February 14, 2005

MUSIC: Big Daddy

So USA Today ran one of those "oh, look what the kids are up to now" articles last week on podcasting. Now most of the time, a USA Today article would be a sign that the featured trend had peaked six months ago, but this one actually seemed to be relatively timely, and infomative for out-of-it folks like me who'd heard of podcasting, but didn't know much about it.

The article led me to Coverville, which I'm enjoying immensely, and I'm looking forward to working my way through the backlog of existing broadcasts.

And Coverville Episode 10 led me to -- finally, the subject of this post -- Big Daddy. Led me back to, I should say; since Big Daddy was a favorite band of mine in the early 90s.

Big Daddy was a band with an elaborate back story. They had, we were told, been a popular prom band in the mid-to-late 50s, when the cruise ship they working disappeared. The band's members reappeared 30 years later, having been held prisoner in Cuban prisons for never-clearly-explained reasons. Now, all they wanted to do was go back to playing the songs the kids loved, but the only musical styles they were comfortable with were those of early rock-&-roll.

And so, we got three albums of current pop hits ("current" meaning late 80s/early 90s) played as if they were pre-Beatles tunes, cleverly merging the new and the old. Each interpretation was inspired by a specific artist, and usually by a specific song, with the connections ranging from the obvious -- Paul Simon's "Graceland" as (what else?) an Elvis Presley tune -- to the thematic -- Mike & the Mechanic's "The Living Years," in which the singer mourns the fact that he never really talked to his recently-deceased father, gets recast as the death-rock classic "Leader of the Pack." (OK, that's a bit tasteless, but the execution is very funny.)

Some of the connections were a bit more puzzling. Rick James' "Super Freak" as an Everly Brothers ballad? The Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" as a Belafonte calypso? But even at their most far-fetched, the band's musical skill and obvious affection for both generations of music made it always at least listenable.

Occasionally, they achieved brilliance. U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" through the lens of Hank Ballard becomes a rousing gospel shout, and the Wilson Phillips-meets-Jackie Wilson version of "Hold On" is inspired. Their interpretation of "Memory" (yes, the one from Cats) draws on "Unchained Melody" for inspiration, but not the obvious Righteous Brothers version; no, Big Daddy goes for the more obscure, insanely manic version by Vito and the Salutations, turning Lloyd Webber's treacly slush into a hyper-speed piece of lunacy.

After three CDs of this magnificent nonsense, they released their masterwork, "Sgt. Pepper's," a track-by-track reinterpretation of the Beatles album. "Fixing a Hole" goes Dion; "With a Little Help From My Friends" becomes a surprisingly apt Johnny Mathis ballad. And most stunning of all, "A Day in the Life" is presented as a Buddy Holly rocker ("I read the news today, uh-oh boy").

Sadly, all of their CDs are now out of print, but if you should ever stumble across them in a used-CD shop, they're worth a listen.

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