On the face of it, a book detailing the stories behind some of pop musicâ€™s best-known cover versions might not seem like the most compelling or rewarding way to fill several hundred pages and several hours. But as with cover songs themselves, it ainâ€™t what you do, itâ€™s the way that you do it â€” and Ray Padgett, a veteran publicist whoâ€™s also the founder and editor of the excellent, decade-oldÂ â€œCover Meâ€ blog, has the experience, the bona fides and the skill to make this one of the best multi-subject music books to come down the pike in years.
Padgett goes deep on each of the 19 songs covered in the book, which range from fairly obvious choices like â€œTwist and Shoutâ€ and â€œI Heard It Through the Grapevineâ€ to less-obvious ones like â€œWeird Alâ€ Yankovicâ€™s â€œPolkas on 45â€ and the Gourdsâ€™ early Napster hit â€œGin and Juice.â€ He details the writers, the performers, the lyrics, chart history and more, and doesnâ€™t hesitate to dig into the ramifications of certain covers, like the racism issues stemming from Elvis Presleyâ€™s version of â€œHound Dogâ€ (which, as we learn, first charted in a version by Big Mama Thornton â€” who subsequently claimed Presley never delivered on promises to help promote her career â€” although Elvis actually took his hit versionâ€™s arrangement from Freddie Bell, a white act he saw performing the song in Las Vegas), or the way Warner Bros. insisted that Mick Jagger sign off on Devoâ€™s drastic 1978 reinterpretation of the Stonesâ€™ hit â€œSatisfactionâ€ (possibly because songs deemed parodies are subject to different laws than straight covers, and Devoâ€™s version arguably was radical enough to be considered a parody).
Yet while Padgett doesnâ€™t hesitate to get as deep into the weeds on such issues as the subject requires, what separates his work from the statistician-like tone that plagues so many similar books is his reportorial focus on the most stories behind them. For instance, the â€œHound Dogâ€ entry begins with co-writer Mike Stoller finding out that Elvis was covering their four-year-old song â€” on a New York dock after he was rescued from the shipwreck of the cruise ship SS Andrea Doria. The â€œSatisfactionâ€ entry (excerpted in the New Yorker last month)Â begins with Devoâ€™s Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale sitting in a conference room, anxiously watching Jaggerâ€™s reaction as he hears their cover of the song for the first time. The â€œAlways on My Mindâ€ entry focuses on the unlikely path to timelessness that the Pet Shop Boysâ€™ version took: It was commissioned for a long-forgotten 1987 Presley tribute on British TV; the duo chose that song because it was the first one on the first Presley cassette they heard and didnâ€™t feel like listening further; they hadnâ€™t even planned to release their version. By focusing on the most interesting entry points into the story, Padgett manages to diversify a book that could have been numbingly formulaic in its approach.
Thatâ€™s not to say that over the course of 19 different songs and the stories behind them, the approach is never repetitive â€” thatâ€™s impossible to avoid completely. But this isnâ€™t really a book youâ€™ll devour in a day; like the best coffee-table books, itâ€™s one that you can snack on over the course of months or even years, reading a couple of entries at a time and then skimming through the bookâ€™s stunning art designâ€¦ and thatâ€™s the other factor that sets this book apart from so many like it: The level of detail that Padgett brings to the text is more than matched by the accompanying design and photo selection. Album and single sleeves, sheet-music covers and other ephemera are featured liberally in the book, but also, the photographs are period-appropriate and seldom used, and hard-core music geeks â€” ahem, present company included â€” will be hard pressed to find much to complain about (except for a certain 1977 photo mislabeled as 1971, which was very likely a typo).
By taking a fresh and deeply informed approach to a project that could have been dismally predictable, Padgett has produced a book that even the most condescending music snob will find satisfying and illuminating.