Unbelievably, despite releasing 26 studio albums since 1969, shock rocker Alice Cooper “had never done covers on stage. It would be a new kind of wrinkle for Alice,” he says.
Yet, as soon as he thought up the Hollywood Vampires concept and played an impromptu gig with his friend Johnny Depp at London’s 100 Club in June 2011, the idea became irresistible. “Why don’t we honour all the guys I used to drink with that are now gone? Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, John Lennon, Harry Nilsson. Have the gravestones come up, Alice be in the graveyard, tipping the hat to them. That was the whole idea,” explains Cooper, who coined the expression Hollywood Vampires in the early Seventies and lived to tell the cautionary tale. “It started out being a drinking club of all the rock stars that had a night off. In Los Angeles, it was the Rainbow Bar and Grill, in New York, it was Max’s Kansas City, and in London it was Tramp, a place where you went and did not talk about music since everything in your life was about music.”
The floating membership of the original Hollywood Vampires also included Ringo Starr, Micky Dolenz of The Monkees, the Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin and the T-Rex mainman Marc Bolan, whose hit “Jeepster’’ – with its lyric “Girl, I’m just a vampire for your love” – is one of several highlights on what could well prove to be the ultimate homage collection. “It isn’t like just anyone could go and do an album like this and have the history behind it,” stresses Cooper. “I really did drink with Hendrix and Morrison. I have the licence to do these songs because they were personal friends.”
Now Hollywood Vampires is one of a raft of covers albums giving the much-maligned genre, too long synonymous with bland retro-soul collections and myriad variations on the American Songbook, a shot in the arm. They include Uncovered, Shawn Colvin’s second set of material by her favourite singer-songwriters; The Letter, Lemar’s superlative collection of soul classics cut in Los Angeles with Joni Mitchell producer Larry Klein; A Fool to Care, the third covers album blue-eyed soul vocalist Boz Scaggs has issued in 12 years; and Long Lost Suitcase, the third in the trilogy of blues, country, folk and gospel collections produced by Ethan Johns that have helped reposition Welsh superstar Tom Jones into the roots marketplace.
British R&B sensation Lemar is glad he waited until now, 13 years after coming third in Fame Academy, to embrace a challenging repertoire associated with Joe Cocker, Sam Cooke, Al Green, Elton John and Van Morrison. “It was a very conscious decision. I really wanted that old school, soulful angle. I had a clear vision. I felt I had paid my dues,” states the singer who wasn’t too daunted by the prospect of following in the footsteps of Frank Sinatra and Marvin Gaye at EastWest Studios in Los Angeles, and recording “live in the room with everyone. It brings out that extra five per cent or 10 per cent out of yourself to create that moment,” he says about his interpretations of “The Letter”, “Bring It On Home to Me”, “Love and Happiness”, “Love Song” and “Crazy Love”, which avoid the tendency to showboat, a pitfall far too prevalent among reality TV show contestants. “It’s easy to ‘over-cook’, to over-embellish a song because you feel you have to do more. And singing a cover exactly the same is kind of pointless.”
Issued two decades apart, Shawn Colvin’s two covers collections reflect a similar outlook as well as the changes in her modus operandi. “The songs on Cover Girl (1994) were actually staples of my live act at the time,” explains the three-time Grammy winner. “This isn’t the case with Uncovered. Some of these songs I knew how to play, others I learned for this album. Until you learn a song, you don’t know if you can bring anything to it. And unless a song moves you, it doesn’t matter what you do with it.”
Too bad the winsome Natalie Imbruglia seems to have let the side down. Male, her current, supposedly left-field set, comprises her interpretations of a dozen compositions written by male acts – Daft Punk, The Cure, Neil Young – but this hardly constitutes a brand-new concept. In 2012, Rumer scored a Top 3 album with Boys Don’t Cry, a similarly themed collection of tracks penned by sensitive males – Hall & Oates, Clifford T Ward, Gilbert O’Sullivan. And Tori Amos set a high bar with Strange Little Girls – covering Lou Reed, Lloyd Cole, Neil Young – in 2001. Nothing new under the sun, indeed.
Unless you’re Alice Cooper, whose lateral revival of the Hollywood Vampires obviously hit a nerve. As well as Depp and Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, the recording sessions grew to feature a stellar cast including the AC/DC singer Brian Johnson, Joe Walsh of The Eagles, Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, Doors guitarist Robby Krieger, Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters and Slash of Guns N’ Roses, and not one but two Sirs, Sir Paul McCartney, on a rollicking cover of Badfinger’s “Come and Get It’’ – “It was quite an honour to have Paul on the album” – and Sir Christopher Lee – “We got him to read a page of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in that wonderful voice of his, ‘children of the night, what music they make’ and then go right into the music.”
So what is the enduring appeal in covering other people’s material? According to Cooper, a proper covers album should serve several functions. “All bands, from The Beatles to the Rolling Stones, started out being bar bands. So we reversed back to that,” he says. “Alice Cooper and Aerosmith learned from The Who and the Yardbirds. We did songs that we wanted to do and songs that we were jealous we didn’t write.”
‘Hollywood Vampires’ is out on 11 September on Universal Music Catalogue ; ‘Uncovered’ by Shawn Colvin is out on 25 September on Fantasy Records/Concord ; ‘The Letter’ by Lemar is out on 9 October on BMG ChrysalisReuse content