Every decade or so a new style of popular music, played by a new generation of musicians, comes along. These styles are often truly original—genuine breaks with the pop music of the past, like industrial music, disco, or hip-hop—and their practitioners can be over-eager to let everyone know just how revolutionary the New Sound is. In the more extreme cases, they may go so far as to point out that, in fact, it’s unlike anything that’s ever come before, much of it the work of “dinosaurs,” “boring old farts,” “hippies,” etc. One clear sign that you’re witnessing an instance of this phenomenon is that, almost without fail, the children of the Revolution will choose some respected old chestnut—a famous piece of classical music, a twenty-five-year-old pop song—and re-record it in the New Style. This is often an intentionally irreverent, nose-thumbing gesture by the revolutionaries, meant to demonstrate that nothing’s sacred and that even the most classic of classics can be remade, only much better, with them in charge. Here are some of the most notable examples of this phenomenon:
Eddie South, Stéphane Grappelli, and Django Reinhardt: “Improvisations on the 1st Movement of the Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor”
A very early jazzed-up cover version, in this case a swing reinterpetration by members of France’s famous Hot Club of what must have been considered one of the stiffest, unjazziest pieces of music imaginable, Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins.
Beatles: “Ain’t She Sweet”
It’s hard to picture a leather-clad, Elvis-worshipping group of working-class British teenagers playing such a goody-goody song to the drunks and prostitutes who were their main audience in the bars of Hamburg. But the full-on “beat music” treatment (still a fairly new sound at the time) and John Lennon’s fabulous “ask you-oo-oo” choruses transform the tune into something that was probably rockin’ enough to soothe the early Beatles’ booze-and-pill-crazed fans, and preserve their own Rocker cred.
The Crystals: “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”
A showcase for Phil Spector’s cutting-edge Wall of Sound and one of his great girl groups, this very urban remake of the white-bread Christmas staple features classic Brooklyn-girl nasal vocals, a frenetic sax solo, and that amazing one-beat hesitation at the start of the chorus, later copied by Bruce Springsteen. (See also: “Jingle Bell Rock.”)
Jimi Hendrix: “The Star Spangled Banner”
I’ve seen people get dirty looks simply for not standing during the national anthem at baseball games. So imagine taunting American patriots everywhere by doing this to the song in front of half a million tripping-out hippies at Woodstock.
Jethro Tull: “Bouree”
More irreverent jazzifying of old J. S. Bach, this time by a bug-eyed flute player and his progressive-rock backing band. Adding insult to injury: that semi-obscene flute-gobbling (copped from jazz woodwind player Rahsaan Roland Kirk) at the end of the tune.
Portsmouth Sinfonia: “Also sprach Zarathustra”
The Portsmouth Sinfonia (which included a young Brian Eno) was an art-school experiment where the members of the orchestra either had to play instruments they didn’t normally play, or weren’t musicians, period. That’s the official explanation, anyway: Frankly, it’s hard to hear this as anything other than a wanton trashing of this Richard Strauss classic, known far and wide thanks to its use a few years earlier in the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Walter Murphy: “A Fifth of Beethoven”
Though the notorious “Disco Demolition Night” in Chicago was still a few years off, millions of hardened rockists already had it in for disco by 1976. Bringing Beethoven’s best-known symphony “up to date” like this ensured that classical-music purists would join the hate-fest.
Sid Vicious: “My Way”
The irreverent remake by which all others are measured. After a comical mock-“serious” intro, Sid eviscerates this solemn, self-important Sinatra classic via three minutes of street-thug sneers and punk posturing. To rub it in, he improvises half the lyrics on the spot, since he apparently couldn’t be bothered to learn the real ones.
A thoroughly “devolved” cover of the Rolling Stones classic, stripped of all traces of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. How could Mick and Keith not be thrilled to see a bunch of robotic art-punk weirdos from Akron, Ohio, dressed in matching gas-station-attendant jumpsuits, cover their 1965 hit?
Flying Lizards: “Money”
A freak post-punk/no-wave/disco hit by a British group that, as it turns out, included some of the UK’s most avant-garde figures (including David Cunningham, David Toop, and Steve Beresford). It’s safe to say that this rendition of the song—played on processed percussion instruments and prepared guitars and sung in an eerily affectless upper-class English accent—is something Motown label head Berry Gordy couldn’t have imagined in his worst nightmares when he wrote it twenty years earlier.
Yngwie Malmsteen: “Beethoven’s Fifth”
Beethoven’s much-abused Fifth Symphony again, this time played speed-metal-style. Yngwie probably harbored no ill will toward Ludwig van B. (having himself been trained as a classical musician and later written a concerto or two of his own), but he clearly thought the original could be improved with a tempo increase of a hundred or so beats per minute and the addition of a couple of Marshall stacks and a whammy bar. (See also: The Great Kat, “Flight of the Bumblebee.”)
Einstürzende Neubauten: “Sand”
There’s undeniably something creepy about Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s original recording of “Sand,” a gloomy psych/folk/country song in the form of a conversation, with some stilted “courtly” dialogue and a Beatlesque backwards-guitar solo. But Nancy and Lee had nothing on industrialist music pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten. Their remake is, not surprisingly, much darker, starker, and scarier, with Hazlewood’s parts intoned in a deep and barely audible voice, “percussion” played on broken glass and scrap metal, and a massively processed instrumental “solo” performed on who-knows-what instruments. From the sunny beaches of mid-‘60s SoCal to the grim warehouse spaces of Berlin in just two decades.
Lunachicks: “Feel Like Makin’ Love”
Riot grrrl/performance-art outfit Lunachicks had strong feelings about ’70s cock-rock and its attitudes (implicit or explicit) toward women, as a short sentence in the liner notes of their Binge & Purge LP made amply clear: “No thanks to Bad Company.” But true revenge came in the form of the band’s cover version of Bad Company’s “Feel Like Making Love”—loud, fast, sloppy enough to make the Ramones blush, and (especially when paired with the thrift-store clothes, unbrushed hair, and comically misapplied makeup they sported on stage) definitely un-ladylike. The members of Bad Company wouldn’t have felt like making love to this crew in a million years, and the feeling was mutual. Lest there be any doubt about the group’s intentions, when asked in an interview about their regular inclusion of this particular song in their live performances, their response was: “A Lunachicks thing has always been to take the preposterous and turn it into something good.”
Rhymefest (feat. Ol’ Dirty Bastard): “Build Me Up, Buttercup”
A dirtier remake of the Foundations’ bubble gum hit for a dirtier time, with new verses wrapped around the original lyrics and melody (which is rendered quite beautifully, by the way). Rhymefest comes to his friend ODB for advice on how to score with a popular girl who won’t give him the time of day—sweet and innocent enough, except for the extremely un-bubble gum, and definitely not-safe-for-radio, sentiments sprinkled throughout Rhymefest’s raps: “There she is…Joggin’ in a sports bra, so titillated [Ha!]…I wanna get up in her Bush like Dubya.” And then there’s the song’s look-on-the-bright-side conclusion, after he’s finally accepted the sad reality: “You can still find that buttercup / Don’t let her build you up and break you down, man…Make sure she like to fuck though, heh / That’s always important isn’t it?” If there’s a more, um, tasteful way to show how far we’ve come since the prehistoric ‘60s, I don’t know what it is.