Friday, December 14, 2012

Zappadan, Day 11: Cover Band

The following is one of my favorite covers done by Zappa. The song (Whippin' Post) is originally by the Allman Brothers, with whom some of my aunts went to high school.

Nowadays, it's pretty rare for a big musical act to do covers, at least in comparison to what was the norm in before about the 1960s. Before then, it was not uncommon for bands to do "their version" of a whole lot of songs. Hell, even Elvis's "Hound Dog" was his take on an old standard by Big Momma Thornton. In the jazz and big band eras, people were expected to play the old standards. Only the very best (or most popular, I guess) musicians were celebrated for their original work.

When I was growing up, cover bands were most likely to be found at something like a high school dance or frat party. Often, among my crowd, they were targets for mockery--They took the songs we already hated and played them poorly. Redd Kross (then Red Cross) in all of their middle-school wisdom has adequately documented that:

But, done well, a cover song can be just as good or better than the original. While Battalion of Saints' version of Motorhead's "Ace of Spades" isn't Motorhead (duh), it's still as close to a shrine to Motorhead's version as I've ever heard:

I like this version as much as the original, if for different reasons.

Bringing it back to the subject of gaming, I could make the argument that the OSR's various versions of old school RPGs are like covers of songs we all know and love (to whatever extent). Retroclones are covers, to be sure. But even new twists on old themes like Dungeon Crawl Classics and Stars Without Number, with their clever twists on that theme are, at their hearts, the old standards done for a new time. There are even cases, as with "Adventures Dark and Deep," where the "new" version is found by going back to the roots (in this cases Gygax's writings about his intentions for updating D&D).

Over the years, my thinking about cover bands, copies, or whatever you want to call them has changed. I kind of like going back to roots. Maybe it's a case of terminal nostalgia. I'm in my early 40s now, and I have some history to look back on, for sure. However, there's something else there, something for which I don't necessarily have words (for once). It's just cool. I like it. Now, I don't love everything old (disco still sucks!) and I don't think that every cover is a good one. However, I don't just reflexively go "Yuck! That sucks!" when I hear this sort of thing.

Also, when I see new versions of old things (and old games for that matter), my reaction is to look deeper: What's old? What's new? What's the same? What's different? Most importantly, WHY? The choices made in creating somethign new from something old are significant. They are done from a perspective. I think games like DCC have been promoted in a way that makes the difference and the sameness make sense, on its face. It's a project I embrace wholeheartedly. The new Kickstarter for FATE Core is being done in response, I think, to what people's feedback about that system has provided as lessons for designers. The result, it seems, will be to make the ruleset more accessible and give it wider currency. I've been reading a lot on G+ about people wanting to do their own projects with that core ruleset, to do their own "covers," if you will, of that very flexible original.

This leads to another point: A cover that is made of something that became iconic in some way is very much more difficult than one of something that wasn't. Battalion of Saints doing Motorhead's song pretty much had to be done as an homage, rather than a parody. It came from a place of reverence. But even a parody is in some sense reverent of the original. For example, "Small But Vicious Dog" makes somewhat of a mockery of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG stuff, but nonetheless you can tell it's done in a loving way. It's a caricature of all of the bits that made WFRPG awesome, the stuff we players already recognized as awesome about that game, but TURNED UP TO ELEVEN!

Because sometimes a good parody is just the perfect thing to make you remember how much you love the thing being parodied:

And that really, really, really ROCKS!

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