Before they were rock stars, they were fans: impressionable kids who scoured the racks at their local record shops looking for something, a single or an album that would change their lives. Once they found it, they took it home and played it to death while obsessing over every detail of the packaging until it was all committed to memory. Then they would return to find something new and repeat the process all over again.
Even after they started their own bands and achieved their own level of success, they never stopped being fans. From time to time, they even recorded their own versions of their childhood favourites with varying results.
But sometimes the best way to pay tribute to a classic song is to be subtle. Instead of doing a full throttle remake, why not just make a quick passing reference in one of your originals? Like a direct lyric lift or a sample.
These five bands did just that:
1. Rush honours Simon & Garfunkel in The Spirit Of Radio (1980)
Drummer Neil Peart was a fan of CFNY, the tiny FM alternative rock station that would introduce the likes of Elvis Costello, the Sex Pistols, U2 and countless other cutting edge acts to Toronto-area listeners beginning in 1978 while also playing the latest from Neil Young and The Who, two revered influences on the burgeoning movement.
As a tribute to the station, Peart wrote the lyrics to The Spirit Of Radio, one of CFNY’s early ad slogans, which became one of the key singles from the 1980 album, Permanent Waves.
In the final reggae section of the song, singer/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee sings:
“For the words of the profits are written on the studio walls/Concert hall”
That’s a sly reference to this lyric from Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sounds Of Silence:
“And the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls/And tenement halls”
Peart was mocking the corroding influence of the commercial music business on individual creativity.
Ironically, The Spirit Of Radio would only receive sporadic airplay on CFNY, much to Rush’s disappointment. It would be spun far more often on local competing classic rock stations. In fact, it still is. It wasn’t until Catherine Wheel was commissioned by the station to do a cover for the Spirit Of The Edge Vol. 2 compilation in 1996 that the song, albeit in this remade form, was finally put in high rotation.
2. Bush references David Bowie in Everything Zen (1994)
Ultimately derided as Nirvana clones (they were really trying to sound like The Pixies), this English foursome couldn’t produce enough modern rock hits to ever win over their increasingly unimpressed critics.
Their first album, Sixteen Stone, quietly debuted just before Christmas in late 1994 and would go on to spawn five singles which flooded alt-rock stations for the next two years. (The last one, Machinehead, continues to be a jock anthem at numerous sporting events today, most notably hockey.)
Of all the Sixteen Stone hits, none was better than their debut offering, Everything Zen. At the start of the second verse, singer Gavin Rossdale sings:
“Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow/Dave’s on sale again”
After the massive UK success of his fifth album, The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars in 1972, David Bowie’s record company RCA decided to release a single from his previous LP, Hunky Dory, in order to cash in on his sudden fame the following year.
Smart move. Life On Mars? went on to become a Top 5 smash despite being two years old. (Strangely, it was never released as a single in North America.) At the start of the second verse, Bowie sings:
“It’s on America’s tortured brow/Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow/Now the workers have struck for fame/Cause Lennon’s on sale again”
Bowie was referencing future close pal John Lennon who would release the Imagine album in 1971. (Four years later, they would collaborate on Bowie’s first US number one smash, Fame, which gives that portion of the lyric unintentional prescience.) In turn, Rossdale was giving a tip of the hat to Bowie who actually didn’t release any new CDs in 1994. Presumably, the Bush frontman is referring to his 1993 solo comeback, Black Tie White Noise.
Interestingly enough, Bowie himself referenced another song in Life On Mars? While the female protagonist is watching the fictional, unnamed film in the chorus, he sings “look at those cavemen go”. As noted by Wikipedia, that’s a direct reference to a 1960 song called Alley Oop by a forgotten band called The Hollywood Argyles. (“Look at that caveman go!“)
3. The Tea Party pays homage to Joy Division in Fire In The Head (1995)
Another band who knows a thing or two about having their egos bruised by the critics is this Windsor, Ontario trio. Often dismissed as “Jim Morrison fronting Led Zeppelin”, which is only partially correct (the band has freely admitted deriving inspiration from the English metal pioneers), The Tea Party were actually more influenced by Joy Division.
Case in point: the 1995 single Fire In The Head from their third album, The Edges Of Twilight. At the end of every verse, deep-voiced frontman Jeff Martin croons with his higher-voiced self:
“This is the way/Step aside”
That just happens to be the chorus for Joy Division’s Atrocity Exhibition, the opening track from their second album, Closer. (Atrocity Exhibition was also the name of an experimental J.G. Ballard novel.)
Tired of comparisons to The Doors, The Tea Party named their fourth album Transmission (also the name of an early non-album Joy Division single) and added keyboards to their already unique sound. By the end of the decade, they were one of the most successful bands in Canada, half-accurate critical descriptions be damned.
4. Garbage quietly samples R.E.M. for Stupid Girl (1995)
The fourth single from the first Garbage album was their Top 40 breakthrough. The drum hook that plays throughout the track is from The Clash’s Train In Vain which, curiously enough, was their first Top 40 achievement.
But there’s another unoriginal drum part not credited in the liner notes that pops up during several instrumental breaks. If you listen closely, you’ll notice a quick rat-a-tat-tat sample from R.E.M.’s Orange Crush.
So, why wasn’t this noted? A number of quick web searches didn’t provide any answers. (My guess: a secret financial deal was reached without the need for credit which, as Alan Cross has noted, is pretty standard for the industry.) Maybe when the 20th Anniversary edition of Garbage, the band’s self-titled debut, comes out later this year, we’ll get the full scoop.
5. The Killers tip their hat to David Bowie in Mr. Brightside (2004)
This one I just noticed recently after buying the Hunky Dory CD.
In the last verse of Queen Bitch, his glammy tribute to Lou Reed, Bowie sings about being isolated, cold and envious in his hotel room. At one point, while continuing to observe his male companion “down on the street”, he reports:
“So I throw both his bags down the hall/And I’m phoning a cab/Cause my stomach feels small”
In Mr. Brightside, frontman Brandon Flowers is tormented in the aftermath of an ended affair. In the second half of the song’s only verse where he punishes himself by dreaming about his ex getting involved with another man, he sings:
“Now I’m falling asleep/And she’s calling a cab/While he’s having a smoke/And she’s taking a drag/Now they’re going to bed/And my stomach is sick”
Earlier, near the end of the first verse of Queen Bitch, Bowie sings:
“I just can’t see her letting him go.”
In Mr. Brightside, in the midst of his imaginary nightmare, Flowers observes:
“But she’s touching his chest now/he takes off her dress now/letting me go”
These similiarites between the two sets of lyrics (both songs deal with jealous lovers) are not a coincidence. Flowers has openly declared his admiration for Bowie in the press for years. In fact, in 2010, he said his music changed his life. In a 2013 interview with Entertainment Weekly, he admitted that the bassline for All The Things That I’ve Done was stolen from Slow Burn, an underrated Bowie single from 2002’s Heathen. In that same interview, he revealed that as The Killers were starting to generate material, he was very much into 70s glam rock, Lou Reed’s Transformers & Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust in particular.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 26, 2015