Just before I went to lunch the original version of “Der Kommisar” by Falco came on the radio. I’m usually impressed by the fact that an American music station, even the kind hired by a private company, would actually put that on. They carry the version that the American group After The Fire did, but I much prefer the original (although I do like the acoustic guitar that After The Fire added during the second verse). But how many Americans actually know of Falco’s version, sung in the original Austrian? I’m sure there’s quite a few, it’s not totally obscure. There’s a good chance that a lot of people do what I did and bought a collection of Falco’s greatest hits when they saw that it had “Rock Me Amadeus” on it. They may also remember the corresponding music video that played on MTV when it came out. But the point is that the After The Fire version charted better in the States and I’m pretty sure it shows up more often on eighties collections.
It is weird when a newer version of a song does better than the original. How many people know that Soft Cell’s recording of “Tainted Love” is actually a cover of a Motown tune? I suppose the original did get some listeners after being in a Grand Theft Auto game, but I wonder if people thought that it was actually a cover. The same goes for Bananarama’s rendition of “Venus.” The ska band Save Ferris covered the Dexy’s Midnight Runners classic “Come On Eileen.” So far I’m hearing the original played more often but I did find it distressing once when I surfed YouTube years ago for covers of the song. There were a few people who credited the song as being a Save Ferris song. People should be doing their research before publishing this stuff online. The ska version is actually pretty good but it’s not the original.
With covers musicians bring something of themselves to the song, thus making it partially their own creatively. That’s fine. Even if I don’t particularly like a band’s rendition of a song, or the song to start with, I respect them for doing it. But covers are one thing. Sampling, on the other hand, has gone completely out of control. I don’t mind sampling generally. I’ve done it myself. What I can’t stand is when somebody samples a song heavily, puts a new beat behind it and processed voice over it, and calls it a new song. Take “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. for example. Whenever it comes on I say I prefer the original song by The Clash better. Nobody knows what I’m talking about. Maybe it wasn’t a single but it was on an album that had “Rock The Casbah” on it. How is it that nobody knows that song? It’s one of the more memorable songs on the album. (To be fair, “Paper Planes” also carries on the theme of injustice surrounding injustice based on her own experience, which gives it some credibility.)
My own experience with sampling has been minimal and I think legal. I suppose the very first instance of it was a weird piece I did with some friends in high school called “War of Dreams.” Back then we recorded onto cassettes via a four-track tape recorder. The friend who owned the tape recorder (and tape) had recorded the audio from the movie “Wayne’s World” as it was playing on T.V. We recorded over that and found that right after we finished came one of the actors asking a question in the movie. We left it in as it added a nice punctuation to the piece. Later on we also re-recorded a song onto the same tape that we had recorded ourselves reading a play that we wrote. We knew we would take the song more seriously than we would the recording of the play but we left some dialogue on one of the tracks, just for fun–it didn’t really work with the song. Would that count as sampling?
I also sampled dialogue from an old Flash Gordon television show on the very first Shadows of Immurement song “Behind The Face.” This was the first time I published a song that used a sample, and I’m pretty sure it’s legitimate. I think the show is now in the public domain. Besides, I only used a small snippet from the show, which I also edited to remove a made-up place name.
Just for fun, I have made recordings that have stayed on my computer that use sampling to a heavier degree. I have one piece that I took the opening phrase from a Talking Heads song and looped it so it works rhythmically. I took a Bill Cosby album I have on which he improvised for the first half, took out the “ums” and “ahs,” and edited those together so it just sounds like he’s having some sort of fit. I put on top of this loop, added a line from a George Carlin book, and re-used a recording of a guitar solo I made for a different song. Hey presto, I have a dance hit… that nobody would ever hear because I don’t feel like paying legal fees.
Originality in music is a tricky thing. Does everything have to be original in order to be a good song? Judging by recent trends in music the majority opinion doesn’t think so. But while it heavy sampling or recycling ideas doesn’t lead to a bad song, that doesn’t justify it to using a bad one. I find the best use of sampling is to embellish your own creativity, not take place of it. I also find the best cover songs are when the performers play them in their own style, as opposed to trying to copy the original directly. When it comes down to it, a musician still has to be a creative person in order to perform well.