Playing cover songs is a sign of creative fatigue

Categories: Poptimystic

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.

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5 comments
Brett Schreiber
Brett Schreiber

sorry to call bullshit so bluntly here, but you could not have picked two worse examples to begin your article. beck, who released the wildly innovative song reader album just two months ago, has spent the last few years collaborating with such badasses as thurston moore, stephen malkmus and charlotte gainsbourg (just to name a few), as well as writing a large amount of new original material for film and video games. the flaming lips, who are about to release their FOURTEENTH original studio album in april, released a full length collaborative album last year, NINE collaborative EPs in 2011, and a full length in 2009, the same year they released the admittedly regrettable DSotM trainwreck. some of their recent experiments have been of a lower quality than previous efforts, but i challenge you to name any bands that have been more willing to continue to experiment and reinvent themselves that far into their careers. these are two of the most creative, innovative, collaborative, experimental and PROLIFIC bands in the world, and i think you are way off mark by chastising them for a couple of cover albums.

Adam Nowlin
Adam Nowlin

I was not a fan of the DSofM show at Red Rocks when they came through, and also was not expecting it.

Jeremy Coss
Jeremy Coss

very well written article. While a few bands can pull off a cover album, there are so many that can't. Also, while it's cool for a Dark Side of the Moon show by the Flaming Lips, I swear they toured on that for like three years. Cool the first time, ridiculous as time went on.

ianomusic
ianomusic

Nice article Josiah! George Harrison covering 'Got My Mind Set On You' is the only exception I can think of - though most don't know that's a cover.

kylefree
kylefree

@ianomusic I think his thesis is that a cover song is fine, a cover album is foreboding.

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