Two cover songs which are better than the originals
Doing a cover gives a group the opportunity to use someone else’s composition as a frame in which to display their own distinctiveness to full advantage. There are a great number of covers which aren’t worth hearing, but in the best ones —such as these two—both the group’s own abilities and the source material’s assets or limitations are blended together into something greater than its parts.
The abstract, non-repetitive structure of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” makes it a perfect match for Yes’ progressive / symphonic compositional style. The original recording is insipid and pretentious, with pompous kettledrums, and comes off as not the least bit honest or sincere. But in Yes’ hands the song becomes joyful, grand, and energetic. Yes incorporates the song’s original introduction into a complex opening movement of their own, along with some more of the song’s themes and a citation of Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story. They omit the song’s fourth verse and make a very significant change to the second verse—the line “and Mrs. Wagner’s pies”, which is sung in the original version with unnaturally excessive emphasis, is in Yes’ version sung in a quick, offhand manner more similar to the rhythms of speech.
Yes’ version is more than three times the length of the song as originally written by Simon and Garfunkel. Yes uses some of the song’s melodic lines as points of departure for their own dense, multilayered composition, the crux of which is a three-and-a-half-minute-long guitar solo which comes between the two presentations of the song’s fifth verse. This is a guitar “solo” in only the technical sense; the bass, drums, and even Rick Wakeman’s electric piano are given parts of equal harmonic importance as the guitar’s. The drums, especially, rival the guitar line in technical proficiency, inventiveness, and variety. This long instrumental section ranges all over the map and is unique in Yes’ mid-seventies output not only in its density of musical material (only “Sound Chaser” from Relayer rivals it), but also in its unabashedly cheerful mood. I can’t think of any other track Yes recorded in the seventies where they sound so happy; most of the time their weighty and ponderous epics seem much too serious or self-conscious to allow for anything like a smile, but their “America” finds them grinning.
Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” sounds like it’s being sung by a generic bored farmhand. I can just imagine the hired help getting together after the day’s chores are done, out in the bunkhouse where the farmer can’t see or hear them, whooping it up, passing the moonshine around, and setting out this litany of complaints while accompanying themselves with a jangly guitar and a harmonica. The problem with Dylan’s song is that it is too authentic, thus robbing itself of any ability to speak for anything other than its ostensible time or place; whatever broader meaning Dylan might have had for the song is obscured by the verisimilitude of the song itself. (This is actually a big problem in rock music in general, and a symptom of rock’s preferential ability to convey emotions as opposed to ideas.)
It took Zack de la Rocha & co. to really do this song justice. I mean seriously, they have “rage” in their band name! I almost feel like it was their God-given destiny to cover this song. The frustrated discontent of Dylan’s original is mutated here into full-on, um, rage—at the farm, at Maggie’s family, at the whole world—this is the sound of someone whose anger might turn into violent destruction of . . . something! And it turns the song into a metaphor for anger against the system / corporate greed / you name it. No matter what institution you are opposed to, this song could be your anthem.