Dedicated to those songs that I can't stop playing, humming, or thinking about; the 4+ minutes you fall head-over-heels in love with. Past instances have included Outkast's "Dracula's Wedding," David Bowie's "Starman" and The Clash's "Guns on the Roof."
"I love cover songs," I recently told a friend. "I don't think there's any better expression of music for me than a good cover song."
"Yeah," agreed the friend. "And I love Me First & the Gimme Gimmes."
"Let me rephrase my statement..." and I went on to turn myself into a liar.
But not really. At some time I may have loved the ironic reworkings of "The Funny Cover," like Alien Ant Farm's "Smooth Criminal" or even Limp Bizkit's "Faith." I can see the appeal of these versions because, as in my preferred brand of rehash, they usually take the best parts of the original recording and do them one better. Musically, that is. The melody in "Smooth Criminal" becomes even more rocking in the hands of the Farm and it's not entirely unlovable. But these type of cover songs feel more judgmental than inspired. There's a level of separation between the band and the song which creates another level of separation between me and the music. More than anything, the ironic cover song has probably distanced me from the world of Ska. It feels like a brass section is looking down their spit valves at a once popular, now out of style, pop song that only wanted to entertain.
I much prefer sincere rock 'n' roll cover songs. I love the kind of covers where you can feel the band singing along to every bit not because they've rehearsed it formally, but because they played it at full volume in their dad's car after basketball practice. A good rule of thumb: if the song comes from a chief influential genre of the band, then it's usually pretty great. G'n'R covering Aerosmith's "Mama Kin" and Hendrix covering "Hey Joe" are in the "Great Pile," while Phish doing "Gin 'n' Juice" fall into the "Funny For a While, Then Who Cares Pile." For some reason oldies lend themselves very easily to this romanticized imaginary setting, and The Ramones made themselves one of the greatest resuscitators of these tunes.
It's easy to miss "Indian Giver." It was originally released only as a single, never earning inclusion on a full album despite the fact that it works like so many other great Ramones cover songs: it retains the song's original charm while sounding distinctly Ramonesy. And even though the tune has appeared on many of the band's anthologies, it never cracked the top tiers like "California Sun," "Surfin' Bird" and "Let's Dance" managed to do. I had heard the song years ago on my then-girlfriend's copy of Ramonesmania, but it wasn't until I recently re-listened to my recent used-bin purchase of "Halfway to Sanity" that I fell headlong into my latter-period Ramones weekend. While the late 80's were not exactly the prime time in Ramones history, it was not without its charm. "Indian Giver" deserves better.
Maybe it's just the slightly racist title. A kind of racist title originally sung by a group called (no kidding) the 1910 Fruitgum Company... the band name alone would have merited bands from 1996 to riot and I'm pretty sure they were an inspiration to Arrested Development writers. A cover of this song during mid-ninties would have been all horn blasts, snooty comments and skanking fat guys instructing us that we shouldn't really love this song, just judge it with us and enjoy the judgment.
To that The Ramones and I say, "Screw off." Every time that familiar Mosrite buzz and the tom-tom beat, a smile grown wide on my face and I fight the temptation to start singing aloud, right there on the train. Or on my bike. Or on the sidewalk, in the grocery store, and in line at the movies. "Indian Giver" displays some of Joey's best "boo-hoo" singing. It's a fantastic display of bubblegum blues -- the kind of "sad song" that's not sad at all because the noise is so joyous.
So as you listen to the song while watching possibly the most boring yet direct "tribute" video of its kind, be joyous, try to sing "Oh no-oh-OH-oh!" like Joey on that first chorus and be glad irony cannot trump true love.