I know that the original versions of the song are real; at least the Jane Birkin version had the extra relationship angle on the music. In this version, the couple had been broken up/divorced for YEARS. Ooh just so sleazy. However, the duet between Cave and Lane was not her first take on recording the song, NO; she recorded the song with the bassist Barry Adamson on his 1993 EP The Negro Inside Me. Adamson, for those who don’t know, was the bassist in the legendary group Magazine before leaving to join in the formation of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds with … Anita Lane, Nick Cave, and Mick Harvey. (Side Note – Adamson recorded the greatest version of John Barry’s (Jane Birkin’s first husband) 007 Theme on his 1992 release Soul Murder.)

Mick Harvey left the Bad Seeds in 2009. He has continued to record and tour throughout this time and during his career. I think I place him in this grand part of the colonial English Diaspora. By that, I mean his Australian roots place him within this umbrella. When I see Harvey, and Nick Cave for that matter, they are the type that look out of place if not dapper or in suits. They always make me think of the Pogues in terms of dress – dress that lends them an air of middle class stability and position. But they’re Australian. I digress. Harvey released a disc of new music in May 2011, a collection of songs about death and loss. I have not had the opportunity to listen to that disc (I hope to soon), but I have heard Harvey’s contribution to another LP from 2011 on death and loss, albeit from the hands of politicians: PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. As I wrote in March, while recovering from walking pneumonia, I stumbled upon Mick Harvey’s work with PJ Harvey. In his ’50s, his handsomeness has only been enhanced by age, the lines in the face accompanied by silver water in his hair. His was the first voice I heard that day and remains the voice I associate with the disc. His voice is such an earthy counterbalance to hers;  the interplay on “The Words That Maketh Murder” continue to bounce around my head during my quieter moments. Yet his contribution to this amazing work of art was not his first dance with Polly Harvey. He would have been working with the Bad Seeds at the time of the classic Murder Ballads LP that saw the PJ Harvey duet with Nick Cave, and he has played with Ms. Harvey when his first Gainsbourg songbook was released.

Myself, I’d love to hear an entire LP collaboration between the two Harveys, their voices intertwined like ivy climbing a fence. One can only hope that something else happens artistically between these two. Barring that, I just hope that Mick Harvey continues to make his music at his pace. I just hope I can understand it in real time the next time.

Mike Vincent lives in Northern Michigan. He is trying to train for an 8K race in late September 2011 and he suggests you go out of your way to find Barry Adamson’s 1996 release Oedipus Schmoedipus.

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