On the face of it, a book detailing the stories behind some of pop music’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 ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it — and Ray Padgett, a veteran publicist who’s also the founder and editor of the excellent, decade-old “Cover Me” 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 “Twist and Shout” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” to less-obvious ones like “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Polkas on 45” and the Gourds’ early Napster hit “Gin and Juice.” He details the writers, the performers, the lyrics, chart history and more, and doesn’t hesitate to dig into the ramifications of certain covers, like the racism issues stemming from Elvis Presley’s version of “Hound Dog” (which, as we learn, first charted in a version by Big Mama Thornton — who subsequently claimed Presley never delivered on promises to help promote her career — although Elvis actually took his hit version’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 Devo’s drastic 1978 reinterpretation of the Stones’ hit “Satisfaction” (possibly because songs deemed parodies are subject to different laws than straight covers, and Devo’s version arguably was radical enough to be considered a parody).
Yet while Padgett doesn’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 “Hound Dog” entry begins with co-writer Mike Stoller finding out that Elvis was covering their four-year-old song — on a New York dock after he was rescued from the shipwreck of the cruise ship SS Andrea Doria. The “Satisfaction” entry (excerpted in the New Yorker last month) begins with Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale sitting in a conference room, anxiously watching Jagger’s reaction as he hears their cover of the song for the first time. The “Always on My Mind” entry focuses on the unlikely path to timelessness that the Pet Shop Boys’ 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 didn’t feel like listening further; they hadn’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.
That’s not to say that over the course of 19 different songs and the stories behind them, the approach is never repetitive — that’s impossible to avoid completely. But this isn’t really a book you’ll devour in a day; like the best coffee-table books, it’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 book’s stunning art design… and that’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 — ahem, present company included — 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.