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Saturday 21 October 2017

Music: Stones take cover for inspiration

Rolling back the years: The Stones in action in Nashville last year during their Zip Code Tour
Rolling back the years: The Stones in action in Nashville last year during their Zip Code Tour
David Bowie with model Twiggy for the cover of Pin Ups, Bowie's 1973 album of cover versions
John Meagher

John Meagher

The Rolling Stones have released a new album, their first in 11 years. And here's the surprising thing: Blue & Lonesome is really, really good. It's been attracting glowing notices across the board and it's generally seen as their best album in at least three decades.

The Stones have churned out so many desperately ordinary albums since 1981's Tattoo You that most had simply switched off. Why bother with the pedestrian new stuff, one might reasonably have thought, when you could reacquaint yourself with all those essential albums they brought out a few years either side of 1970?

But this one is raw, primal and thrilling - and rolls back the years quite magnificently. It's an album entirely made up of covers and Mick 'n' Keef really seem energised. It's actually their first album of covers - their 1965 debut featured three original compositions - and like that first album, they're looking again to some of the giants of the blues.

Think Willie Dixon, Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf, Memphis Slim and Little Walter. And their versions aren't safe, by-the-numbers interpretations - in places, it genuinely sounds as though these septuagenarian squillionaires are playing as though their lives are depending on it.

On face value, an album entirely made up of covers might seem like a knockabout stop-gap - and that's quite often the case - but Blue & Lonesome is surely destined to rank alongside the really good examples of the type. And, at their best, such covers albums are significant artistic statements in their own right.

One such great is Pin Ups, released by David Bowie in 1973, a third of the way through an astonishingly fertile decade. With Twiggy and Bowie on the cover, the album gave a glam-rock sheen to an eclectic batch of songs originally recorded by the likes of The Who and The Kinks the previous decade. Bowie's "60s nostalgia" album, as he liked to call it, features the great Mick Ronson on guitar and there's a playfulness at every turn.

One of its more enduring covers, 'See Emily Play', offered a reminder in the year The Dark Side of the Moon swept all before it that Pink Floyd were a very different proposition when Syd Barrett was at the helm for the song's original release in 1967.

All the songs were from British artists and Bowie planned to release a similar covers album featuring material from American musicians - but it was never recorded. Some of the tracks he planned to cover eventually made it on to the Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003) albums.

On the same November day that Bowie released Pin Ups, another totemic figure of British pop was demonstrating just how special he could be on an album of covers. Bryan Ferry's These Foolish Things - his solo debut, recorded while still very much the frontman of Roxy Music - saw him reinventing, in his own inimitable fashion, Bob Dylan's 'A Hard Rain's A-gonna Fall' and the Stones' 'Sympathy For The Devil' and a batch of other UK and American rock staples. Fast-forward to 2007 and Ferry was releasing another covers album, with all tracks this time in honour of Bob Dylan.

Dylanesque should be on the radar for any admirer of either man and Ferry's rendition of 'Simple Twist Of Fate' is outstanding. Ferry still knocks out great covers, as his inspired Todd Terje-assisted take on Robert Palmer's 'Johnny And Mary' so palpably demonstrates.

But back to the mid-70s, the Golden Age, surely, of the covers album as a concept. In 1975, John Lennon dropped Rock 'n' Roll, his album in celebration of the music of the 1950s. Several of the reviews at the time were uncomplimentary, but listening today, it's hard to deny Lennon wasn't enraptured by the songs of boyhood heroes like Gene Vincent and Chuck Berry.

The album was produced by Phil Spector over the course of a fraught year and Lennon wouldn't release another album until 1980's Double Fantasy, opting instead to raise his children (a good call considering the tragedy that was just around the corner).

The late Leonard Cohen was covered by a galaxy of artists, although perhaps the defining interpretation of his work is from former collaborator Jennifer Warnes. Her 1987 homage, Famous Blue Raincoat, remains one of my favourite covers albums: she's both reverential and keen to remove Cohen's work from any straitjacket. 'If It Be Your Will', a bonus track from the 20th anniversary edition, is particularly stunning.

Tori Amos is no stranger to the covers game either and her 2001 album, Strange Little Girls, saw her take a dozen tracks written and performed by men and subtly re-imagining them from a female perspective. And what an eclectic collection, too, as the North Carolina native stamps her own authority on songs from Eminem, Slayer and 10cc.

Most memorable, perhaps, is her sombre, stripped-back version of 'I Don't Like Mondays' - a world away from the Boomtown Rats - while her sprawling, 10-minute remodelling of 'Happiness Is A Warm Gun' is among the most inventive Beatles covers I've ever heard.

And speaking of inventive, Brazilian samba revivalist Seu Jorge shows that it's possible to take the work of a totemic musician, change the language and thoroughly shake up the sound, yet still be true to the original material.

Jorge's music for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the 2004 film made by auteur director Wes Anderson, finds him taking Bowie songs from the Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust era and re-imagining them as acoustic samba numbers, sung in Portuguese.

It's a novel way to listen to some of Bowie's most celebrated songs and a reminder, in the year that's in it, of the substantial legacy he left behind.

Blue & Lonesome is out now

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