Coup d’état of a Song

It is very rare that a coup d’état of a song becomes a magical moment. It only happens when the artists who carries out the coup d’état takes the song on a different adventure envisaged by the original writer and artist. When it does happen it gives the work a fresh emphasis and purpose to the listener. It can also introduce the masses to an unknown, forgotten and often undervalued artist. It also tends to happen best when a song is further compounded by present circumstances, or a certain mythology has developed around the song.

A coup d’état of a song takes place when it is overthrown by an artist who sticks a flag in it like an adventurer on newly discovered land. The impostor goes on to claim the integrity of the song.  A coup d’état of a song goes far beyond the banal multitude of manufactured cover songs that pollute the environment through talentless TV shows. One of the best examples for the coup d’état of a song in recent years is the Leonard Cohen song ‘Hallelujah’.

Legend has it that Cohen wrote around 80 draft verses for the song whilst alone in a hotel room. Apparently the song had reduced him to sitting on the floor, in underwear and alleviating the creative pressure by banging his head on the floor in frustration. Cohen’s original version of Hallelujah emerged on the 1984 album ‘Various Positions’ and was largely ignored until John Cale carried out a song coup d’état in 1991 as part of the Cohen tribute album ‘I’m Your Fan.’

Cohen’s original version went for the choir backing, electric piano, drums and echoed lead vocal – full on production. Cale’s version was structured more delicately around a single vocal and grand piano that gave the song a much more personal, haunting and dramatic production.  Its Cale’s version that is more likely to be performed by artists, including Cohen himself who during his latest round of tours performed Cale’s version. It is also the Cale version that appears in the 2001 Shrek film and not the Jeff Buckley one, as many believe, although interestingly the Cale version did not appear on the soundtrack album for the film.
He never got to meet his musical heroes.

He never got to meet his musical heroes.

The commercially successful coup d’état of the song was of course undertaken by Jeff Buckley who in turn was inspired by the Cale coup d’état rather than Cohen’s original. Buckley’s coup d’état has become the best known and featured on his only complete album, Grace from 1994. The song was released to great commercial success during 2006/07 when it charted around the world.Buckley sadly did not live long enough to witness this success after dying in tragic circumstances at the age of 30 in 1997. His Grace album did not go Gold until 2002, nine years after its original release.

These tragic circumstances added further mystery to the Buckley coup d’état of Hallelujah, which had further intrigue given that Jeff Buckley is the son of Tim Buckley the legendary folk singer from the 1960s/70 who also died young at the age of 28 in 1975.

Musical history is littered with the missed possibilities for creative partnerships caused by egos, untimely deaths, or simply artists not being around and kicking at the same time. So whilst sitting alone one Sunday morning listening to a few CD’s, sipping coffee and pondering aimlessly I thought about some of our sadly demised artists and the songs that were published after their death, which in my view they would have graced with a glorious coup d’état. Here are my top 5 selections.

1. Billie Holiday: The Rolling Stones ‘As Tears Go By’.

By 1959 Billie Holiday’s ravished life of rape, prostitution, alcohol abuse and drug addiction had come to an end. On May 31 of that year Holiday had been taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York suffering from liver and heart disease. She was arrested for drug possession as she lay dying, and her hospital room was raided by the authorities.

In 1994 the Jazz label Verve released a collection of tracks by Holiday entitled The Great American Songbook, which captures some of her final recordings. The glory days were well and truly gone by now. Holiday struggles to hit the notes and her voice is noticeable cracking, often slurred in delivery. In her glory days Holiday was renowned to be one of the greatest female vocalists in the world with a vocal that could melt an audience into submission with ease. The Great American Songbook collection of songs leaves a harrowing legacy that faced many Black artists, especially Black women who were exploited, abused and ultimately lost their life in pursuit of their art and in the hand of the ruthless men controlling the music business. I can think of no more fitting song than the Rolling Stones ‘As Tears Go By”

This song was written by Jagger, Richards and their then manager. The song was originally given the female treatment by Marianne Faithful and was initially earmarked for the ‘b’ side of her record in the early 1960s, but upon hearing the demo her record company decided to switch the track to the ‘a’ side and it went on to Chart. It took a few years until the Stones actually released their version of the song. Faithful delivered a credible effort, but imagine Holiday with her life experience and lady day voice transforming this song into a pain of beauty and making angels cry.

2. Miles Davis: Radiohead’s ‘The National Anthem’

In 2001 Radiohead released ‘Amnesiac’ their fifth studio album. The final track on the album is entitled, ‘Living in a Glasshouse.’ Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood wrote to the ageing British jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton asking him to play on the track because the band was “a bit stuck.” Lyttelton apparently agreed to help after his daughter shared their 1997 classic album OK Computer with him. This event informed my next imaginary venture. I take you back one Radiohead album to set out my next coup d’état of a song.

Kid A Radiohead’s fourth studio album was written, conceived and recorded around the same time as Amnesiac. The 3rd track on Kid A is the thunderous, “The National Anthem’ with is driving bass line and disjointed electronics. It would be absolutely breathtaking to have witnessed a free flowing, at his best, Miles Davis kicking into this track, which would not have been to much out of place given the music styles Davis was experimenting with in the 1970s.

In 1970 Davis released the controversially titled, ‘Bitches Brew’ that continued his experimentation into using electric instruments and a loser rock-influenced improvisational style. The Album received mixed responses and reviews upon its release, due to its unconventional style and sound, although it is now gained recognition as one of jazz’s greatest albums and a progenitor of the jazz rock genre, as well as a major influence on rock musicians… Radiohead no doubt.

Davis died in 1991 and is generally recognised as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century who was at the forefront of major developments in jazz music, including bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, and jazz fusion.

Davis and Radiohead a marriage made in heaven and divorce played out in hell.

3. Curtis Mayfield: Tom Waits ‘Alice’

Two of my favourite artists of all time. This is a collaboration that sends shivers down my spine and one that if existed would be demanded at my funeral. Curtis Mayfield wrote and sang from the heart with truth, love and passion. Often overlooked and generally only credited by the masses via his soul classic ‘Move on up’ that has gone on to be bastardised through many a TV commercial and dreadful remix.

Mayfield died in 1999 and left a back catalogue, which is enough to put most of today’s recording artists to shame. Recognised as a pioneering soul, funk, R&B, singer and songwriter Mayfield was grounded in the radical politics of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and composed the soundtrack for the blaxploitation film Super Fly. He was also a multi-instrumentalist who played the guitar, bass, piano, saxophone, and drums. Mayfield was paralysed from the neck down after stage lighting equipment fell on him during an outdoor concert at Wingate Field in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York. He was unable to play guitar again, but he wrote, sang, and directed the recording of his last album, New World Order. Mayfield’s vocals for the album were painstakingly recorded, usually line-by-line while lying on his back.

Alice is an album by Tom Waits, released in 2002. The album contains the majority of songs written for the play/opera of the same name that was adapted by Robert Wilson. The play/opera explores the obsessive relationship between Lewis Carroll and the little girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland, Alice Liddell.

The opening track of the album entitled Alice guides you into a false sense of security; a lovely, candle-flickering tune, drums brushed around a breathy sax and gently chiming vibes. What comes afterwards is a journey into the darkest regions of obsession, insecurity and personal fears played out in the tone, structure and vocal tortures that Tom Waits is perfect at producing. It is the title track Alice that I can imagine Mayfield bringing glory too.

The creative clash between these completely different artists and style in my view (and imagination) would generate something of immense beauty, equally it could be a right mess just like Joe Strummers duet with Johnny Cash where they jointly warbled the Bob Marley’s classic Redemption Song – what a trio Cash, Strummer and Marley all dead, all legends, yet somethings should never escape the studio.

4. Janis Joplin: The Milks Carton Kid ‘Michigan’

The Milk Carton Kid’s album Prologue, 2011 in my view is a modern folk classic. The album bursts with confidence lyrically from its opening track ‘Michigan’. The band consist of singers and guitarists Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan. At the point of writing their first two albums are free to download from the bands website:

Janis Joplin died in 1970 and was an American singer-songwriter who first rose to prominence in the late 1960s as the lead singer of the psychedelic-acid rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company. On the 4th October 1970 her absence from the recording studio was causing concern. She was found dead on the floor of her bedroom that day with the official cause of death being an overdose of heroin combined with alcohol.

Although Joplin had a remarkable, powerful and distinctive voice, it was also tinged with a fragile tone that could turn a song on its head whilst in the middle of delivering.  Whilst Michigan the place is a place of natural beauty, its largest city is Detroit, with its proud musical heritage has succumb to dramatic industrial and social decline witnessed by on a few major cities. These conflicting dilemmas play out in the song and add to its depth.

Joplin would have taken this song by its throat and transformed it from its delicate folk interpretation into wailing epitaph in honour of a once great city, its people, families and community. No rock will have been left unturned, every emotion would have been exposed and cast at our feet to ponder.

5. John Lennon: Low ‘Plastic Cup’

There is the Beatles. There is John Lennon as a solo artist and there is the mythology that surrounds Lennon. Personally I’m not a great fan of his solo work, which I often find pretentious, but this of course does not diminish the great man from my reflections. Plastic Cup appears on the Low album Invisible Ways.

Formed in 1993 the music of Low is characterised by slow tempos and minimalist arrangements. The track Plastic Cup represents typical Low territory with it’s brooding, unhurried, dark, but yet warm produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Lennon will have been at his best singing the words of Plastic Cup, “And now they make you piss into a plastic cup and give it up. The cup will probably be here long after we’re gone, what’s wrong?” The type of lyric I can image him writing in and around the time the Beatles imploded resulting in his fractured separation from Paul McCartney.

By the early 70s Lennon and McCartney where is creative war with one another. First of the blocks was McCartney with his studio album ‘Ram’ that contained the track “Too Many People” which McCartney confessed was a dig at Lennon. The response was not long in the waiting when Lennon released the ‘Imagine’ album later the same year, which contained the infamous track ‘How do you sleep at night?’ The lyrics of Lennon’s track, “The only thing you done was yesterday alongside “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead” leave little to the imagination as to the festering hatred that was eating away in Lennon.

Lennon was known for his politically left leaning sympathies and his last known act of political activism was a statement in support of the striking sanitation workers in San Francisco on 5 December 1980. He and Ono planned to join the workers’ protest on 14 December. Lennon was shot dead on 8 December 1980 in New York. He was was forty years old and on that day the corporate music elite lost all hope of a Beatles reunion, but it remains a sad note to the world that Lennon and McCartney where not able to work it out.

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