Roger wrote about cover songs last week, which is a big topic of its own! We could go on for days about favorite cover songs, which cover songs we prefer to the originals, and so on. Do we ever talk about songs we didn’t know were covers until we knew the covers well, so that the existence of an original came as a surprise? I haven’t seen that come up much, but here’s one of mine.
I’ve featured the band Blackmore’s Night in this space more than a few times; I’m coming up on twenty years of being a fan of theirs. Headlined by former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and vocalist Candice Night, Blackmore’s Night is a rock group with a folk-Renaissance focus. Both Blackmore and Night had a love of traditional Renaissance music, which they channeled into their new group when they formed it in the 1990s. The result is a group whose music combines modern sound and very old musical forms and melodies and rhythms. It’s this blend of rock, folk, and Renaissance music, that makes them so refreshing to listen to a lot of the time. Listening to Blackmore’s Night always puts me in mind of a late afternoon or early evening at the Sterling Renaissance Festival, when we’re sitting in the golden sunlight of the waning day watching the joust and munching our roasted turkey legs.
Most of their songs involve a feel of antiquity and old-school romance; think a more rock-oriented Loreena McKennitt. But one of their albums contained a song whose title flummoxed me: “Celluloid Heroes”. And the lyrics are as far from Renfest-stylings as you can get:
Everybody’s a dreamer and everybody’s a star
And everybody’s in movies, it doesn’t matter who you are
There are starts in every city
In every house and on every street
And if you walk down Hollywood Boulevard
Their names are written in concreteDon’t step on Greta Garbo as you walk down the Boulevard
She looks so weak and fragile that’s why she tried to be so hard
But they turned her into a princess
And they sat her on a throne
But she turned her back on stardom
Because she wanted to be alone
I couldn’t fathom why there was this song about the names on the sidewalks of Hollywood in the middle of a folk-rock album, even if the theme of the song is pretty universal: the fleeting nature of fame and our tendency to make marble idols of people who were, as the song describes “dearest Marilyn”, “only made of flesh and blood.”
It turns out that “Celluloid Heroes” is a cover of a song originally recorded by The Kinks. I don’t know much about The Kinks at all–in fact, as of this writing, I haven’t even listened to their original version of “Celluloid Heroes”–so all I do know is that the song was written as part of a concept album called Everybody’s In Show-Biz. Apparently the album’s lyrics focus on the difficulties and stresses of the life of a touring rock band. In that context, “Celluloid Heroes” makes sense…and maybe that explains why Blackmore’s Night recorded it. They’re touring musicians as well, and both have been around much longer in that life than just the current band’s existence. Blackmore’s been at it for many, many years.
I wish my life was a non-stop Hollywood movie show
A fantasy world of celluloid villains and heroes
Because celluloid heroes never feel any pain
And celluloid heroes never really die.
This also reminds me of the permanent figures in Keats’s Grecian urn. The celluloid heroes don’t age, they don’t suffer, they just are. (Even if, these days, they’re not even celluloid heroes anymore. We’ll have to update the song to digital heroes.)