Covered: “Paint It Black”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original. If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

“I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes; I have to turn my head until my darkness goes.”

The heat is still relentlessly bearing down on anything that dares to venture outside, so now is as good a time as any to analyze one of my favorite “summer” songs.  Even in a career packed with hits, “Paint It Black” manages to stand out in my mind as among the Rolling Stones’ best work.  “Paint It Black” is nearly fifty years old, but it still sounds as fresh as it did when it was released in 1966, even after endless replays on radio and its inclusion from films that range from the brilliant to the ridiculous.

Many would point to the contributions of Brian Jones as being the key to the song’s success, and at first glance this would seem appropriate.   His composition of that simple but memorable melody, as well as his use of the distinctive tone of the sitar, stands out in most people’s mind when they recall the song.  The incorporation of Indian influences certainly distinguishes the song from the rest of the Stones’ catalog to that point and marked a watershed moment in Western pop culture, but the real power comes from a more subtle element.

It is the second instrument you hear, right after the the melody is introduced, that is the engine that truly drives the song; once Charlie Watts starts pounding those toms, the song belongs to him.  It has long been fashionable to diminish the importance of Watts to the group,* mainly due to the fact that he is not as flashy as the next generation of rock drummers that followed in his wake.  Though there are a significant number of musicians that will vouch for his technical expertise, his particular strengths will always make him an underrated member to the public at large.  If one takes a few minutes to analyze his part to “Paint It Black” however, it becomes clear how his beats help shape the sound of the Stones, as it is the tension between the mysterious, languid melody and Watt’s insistent, galloping drumbeat that gives “Paint It Black” its energy and verve.  The two parts are locked in battle, only to be released once the song hits the chorus, and the piece reverts to a more conventional rock form.  It is completely counterintuitive to normal compositional techniques to create a rhythmic complement to this melody that would incessantly push the beat in this manner, but it speaks to the genius of Watts that he would match an Eastern melody with a Western rhythm so seamlessly.

In the five decades since its release, “Paint It Black” has inspired countless bands to cover the song.  The incessant drumbeat highlighted above has made it a popular choice among punk bands, and that dark, menacing melody has made it a favorite of several metal acts.  It has also inspired some fascinating versions, two of which derive from the same artist–Eric Burdon first performed a cover with The Animals, emphasizing the song’s more ominous elements, and then developed an epic version with War that aside from a few brief moments hardly resembles the original.  Not only that, “Paint It Black” also inspired a revered group to fail miserably with their own original take.

Covers have long been a part of the repertoire of The Feelies, with most of their albums incorporating at least one.   The band does an excellent job in making their selections, choosing songs from revered artists that fit perfectly with the group’s style and strengths.  If the listener is paying attention, it is easy to hear traces of the original version with each take, but each cover integrates the band’s trademark jangly guitars and post-punk tendencies in such a way that they smoothly blend in with the rest of the album.  Without prior knowledge, the casual listener would have no reason to suspect that a particular song was a cover.

It is unlikely that there is anyone out there whose first encounter with “Paint It Black” would be The Feelies’ version, but it is remarkable how well the cover fits with the rest of their debut album, Crazy Rhythms, even as a tacked-on bonus track to the CD version that was recorded years later.  The cover is in many ways fairly reverent to the original, and in the live version it is clear how the band feeds off the pounding energy of the drums.  What is rather remarkable is how closely the guitars match with the Eastern-tinged elements used by the Stones, when The Feelies are merely using their traditional clean tone with a slight chorus effect.

In a vacuum, it could be argued that this is not a particularly remarkable cover; though it packs a lively punch (and would make a great addition to any live show), it merely accentuates what was great about the original rather than improves upon it.  However, it does illustrate the significance of selecting a song that matches a band’s strength.  At the very least, it is another chance for you to hear “Paint It Black” with fresh ears.

*See also Starr, Ringo.

Covered: “Running To Stand Still”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

For this edition of Covered, we’ve decided to take up a suggestion from one of our friends from Twitter.  We had never head the cover before and only had passing familiarity with the original, but nevertheless we decided to take up the challenge and assess the merits to the best of our ability.  If you feel we’ve failed, don’t blame The Captain, but our own hubris.

The Joshua Tree deserves its reputation as one of the best albums of the 80’s as well as a definite of U2’s career, but for many music fans my age, their general knowledge of the record is limited to the big three singles that kick off the album, thanks to the endless repetition on the radio of “Where the Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and “With Or Without You”.  While all three are great songs in their own right, they paint an incomplete picture of The Joshua Tree as a whole; and because these songs have been so overplayed, the desire to sit down and listen to the album is often absent, so the rest of the record is often overlooked.  It’s too bad, because then you miss out on such gems as “Bullet the Blue Sky”,* “One Tree Hill”, and “Running to Stand Still”.

“Running to Stand Still” is a different kind of ballad than the overblown epic, anthemic types with which U2 has become synonymous, as it demonstrates a certain subtlety that the band has unfortunately neglected in recent years.  The song begins with a quick country-tinged blues guitar riff, a nod to the album’s Americana themes, before shifting focus to the delicate piano chords which make up the bulk of the song, augmented by a light palm-muted guitar (which connects the music to the first third of the album).  As the song builds, Larry Mullen, Jr.’s thundering toms then help guide the song to its climax.  As the song peaks, Bono refrains from breaking into a full-throated bellow as would be expected, and instead takes a more measured approach as he gingerly sings the final lines.  The song then tapers off with a mournful harmonica solo, creating a whirlwind of emotions within the listener–there is a sense of deprivation as the listener is deprived of the desired big climax, but at the same time there is a deep appreciation for the restraint which matches the mood created by the lyrics.

Though Elbow has enjoyed a certain level of popularity among critics for a number of years, my only experience with the band is catching on Palladia a part of a festival performance of theirs; they’re one of those bands that I always mean to check out but unfortunately never do.  My initial impression of the band brings to mind comparisons to Coldplay and Frightened Rabbit, even though I know Elbow predates both bands.  In other words, Elbow fits perfectly as a new millennium version of U2.

As for this cover, Elbow does a great job of respecting the reverence of the original while adding their own personal touches on the edges.  They expand a bit on the intro with a few embellishments of the acoustic guitar, before transitioning to the piano section.  Here, instead of relying on block chords with the occasional melodic connections, the band chooses to arpeggiate them instead, elongating the progression and giving the song an additional bit of momentum.  As the song moves into its climax, the band eschews the thunderous toms of the original and instead relies on a more traditional drum pattern.  The intro guitar makes an additional appearance in this version, making its inclusion seem like less of a novelty, but most importantly Elbow exhibits the same restraint as the song fades to a quiet finish.

This was one of several covers that were done for this War Child compilation, and I have to say this performance has piqued my interest into how all the other acts did with their takes on some classics.  As for this cover, though it doesn’t offer too much in terms of original spin on the material, it still rises above being a mere rote take of the U2 version.  Perhaps this will be the nudge that I needed to dive into the rest of Elbow’s catalog.

*When I got to see U2 on the Vertigo tour, the unquestioned highlight of the show for me was their surprise performance of “Bullet the Blue Sky”.  Sure, it was great to hear the big three from The Joshua Tree, but you expect those to be played, which made their inclusion of “Bullet” that much better.