A couple of years ago I reviewed a collection of Rolling Stones songs recorded in the ’60s by former manager Andrew Loog Oldham’s orchestra. It wasn’t very good – notable only for containing the riff from The Last Time that The Verve stole for Bittersweet Symphony.
But what that collection emphasised, and this new compilation confirms, is that reinterpretations of any kind of Stones songs are often very underwhelming. Compare the canon of Stones covers to that of the Beatles. The latter’s everyman symphonies had the requisite melodic fizz to make even the most hopeless of cover versions (Candy Flip‘s Strawberry Fields Forever, for example) give a certain amount of satisfaction – forgive the pun – merely from the pre-existing beauty of the material they are working with.
But the Rolling Stones were a blues band who wrote riffs rather than tunes, with a massive dose of attitude and satanic balls thrown in. When they knew they had a song that was a bit melodic and ballady and would thus sound better sung by someone else, they gave it away: As Tears Go By being a case in point.
So, to monkey around with these classics often doesn’t work. David Bowie‘s famous version of Let’s Spend the Night Together fits neatly into the mediocrity of the album it is from, Aladdin Sane. Rod Stewart‘s Street Fightin’ Man adds nothing to this ode to revolution, while a truly awful Sympathy For The Devil finds Bryan Ferry straining after a Jagger-esque snarl only to see it continually elude him.
The art of the cover version is a complex business. As a general rule, it is best to pick up on one understated but deeply effective subtlety of the original, and exaggerate and emphasise it. This is exactly what the successes on this compilation do. For example, Tony Merrick‘s version of Lady Jane amplifies the harpsichord so it sounds like Greensleeves, which, when coupled with his Scott Walker vocals, makes a very rewarding listen.
Meanwhile, The Ramones‘ Out Of Time is fairly bland, especially given that it is a song they might easily have written themselves. Linda Ronstadt‘s Tumbling Dice is fine, if unambitious.
Now true originality is found in The Flying Pickets‘ take on Get Off My Cloud, with its a cappella harmonies providing a backing for Mike Skinner-like spoken vocals. Piano maestro and uber-lech Leon Russell contributes a supreme Wild Horses, sped up and countrified with mandolin and exaggerated pedal steel. But it still isn’t as good as The Flying Burrito Brothers‘ version (why is that not on here?).
There are some heavyweight names on this: Bowie, Stewart, Ferry, Ramones along with Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Ike and Tina Turner – and every artist sounds like they had great fun reworking the innate R’n’B swagger of these songs. But while it is overall a reasonably diverting listen, the failure of most of these tracks to translate well when delivered by others serves to confirm the truly unique nature of The Rolling Stones’ sound. The thumping urgency of the original takes is where we fans will always return.