By the mid 1980's popular music was settling back into the doldrums from which punk had rescued it in the late 1970's and once again the airwaves were flooded with formulaic dreck. All of which meant that when Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds released Kicking Against The Pricks, a collection that featured covers of mainly old and traditional country tunes, it really stuck out. This was long before movies like Oh Brother Where Art Thou brought about a revival of interest in old time country music, so hearing anybody performing something like "Long Black Veil" was an anomaly even on country music radio stations.
Yet here was this collection of guys who looked like your atypical new wave band, skinny ties and tight pants etc, playing a mixture of old time county and blues standards, and not trying to make them sound contemporary. Instead, they were playing nearly straight versions with no signs of this being some sort of send up. For those who missed this recording the first time around, Mute Records has reissued a special two disc set. Disc one is a CD containing all the original martial plus a couple of previously unreleased tracks from the same sessions. The second disc is a DVD and it not only contains all the tracks on the first disc re-mastered into 5.1 surround sound, it also includes a documentary shot specifically for this release featuring contemporaries of the band talking about the disc. The DVD also allows you to download mp3 versions of the bonus audio tracks, the documentary, and a video of Nick Cave singing "The Singer", made famous by Johnny Cash.
While the documentary is interesting enough in that it provides a context for the music and some insights into the process which the band went through in creating the recording, its still just a collection of talking heads which becomes a little tedious. Anyway, it's the music that's important, not what a bunch of people most of us have never heard of think about it. For the music is brilliant from beginning to end. Somehow Cave and the Bad Seeds have managed to turn what ninety per cent of the time others have made sound like cheap sentimental crap into songs with heart which generate a genuine emotional connection to the listener.
With all apologies to Glen Campbell fans, but normally listening to "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" would make me gag. It was one of the worst examples of how country music had been polished and buffed into something that could be sold at Los Vegas, and left with the emotional depth of a Hallmark card. In the hands of Nick Cave and company though the song becomes something more than you'd think possible. By stripping down the music to a bare minimum and singing as if you actually believed the lyrics, you reveal a song filled with regrets and fears that has a lot more going for it than just sentimentality.
Cave does this with all the so-called standards on this disc, including numbers like the aforementioned "Long Black Veil" and "The Singer", and other chestnuts like "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart", and "Sleeping Annaleah". Now while it take a certain kind of courage and skill to tackle songs like these and turn them into respectable and enjoyable music, it's even harder to take a respected song readily identified with another singer and create a version that stands up to the known one.
While there may have been plenty of other versions of the old William Roberts' tune "Hey Joe" recorded, probably the most famous was done by Jimi Hendrix. At least it's the one I was most familiar with up until a couple of years ago when I heard Willy DeVille perform his Latin version of the song. While I didn't think I'd ever find another version capable of matching what either Hendrix or DeVille had done with it, Cave's version ranks right up there with both of them. He's turned it into a real murder ballad, dripping blood, regret, envy, and love all over the place. When he sings "I'm going down to shoot my old lady - I caught her messing round with another man" you can hear the death in his voice - you can believe someone is going to die.
However, no matter how good the songs on the rest of the album are, the ones that knocked my socks off the most came from two of the last four cuts on the disc. The second last track of those that had been originally released on the CD was the band's cover of a gospel tune called "Jesus Met The Woman At The Well". Lyrically it's pretty lame, and again its not the type of song that normally would have provided me with any sort of inspiration. However, listening to Cave and the band performing it, you forget the lyrics as you get caught up in their amazing four part vocal harmonies and the power they are able to generate through singing.
Yet, just when you think they've run out of ways of surprising you with their performances, you hear the first of the bonus tracks, a version of Leadbelly's song "Black Betty". They've reduced this song to it's bare bones until its almost no more than Cave's vocals and a single tom pounding out a primal rhythm. Its power comes from its simplicity as Cave wails out the vocals over the insistent drum with an urgency that's close to painful, but a passion that stirs the blood. It's been a long time since I've heard any song, let alone one done by a popular music group, sung with the intensity and passion that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds imbued this piece with.
Releasing an album of cover tunes could be seen as a cop-out as it implies the band couldn't be bothered to come up with any original material of their own to perform for the recording. However, in an instance like Kicking Against The Pricks nothing could be further from the truth. Cave and the band turned their considerable talents to the task of creating interpretations that not only brought life to hopelessly moribund material, but found ways of giving classic songs their own indelible stamp. A remarkable achievement that has to be heard to be believed.
(Originally posted May 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.