Guest blog by Ben Knowles, War Child’s Music Director and ex-editor of NME
It all started in an NME features meeting in 2000. The release schedule was looking sparse, so we decided to ask every act who came within reach of our out-stretched, dictaphone-wielding arm the same question: “Who is the biggest influence on your current music?”
This was shaped into a multi-page filling ‘Special Issue’ cover story, accompanied by a Free CD of tracks singled out by the new bands as particularly influential on ‘their sound’. Radiohead, Coldplay, Muse, Blur, Marilyn Manson, Oasis – even JJ72 and Posh Spice – were polled. Bowie came out the clear winner, ahead of the likes of The Beatles, Kraftwerk, Miles Davis and Joy Division.
That week became our biggest seller of the year but amidst all the pages of lauding and hero-worshipping, it begged two further questions for me.
Who did those iconic artists really think had best picked up the musical baton from them? (i.e. who were they actually glad they’d influenced?). And which of all their classic songs did they think best summed up their career?
So was born the concept behind War Child’s new album ‘Heroes’. Seven years of absent-minded wondering and twelve months of hard-graft later, ‘Heroes’ sees fifteen of music’s greatest all-time names answering those two questions. And the personally-selected modern acts then making real those legends’ answers. It’s the ‘Ultimate Covers Album’ – each track handpicked by the original icon.
On paper it’s a simple concept – and one that even neatly echoes War Child’s amazing work in the world’s harshest war zones, giving young people the opportunity to do great things. We hoped the 30 acts would be keen to support such a vital cause.
But three imponderable hurdles lay in our path. First, would the legends buy into the conceit? And if they did would they have heard of any modern acts, let alone any good ones?
War Child is proud to have long counted on the support of Sir Paul McCartney and David Bowie. And what better names to head a list of music’s most illustrious icons. Receiving their positive responses was encouraging and inspiring. Macca plumped straight for Duffy, whom he’d met on Later with Jools Holland, wheras Bowie began drawing up a shortlist: TV On The Radio, Arcade Fire, The New Pornographers…
Bob Dylan was the landmark phone call. Receiving the news that the great man loved the concept and had selected Beck to cover ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’ from ‘Blonde On Blonde’ was a decisive moment. He was quickly followed by Bruce Springsteen and Brian Wilson, with similarly exciting nominations.
With the Mount Rushmore of American rock on board, we moved to problem two. How would the new acts take the pressure? Faced with this not insignificant responsibility, would we get any refusals?
Beck’s response was similar to ours: delight. He immediately booked himself into Hollywood’s illustrious Ocean Way studio and started perfecting his version – plumping finally for the twelth take, I recall. Good man.
Hot Chip were less rapid in taking to the sound desk. “We totally idolise New Order and Joy Division. Alexis originally wasn’t sure about singing the words [to ‘Transmission’] because Ian Curtis was so iconic,” admitted keyboard player Joe Goddard. “We didn’t want to piss off any die hard fans.”
But after much deliberations, and experimentation, Hot Chip came to the obvious conclusion. Rework it with steel drums.
But The Ting Tings, selected by Talking Head’s David Byrne while approaching our album deadline, didn’t want to risk it. After some schedule-wrangling, vocalist Katie White decided: “It’s my favourite song and it would have been too odd. I would have hated anything to have gone wrong!”
Finally – with the bands having taken to the studio, legendary nominations in hand – just one hurdle remained: How would the legends feel about these new versions?
Some covers were built on familiar foundations – The Hold Steady adding adrenaline and harmonies to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Altlantic City’ or TV On The Radio layering very modern, electro additions on Bowie’s ‘Heroes’. They were undoubtedly tributes.
Other versions were less faithful. How would the acts respond to hearing their precious tracks being totally overhauled?
The calls in to Peter Hook (for his reaction to Hot Chip’s steel drum reworking) and to Bryan Ferry (about the Scissor Sisters’ hi-camp, falsetto-laden, disco-romp through Roxy Music’s ‘Do The Strand’) were more nervously made.
The responses were panic-settlingly upbeat. Self confessed grumpy old man Peter Hook responded: “They seem to be having fun. They don’t take themselves too seriously. I like that.”
And the usually straight-faced Bryan Ferry joked: “I thought the Scissor Sisters would be a good choice for this song, since, as well as being extremely talented, they are culturally aware. They show a great sense of humour and wit, and have obviously been to Broadway!””
From the amazing, unexpected support of Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson, to the similarly pleasant surprise of Peter Hook and Bryan Ferry’s smiling approval of the finished product – it’s been a joyous project.
The end results are an album as fascinating and astonishing as those seven years of wondering and imagining suggested.
‘Heroes’ is an album that has already raised a huge amount of money and an amazing amount of profile for War Child’s work. Please check out the album and more info about the charity at www.warchild.org.uk/heroes.
It may have all started at an NME features meeting but it doesn’t stop here. Roll on Volume Two. Anyone got Neil Young’s phone number?