Monday, March 20, 2017
Getting Fresh and Familiar
There's a concept in design called something along the lines of, "Fresh, But Familiar." It means in order to be the Next Big Thing, you've got to organize familiar things in a fresh way. Or more likely, you add a single novelty, while the remaining 99% is the usual stuff and junk. People will go crazy for a small excursion from a well-beaten path, but they're wary of truly new stuff. I used to explain the concept as, "Pioneers are the fellows you see lying by the side of the trail with arrows sticking out of them." That has too many words, so we'll stick to FBF. Alton Ellis covering A Whiter Shade of Pale is FBF to the max, ain't it?
FBF is a very important concept for people who attempt cover versions of very familiar songs. Being an essential concept doesn't mean anyone who wants to cover A Whiter Shade of Pale is going to listen to me. People dutifully try to copy what they like, usually with their tongue in the corner of their mouth the whole time. It never occurs to them to bring anything new to the table, because their table of talent wobbles too much to keep anything on it anyway.
If you're a budding baker, missing out on FBF gets you featured on Buzzfeed in a Nailed It listicle. If you're a musician trying to, as it were, execute A Whiter Shade of Pale, you end up on YouTube in triple digits.
I hereby award that dude one internets for the Steinberger bass.
Why do people eat at McDonald's? It's because they know exactly what they're going to get, and what it's going to cost. There are no surprises. Well-to-do people sneer at McDonald's because they don't understand the concept of no do-overs. Their budgets allow them to experiment. Regular people know they have one shot, so they take no chances. They'd prefer the exact kind of bad they're sure to receive to an outside chance of better. This explains second presidential terms as well.
Cover songs are like McDonald's. Musical performances are great levelers. Everyone in the audience is spending the same amount of the only currency they have: Time. Rich and poor alike have the same skin in the game. If it sucks, you can't get your 4:03 back.
If you loved the original recording of A Whiter Shade of Pale, and you wanted to make sure you weren't going to get A Sallow Shade of Pale, or A Carioca Chick's Shade of Pale, or if you're heading to the cruise ship lounge, A Shade of Pale With Impetigo and a Sunburn, you'd be cautious. You'd go to Branson or Vegas or wherever and watch a white-haired version of what's left of Procol Harum play the song as a spontaneous second finale that's printed right on the schedule. Accept no substitutes. The concept has been keeping hair band members with skullets in business for decades.
Bar bands try to play things note for note, but they usually end up being McDowell's, not McDonald's. They enter the uncanny valley, a place where your resemblance to the actual item is only close enough to weird people out. See Meg Ryan's face for the visual version of the effect.
A Whiter Shade of Pale isn't going to let you change one, solitary detail to make it fresh. One different thing just appears out of place. For instance, I can't quite put my finger on the one thing that's different with this stalwart attempt to cover A Whiter Shade of Pale, with the added challenge of overcoming the ennui brought on by the curtains, and a room listing to port:
I can't put my finger on it, because that would be sexual assault. But my point stands.
The problem with songs like A Whiter Shade of Pale is that it's 100-percent familiar to everyone in this galaxy. It's incredibly easy to enter the uncanny valley, because that valley has been surveyed on a US Geological Service scale. Every blade of grass has been mapped. It's totally familiar to every visitor to that alpine meadow of descending bass notes and churchy chords. Every miss is as good as a mile.
You can't put Big Macs on a Burger King menus without hearing grumbles from the customers, and their stomachs. Certain things are just too familiar to leave out. Like, say, an organ:
Songs like A Whiter Shade of Pale have another problem. They're just too easy to play, so everyone takes a crack at them. Hell, I can teach anyone to play A Whiter Shade of Pale in about 10 minutes, and I have no idea how to play the organ. That's not an idle boast, by the way:
Me? I'm not afraid I'm not going to get A Whiter Shade of Pale that sounds just like the record. I'm afraid I am going to get A Whiter Shade of Pale at all. It's coming out of gas pumps. It's playing on the Muzak at the Home Depot and Lowe's at the same time. It seeps out of the ground like Uncle Jed's oil. I don't hate it, or like it, either. It's like the wallpaper in a waiting room. It's just there. There's really no need to form an opinion about it. But there's no escaping it, either.
My ambivalence to the tune means I can afford to go Harum-hungry for very long periods. I can hold out until I can visit the Alton Ellis fusion bistro. They plate a superb Whiter Shade of Pale croquette, paired with locally-sourced, artisinal, free-range rocksteady sungold rastapasta, drizzled with the ghost of James Jamerson, in a farm to table riddim reduction.
It's FPF, surely.