A to Z of Making It, Influenced, Music, My Stories, Unsung Heroes

The Master At Re-Interpretation: Joe Cocker (R.I.P)

When I started to play guitar in the Eighties I was obviously into the whole metal and hard rock scene. As far as I was concerned, it had to be all pedal point riffs, fast eighth or sixteenth notes and a whole lot of shred thrown in. I was self-taught for about three years however my dad kept on pushing me to go to a guitar teacher.

My dad got the number of a teacher from a work colleague of his, who had has son visiting the same teacher. To cut a long story short, the lessons were structured on theory, rhythm, scales and it ended with the teacher (his name was Michael) showing me a song to play. Michael asked me in advance to give him a list of hard rock and metal songs that I want to learn so that he could figure them out and show me. I told him that I got that part covered and I would like him to show me songs that he likes regardless of what styles they are or from what artist they are.

I must say it was a dead set eye opener. Apart from sitting down and learning songs outside of the style I was interested, I also learnt the art of melody, better chord placements and vocal phrasing. Overall these sessions made me a better musician and a songwriter. It changed my viewpoints from being just a guitar player to being a band player and to play for the song instead of the glory of the solo.

“Bad Moon Rising”, “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay”, “Mr Bojangles”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, “I Shot The Sherriff”, “Knockin On Heavens Door”, “Imagine”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Lambada” happened in the first 9 weeks. Then we started with some Beatles songs like “Yesterday”, “All My Loving”, “Come Together”, “Let It Be”, “Day Tripper”, “Eight Days A Week” and eventually we got to “With A Little Help From My Friends”.

And that is where Joe Cocker comes into my life. It was his version of the song that I remembered. So I started to study some of his most well-known songs and I found out that he didn’t write any of them. But it was his re-interpretations of those songs that made him a superstar. Some people are great at just writing songs, some people are great at writing and performing their own songs, while others are great at re-interpreting other people’s songs. That is Joe Cocker.

His fame is tied to what he did with the words of other songwriters. And Cocker (along with his collaborator’s) chose well.

“She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” and “With A Little Help from My Friends” released in 1969 and 1968 respectively. “She Came In” was Cocker’s big U.S hit at the time, while “With A Little Help” was his big U.K hit.

“Delta Lady” released in 1969 was written by Leon Russell. “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” also released in 1969 was written Nina Simone and covered in 1965 by the Animals. “Feelin Alright” was written by Dave Mason with Traffic.

“The Letter” released in 1970 was a song from 1967 by the band Box Tops. An upbeat rock version of “Cry Me a River” was released in 1970 by Cocker however the song’s roots go back to 1953 and it was written by Arthur Hamilton. “You Are So Beautiful” released in 1974 was written by Bill Preston whose original version first appeared in 1974 however it was Cockers slowed down version courtesy of producer Jim Price that made the song a hit.

Cocker’s biggest single came in 1982, when ‘Up Where We Belong,’ a duet with singer-songwriter Jennifer Warnes’ from the movie ‘An Officer and a Gentleman,’ stayed at No. 1 for three weeks. This is one song that wasn’t a cover of a previous song, however it was written by a song writing committee in Jack Nitzsche, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Will Jennings.

Then in 1986, “You Can Leave Your Hat On” came out. The song was written by Randy Newman and it goes back to 1972. “Unchain My Heart” was released in 1987. The song was written by Bobby Sharp and recorded first in 1961 by Ray Charles. Then in 1989 came “When The Night Comes” a song that wasn’t a cover, however it was written by hit songwriters in Bryan Adams, Jim Vallance and Diane Warren.

The point of all this.

In the mid-nineties I was in a band. We played three sets each night and got paid $150 each. The set up was bassist/vocalist, drummer and myself on guitar. The first set was originals. Hard rock originals. Think about that for a second. The mid-nineties was very hostile to hard rock bands, however we didn’t care. Anyway the second set involved covers from the sixties, seventies and eighties and the last set was all nineties modern rock songs. It was the second set that got the best applause.

The bassist and I had a knack for re-interpreting  songs. “Stormbringer” and “Knockin On Heavens Door” became one song with music coming from Deep Purple and the lyrics coming from Bob Dylan.

“Foxy Lady” and “Immigrant Song” became another song. “Born To Be Wild” and “Cum On Feel The Noize” was one more. “We Will Rock You” and “Long Way To The Top” also got merged. I am seeing a lot of this cross merging on the internet, especially between Metallica and Megadeth. Fans of the bands are doing their own merging and re-interpretations of the bands classic songs. One song that we didn’t change at all (and played within our originals set) was “Breaking The Law” from Judas Priest. And the grunge/industrial crowds we played to at the time lapped it up. They thought the songs were our own song and we didn’t tell them any different.

Throughout this whole phase, Joe Cocker was in the back of the mind. I kept on asking myself, how would Joe approach this song. Would he slow it down, speed it up, funk it up or just fuck it up.

Hell, our heroes hooked us with cover songs or crossed over into the mainstream because of cover songs. Motley Crue with “Smokin In The Boys Room”, Tesla with “Signs”, Machine Head with “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, Killswitch Engage with “Holy Diver” and many more.

As a musician, there is a lot to learn from re-interpreting other people’s songs. There are some songs that are just perfect for you and relate to you in a way that they could have been written by you. It’s okay to cover songs and to have a career based on your re-interpretations of cover songs.

Rest in peace Joe Cocker, you showed me that music is much more than the clichéd “these songs are my children” point of view.

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