the race card

Last month, through the magic of satellite radio, I managed to catch a fair number of sets by hip and happening artists performing live at Bonnaroo. And somewhere in the middle of Swedish sensation Lykke Li’s set, I was reminded that the 1980s may at this point have trumped the 1960s as the most stubborn decade in history.

Specifically, it was this song, a thinly disguised rewrite of I Want to Know What Love Is.

In the artist’s defense, perhaps it is intended to be a sequel to the Foreigner ballad. You know, she wanted to know what love was, found out and now will never love again. How very ’80s of her.

Yet, as we continue to go upward to go forward going backward all the time, there is hope. Take, for instance, the title track from the superfun new Socalled album.

That’s right. Funking you back to the 1970s with a song that is either a lost TV-show theme or a contemporary dance track from Québec. It is of course the latter (via Ottawa’s Bova Sound). But I like to think of it as both.

So we have that. Moreover, a recent number one song in America (and, in a few weeks, Canada) features the sort of gunshot drum sounds that make once-great albums like The Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me all but unlistenable in 2015. Soon, that album may once again be the sound of today — and all will be well again, as time reluctantly slips from the ’80s to the ’90s.

Oh, it’s coming. Recently, for instance, a pal directed me to a pair of new Faith No More tracks. A full album is due any day now, he claimed.

Which in my mind immediately raised three questions:

1. There’s a new Faith No More album?

2. Really?

3. Faith No More?

Turns out the answer to all three questions is yes. And let me tell you, Faith No More fans fan, it sounds as good as the band ever did. Indeed, it sounds uncannily like something that has been languishing in the can since the combo’s heyday. The layered guitars, the big drums, the screams, the melodic interludes. All as they were then.

This is good news for anyone wishing for a return to that in-your-face 1990s production sound. It is also good news for record producers who have not worked since 1996. (I’m looking at you, Chris Sheppard.)

It is bad news for music lovers.

But a ’90s revival is long overdue. I mean, the ’80s can’t go on forever, can they? Please tell me they can’t.

Lykke Li resorting to echoing Foreigner suggests that, indeed, they cannot. And we can’t expect our major artists to come up with something new, can we? Have they not given us enough already?

So, forward into the past. And for you youngsters out there considering a career in music, it may pay to dig a little further into that past for inspiration. I mean, where are today’s novelty numbers, answer songs and craze-cash-ins? Where are the tributes to our favourite movie and TV characters? Where, indeed, are albums by the stars of our favourite movies and TV shows?

It seems to me today’s would-be opportunists just aren’t trying. How hard can it be to write a jaunty pop song told from the perspective of a cat trying to cope with sudden YouTube fame? Or, I don’t know, a dance track called I Was Mike Duffy’s Personal Trainer, or something. And those are just off the top of my head.

To those unable to generate a single original idea, I say look to the cover version. Sure, you could try to write something ‘original’ by hijacking another band’s sound or paying ‘tribute’ to an idol. But that is not without risk. Moreover, there is effort required.

Covers are easier. Much. And can be lucrative. Much.

I’m not talking note-for-note recreations of past hits. That would be pointless.

I’m talking a return to the days when ambitious but lazy performers scoured the non-mainstream for potential chart-toppers. Some made their careers on their (or their label’s) knack for recognizing talent — and stopping it in its tracks. Imagine a world where Simon F, Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, After the Fire and Natalie Imbruglia had never become pop stars.

Not a world I’d want to live in, let me tell you.

Plus, the race to be first to chart with someone else’s song can create exciting and enduring rivalries. One does not, for instance, dare mention Dusty Springfield or Cilla Black — or anyone else who charted with a Bacharach/David composition — around Dionne Warwick. And Roger McGuinn still fumes that The Byrds’ All I Really Want to Do was “stolen from us” by Sonny and Cher.

The fact that it was not The Byrds’ song to steal matters not, in the cutthroat world of covers.

We saw a hint of that sort of action most recently when an alarming number of crooners discovered Leonard Cohen’s 1984 song Hallelujah. Even Lenny must have briefly wondered whether he had passed on. Fortunately, he is still very much with us and collecting royalties from what is, frankly, a song well worth covering. Countless times, it seems.

It’s surprising, reallythen, that major labels no longer troll the underground sounds for something ideally suited to their latest up-and-comer. It’s surely less stressful than having to deal with the sort of professional songwriters capable of moulding Taylor Swift’s scribblings into a hit record. And it wouldn’t take much tweaking to turn, say, a Father John Misty track like Chateau Lobby #4 into a new country chart-topper.

So look alive, people! Borrowing ideas from the past is all well and good, but borrowing from the present can also be effective. Especially a present so steeped in the past, if you follow me. (And I’m not sure I do.)

Need help getting started? Check this out:

Her name is Sharon Kovacs. She is from the Netherlands. In a few months, she will be known throughout North America.

Your mission is to get there first. You’ve a whole album’s worth of songs to choose from. Potential hits aplenty.

If you don’t, someone else will. Maybe even the artist known as KOVACS.

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