So, when Peter Gabriel invited a fine selection of artists to cover his songs by covering their songs, what came out of it?
Before we dive into the returned favors album „And I’ll Scratch Yours“, lets say up front that I was enthusiastic about „Scratch My Back“. It ripped other people’s songs apart and put them back together as orchestral pieces, and well done. That stands, no matter what will follow.
For the covered artists the implicit challenge was to do as has been done unto them: Rip apart your favorite PG number and put the pieces in the tumbler, to see what emerges. Let me recount how those efforts played out. Of course, that’s just my taste, and YMMV very much, and it’s your right to disagree wholeheartedly.
I Don’t Remember, done over by David Byrne. I like it, David gave it a lighter, danceable groove, not taking the song entirely serious. He left the songs structure intact, only adding a little jig at the end. As always, I love David’s singing style.
Come Talk to Me, folksyfied by Bon Iver, with support from the studio’s reverb section. It’s a lame song to begin with (sorry, Peter, really), and it needed ripping apart like no other song in this collection (with the possible exception of Blood of Eden). And what did they do? Nothing. To much respect for da man? Maybe. Pass.
Blood Of Eden, slightly dusted-off and set to the piano by Regina Spektor. „Blood“ like „Come Talk“ lived on the rich textured music on US, and stripping away that layers and layers of instruments and the drama of then lovers Peter and Sinead, leaves the song pretty empty and bland. And then Regina adds to it not really much. You wouldn’t notice this song if it would be played in your pub. Regina didn’t even add some french. Another missed opportunity of de-crusting those overcomplicated songs of US.
Not One Of Us, electrified by Stephen Merritt. Another approach of the masters work with way to much respect for the original. Just running it through your Digital Audio Workstation doesn’t do it justice. Stephen, if you think a horn section is needed, then next time, leave the ‚lectric gimmicks at home and play it with horns, real horns, mkey?
Shock The Monkey, slowed down considerably by Joseph Arthur. Yeah, now someone has the balls to break a song down. „Monkey“ is a fast song by Peter, the video shows him running through the park and so on. What better than to pull the brakes on this one!? Put the delay and reverb on the guitar und spell out those words one by one. And than pull back the noise for a sun-breaking-through-the-clouds moment on „don’t like it but I guess I’m learning“. Way to go, Mr. Arthur.
Big Time, by Randy Newman. This one leaves my scratching not my back but my head. „‚Tis s’posed t’be funny?“ Can’t warm to it, sorry. Ah, wait, there was a time when Peter would have played it that way. Around the time of his first album, with that Barbershop Band, „Excuse me“, „Waiting for the Big One“, if you remember? Yeah, it’s Randy channelling a 1976 Peter! Solved it.
Games Without Frontiers, covered by Arcade Fire. It doesn’t get closer to missing the point of „Scratch my Back“. Boys and Girls, that version of the song has already been recorded, like thirty years ago! Don’t you have a single new idea to add to? Class dismissed, go and make another „Reflektor“ video!
Mercy Street gets respect by Elbow. Yes, Elbow, you picked up a clue from PG’s own a cappella live versions. But that’s not back-scratching, that’s back-stabbing! Boys. Boys. That’s so lame. If you have so much respect for that splendid and dear-to-my-heart song that you don’t dare touch it, then, dogdamnit, pick another one!
Mother of Violence, a static movement by Brian Eno. This one has going for it that it does not cling to the original. It’s noisy, loopy static and Mr. Eno plays with his voice samples like the master of electronics he is. Mr. Eno here is a stand-in for Mr. Bowie (Heroes), who couldn’t be bothered or was busy re-incarnating. I say it’s okay, but nothing I’ll come back to very often. (Hey, did I mention that I might be totally wrong?)
Don’t Give Up, roles-reversed by Feist and Timber Timbre. Another song that is far to close to the original. Just exchanging man and woman roles in the song isn’t enough. Ad libbing some notes isn’t enough. It’s filler, and we all know it. Don’t understand why Peter bothered. Just because Radiohead didn’t call back?
Solsbury Hill, strip-mined by Lou Reed. Finally (you might be glad to hear it’s the next-to-last song on „Back“) someone doing some tearing-apart. Has its similarities to Joseph Arthur’s „Monkey“, a reverbed guitar and Lou giving those words some room for you to pick up the lyrics. Makes me wonder how Johnny Cash would have done this number on American Recordings.
Biko strummed by Paul Simon. Can’t blame Simon, he’s staying true to his style, making Biko his own. A rather diplomatic closer.
So, that’s the run through. If you had high hopes for some innovative renovation of PG material, maybe you will be as underwhelmed as I am.
A little statistics:
PG1: Solsbury Hill
PG2: Mother of Violence
PG3: I Don’t Remember, Games Without Frontiers, Not One Of Us, Biko
PG4: Shock the Monkey
SO: Big Time, Mercy Street, Don’t Give Up
US: Come Talk To Me, Blood of Eden
Ain’t it funny that people picked most of the songs from PG3?
What’s missing? UP. No loss, you say? Let me tease you: Signal to Noise, done by Radiohead .. yummy?