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Cover Versions - the back story

WE ARE OFTEN asked how we work out the cover versions we play, given that we try to make them as true to the originals as we possibly can.  Do we do it from sheet music?  Certainly not!

DUPE have a policy of veto when it comes to cover versions - if one of us doesn't like a song, or does not enjoy playing it, it goes.  What normally happens is this:

We tend to bring our iPods to rehearsals and I have lead which allows us to run them through my keyboard amplifier.  If someone hears a song on the radio or in a pub or anywhere, they download it from iTunes, if they don't already have it on CD and bring it along for the rest of the band to have a listen.  We can normally tell from a first listen whether a song is suitable or not.  Massive, distinctive harmony vocals are a no-no, as are extremely high lead vocals.  If we are all familiar with the song to listen to, we may well just give it a bash there and then, and indeed some of our best cover versions have worked straight off the bat - A Day in the Life, for instance.

The more normal process is that we might have a quick bash at a basic version to see if it sounds remotely promising and if it does, whoever has it on their iTunes uploads (illegally) a copy up to our Band Yahoo Group during the following week.  This is an on-line facility which allows us to share files, set lists and is the repository for our calendar.  The latter is particularly useful as any member of the band can tell whether the band is free for a booking, no matter where they are in the world provided they have an internet connection.

We all have different techniques for working out our parts, although an MP3 player and headphones are the essential kit.  Pete works his basslines out by doing this and may well download the lyrics from the internet.  How he learns them is a complete mystery to me but I'm given to understand he goes for long walks.  The tricky bit for Pete is playing the basslines and singing at the same time.  The melody and shape of the tune and bass line is not particularly a struggle but the opposing rhythms can be.  Pete often sings to himself whilst tapping out the bass rhythm so that he can run them independently - his colleagues at work have long dismissed him as a nutter.

Brian may well browse the internet for the odd guitar tab but by and large he works the harmonies and solos out by ear.  Since buying a guitar synthesizer, Brian now has to work out fiendishly difficult saxophone solos which he does with remarkable accuracy considering that they are not designed to be playable on a guitar.  Another tool Brian has to aid him is the computer in that he can slow a song down but keep its pitch the same.

Paul would have a real problem were it not for the fact that he has a practice drum kit at home.  This consists of plastic pads which serve as drums and cymbals.  It plays exactly like a drumkit although the feel is slightly different but it connects to a sound module which gives Paul a complete drumkit in his headphones.  Paul also runs his MP3 player through this and just practises with the original until he gets it right.  Often, the make-or-break between a song sounding 'right' or just'good' is the drum rhythm.

Personally, I use all sorts of techniques.  Once again, the iPod is useful on the train - I can listen for individual parts and harmonies and then try not to forget them before I get home.  My electric keyboards stay in their flight cases from one week to the next, because they take ages to set up, so I normally work stuff out on the upright piano.  The only bits which I have to perfect at rehearsals are sound changes during the song - my keyboards can emulate nearly anything provided I have sufficient time to hit the appropriate button during the song.

When it comes to the cello parts I write for Helen, that comes down to good old fashioned transcribing with a sheet of manuscript paper.  Often I am using the cello to fill in for a number of string parts so I have to take violin lines and arrange them for cello.  Occasionally I have to compose brand new parts so that Helen isn't just sitting there doing nothing while we fart about!

Hopefully when we return the following week, we can either play the parts or one of us has had to veto the song as impossible.  Fortunately, we can normally have a stab at most stuff and we tend to choose songs with the band in mind.  The first thing Brian and I do is work out how we are sharing any non-guitar and non-keyboard parts around between us - him having the guitar synthesizer opens up enormous possibilities but it still needs some careful consideration.

The trick with an authentic sounding cover version is to know what you can leave out and what has to be in.  Vocal harmonies can normally be pared down to a maximum of three independent lines and if they can't then the viability of  the song has to be questioned.  Certain lines have to be in or the song will sound stupid - imagine a version of Baker Street without the saxophone line!

Once we are clear we have a run through and at the end of that we will know whether the song is a goer or not.  Occasionally a song will just sound awful - a complete stinker and we have chuck away a week's work, but mostly there is some promise in the first run through.  On the odd delightful occasion, we will play it pretty much perfectly off the bat, and the tell-tale shiver runs down the spine.  Shine on you Crazy Diamond was a bit like that; it was like being on the original recording - complete magic.

After that, it's a question of rehearsing until we are confident enough of the sequence of the song to relax when we're playing it.  Once that happens, the song will click and we can risk inflicting it on you lot.

The songs we choose not only have to be of the right era (1960s to 1970s - possibly early 80s), they have to be unusual, difficult to play and they must NEVER EVER EVER be 'pub band' songs.  You will never hear us play Johnny B Goode, Caroline or any other fat, middle-aged 'bloke in a pub' music.  It's got to be slightly camp or ridiculously difficult or we won't touch it.

If you have any songs you would like to suggest, please contact us!

Dave Griffiths - February 2009