Life, Love and Leaving. The Detroit Cobras.
2001, Sympathy for The Record Industry. Producer: The Detroit Cobras.
IN A NUTSHELL: A barn-burning, rip-snorting, foot-stomping run through fourteen quick songs with energy and excitement bursting through every number. Singer Rachel Nagy can belt, croon, moan and howl, and her partner in ROCKIN’, guitarist Mary Ramirez, makes everyone move. The songs are old R&B and rock n roll covers, but the band makes the songs their own while keeping the wild-eyed, rebellious spirit of the music intact.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
Rock music continues to move further away from the Main Stream of popular music, having branched away sometime in the mid-80s, and briefly rejoined at times (90s alt-rock, 00s guitar pop), but now cutting a trickling path to nowhere, a course that Jazz, Funk, Blues and Folk music have followed, destined to one day join Swing, Barbershop Quartet, and Ragtime in an evaporating shallow pool of once-popular music genres.
But back in the day, when it was still a music of rebellion and resistance and teenage revolt, musicians in the rock realm who wanted to play for audiences had a choice to make. It was an either/or decision that would have huge ramifications on their future, that could be put off for a while, but at some point would have to be addressed: Covers or Originals?
Covers, if you aren’t aware, are songs that others have made popular1 but played by someone else. Originals are, well, original – songs written and played by the artist. Almost every rock musician started out playing covers. In fact, almost every musician of any type, on any instrument, from any region of the world, started out playing covers. When you’re learning to do anything, you typically copy something or someone else.
Even the greatest band in the world, ever, was a terrific cover band, perfecting scores of other peoples’ songs for their early Hamburg, Germany, shows, in part because of the number of songs needed to fill the incredible length of their shows there – sometimes as long as 12 hours! Many of their early hits were covers, such as “Twist & Shout,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Money,” and “Rock and Roll Music.”2
I say they learned covers “in part” to fill time because there is also another, even better, reason for a band to play covers: AUDIENCES LOVE THEM! At a bar or a nightclub, when there is a live band playing songs the crowd knows and loves, the energy is palpable, immediate. People are dancing and singing along, and if you can keep them doing it the excitement builds and builds. I know from experience that when you are the musician onstage playing songs the people love, and you get to feel that energy coming back to you – whether it’s from 10 friends at a backyard party or 200 strangers at a nightclub – you start to feel like you’re Mick Jagger, Bono, Beyoncé …
On top of that, bar and nightclub owners sell lots of booze to happy, dancing, singing people, so they pay good cover bands good money3 to keep the crowd enthusiastic. In the early 90s, there was a band that played the East Coast called The Armadillos. They sold out clubs nightly from New Jersey to Florida, playing high energy classic rock and new wave covers, keeping thousands of folks sweaty and happy for four hours a night. They made a good living, and were living the dream.
Except they weren’t, entirely. My band played originals and opened for them a couple times, and their members told me that although they had fun whipping a nightclub crowd into a frenzy with some Elvis Costello or Rolling Stones, what they really wanted to do was to play their original songs to an appreciative crowd. But I saw firsthand what most cover bands know: that as soon as you announce from the stage, “This next one is an original …” the audience takes it as a cue to clear the dance floor, freshen drinks and start conversations. I’m sure the band had nights when their original songs brought down the house, but what they were best known as was a Top Notch Cover Band, and that sterling reputation probably impeded their loftier goals. People wanted to hear them play “What I Like About You,” not something unknown – no matter what it was. They had a bit of local success with their original material, on the coattails of 90s Pennsylvania alt-rockers Līve, but eventually called it quits4.
Of course, playing originals is no picnic. Back in the day5, you could join an established cover band and start making fifty or a hundred bucks a night for yourself. Or start one with friends and be making some dough within a couple months. Playing your own songs, however, meant years of long van rides to big cities, lining up demo recordings, bull-shitting promoters and bookers, ass-kissing other bands and basically playing mostly to audiences of friends and family – all the while trying not to kill the other equally-desperate, equally-destitute band members snoring next to you in your van. A few months of that, and playing “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” to a room full of drunken meatheads and bimbos while earning a little bread starts to sound enticing. The grass is always greener …
Whether you enjoy seeing cover bands or original bands doesn’t matter to me. And I make no value judgment on any musician’s path to the sweet joy of performing live music – music is joy, so hallelujah. And even bands known for their original music play covers from time to time, and there are several styles of them.
Some bands seem to attempt a note-for-note reproduction, or at least very faithful version, of a well-known original. For example, there’s Pearl Jam’s version of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.” Or No Doubt’s take on Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life.” The Rolling Stones did it a lot in their early years, and Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” is one example. (I’m going to cram this into a parenthetical – because it’s not a well-known original. However, the song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” was well-known to me as a kid because my dad had it on an album he used to play all the time. When I heard They Might Be Giants’ version back in the 90s, I was SO HAPPY!)
Then there are examples of bands reaching to other genres for songs to cover, which can be really cool when done well, demonstrating that “genres” are really just Record Company constructs. Check out new wavers The Talking Heads reaching back to R&B legend Al Green; or funk superstars Earth, Wind and Fire taking on The Beatles. One of my favorites is punk blasters Husker Dü putting an aggressive spin on folk-rockers The Byrds.
Some covers are songs that I didn’t even realize were covers, originally done by bands I didn’t even know were bands. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts had their biggest hit with a song by some band called The Arrows. Teenage new waver Annabella’s band, Bow Wow Wow, gained MTV superstardom with an old single by The Strangeloves. And R.E.M. leapt tall buildings in a single bound with their version of a song by The Clique.
My favorite covers are ones in which the original song is messed with in some way, usually made a bit weirder or funnier. Husker Dü makes the list a second time with a scorching version of The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song. Grunge guitar superstar J. Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. blew the doors off The Cure’s goth pop alterna-hit “Just Like Heaven.” My all-time favorite cover is the geniuses of Devo totally dismantling and reassembling the Stones’ classic “Satisfaction.” (Something they pulled off spectacularly live, as well.) If you enjoy these types of covers, I suggest you seek out the AV Undercover Series, online, and immediately watch GWAR cover Kansas.
I should take a bit of time to mention a terrific cover song originator: Bob Dylan. I know it’s heresy, but I can’t stomach Dylan’s singing. I’ve tried. Shoot me, mock me, stop reading this blog, I don’t care6 – I don’t get his appeal. He’s a tremendous songwriter, however, who – like Marvin Hamlisch and John Philip Sousa – probably shouldn’t sing his own songs. But there are many covers of his songs out there, and here are a few great ones. The White Stripes’ “One More Cup of Coffee.” XTC’s “All Along the Watchtower.” The Band’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Neko Case’s “Buckets of Rain.” Nina Simone’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”
Albums of cover songs are usually specialty albums. They’re typically put together to raise money for a cause, or to salute a certain artist. Sometimes bands put them out to fulfill a recording contract or to celebrate a long career or give a nod to the past. Or all three. Rarely are albums of covers simply released as an album, as rarely do cover bands get to release albums.
However, The Detroit Cobras are a different sort of cover band. I’ve written before about my attempts to stave off old-age by digging into “new music” over the years. In the early 00s I was at it again, falling hard for guitar bands like The Mooney Suzuki, The Strokes and The White Stripes. Diving into The White Stripes caused me to brush up against other Detroit-based, guitar-rockin’ bands, such as the excellent Dirtbombs and The High Strung. At this time I heard The Detroit Cobras, went out and bought Life, Love and Leaving – and had NO IDEA these were cover songs!! I thought the band just had a throwback style, until I saw the songwriters’ names and read a little more about the band.
The band has always had two constant members: singer Rachel Nagy and guitarist Mary Ramirez. They started the band, which has cycled through several other members. And they also select all the music, since the band has no ambition to write their own songs. They seek out lesser-known 60s soul and garage rock and then pour their hearts into it. The goal is to play songs that sound good and keep your attention, exactly as an excellent cover band should do! In fact, Life, Love and Leaving sounds very much like a great 14-song set by a kickass live band.
For example, “Hey Sailor7,” originally by Mickey Lee Lane, sounds exactly what you’d want to hear first from a band as they hit the stage.
It starts with a little arpeggiated chord as a prelude to driving guitar riffs. The melody is catchy and singalong, and there are plenty of opportunities for the crowd to sing backing vocals with the rest of the band. Particularly on the chorus, where a tambourine shakes behind the call and response nonsense words. Before the second verse, another riff is added (0:55) to carry the song to the final verse. The lyrics are about a song, or sex, but either way it’s a good time opener that gets me, and the imaginary audience I’m in when listening, moving right away.
Just as in a great live set, the second song on the album starts almost immediately after the first, giving the crowd no chance to rest. Three quick snare beats, and “He Did It,” a Ronettes song, is off and running.
Another slick guitar riff opens the song, and Nagy’s voice is stellar as it scrapes across a wide-ranging melody. Once again, sing-along background vocals are irresistible, giving the song quite a girl-group feel. There are cool drums throughout, and a nifty harmonica solo and a strong finish for Nagy. The song’s upbeat sound is contrary to rather sad lyrics about a lover leaving. But despite the lyrical content here, and throughout the album, Nagy’s voice never sounds weak or desperate. It’s as fiery as the terrific concert posters the band is known for.
She is obviously a polished singer, able to belt it out on the rocking scorchers. But she can do more than belt. Her take on the mid-tempo groove of Solomon Burke’s “Find Me a Home8,” which takes the set down a notch in energy to set the table for what’s to come, is terrific.
The lyrics are about tracking down her man, and the smokiness of her voice particularly suits the spoken lines throughout. The drums play a great shuffle beat behind Mary’s guitar chords. She’s a terrific rhythm player, who powers most of the songs forward, including the next song, the energetic Chiffons number, “Oh My Lover.”
The ascending chords she plays behind the verses ring nicely against the tom-tom beat. It’s a quick, peppy song with lyrics that go from “don’t say we’re through” to “now his fiancee I will be” in less than one and a half minutes. The audience I’m imagining being part of is now revved up and needs a little cool-down, which the mournful, lost love themed “Cry On,” originated by Irma Thomas, provides.
It’s a showcase for Rachel’s belting, emotional side, and features a subtle organ shimmering behind the vocals beginning in the second verse. The rhythm guitar on the chorus features a terrific, watery sound. Like any great band, they know not to overdo anything, and this little gem ends in two minutes twelve, just long enough for a quick slow dance, or for the crowd to get a breather, before the Solomon Burke gem “Stupidity” begins.
The call-and-response opening gets everyone back on the dance floor for another foot stomper, this one proposing a new dance step, The Stupidity. There’s a pumping bass behind it and Ramirez’s guitar matches the controlled sloppiness of the drums. The band is going to keep increasing the energy throughout the next section, not allowing the crowd to rest. Nagy’s shout, and the terrific backing vocals, on the Mary Wells song “Bye Bye Baby,” gives it more oomph than the typical mid-tempo piece. The lyrics show a toughness that definitely runs throughout many of the songs, particularly the excellent, “Boss Lady9,” originally done by Davis Jones and the Fenders.
This is probably my favorite song on the record. I love the strong lyrics and the tight drumming and just how the song sounds like it’s out of control. Of course, I have to mention Rachel Nagy’s voice. When she calls for hip-shaking and starts naming dances, about 0:50, she just nails it. And the return to the “Shake it Baby” shouting by the end has that audience in my head in a frenzy. And they remain there for the rip-roaring Gardenias number “Laughing At You.” Its lyrics are mocking an ex who done her wrong, which is also the theme of the “F you to an ex” mid-tempo cool-down, “Can’t Miss Nothing.” It’s an old Ike & Tina Turner song with a groovy bass line.
The band picks up the pace on another of my favorites, the 5 Royales’ number, “Right Around the Corner.”
The “Yaki Taki” introduction will immediately call all sweaty dancers back to the floor in the Detroit Cobras show I see in my head through this record. The band is hot, the guitar lick behind “where my baby stays” is nifty, the drums are driving and Nagy’s voice takes us all for a ride, celebrating her baby’s proximity. There is a little guitar solo at about 1:05 that goes to show a solo can be cool and exciting even if it’s simple. By this point, the audience can feel the show’s about to end, so they are grateful for the relatively long song, clocking in at 2:27! The peppy “Won’t You Dance With Me,” by Billy Lee and The Rivieras, keeps the folks on the dance floor moving to the walking bass line, but there’s a sense of finality at the end. So when the quiet slow dance of Clyde McPhatter’s “Let’s Forget About the Past” ends with four soft bass notes, one expects the band to announce “Good night!” and leave the stage.
Which makes Otis Redding’s “Shout Bama Lama” the exhilarating encore of the record!
It’s such a fun song, and Nagy’s smoky yowl knocks it out of the park. “She’s bustin’ bricks now,” she calls out, part of a story about stealing chickens. But the story doesn’t matter – all that matters is that this band can play and entertain and make everything seem fun and exciting. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Whenever I listen to this record, I invariably start at the beginning and listen straight through. The individual songs are great, but together, in order, they take me to that perfect night out with a perfect band. The band might play covers, the band might play originals – it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is the connection between the band and the listener, and this record connects with me!
“He Did It”
“Find Me A Home”
“Oh My Lover”
“Bye Bye Baby”
“Laughing At You”
“Can’t Miss Nothing”
“Right Around The Corner”
“Won’t You Dance With Me”
“Let’s Forget About The Past”
“Shout Bama Lama”