[Editor's Note: Back in July we sent out an open call to brave musicians for our first-ever mystery cover song challenge curated by writer Victor Infante. Artists volunteered to cover any song we gave them without knowing who it would be beforehand or the theme of the songs we picked. In honor of Air Supply's show at City National Grove this Saturday, we dedicated this challenge to the Australian lords of the love ballad. Below you'll find Infante's story on the contestants who participated as well as their versions of various Air Supply cover songs.]
Let's get one thing straight upfront: Air Supply does not need our approval. The Australian soft rock duo has been doing its thing for 40 years now, racking up numerous hits, including “All Out of Love,” “Lost in Love,” “Here I Am (Just When I Thought I Was Over You)," “Even the Nights Are Better” and other songs about love. Sweet, sticky, cotton-candy love. Despite being critically derided for decades, the team of singer-songwriter and guitarist Graham Russell and lead vocalist Russell Hitchcock are still touring strong and playing to packed houses, including an upcoming show Sept. 24 at the Grove of Anaheim.
No, it's easy to sneer at the saccharine band's work, but it's more difficult to completely write off the millions of fans who connect with the same songs that leaves critics and even other musicians scratching their heads. Whatever else is right or wrong with the music, that connection is real, and deserves to be taken seriously. But how does one begin to explore the work of a band that's subject to so many preconceptions, … a band which, in all honesty, is the definition of the bias against a certain breed of popular music. Well, we could immerse ourselves in their work, interview fans about what they respond to, etc., etc., etc. Or, we could put out a call for musicians to agree to cover a song without knowing in advance what song it would be, or what artist it's by, and then observe them mad-scientist style as they wrestle to tear apart the songs, figure out how they tick and then put them back together in a form in which they feel they've made the songs their own.
Which brings us to the Great Cover Song Challenge, where more than 100 bands and solo artists responded, willing to test their mettle against the unknown. The result was 50 covers of Air Supply songs from artists all around the country – everything from Goth to country, Zappa-esque spoken word and trip-hop, tango to whatever it is the Pocket Clowns were doing – including a “lightning round” of five versions of “Lost in Love,” each recorded in 24 hours. And the covers were amazing … but that doesn't mean they were easy.
Those Lyrics, Though
To be fair, a lot of the artists were able to wring beauty from the base materials of Air Supply's music. Orange -based band the Harmless Doves transformed “I Won't Let It Get In the Way” into a bare and bristling piece of Americana. New Jersey musician David Citron found a delicate piece of piano music inside “Sunset.” Los Angeles singer Angela Parrish's tango of Dame Amor” is stunning. There was doubtlessly a lot of good to work with amid the band's songbook.
“They're masters of hooks and melodies,” said Massachusetts singer songwriter Matt Soper, who covered, “One Step Closer.” Those things always help the situation. Paul M. Carhart, of the Long Beach band Third World Sun, which covered “Don't Be Afraid,” said “I was actually impressed by the chord progressions in our song.”
But there was one problem, and it was almost universal: The lyrics, which posed problems for numerous of the performers.
“We did it by stripping away everything that makes Air Supply Air Supply and starting from there,” said May McDonough, of the OC band The May Company, which rocked out with 'Put Love in Your Life.” Also we allowed ourselves to die a little inside.”
Johnathan Mooney, of the Los Angeles band Johnathan|Christian, which delivered an industrio-goth rendition of “Dancing With the Mountain,” says that the “hardest part was the task of taking a step back and listening to the original in a non-objective way to understand how to dissect it. In other words, after the laughter dies then come the tears, and that was when I knew we had something to work with.”
Ryder says that “[I] felt like there was a nugget of truth in the lyrics, but they were too vague as written to suit my tastes. I treated them like a first draft and edited them until I had something that felt real.” Danielle Staples Magario of New England's Fox and the Dragon, which did “Taking the Chance,” said “it felt like the lyrics would hinder any attempt we could make at a serious rendition of the song. Thankfully, we decided to do a jazz inspired take, tweaked a few lyrics, and it turned out OK.”
Arizona musician Sumiko, says she had to push past a lot of initial assumptions in her covers of “Here I am (Just When I Thought I Was Over You”) and “Lost in Love.” “The progression is pretty solid. The structure is there if you ignore the histrionic '80s elements. So what about those lyrics? Those terrible, terrible lyrics? What's actually there is the emotion. That's something real. Dealing with loss and regret, we all do that. So to overcome my preconceptions, I used the authentic emotion as a touchstone, letting it pull me past my knee-jerk initial response. I stripped everything else back, and built the song back up to emphasize that emotional storyline. That meant figuring out how to restore its prosody, which gave me my direction for the project.”
Kathy Hall, the mother of 10-year-old OC singer Katyana Hall – who did a mashup of Air Supply's “Your Love Will Go On” and Celine Dion's “My Heart Will Go On” (using backing music from the Post Modern Jukebox version of the latter song) – said that, “The challenge with Air Supply is not being too cool for the lyrics. People who can admit to loneliness and to loving someone without knowing if it is requited or not, people who can talk about being in love without wrapping the phrase securely in scare quotes, they don't find Air Supply lyrics difficult and can just doo-wop them. In other words, it helps never to have had one's heart broken. It helps to be 10.”
Florida musician Will Ryan – who delivered a puppet show music video for “Two Less Lonely People – said that “once I stopped thinking of the lyrics through the lens of 'Oh God, this is such a crass and cynical ploy to get sad women to sleep with them' and tried to imagine the kind of people for whom such sentiments would resonate, it got easier to find the uncynical heart of the song and lean into the sap of the lyrics.” Likewise, Long Beach guitarist Jesse Carzello of the Long Beach band Bobby Blunders said, “I'd really like to give Air Supply the benefit of the doubt that these lyrics are not mere psuedo-deep, savior complex saddled condescending dude drivel; though after spending so much time with the material, my faith is a bit shaken.”
Long Beach musician Lili De La Mora of the band Sidecar said her song, “Just Another Woman,” “loosely tells the tale of a young troubled woman that shows up at his doorstep late at night needing some help. They also seemed a tad dismissive of the woman they were singing about in hinting at what kind of help she might be needing (he hem). You know, she was just another woman. I honestly wasn't sure if I could sing the lyrics.” De La Mora managed to approach the song by ejecting the male savior complex and recasting it as being about a friend in need.
Joseph, of the Orange County band Windows to Sky, said he actually loved the song “Do What You Do,” because “I thought the original practically defined the Platonic ideal of 'b-side.' … The original recording delivers each line of the verses in a flat lifelessly cheery monotone, and then goes to a blustery angsty bridge, all the while never losing its robotic kick-and-bass disco bop. … I think the worst part for me was the clipped emotionless rhythm of the verses. I figured out the chords (for of course they aren't anywhere on the Internet) and toyed with it until I realized that almost the exact uninteresting melody became much more moving when stretched across 3/4 time.”
While every musician had their own method of coping with the lyrics, Sarah Fard of the Boston band Savoir Faire looked outside herself when tackling “Now and Forever,” saying, “Looking at the comments section for this song on YouTube helped. There are a lot of people who hold this song near to their heart. I can't make that connection, but knowing that others do helps to shed some new light on the tune.”
Dark, Weird and Robotic
Whether by dint of the song or the musicians themselves, some of the covers went to some unexpected and offbeat places. Some musicians felt the need to darken up the ligth and breezy songs, while others sought to thoroughly mechanize it, or take it to even weirder places.
“With overly sugary sap like this you have to cut the flavor a little with dark pepper.,” said OC poet Jaimes Palacio, who produced the bizarre trip-hop video, “One You Love Swing” as well as assisting Hall and The Pocket Clowns. Luke Johnson of the Lawndale band Roosterhead, agrees, adding, “ I think that despite the sugary melodies, a lot of their songs seem to be written from a distressed perspective. There's a constant sense of longing, sometimes at a creepy, stalker level if you really separate the lyrics from the melodies”
New England musician Lovina concurred, saying her song, “Old Habits Die hard,” was originally a happy-sounding tune with a darker message. I like that in a song usually, but I felt it needed to go to the dark side with a change to a minor key.” Likewise, Massachusetts musician Helen Sheldon Beaumont said, “I love dark songs. I love murder ballads and death. And blues. And no one wants to hear that when they go out to a club. They want to be uplifted and happy. I can't fully show what I feel or what my musical style is. Here- it doesn't matter. I'm not limited to that level and I can pour my sadness into it.”
“I felt the subject matter and the underlying emotion of the song was actually quite dark,” said Sumiko, “but it was belied by the poppier production. ... The chord structure actually did have prosody; it hit minor and nondiatonic qualities at the right places to emphasize the darkness of the lyric.”
Whether they were subverting the feel of the song or trying to bring something out that might not otherwise be obvious, the musicians took diverse and sometimes eccentric roads toward exploring their songs. Los Angeles multi-hyphenate artist Rachel Kann delivered a breezy and upbeat “It's Automatic.” Massachusetts trip-hoppers Eurydice brought a dark and brooding “Chances.” New England poetry-music fusion band the Duende Project brought a manic, paranoid edge to “I Can't Get Excited.” Prodigal OC noise band legends Instagon delivered a crazed spoken-word “Setting the Scene” and both Roosterhead and Long Beach artist Aeron Space paired their songs with melancholic robots, which somehow made them achingly sad. Eric Urban of Massachusetts didn't just do Air Supply's “Power of Love,” he combined every song of that name into one tune. Maine artist Wetdryvac delivered his, “'The Heart Belongs to the Ionosphere' as a long, hypnotic dirge.
“People can forgive just about any songwriting sins as long as the melody is solid,” says Johnson, musing on Air Supply's songbook, “and that's one thing they got right.”
Making it Your Own
Not all the renditions were wild. Indeed, a number of musicians played it straight, or understated. Whittier's Reverse (The Band) blended in elements of Chicago's “25 or 6 to 4” and Derek and the Domino's “Lyala” into their take on “Me Like You,” but it was still pretty straight-forward rock. Boston's Matt York's had a raw, stripped-down feel. “I deconstructed the song and tried to make it mine,” said Massachusetts' Amazing Dick, who did Sweet Dreams in addition to partnering with Beaumont. “I made their song mine. Helen's song became a sad country song and mine a little Clash like.”
“We were actually pretty true to the song as written,” says Carhart. “The parts we kept, the verses and chorus, we didn't re-write at all. Nor did we change the lyrics. The original piece was performed in strings and piano. So we just sorta did what we do as a band. We got in a room and jammed it. We jettisoned the intro and the musical interlude and just extended the chord progression of the verse.”
Others, though, had to go to great lengths to reconstruct the songs to their own liking.
Aeron Space says he found “inspiration in a 1950s Western swing player. Pete Drake and his Talk Box gave me the idea to use a vocoder vocal effect along with my lap steel guitar. The song ended up sounding like a robot doing karaoke.”
“It's amazing what adjusting the time and tempo of a song can do to bring out the right emotion!” says Johnson. “Our song was originally a midtempo soft rocker, but we boosted the tempo up to 230 bpm to give it some energy... then played everything from the bridge onwards at half that speed (slower than the original) to bring out the underlying dramatic impact.”
One of Sumiko's big problems was that she realized that “under those saccharine layers of dreck, was a valid set of human emotions: loss and regret. It was just hard to see, because they'd Air Supplied the crap out of it, and the song's lyrical content was a total mismatch for its tonal quality. That was my turning point. So I stripped the song all the way back. My cover starts out super sparsely. Then I built in all the layers that would actually support the emotion in the lyric rather than detract from it. We stuck pretty close to the bone on this one. But we did darken up the progression just a tad.”
Why Air Supply Endures
So the question remains: If Air Supply is so derided, why has its music survived, and why does it still reverberate? There's no real easy answer for that, although Joseph points to the power of nostalgia, saying, “Nostalgia is enough to motivate people to listen, and anything actually good or lasting about the music itself is pure bonus.”
“They are attached to people's memories,” agrees Beaumont. “When they were young. When the fell in love. When they felt heart break. People love music they know. Music burns a place in one's memory for a lifetime. You hear a song 40 years after you're last time and you still know all the words and pauses. It's the best thing music does.”
De La Mora admits she listened to a lot of “corn ball music” growing up, “So songs like 'Lost in Love' have a special place in my heart. They remind me of being a kid and listening to the radio with my mom. I hadn't explored any of their albums as a whole and it was interesting to see what else they had up their sleeve. … at least for me certain Air Supply songs have pleasant memories attached to them. I was too young to know what love was but I certainly had crushes and remember listening to these songs and daydreaming about one day hopefully being in love."
And that's what it seems to come down to, with Air Supply: Love, as “an ideal,” says Hall, “Love as an unmixed, unmitigated emotional state, the love that never settles down and never does the dishes because the dishes are always broken in the intensity of the emotional moment. The ideal no longer appeals to many, and why should it? It was jealous and stalking. It owned the beloved. It was too much in love with being in love. Still, it was love, and we were told it was the best that we were capable of and the reason we exist. Air Supply endures because, although as far back as Byron even the poets told us that eternal earthquakes were no way to live, a part of us still wants to believe in romantic love as something transcendent.”
For Arizona musician Forrest Sitgreaves, who tackled “Keeping the Love Alive,” “the bottom line is this – they had pretty damn singable melodies, with emotions/hormones that every teenager in the world was experiencing.”
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Sumiko agrees, adding “People did resonate with their music, enough to buy stratospheric amounts of it. I think as musicians ourselves, it's important to remember that most people don't listen to music as critically as we do. People like music for all kinds of reasons, for how it makes them feel, for the groove, for the vibe. And people did like this music.”
They did, and still do, and maybe that's enough.
Air Supply performs on Saturday, Sep. 24 at the City National Grove of Anaheim. For Tickets, click here.