In which we discuss ‘covers’ and what kinds of Prog does JC absolutely hate? Liquid Tension Experiment’s cover of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue. Performance vs. real Music. ELP’s Toccata vs. Pictures At An Exhibition.
Roger CortonYou sent me this video clip of Liquid Tension Experiment’s cover of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue. I’ve seen it. I’m sure most of the fans have seen it. Or if they haven’t they’re familiar with both the players in LTE and the original Rhapsody In Blue.
JCHThis is a large part of what drives me nuts about ‘prog’…
RCOK, so before you get all fired up, let’s be clear from the start that this is not really a ‘discussion’ so much as full rant mode.
JCHHopefully not. Well, maybe. OK, damn it to hell… YEAH! (laughs).
RCAt least you’re honest about it now. That shows some personal growth. But before going into any details, I want to understand why oh why you feel the need to diss another artist, guys with great talent and tons of fans who absolutely love their work? How come you get to do that?
JCHBecause I’m special, Mr. Fucking Rogers. Look, as we’ve discussed…
RCYou mean ranted?
JCHRight. As I’ve ranted before, criticism isn’t antithetical to the artist. Lots of great musicians have been harsh critics. Let’s just say that my criticism is as much an explanation of what I’m trying to do as it is a slag against anyone else. If the reader also wants to consider some of my points in their own appreciation of music? Groovy. And also, when someone says, “Who are -you- to criticize those guys? They have -tons- more fans than you do!” To which I reply? “Then don’t pay attention. But as far as I know, truth ain’t exactly a popularity contest, so neener, neener, dude.” How’s that for maturity?
RCOh yeah. So… what’s the beef with LTE covering Gershwin?
JCHThe beef is that it isn’t art. It’s entertainment.
RCAnd as always, what’s so bad about entertainment?
JCHWell… nothing if you put it that way. But there’s a question of taste and respect for the piece. Let’s start with the whole notion of ‘covers’.
RCLook, we’ve talked before about the whole notion of ‘covers’ and frankly, I think you’re going to have a tough time nailing this down.
JCHYou’re right. I think this is one of those ‘porn’ deals.
RCPorn deals, you say?
JCHYou know that old Supreme Court decision where justice Stewart says something like, “I’m not sure I can precisely define ‘porn’ but I KNOW IT WHEN I SEE IT.” I think the best way to put it is that there is an area of the brain (it’s right behind the left ear) that lights up when a person sees something like a rock cover of Rhapsody In Blue. I think it’s called The Liberace Process.
RCYou made that up.
JCHI did. But somewhere in there you just know that when you’re watching some rock band cover ‘Ode To Joy’ it’s a bit of a lark. It’s turning Beethoven into Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s not an artistic ‘interpretation’, it’s a lark. And I don’t have a problem with it if that’s the understanding. Like watching PDQ Bach. But a lot of people watch this and think that because they’re using a ‘serious’ piece as their framework that automatically makes what they do credible.
RCSo no covers are good?
JCHNot at all. Look at Yes’s “America”. That’s a great cover.
JCHIt’s a re-think of the piece. I think it works even for people who have no idea about the Simon & Garfunkel original. Whereas this Rhapsody In Blue doesn’t do anything new. In fact, I’m not sure you can even enjoy LTE’s version if you aren’t familiar with the original. And come to think of it, that’s usually a bad sign.
JCHWhenever you see a piece of art that doesn’t work without a reference to the original, that’s automatically suspect.
RCThat argument may also be a ‘porn deal’.
JCHPerhaps. But here’s another good ‘cover’, ELP’s ‘Toccata’. Keith was fantastic at covering a piece and making it stand on its own. To my ear, that piece sounds as fresh as Ginastera’s original. Different, but just as fresh.
RCBut doesn’t having something familiar for the audience help give them a way into deeper stuff?
JCHA ‘gateway’ you say? I wonder how many people who listen to Bohemian Rhapsody or Rick Wakeman or Metallica With The London Symphony Orchestra then go on to enjoy Handel or Beethoven or Stravinsky?
RCI can just hear Chris Squire saying, “Not too many.”
JCHRight. And then there’s this: Do you honestly think this version works outside of that live setting? In other words, is it just a performance?
RCWell obviously it’s a performance.
JCHI think another smell-test is: do you have to be ‘there’
to enjoy it? In other words, a piece that works only when viewed is in my mind entertainment more than music. And that applies to a lot of music, by the way. I submit that this version of Rhapsody In Blue only ‘works’ in live-mode. A ‘studio’ version would be almost silly.
RCNow I get you. Like ELP’s “Pictures At An Exhibition”. Probably it was great to see back in 1970 but I never listen to the record.
JCHCringe-worthy isn’t it? There’s a lot of stuff that people do ‘live’ that really gets the crowd going that is just not meant to be heard outside the theater. That’s the Liberace Process in action. But back to their version of ‘Toccata’, that’s a great piece of music. It worked as an over the top performance piece…
RCThe whole stabbing-the-organ-to-death bit never gets old for me.
JCH…the classics never do. But it works even better on the album. It’s just a great arrangement. Full stop. And that’s what people doing ‘prog’ should aspire to. That is my beef; when progressive rock artists jump the shark. When they wink at the camera. When they basically are saying, “Yes, all the criticism over the decades was right. Why deny it? We are pretentious. You love it! LET’S REVEL IN IT, SHALL WE!”
RCWhew… You must’ve gotten spit all over your screen. OK, I think I’m starting to get your basic points. Can we wrap it up in some sort of unified field theory of ranting? You often say that talking about something often brings it into focus. What have we learned here?
JCHCovers are not intrinsically bad. At the end of the day, if you do a cover and you know it doesn’t bear listening to outside of a live performance? It’s probably entertainment and not real music. If you cover a less well-known piece, you’re probably on safer ground artistically. If you cover a crowd-pleaser, you’re doing it to, well, to please the crowd and that should immediately give one pause. I think in that case, it’s probably better to completely jump the shark, like Liberace or PDQ Bach, than to do what LTE does with Rhapsody In Blue because there’s this gray area where it’s not really Spinal Tap, but… it’s sure starting to smell like the glove.
RCI think that’s a most excellent reference. And a most excellent place for us to stop today.