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That's What I Want
So I'm home sick a couple weeks ago and I turn on the television. And right as it's kicking on, I'm blasted with a familiar sound. Hour 15 of the "Today" show is beginning and they're leading off with what might be my favorite 8 seconds in pop music history -- the lead-in to "It's the Same Old Song."
Clattering drumroll. Duh-duh-da Duh Duh-do-do. Bass and marimba for two passes, then add strings, then comes Levi Stubbs. "You're sweet ..."
I know it like the pledge of allegiance. And even in my groggy, sickened stupor I know it is most definitely not the same old song this morning. No Levi. No Four Tops. Not one Top at all. Just ... Rod Stewart.
Yes, the Motown hit is coming out of Mr. Raspy Botox with the Soccer Mom hair. Remember when Rod Stewart was cool? Yeah, me neither.
Rod was there to promote his new album, which is him singing a bunch of soul music covers. And it's just this awful product that's completely useless, totally uninspired and leaves some great songs in shambles. It's almost enough to make you wish Steve Marriott never fell in love with Peter Frampton.
That's a Small Faces reference. Check Wikipedia, kids.
Yeah, Rod's doing "It's the Same Old Song" but there's no different meaning and Levi Stubbs is still gone. Stewart has taken timeless music and stamped it with an expiration date. Turned it into waiting room dreck.
Mick Jagger and David Bowie might have misfired, but at least they made "Dancing in the Street" really, really, really, really gay. I guess that's something.
This Rod Stewart "Soulbook" album is nothing. It's the Michael McDonald ordeal all over again. Just another old guy out of ideas and only too ready to deliver a jowly, blustery version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" like it's a Viagra commercial.
The California Raisins had more integrity. And less wrinkles, too. Zing!
In retaliation against this shamelessness, I think it's time to go Comp. Stomping.
But first, I should explain this newfangled feature called Comp. Stomp. You see, Comp. is short for compilation and Stomp rhymes with Comp. I know -- genius.
On a regular basis I'll come up with themes and assemble tracklistings for ideal mix CDs. Other writers might join in, too. The themes can be anything, from the best songs by a certain band to a cluster of tracks that all reference Idaho (man, that's a lot of music about taters).
All that's left for you, dear reader, is find the songs, burn 'em up and enjoy.
So, let's go Comp. Stomping through the suburbs of Hitsville, U.S.A., and round up the best rock 'n' roll cover versions of Motown classics:
1. "You Keep Me Hangin' On" - Vanilla Fudge (1967)
A year after The Supremes got chased around by a news flash on one of their many Motown hits, these psychedelic Long Island rockers strapped "Hangin' On" to a slow-motion jackhammer. If Diana Ross is pleading to be set free, Mark Stein is threatening. "Set me free, why don't ya babe" ... or else. He might as well have been Lon Chaney Jr., begging to be locked in his room before the full moon appears. Stein's horror movie organ and Vince Martell's guitar jabs (the "news flash" guitar line becomes the rat-a-tat-tat of a tommy gun) back up the menace, but it's Carmen Appice's insistent percussion that bludgeons the message home. And they practically out-funk the Funk Brothers. Heavy stuff.
2. "Baby, I Need Your Lovin'" - Johnny Rivers (1967)
The story goes, when Johnny Rivers released his elegant take on the Four Tops' breakout stunner, the Motown songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland listened to the single over and over, for 30 times or more, to absorb every bit of this sweeping version of their song. They were amazed, and it's clear why. Rivers -- a specialist in one-upping covers -- had crafted a Phil Spector-esque, yet somehow delicate tribute to Tops' tale of obsession. Rivers doesn't just need your lovin', he needs strings, he needs chimes, he needs flutes, he needs a chorus of angels to to tell you how much. And one of those angels is Spector associate, former Crystal and future "Lethal Weapon" star Darlene Love, who gets to do those spiraling, ascendant babe-yay-yeah's toward the end. Makes you want to listen to it about 30 times. Or more.
3. "The Tears of a Clown" - The Beat (1979)
Most artists who want to drastically alter a Motown hit end up working it like taffy. They stretch, they pull and they twist. They add air and they add space, because it's inconceivable to go the other way -- especially when it comes to those 2-1/2 minute '60s singles. But The Beat tighten up Smokey Robinson and The Miracles' circus whirlygig, and they don't strip a screw in the process. The English band (you might know it as The English Beat, which became the group's stateside name because we already had a UPN show called "The Beat") recasts the song as a ska thumper. But the group preserves the groove and, with the help of a prickly guitar, the carnival-like exuberance that's so important in its juxtaposition to Robinson's Pagliacci parable. The unfortunate side effect of this lurching, sax-spiked gem is that nearly every '90s ska revival band tried to skank to everything from "Come on Eileen" to "The Munsters" theme. How clever.
4. "Living for the City" - The Dirtbombs (2001) The Dirtbombs bust a distorted bass upon fellow Detroiter Stevie Wonder's socially conscious snapshot, bringing a new kind of fuzz to the ghetto. Originally about a transplanted family from Mississippi, "City" is recast with Mexican protagonists from "hard-time Teocaltiche" and it isn't just a gimmicky switcheroo. Master exploder Mick Collins has smartly updated the tale for the new century; he even sings the final verse in Spanish. Of course, the struggles in urban America remain tough as ever, as does the epic throb of Wonder's classic. Actually, this modern "City" is rougher, grittier and harder (with two drummers, it better be), seemingly made up only of slimy back alleys, whores and thugs. My bones ache listening to the guitars strain for survival. This "City" will hurt you and not with a blitzkrieg of a bop to the noggin. This is a regularly scheduled, day-long, bloody beatdown, condensed just enough, just enough to fit into three minutes.
These are just a sample of the songs from this week's Comp. Stomp.
Be sure to load your iPod with the rest of the songs for the full experience!
5. "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)" - The Rolling Stones (1978)
David Ruffin and the rest of the Temptations made a lighter-than-air, heavenly daydream out of their "Imagination." Leave it to Mick Jagger to turn it into a flight of fancy that occurs in between thrusts. The "Some Girls" version is all things a good Stones song should be -- sleazy, boozy, twangy and loose, yet with the miracle of momentum. It's a runaway party of excess and even the chaste can't help but give chase. Jagger's lyrical changes are small, but significant. Where Ruffin's dreams take him to a "cozy, little home" with "two children, maybe three," Mick has, ahem, other plans. "Two boys for you, two girls for me," he leers -- and we can all bet he's not talking about kids ... well, not young ones ... I hope. He then sings, "I'm just a fella with a one-track mind," and you half-expect the next line to be about Marianne Faithfull and a warm Mars bar. The rubbery cover keeps the third verse intact, more or less, where Jagger's sarcastic delivery takes over. "Don't ever let another take her love from me / or I will surely die ..." Hear that rolling sound? That's Mick's eyes. Or maybe it's his withered stones. I'll leave it to your imagination.
6. "Come See About Me" - The Afghan Whigs (1992)
This is an almost too-perfect example of a '90s update of the '60s. Rougher, more depressing, more "real." The Afghan Whigs take The Supremes' poor, little old me yearning and stuff it into a minor key. You think you're sad, we'll show you sad. Moaning background vocals, grungy guitars and a death-rattle jangle create a pigpen of self-pity. Diana Ross and her girls might be home on a Saturday night without dates, but Greg Dulli hasn't gone to work for weeks, gazes at his shoes, walks his neighborhood and philosophizes about what it all means. "Sometimes up," he barks. "Sometimes do-ow-own," he whimpers. He's not begging for love. He's crying for help.
7. "Money (That's What I Want)" - Secret Machines (2005)
The Secret Machines take Motown's first real hit, one of the label's bluesiest compositions and most visceral vocals, and hollow it out, removing every little bit of soul. It's a lonely ghost of a song, stretched to a seven-minute running time and layered with laser beam guitar solos that extend from here to the vanishing point. But just because it's super-proggy doesn't mean the robo-cover is without power. The drums saunter, but they keep pounding hard. Garbled interludes drop from space with a scary rumble. These machines still want Barrett Strong's money, and they'll get it eventually. Robots always win. Resistance is futile and there's no reason to hurry.
8. "Don't Do It" - The Band (1972)
"My biggest mistake was loving you too much." That line just doesn't ever hit you as hard in any other version of this song, originally released by Marvin Gaye as "Baby Don't You Do It" and given a blistering reading by The Who in turn-of-the-'70s concerts (as heard on the CD re-release of "Who's Next"). But Robbie Robertson and the boys lend it that hurky-jurky jalopy jam -- tight and loose -- that makes you fall for The Band every time. This cover, originally included on 1972's "Rock of Ages," famously closed "The Last Waltz" concert and was chosen to open the film. When I hear any of the Band's versions, I picture the little dance that Robertson does as he begins to play -- that double-knee bend, the arm sway, that look to the rest of the guys as he prepares to chug-a-lug through the tune. Then Levon Helm starts barking, Rick Danko begins to howl in unison and Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson prove that life is indeed a carnival, even when your heart is about to get broken.
9. "Higher Ground" - Red Hot Chili Peppers (1989)
Back when the Chili Peppers were truly a funk-metal act, they were never able to write a song that quite lived up to their promise as musicians. Thank goodness for Stevie Wonder. Flea funked up the bassline and an iconic sound was born -- so was the quintessential try-out piece for every burnout demoing a shiny Fender jazz bass at Guitar Center. Once in the heart of the piece, Flea's bass doesn't just go wah-wah, it goes woaowww-woaowww, overloading your speakers with electrified funk. Yet it's not Bootsy Collins and George Clinton (the Chili Peppers' obvious forefathers) that I hear in "Higher Ground." No, it's Pink Floyd -- a way funkier band than it ever gets credit for. Listen to Anthony Kiedis sing "The Woooooorrrld ..." and tell me he's not aping Roger Waters' echo-y moan. The rhythmic charge could be "Sheep" on speed. Well, speed and steroids. And the choral kids approach to the chorus is a direct descendant of "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2." Teacher, leave those kids alone ... until they've reached the highest ground.
10. "Easy" - Faith No More (1992)
In the '90s it was so encouraged to play nostalgia as kitsch that it's refreshing to hear how easy Faith No More goes on this Commodores' ballad. They dial down the schmaltz a little, but a respectable amount of strings and horns remains. A piano still lights the way, although the band tosses in a buzzy guitar solo before the final chorus. Most notably, Mike Patton plays it straight. He doesn't rap or fool around with vocal tics, save for a grunt that leads into the solo. He channels all of his energy into an honest, soulful reading of the song, taking "Easy" as high as it can go, but only when the songs allows. Hard to believe it's the same frontman with the same band that did "Epic." Forget Rod Stewart, let's get Patton to do an album of soul covers.
11. "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" - Creedence Clearwater Revival (1970)
So what do you do with Motown's best single? The song that took three years and four different artists' renditions to get right until Marvin Gaye achieved perfection with the hypnotic, paranoid, vaguely psychedelic classic? Well, if you're CCR, you get on and you ride the song until it's good and finished, whether that takes 11 minutes or the rest of your life. You know, Stu Cook and Doug Clifford take a lot of flack from rock fans for starting Creedence Clearwater Revisted (and they should), but we can sometimes forget how essential that rocksteady rhythm section was to the original band's sound. Yes, John Fogerty is the artiste and he gives this jam a pained, bucolic flavor ("I hooiiid it through the grape-vine"), but there's no way to get to minute 11 without a great drummer and bassist in lockstep. It starts out with a kind of tribal beat, but as the song keeps on chooglin', Cook adds extra notes as he zooms up the fretboard while Clifford flogs his cymbals like they were Fogerty's ego. He even discovers The Chambers Brothers' cowbell toward the end. For a song that's conquered by seven minutes of guitar solos, CCR's "Grapevine" never loses the R&B hypnosis of Gaye's version, even as it goes on and on and on. It never really ends, it just fades out. In some alternate universe, where Tom Fogerty's alive and everyone gets along, CCR is still jamming the hell out of this one.
12. "Too Many Fish in the Sea/Three Little Fishes" - Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels (1967)
Mitch Ryder is Detroit's grandest bridge. No, not to Windsor, Ontario, but between Motown, the sound of young America, on one side and The MC5, The Stooges and "Raw Power" on the other. Ryder's revved-up R&B serves as the link between soul and punk. The evidence: Certainly "Devil in a Blue Dress/Good Golly, Miss Molly" (half a cover of a rare Motown chart miss), but also this full-throttle version of The Marvelettes' hit, inspired by motherly wisdom. Ryder always preferred a medley, so he packages the Motown single with the kids' novelty song "Three Little Fishes," then slays both like he's James Brown in double-time. The bending guitar fills during the verses are 100 percent R&B, the bumblebee guitar solo forecasts the wild, woolly stings of Ron Asheton and the slamdance groove is trademark Ryder.
13. "The Tracks of My Tears" - Adam Lambert (2009)
I want to make this very clear. There are two versions of "Tracks of My Tears" sung by the "American Idol" runner-up. There's a studio rendition -- recorded for iTunes or a commercial or some god-awful "Idol" tie-in -- in which Lambert more or less duplicates Smokey Robinson's reading while a band attempts a carbon copy of the original. Then, there's the version he performed on the show, which, despite being only two-thirds of the composition, is in every way superior to his recorded version. On this past edition (season 8? season 9? I don't know), "Idol" held a Motown week and invited Robinson to help coach the contestants. Of course, all his platitudes and commentary were total garbage -- just like Smokey's post-'60s career -- with one exception. Robinson said that he and everyone who's ever covered "Tracks of My Tears" gets to the "Take a good look ..." part and goes bold and big, pushing the swell of the song. But Lambert did something he'd never heard: He kept the song small. Accompanied solely by an acoustic guitar, Lambert made the song intimate, letting his impeccable falsetto ride the relatively tiny crests and drops. The most casual "Idol" viewer, I stood in my living room, in the middle of doing ... something, but suddenly transfixed by a reality show contestant who had given me the opportunity to hear "Tracks of My Tears" for the first time, somehow. And he didn't even win.
14. "I Want You Back (Alive)" - Graham Parker (1979)
Still in his "angry young man" phase, Graham Parker doesn't attempt to reassemble the Jackson 5's bubbly confection. However angry and young he might have been, the British pub rocker was wise enough to know he couldn't improve perfection. What he could do was add a gag to the song's title (which is never actually sung) and replace little Michael Jackson's keening pleas with the sour voice of someone who's beyond his teenage years. But Parker doesn't play it as a goof or with any sort of misplaced maturity. He commits totally to Michael's interpretation, complete with the opening "ohhhhhhhhhhh" and interspersed "oh. I. do. now's." It's slightly perverse, but also an earnest, joyous take that just happens to swap out the original's orange Hi-C for a dry sherry.
15. "Leaving Here" - The Who (1965)
An early, early Who recording finds the band turning Eddie Holland's warning shot to abusive boyfriends into a full-fledged street fight. In the breaks, Pete Townshend seems to go in eight directions with six strings. Keith Moon and John Entwistle are reliably rough and tumble -- this is Maximum R&B, after all. If Pete had rewritten the lyrics, the song wouldn't be about leaving anywhere. It would be called something like, "We're Staying In Town Just to Kick the Crap Out of You." But that's too many words for Roger Daltrey to remember.
16. "You've Really Got a Hold On Me" - The Beatles (1963)
For their second album, "With The Beatles," the Fab Four pounced on three of the earliest Motown hits, mostly because they had already worked out the suitable arrangements in Hamburg and at the Cavern. The sassy "Please Mr. Postman" and ramshackle "Money (That's What I Want)" are top-flight, but "You've Really Got a Hold On Me" wins its spot on the compilation because John Lennon out-sings Smokey Robinson on his own song. Not technically (who can touch Robinson's crystal-clear falsetto?), but emotionally. Lennon brings that sneer, that nastiness to the proceedings. "I don't like you, but I looove you." "I don't want you, but I neeeed you." It's all about Lennon's primal needs. He despises this girl and she feels likewise, but the sex is too damn good. Fleeting pleasure overcomes any and all animosity. Maybe Smokey was singing about the same thing, but ... wait, who am I kidding? No he wasn't. Smokey once sang the song to a Muppet "U" on "Sesame Street." Which makes me wonder: What kind of Muppet would Lennon have sung to?
Have an idea for a compilation list for Comp Stomp? Email it to Wawzenek@Rocksposure.com