When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Love Inks take on David Essex’s “Rock On.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
Aside from the taut, pointed sexiness of Love Inks‘ “Rock On” rendering—featured on the Austin trio’s debut, E.S.P., arriving May 10 on Hell Yes!/City Slang—what I love about the cover is the way it marries two very disparate periods of pop music. The song was written and made popular in 1973 by British actor and musician David Essex, whose teen-idol looks at the time provoked the kind of obsessive, communal doting reserved these days for Justin Bieber. The song’s, and Essex’s, popularity were also enhanced by its placement in the film That’ll Be The Day, in which a young Essex starred alongside Ringo Starr and Keith Moon, whose collective star power at the time is obviously a known quantity. Decades later, the song hasn’t changed much under Love Inks’ watch—a drum machine’s pulse and a spacey guitar line are the most obvious updates—but it’s to the band’s credit that it nonetheless facilitates an entirely new experience of the track, sans the fanfare of pop idol-dom. It displaces the noise of the past, leaving Essex’s work to be considered in the sober afterglow.
Was the song worth the hordes of pre-pubescent adulation it received? Mediocrity is far more the rule than the exception in the popular marketplace today, so it’s easy to be cynical about about earlier periods of mainstream music, too. And I’m personally too quick to esteem the ’50s and ’60s as some sort-of utopia that existed outside the confines of history, as if those were the only periods when the most ambitious music being made was also the most in-demand. There’s some truth to that intuition, to be sure, but the rampant popularity of “Rock On,” alongside works by T.Rex, David Bowie and Gary Glitter, indicates that the public consciousness was just as attuned to quality in the early ’70s as it was in the days of Elvis or the Beatles. On the flip side, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine “Rock On” replicating its early-’70s successes today, and not simply because tastes naturally evolve.
That’s one reason we should be thankful for bands like Love Inks, Smith Westerns and Free Energy, among many others, who in their own way re-cast the visage of earlier eras in a manner that reflects the forgotten artfulness of individuals like Essex. “Rock On,” in particular, is perhaps unfairly remembered as the lucky work of a teen sensation, not as the brooding and seductive classic it’s always been. Love Inks know the difference. Which is why when Sherry LeBlanc and Co. turn down the lights, “Rock On” feels timeless once again.
Cast your vote wisely.