When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week A Place To Bury Strangers takes on David Bowie’s “Suffragette City.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
With hacks like Lady Gaga indiscriminately co-opting David Bowie’s imagination and fashion sense, it’s sometimes easy to forget how truly remarkable his musical legacy is, a subtle compartmentalization that’s really unfortunate and one that I’m guilty of all too often. The same could be said of so many other great artists from the ’60s and ’70s: I let the campy derivatives of today malign my fondness for the vintage original. That’s not to say, of course, that all revivalist artists are negligible by definition—at the least, the Strokes and the White Stripes are plenty worthy of their stature—but pop culture’s feigned or misguided applications of glam and punk rock through music and fashion today can be really disorienting, causing me to subconsciously pass over those classic records in my collection that remain as great as they always were, untainted by those who would fecklessly promote their work on their backs.
Then I’ll be sitting at a bar or trying to find something worth listening to on the radio, when a song like “Suffragette City” comes on and instantly reminds me of that era’s brilliance. Marrying the theatrical with the visceral, Bowie (in particular) became a legend with the creation of Ziggy Stardust, ironically becoming one of the U.K.’s most popular personalities while bucking the same conventions that made others popular. His work has always been inventive, but the early ’70s perhaps represents the most lasting, resonant period of Bowie’s legacy, if for no other reason than he made it OK for rock music to be intellectually stimulating and enjoyable for global audiences at the same time. Maybe your favorite work came later in the decade with Heroes, or in ’80s with Let’s Dance, which are certainly lasting records on their own accord. Of all the efforts that Bowie will be remembered for, though, I’d argue that the whimsy of Stardust, in both character and song, will top the list.
In its own way, NYC’s A Place To Bury Strangers could be considered “revivalist,” but its immediate influences are less obvious than many of its peers. Popularly described (for a time, at least) as the “loudest band in New York,” the trio fused shoegaze’s wall-of-sound, proto-punk’s artful rambunctiousness and the dark, robotic textures of industrial music with solid results on its two LPs, even earning a highly coveted spot opening for Nine Inch Nails on tour in 2008. The band’s cover of “Suffragette City” represents this aesthetic well, keeping the original’s punk-rock foundation, though largely deconstructing its melodic appeal, making it noisy and somewhat haunting in the process. Given Bowie’s constant evolution and futuristic ambition—and more specifically his collaboration with Trent Reznor in the ’90s—something tells me he’d approve of this cover, perhaps more so than those of Mr. Big, L.A. Guns or the hoards of others that’ve taken a stab at the song.