Massively unpopular and completely unknown
Why I’m producing a covers album of my own songs
In the mid 2000s, I read a review of an Ocean Colour Scene gig that has stuck with me. I don’t recall the reviewer or where I read it and, having not found it on the internet, I may just be making this up. The reviewer described Ocean Colour Scene as “having become their own covers band.” At the time I thought this was a pithy putdown of a band no longer popular nor musically interesting, but desperately clinging onto what little they had. The idea of going through the motions of being a cheap imitation of yourself, or no longer producing “original content” is promoted as a pervasive fear in most writing about art. This is a little strange when thinking about the history of music, or of art in general. No one would consider the constant re-imagining of “My Favorite Things” by jazz musicians to be an artistic failure purely on the basis of the source material. I haven’t looked it up, but I am guessing that the majority of orchestral performances are not of brand-new compositions. Folk music is a constant reiteration of themes, chord progressions, and stolen melodies. Even in popular music the cover, the remix, the reimagining is a constant. Robert Wyatt has different versions of his own “ Maryan;” Arthur Russell was never happy with a “final” version of his music, and Townes Van Zandt recorded some pretty woeful string arrangements of his earliest songs late in his career.
I have always loved singing other people’s songs. Early in life we all copy other people’s music. We sing nursery rhymes, then mature to belting out pop music in our bedrooms. Some of us decide to make up our own words. I think the first “song” I ever had a hand in writing was a parody of the Hymn “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” while at primary school:
We three Kings of Orey and Ar
One on a bus and one in a car
One in scooter
Peeping his hooter
Going to yonder bar
Songs are never really “owned.” Legally speaking, they are, but in the minds of the listener they are free. People often get words wrong, sing melodies other than the ones written, and dance out of time or to a polyrhythm. The unified intent of the writer or performer is made meaningless by the audience. The author is a ghost; a specter haunting the music.
Songs are never really “owned” … The author is a ghost; a specter haunting the music.
I once changed a lyric to a song because a band mate misheard it. His lyric was far better than the one I intended.
I love the song “Peoria Lunch Box Blues” by Jason Molina, on the album Magnolia Electric Company. It is not sung by Molina (a wonderful performer and singer in his own right) but by Scout Niblett. When you hear it you realise it is her song, not his. “Shipbuilding” was written by Elvis Costello, but it is Robert Wyatt’s recording that gives it power. Dick Gaughan is mistakenly credited as the writer of “Worker’s Song.” I hear his guitar and voice as the yearning of the working class, their anger, their grief. The song was written by Eric Pickford and covered many times, but it is Gaughan’s song.
Ownership of a song, in either a legal or metaphoric sense, is a very modern concept. It is intrinsically tied to the idea of production and the song as a commodity. Capital has made the production of music, and musical artists, central to its ideological mission. Songwriters produce the commodity of the song; this is only realized as value with the addition of the “artist.” The songwriter has been elevated, or demoted, to designer. The artist is the product; the song is a component in the commodity of the artist.
At university we had a class where we had to establish our “unique selling point” as a musical performer. I have always struggled to do this. It is as if my mind and body reel against the idea that what is valued is not the pleasure of communing with music but the packaging of myself into something easily shippable by next day delivery. This is probably why I am incredibly unsuccessful as an artist (in terms quantifiable by sales, likes, or knowledge of my existence). I have never been good at the social nor structural norms of the music industry. I have a tendency to self-sabotage, have grandiose ideas that never work out, tie myself to the plans of others, shirk on the self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, and put politics above personal satisfaction. I am bad at the business of music.
Other people I know are similar but more “successful.” This is not an excuse. Chance plays a part, personality another, skill and ability are important too (many of my friends are simply better musicians). What the market deems sellable as a commodity is perhaps the most important. I am very bad at the business of music.
I have been writing songs since that first attempt in primary school. It has taken me a long time to shake the idea of being good at it. A friend once told me “you only ever become good at something when you stop worrying if it is stupid or not.” I think I have become less worried about making a fool of myself. My writing is a mediation of my reality, but also a fragment of other realities; ideas borrowed consciously or unconsciously from other songs. It is not purely an subjective thing. Every songwriter will tell you they sometimes have no idea where an idea came from. We are not alone in our actions.
Covering a song just makes this more obvious. Perhaps that is why being your own cover band is so absurd. It lets us see that the new thing is just a lot of old things sellotaped together. There has always been a sense in the gutter press that sampling is not ‘real’ music. There is a disgust for regarding ourselves as less than individual, autonomous, geniuses. I am nothing without you — the person reading this — or the person listening to the music, or Jason Molina, Karl Marx, my parents, the President, the owner of GlaxoSmithKline, Louis Pasteur, Napoleon’s cook, and the digger of the grave for the unnamed soldier.
I have asked my friends to cover my songs. To be completely honest I just want to share my ideas with them and with people who make music I enjoy listening to. I am surprised they want to do it, but I think in these times it is nice. We may not have much time left on this planet. If someone asks me to, I will cover their songs. It not only connects us but allows us to navigate our collective reality. It might be misinterpreted, changed or repurposed, but was it ever mine in the first place? The act of writing a song is in itself a repurposing of the ideas you already know. A rhyme here, a phrase there. There are no uniquely original ideas, only reconstitutions of form with the content of our own collective experience.
There are only ever cover bands of cover bands.