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How To Ruin A Song
By Ian McCarty
Here's a quick guide on how to ruin a song. It's a fairly simple process, but following these steps is key to ensuring that the song is completely and thoroughly destroyed.
Step One: Pick a famous song.Picking a famous song does a few things. First, it provides a wide potential listening audience, as fans of the original will likely be curious to hear your update. Second, a famous song already has name recognition, so even those unfamiliar with the original's sound content will recognize the title as something once having had broad appeal.
Now, choosing too famous a song can be detrimental, as listener expectations will most likely be very low. However, if you are going for parody, the more popular the song, the better. If, however, you choose to earnestly cover a classic song, choose a "lost" or "seminal" classic, one that is truly appreciated by it's fans, who, while not as great in numbers as the fans of all time classics, may be more musically knowledgeable, and keen to pick up on subtler notes such as production and engineering quality.
Step Two: Throw away your drumset.
In order to appropriately dismantle the genuine emotion that comes with any song, particularly a classic song from the days of analog recording, you must use as few actual instruments as possible. The first to go should be the drum kit. Replacing lives drums with a drum machine removes the rock and the roll, the soul and the feel of any classic. To complete the percussive hijacking of your selection, add synthetic tympani rolls liberally across your arrangement.
Step Three: Don't try too hard to sound like a singer.As the American Idol phenomenon illustrates, Americans are less and concerned with the actual quality of a singer's voice, and will settle for a pitchy croon if true vocal talent is absent. The vocoder effect can be used to further alienate listeners with true musical taste, but do not be afraid to let your lack of ability shine through. Be mindful of points in the original performance where emotion or intensity were displayed by the vocalist, and be careful to remove these elements whenever possible.
Also, in a combination move of steps two and three, don't be afraid to compensate for your lack of instruments - and the ability to play them - by "singing" a familiar instrumental hook from the original selection. When going this route, be sure to use a flat falsetto wherever possible, using a vocoder to dehumanize the effort, but not to correct the pitch.
Step Four: Wheel out an aging member of the original group, or the original producer
Adding an original member of the group - or, if you are choosing to "hip hop - up" the song, the producer, lends credit to your song much in the same way as step one does. Adding an original member instantly gives the song a certain credibility in many listener's eyes, while more discriminating music fans may be excited to see a famous producer at the helm. However, it must be made clear to this individual that their contribution to this piece has already been made long ago, and they are here to bring this song to a new set of fans: yours.
Also, bonus points can be earned if the original member or producer is old enough where many listeners will think the effort is actually kind of "sad."
Step Five: Add your own lyrics.
There is no greater way to pay homage to a classic song than by changing the words. Update the lyrics with personal anecdotes, a rap, or even better, a reference to the specific year you are covering this classic.
To further the effect of lyrical confusion, re-arrange or completely omit various verses and choruses held over from the original, but be careful not to simply sample the original. That is a realm only P. Diddy can successfully enter.
If you've managed to follow all five steps completely, you have yourself a totally ruined song. Now, don't be shy about sharing this with the general public. Outlets like Facebook, MySpace and especially YouTube are great ways to get your music out there. I recommend releasing your song during the early summer months, when every American is looking for a crummy, yet slightly original noise to be occurring nearby as they binge drink or char mammal carcasses. You'll know you've truly succeeded when you hear your song blaring through the windows of vehicles that aren't worth as much as the stereo system playing the song.
Good luck, and if you run into trouble, just remember a little term I've devised to help me through my uncreative struggles: WWAD - "What Would Akon Do?"
S: Step 4a: Include at least 3 fist bumps with the original producer. It’s all about cred.
Step 6: Make a music video in an exposed-brick loft furnished only with a baby grand piano. It’s the perfect location for musicians to meet up for impromptu cover songs.
B: Why did you do that to me?
S: Well, the Shuggie Otis version was playing in Starbucks this morning but I couldn’t remember his name so I had to look it up. Then I was reading the Wikipedia article and it mentioned Quincy Jones & Akon making a cover. So I had to listen to it. Then you had to listen to it. Sorry.
B: The real kicker is, The Brothers Johnson version is an All Time Top Five cover. Now, for this to occur, well - I'm speechless. Actually I'm not. I will say this: Pop is dead. Pop music got into some horrible accident at some point in the ealry 1990s. Some brain activity remained present for about 10 years, but after no signs of improvement, it was taken off life support at some time in the '00s. This is the proof that it's gone to hell.
S: A statement like that requires a list:
All Along the Watchtower
Strawberry Letter 23
Hard to Handle
1) All Along the Watchtower (Jimi Hendrix covering Bob Dylan)
2) Tainted Love (Soft Cell covering Gloria Jones)
3) Little Wing (Derek & the Dominoes covering Jimi Hendrix)
4) With A Little Help From My Friends (Joe Cocker covering The Beatles)
5) Strawberry Letter 23 (The Brothers Johnson covering Shuggie Otis)
6) Turn, Turn, Turn (The Byrds covering Pete Seeger)
7) Nothing Compares 2 U (Sinead O'Connor covering The Family/Prince)
8) Hallejulah (Jeff Buckley covering Leonard Cohen)
9) Such Great Heghts (Iron and Wine covering The Postal Service)
10) Hurt (Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails)
Wonderwall (Ryan Adams covering Oasis), and Hard to Handle (Black Crowes covering Otis Redding) are both definitely on the Honorable Mention list, but Last Kiss' popularity doesn't make it an all time great cover - and you know I'm quite the Pearl Jam fan.
S: Hmm. I will have to listen to the “Such Great Heights” cover. Kinda shocked that you chose “Hurt” and cast aside “Last Kiss”. I know Johnny Cash spilled his guts on that song but he sounded like he was on his deathbed singing it. He did a cover of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” which I would put above “Hurt”. “Last Kiss” was not only wildly (and unexpectedly) popular, but I also feel that it was a great choice of a song to cover.
B: Johnny Cash covered a lot of songs well there at the end, but "Hurt" was the tops. The context - coupled with the delivery - were perfect. The fact that it was essentially his epitaph cement it as his finest, and one of the all time greats.
Last Kiss is a fine song. Pearl Jam took and obscure pop tune and recorded it, faithfully - albeit slowed down a bit - at a Chicago soundcheck. They turned the song over to a charity for a compilation release. It was intended to be, and at times sounds like, a throwaway track. It became popular, but that doesn't increase the quality of the song. If Stone Temple Pilots, Creed, or any other top act of the day had covered it in this fashion, I think you'd agree. If you look at the songs on my list, these are classics in their own right - having nothing to do with the performer or the original performance. Whether it be from the rearrangement, the delivery or the genre change (and in may cases two or all three of these qualities), most of these songs are all time great songs, not simply great covers. Last Kiss belongs nowhere on a list like that.
S: Ok. That’s a convincing argument for “Hurt”.This cover of “Such Great Heights” reminds me of Sonic Youth’s cover of “Superstar”.
B: Which is another Honorable Mention. Probably top 15. I think "Such Great Heights" gets the nod because of the greater distance between genres - but I really wouldn't fight a swap.
You ok with the list other than that?
S: Well I don’t know “Halleluiah” either… Or the original “Turn, Turn, Turn”… Or the original “Tainted Love”… And I’m fuzzy on “Nothing Compares 2 U”… But it looks right.
B: Done and done.
Is it illegal to just eat a bird? As in, if I heard a chick peeping in a tree, reached up and plucked it from its nest and ate it, am I breaking any law?