My name is Richard Easter and I’m the author of a new music book called “Cover Stories”, in which I “remix” 8 classic tracks as short stories. I’ve taken works by Bowie, The Stones, The Beatles and more and turned them from vinyl grooves into printed words.
I suppose my book has been several decades in the making; I’ve worked in and around the music industry since 1987 but my love affair with music started way earlier.
The first track I remember getting under my skin was Bowie’s “The Jean Genie” in 1973.
It’s a mark of how much this song got to me that I was just five when “Genie” was released and yet it still caught my ear and eye. The video, which was aired on the UK’s iconic music show, “Top Of The Pops”, was pretty striking both for the time and for a pre-schooler.
So there I was; 5 years old and already a Bowie fan. I’m quite proud of that.
Although “fan” may not have been the right description; I was fascinated by Ziggy, maybe even slightly repelled, like he was some creature from “Doctor Who”.
To a 5 year old from Essex, Bowie looked like he’d dropped from space, which was, of course, the whole idea.
So that’s where my book “Cover Stories” began.
Even then, I wondered who Jean Genie was. As a 5 year old, I thought he was a real genie, as in a fat, slightly malignant figure trapped in a lamp. But why did he “live on his back”? Why did he love chimney stacks?
I didn’t know. The alien on the telly never really explained.
As time went on, I often pondered the stories behind the songs; not how or why they were written, but the details of the characters and plots within them.
I pictured “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” as a kind of Victorian bogeyman (probably informed by the legend of “Springheel Jack” who haunted London in the 1900’s) I wondered what made Dolly’s “Jolene” such a bitch. I pondered on who narrates Numan’s “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” but never really came up with any answers. Like Jean Genie, the songs set up enigmas and seemed happy to leave them there, in the grooves.
Then, by accident, I fell into the music industry.
Well, I say by accident, by a series of coincidences and downright odd decisions - involving dressing up as a girl and hiding in the ladies’ toilets in an Essex nightclub - I ended up working for Britain’s Favourite, Radio 1, the BBC’s flagship pop station. The whole dressing up as a girl thing is a story for another time, sorry.
Over the next 7 years, I met everyone from Paul McCartney to Bjork. In fact, I visited McCartney’s studio and managed to play the “whoop-whoop-whoop” block flute chords from “Strawberry Fields Forever” on his Mellotron. That was a moment.
Then I wrote for the UK’s then most-popular music paper, the NME, so I had back stage passes galore, and rubbed shoulders with the great, the good and the not-so-good.
Then, by accident - again - I became a pop star. This happened because I needed an act to perform on the BBC Radio 1 Roadshow, which was a kind of Radio Tour that took in British seaside towns and allowed the DJ’s to meet their adoring public.
The act I chose was to dress up as Arnold Schwarzenegger and sing a song called “I’ll Be Back”. Miraculously, it went Top 5 in the UK, so I became a bona-fide, genuine, leather-trouser-wearing chart act. I went on to appear on “Top Of The Pops”, the show that had introduced me to Bowie, three times. I got to have a holiday in being a Pop Star, but only a holiday, mind. When I was on Top Of The Pops, I watched the other, real, stars rehearse and saw that dancing craziness in their eyes. I could walk away (and did) but they weren’t going anywhere until their cold, dead hands were pulled from fame. But for a brief moment, I looked fame in the eye and it was like Kaa in The Jungle Book. Not a pleasant experience, if one is honest.
No, I stayed well out it, preferring to dip my toes in pop, rather than jump in at the deep end. Over the years, I’ve had many strange pop toe-dipping moments.
I once got lost in BBC Broadcasting House with George Michael, for example. I’d been given the job of taking George to a studio, the location of which I thought I knew. After walking up and down some back stairs for what felt like hours, we were eventually stopped by a cleaner. “You’re…you’re George Michael!” he said, astonished. I cringed internally.
George smiled and said “no, I’m a lookalike!” “Blimey” said the cleaner, “you’re spot on.” “Do you think so?” asked George. “I only do it part time.” “You could be George Michael full time” said the cleaner. “Nah,” said George, “I don’t think I’d like to be George Michael 24/7.”
Not so impressively, I once tracked down and bought one of Joy Division’s actual synthesisers, used on “Unknown Pleasures”. Then, in a fit of synth-jealousy, a Yamaha CS keyboard fell on it and broke the middle D sharp. So now I’m the proud owner of Joy Divisions non-working synth.
Not a high point.
Joy Division and Ian Curtis in particular are good examples of the strange places some musicians go to in creating their works. Curtis, of course, never came back.
So I stopped dreaming of hopping into pop stars’ skins and went back to my original question; what the hell are their songs about? That’s where my book comes in.
The pop medium is a wonderful method of communication. Generally you get in, say your piece and get out in less than 5 minutes. A great pop song is a masterpiece of precis, combining a message, maybe even a story, with beautiful instrumentation and structure. A pop song done right can move your mind, your soul and even your feet, sometimes all at once. That’s a lot of ideas in one place. The composers have so much to say, but the limitations of the form often curtail them.
In my book, I don’t have those restraints. “Cover Stories”, is best described as a literary compilation album, with an A side and a B, liner notes, a nice sleeve, run out grooves, the lot.
You could think of it as an LP in book form rather than vinyl.
On paper - literally on paper - I have more space to get into the stories behind the songs. I take those few minutes and expand them into short story form.
You see, the pop song’s blessing - its length - is also its curse.
When the sublimely brilliant David Bowie wrote “Space Oddity” he could only give us the bare bones of Major Tom’s story. We know Tom goes into space, we know his “tin can” malfunctions and that he drifts into the galaxy. If we add “Ashes To Ashes” to that tale, we also know he lives for some time up there, taking drugs and going cuckoo.
But who was he? Why was he chosen for the mission? Why didn’t he seem too bothered about dying alone, up there amongst the stars?
Even if Bowie knew, he didn’t have time to tell us.
So in “Cover Stories”, I attempt to explain Major Tom’s backstory, fill him out a little.
That’s the purpose of the book; to take songs we all know inside out, and give them some more flesh.
The Rolling Stones asked us to have Sympathy For The Devil - but did he deserve it? In my “cover” of that song, we join Hitler in his bunker, about to shoot himself. He does, but strangely, fails to die. Then he realises he is no longer alone. A smartly dressed figure, whose face is hidden within the folds of a blackness darker than infinity, has joined him. It is, of course, Old Nick, who proceeds to tell the Fuhrer his own life story. Here’s a taster, at the moment Adolf questions his new, strange visitor;
“Who are you?” asked Hitler, his voice cracking.
“Seriously?” asked the figure. “This? The blackness? The suit, my horror hands?” It held up those awful white hands in the light again. “I don’t always do the horror hands, but I thought they seemed appropriate. Honestly, I turn up in a locked room in an underground bunker at the end of what, for you and most of the world, has been a frankly dreadful few years and you ask who I am?”
Truth was, Hitler did think he knew who this was, but didn’t want to say it out loud. He felt madness sizzle about him, and not for the first time.
“Very well. Let’s take this in easy-to-follow steps shall we? You’re dead. Not only are you full of cyanide, but you have a bullet hole in your head so – it follows, do try and keep up – that you have a bullet in your brain. Now, it’s true, while some people can survive a bullet in the head, most don’t. Add the poison and, well, as your friends in London say, you’re brown bread, sunshine.”
Hitler unconsciously felt up to his temple and grimaced when his finger still came away bloody.
“Aha. The red stuff is supposed to stay inside. That’s one of the rules. So; you’re dead, you’ve been a very, very naughty boy and still you ask who I am? Go on. Have a go. Guess who I am. Go on. Guess.”
Hitler just stared balefully up into the shadows that awful voice came from.
“We do have forever, you know. I’m really in no hurry. Well then, it’s not a fairy story; I’m not Rumpelstiltskin. Any ideas?”
Hitler sulked and looked back at the door, wondering if he should try a runner.
“Still locked, Addie. Alright. I shall introduce myself, since you’re not going to play my rather fun guessing game. Honestly, the people I’ve played it with over the years. I LOVE it when the penny drops. When they suddenly realise who I am and try to scarper, or fall to their knees, or, in the case of Vlad the Impaler, wet and poo himself at the same time. True story. So… I’ve had many names over the years. Let’s try a few you might know. By the way, I’m extremely pleased to meet you, finally. I am the Dark One –obviously; just look at me. Daylight bores me. For I am Baphomet. Old Scratch, Old Nick, Voland, Hob, Lucifer. Or maybe…Satan? The Devil?”
The figure held out his hands wide as if accepting applause.
“Thank you; you’re too kind. None of them are my real name, noooo, not the name I call myself when no-one’s around, but they’ll do. As introductions go, they’ll do.”
You may be surprised by the Devil’s story.
There are eight “covers” in total - you’ll find out why Hendrix’s “Joe” shot his woman down, and more to the point, who is asking him why he has a gun in his hand?
Who were the occupants of The Carpenters’ “Interplanetary Craft” and what did they do when they received their message in song? Well, I can inform you that the universe has a new leader; a pouting, bad-haired, ex-business leader who fancied getting even with his detractors by becoming President. This multi-tentacled, flyaway-thatched, self-absorbed alien is definitely not based on any current leaders.
You’ll find out what it takes to join Ed Sheeran’s “A Team”. Then there’s Lou Reed’s “Caroline”, who has her say.
The Beatles “Prudence” comes out to play, but be ready for a twist, then I revisit Bowie as you’ve never seen him before on “Station To Station”.
You’ll also discover that, to use a musical term, “some riffs re-appear.” The stories have connections which only become obvious once you work your way through the “tracks”.
So let’s not get any closer to pop than we have to. It is a dangerous place, full of minefields and pitfalls. Let the experts handle the music, let them venture into that wild, weird world and bring back their exotic offerings. Let the Pop Stars dance with fame, which is, after all, not really a dance, but more like snake charming. Fame bites. Let’s keep our distance.
So think of “Cover Stories” as not only a literary LP, but as a kind of tourist guide to the worlds within the songs. They’re nice places to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. As you’ll discover from my “tracks” you really can’t judge a song by its cover…
So set the pages to 33rpm and read. At maximum volume.