Thursday, September 06, 2012


Have you noticed how many old films are being remade these days? Over on NextMovie there's a list of 50 (FIFTY) films that are being "re-booted", which sounds like a digital way of saying "we've run out of ideas, so we're going to add up-to-date effects to the original".
The same thing has been happening for a while in music. My collection has lately added a fair number of songs from what are now called "tribute" albums, where bands contribute cover versions of songs from a particular band that they've all been influenced by, or whose music they just enjoy. I've got tracks from "Sharp-Dressed Men - a tribute to ZZTop" to "Dad, Get Me Out of This - The String Quartet Tribute to Warren Zevon" and to "Sensory Lullabies - the Ultimate Tribute to Jellyfish."
So are we going to work from the premise that original ideas are at a premium, and that it's easier to just warm up an older, better piece of work? Well, yes and no.
For a start, the artists who actually create these tributes and "re-boots" have their own bodies of work, so it's not as if they're making an entire career out of tributing and re-booting. So when a country musician like Tracy Byrd records a version of "La Grange" for the ZZTop tribute, he's not doing it (completely) for the money. Yes, he'll get a share of the proceeds, but so will the guys that wrote the song. Byrd has his own albums to write and record, so this is a momentary pleasure.
It's also worth bearing in mind that musicians have been performing and recording other peoples' music for ever. Cover versions aren't new.
And in a sense, nor are movies. I mean, how many theatre companies have performed Shakespeare? Or Arthur Miller? How many troupes have taken Oscar Wilde on tour? The fact that the acting performances are now filmed is almost semantics. The release of a film is more or less the same as taking a performance on tour, isn't it?
So a "re-boot" of Total Recall, or Highlander, or My Fair Lady may not be so much a confession of imaginative bankruptcy, but simply a way of refreshing an old classic (I use the word loosely). Like re-staging Richard III in a West African dictatorship, or Hamlet in Haiti.
But I'm not writing about tributes or re-boots here. What's far more satisfying to oldsters like me is not simply a "version" of an old song, but the far more imaginative "compilation" of styles or musical signatures in a totally new song.
Which, naturally brings me to Jellyfish. Yes, I've written at length about bubblegum pop and how Jellyfish perfected a 90s take on the 60s and 70s. And over the years, they've assumed an importance that far outweighs their meagre output - just 2 albums, but boy, what albums!
I find myself listening to their songs and spotting sounds, "tics" if you like, that are clearly lifted from other artists. Stevie Wonder's harmonica, Brian May's guitar sound, Supertramp's keyboard from the "Breakfast in America" era, Beach Boys harmonies, they all pop up from time to time. It's like a trivia quiz for music bores.
This is, ironically, a cover of a Jellyfish song that never made it onto the albums, but which they used to open their gigs. The Sonic Executive Sessions play it perfectly: concentrating on the fantastic harmonies and the busy power-pop rather than on the chaotic joy of a live performance. That allows the slightly cynical undertone of the lyric comes to the fore:
Hello, hello, how do you like the show so far/ Well, it's all right but you sound too much like a band I saw last night
Which, when you think about Jellyfish, is pretty funny, and *knowing*. Yes, they do sound like bands you might have heard before, but just as soon as you remember which one, there's another "tic" to set you to thinking. But once you've have your trivia fun, step back and just enjoy *this* song.
The point is that, even if there are "tributes" to other musicians and bands scattered liberally throughout this song, there's still a song to listen to. It's really, really good.

1 comment:

Uncle E said...

Great post. I always heard Supertramp and May in those songs, but never Stevie Wonder. I do now! Have always loved Jellyfish; maybe it's because I love Queen and Supertramp? The thing I loved about J-Fish is that they were able to make those little musical homages while retaining an absolutely fresh and unique overall sound. You're tight, though: those songs!