January 30, 2005

Sunday night mp3s
I wasn't around in the '60s or early '70s, but I have the feeling that most of the cover tunes recorded back then were done in the spirit of creating/cultivating a new "popular songbook," where the material was seen as a thing greater, more durable, more monolithic than the young and relatively unproven artists trying their hand at it. Funny thing is, a lot of those pop standards and their songwriters (Jimmy Webb, Laura Nyro, the very early work of Randy Newman) fell well below the cultural radar after a while, and the once-unproven interpreters are now, by and large, very very famous even today.

One songwriter young people know (young meaning "my age," which I realize isn't that young) is Cat Stevens, either because they've seen Harold and Maude or they're aware that he's a has-been hippie who's now a controversial fundamentalist Muslim. He wasn't known as a hitmaker for other musicians, but he did get covered by a group whose already accomplished frontwoman would go on to become a living freaking legend.

Sixties/seventies pop music wasn't the wonderful rainbow of inclusivity that idealists wish it was (that fantastical world where the Top 40 was colorblind, gender-neutral, and genre-oblivious). Record companies had marketing savvy and wanted to sell product. If black R&B singers wanted to be taken seriously as artists AND put food on the table, they'd have to go after the newly moneyed baby boomers, "sophisticated" college grads eager to consume high culture while remaining socially conscious and all that jazz. Nina Simone cornered this market; Roberta Flack as well. Aretha Franklin recorded one of the definitive versions of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Less famously, a 1972 album by LaBelle kicked off with the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again." The LP's title track was a funked-out, slow-burning, poetically licentious nine-and-a-half-minute treatment of Cat Stevens' three-minute folk throwaway "Moonshadow." It wasn't reverent, it didn't cautiously lift the song with chopsticks; it took naff new-age candy floss and turned it into elaborate space-gospel with hot legs and a sense of humor.

The flipside to all this is that later in the '70s, all the old-line respectable rock dudes had to adapt to changing trends so no matter what else they were doing they all made their obligatory disco songs. Cat Stevens too. There was no use for him in the 1977 world -- you couldn't spit without hitting a better and more relevant artist that year -- but somehow, a perky proto-electro rollerskating jam named "Was Dog a Doughnut" found its way onto his Izitso album and became a minor hit. Cratedigger notoriety followed...


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