The honest artist understands they belong to a historical spectrum and that their work is a conglomeration in homage or response to their multitude of life influences: be they historical, familial, or artistic. One of the most entertaining (read: vacuous, pointless) labors of a music critic is the speculative unraveling of the knot of influences combined in a band’s sound. Isolating the threads and themes can be a platform for exploring the anxiety of influence and asserting a presence in the lineage of treasured rock and roll royalty.
It’s easy to look back, 10 years gone, at when Arcade Fire erupted on the scene and consider their birth Hellenic in its sudden completeness, as if they emerged fully formed from a smoldering Rock’n’Roll Godhead. Yet from the beginning, Arcade Fire have had an open, even fun relationship with the bands whose influence they could not shake, and instead openly embraced.
Both on tour and on record (B-sides, truly), Arcade Fire paid regular homage to the bands and songs they loved from their youth and even showed occasional and sterling respect to their contemporaries.
Photography by Philip Cosores
Arcade Fire reached Arena Legend apotheosis last year when they embarked on the Reflektor Tour. Hardly shirking the trappings of the arena and its attendant grandeur — between epic light shows, the whole dancing bobblehead thing and the request that fans wear “formal attire or costume” — they took ownership of, and even embraced, the ridiculous spectacle of it all.
To coincide with these concert-as-performance-art events, Arcade Fire also upped their cover game to a new level. They opened nearly every show with a regionally inspired cover and closed shows with epic guest stars and further covers. Additionally, Arcade Fire “side-project” Phi Slamma Jamma (featuring Richard Reed Parry, Will Butler, Jeremy Gara and Tim Kingsbury), who had been kicking around for a few years, played regular, “secret,” late-night all-cover shows.
Suddenly, Arcade Fire’s already impressive list of selected cover songs grew tenfold. Amid the hits, there were more than a few misses, and since no fan could be there to see them all, we’ve compiled them into a single list.
Photography by Philip Cosores
Keep in mind, lists like this are completely arbitrary, and this one more arbitrary than most. Though the writers are all avowed Arcade Fire fans, none of us were lucky enough to see more than a handful of these tracks in person. We were therefore relegated to painstakingly watching jittery cellphone videos, admiring set lists, and comparing against the original (in fact, there were several covers with no identifiable documentation).
While this makes our list a smidge (more) specious (than usual), it also gives you, dear reader, an opportunity to set us straight. Was the performance of “Axel F” in LA mind-blowing? Let us know. Better yet, use this opportunity to brag. How many of these have you seen in person? Which was best?
With all that in mind, please join us in this categorical dissection of Arcade Fire’s covers, what they signify in the rewritten history of rock and roll, and whether or not they were totally awesome.
By Boyz II Men
Performed: March 17, 2014, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Let’s give credit where credit is due. At least Arcade Fire veered wildly away from from when they opened their Philadelphia shows with this Boyz II Men R&B hit from 1991. Plus, the horn players must have been stoked to display their swinging chops. But Richard Reed Parry and his backing vocalists don’t have the same depth or tone as the original Philly boyz, leaving this version feeling more than a little flat and uninspiringly ironic. Perhaps we should be thankful they chose not to perform Michael Bivins’ rap (and subsequent a cappella breakdown). –Kristofer Lenz
55. “Dust in the Wind”
Performed: April 26, 2014, at The Starlight Theater in Kansas City, MO
The plucked first opening notes of Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” manage to be both poignant and cheesy, depending on which perspective you take, but there’s no denying that this song is a latter-’70s classic. It was, obviously, a natural pick for a performance by William Butler and some bobbleheads at the Starlight Theater in Kansas City during the Reflektor Tour. There’s just one problem, as Win Butler points out near the end: “That’s a Kansas song, and we’re in Missouri. You fucked up.” The crowd, however, doesn’t seem to care. –Katherine Flynn
54. “Devil Inside”
Performed: January 22 and 28, 2014, at Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, AUS
For two nights, fans in Melbourne, Australia, were witnesses to a cover of native favorite INXS’ killer “Devil Inside”. The chugging guitar line is raunchy as ever and Richard Perry makes a commendable attempt to recreate Michael Huttchence’s original vocals, but ultimately the cover falls well short of the crystallized late-’80s glam perfection of the original. –Kristofer Lenz
53. “Dream Baby Dream”
Performed: August 24, 2014, at Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY
It’s hard to rag on any song featuring Arcade Fire accompanied by a vampiric David Byrne, but this is an odd choice performed … well, oddly. Byrne is entertaining as expected, doing his best Byrne dance and vocal stretching (while wearing a maestro’s tuxedo and white makeup, perhaps). Plus, the original is a haunting early example of pop electronic moodiness. But in Byrne and Arcade Fire’s rendition, it builds aimlessly toward a climax that never comes, as does the original, but live, it leaves one wondering, “Why?” –Kristofer Lenz
52. “Back in Time”
By Huey Lewis and the News
Performed: August 11, 2014, at Rexall Place, Edmonton, AB
For their stop in Edmonton, Arcade Fire paid homage to local son Michael J. Fox by performing this cover of the theme from Back to the Future. While Huey Lewis’ original stands tall among the pantheon of classic ’80s soundtrack songs, this version, while dutiful, trades in irony and little else. –Kristofer Lenz
51. “The Guns of Brixton”
By The Clash
Performed: Four times in 2007, in England and once in California
This one is tough. The original is an iconic proto-punk masterpiece, and Arcade Fire should get props for their respect and daring to rework it. But this eerie, echoing version loses the uptempo reggae riff and burning anger of the original, replaced by a peculiar selection of acoustic instruments and Will Butler shouting through a megaphone. A rare instance where we vastly prefer the original… –Kristofer Lenz
50. “Axel F”
By Harold Faltermeyer
Performed: August 2, 2014, at The Forum, Inglewood, CA
Los Angeles, full of laughable moments: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s governance, ’80s hair metal, Scott Baio. On August 2nd, Arcade Fire added to that list with a hilarious cover of the instrumental synth pop classic “Axel F”. Besides being the theme song to Beverly Hills Cop, it actually served as a surprisingly groovy intro to “Normal Person”. Go figure. –Kevin McMahon
49. “Bird Dog”
By The Everly Brothers
Performed: Five times in 2014
A favorite of Phi Slamma Jamma, this #1 hit on the country charts from 1958 is one of the more peculiar choices the quasi-band debuted at late-night cover parties. The bouncy pop beat and call-and-response vocals lead to some dynamic exchanges between Will Butler and Richard Reed Perry. But ultimately? Just, no. –Kristofer Lenz
48. “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”
By Stevie Wonder
Performed: March 10, 2014, at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Auburn Hills, MI
With certain covers, the best a band can do is try to recreate the magic and perfection of the original. For their stop in the home of Motown, Arcade Fire did their damnedest to recreate the swinging soul of this Stevie Wonder classic. All the elements are there, from the pounding drums to the iconic horn riff; there is even percussive bell work. Tim Kingsbury does a commendable job of stretching his voice to sing like Stevie, but as they say, if you come at the king, you best not miss –Kristofer Lenz
47. “Run for Your Life”
By The Beatles
Performed: Twice in 2014
One of Phi Slamma Jamma’s earliest selections, this Beatles classic is in capable hands with Will Butler doing his best Lennon vocal, and Richard Reed Parry reinterpreting Lennon’s guitar work with just a touch more anger and distortion than the original. Still, it is an homage to spousal abuse, a subject considerably less charming now than when the moppet-headed Beatles first debuted. –Kristofer Lenz
46. “Hot Hot Hot”
By Buster Poindexter
Performed: August 22, 2014, at Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY
Clearly a fan of alter egos (see Phi Slamma Jamma), in retrospect, August 22nd’s cover of the 1987 smash “Hot Hot Hot” does not seem as outlandish. Joined by the New York Dolls frontman and not-so-secret identity of Buster Poindexter, David Johansen, it was about as authentic as it gets. The pop Caribbean-themed tune is both silly and fun, and hey, what is dark without light? It was a moment teetering on the edge of ridiculousness, but still comfortably in the satin pocket of good, clean fun. –Kevin McMahon
45. “Been Caught Stealing”
By Jane’s Addiction
Performed: August 1, 2014, at The Forum, Inglewood, CA
Arcade Fire fused the Jane’s Addiction song with the intro to the Guns N’ Roses classic “Welcome to the Jungle” and their own “Here Comes the Night Time” to close out their 2014 performance at the Forum in Los Angeles, and in true Reflektor Tour fashion, all of the songs worked pretty well together. They managed to capture the loudness and bombast of the Jane’s Addiction original, and the whole string of musical interplay is high-energy and distinctive. Bonus: Win Butler performing “Been Caught Stealing” in his bobblehead. –Katherine Flynn
Performed: June 13, 2014, at Gröna Lund, Stockholm, Sweden
Win Butler introduced this performance in Stockholm, Sweden, by saying, “We thought we’d play something you knew.” The following acoustic cover of ABBA’s “Chiquitita” incited cheers and a clap-along in the enthusiastic crowd, and while Butler’s voice perhaps wasn’t the best-suited to the high key of the song (originally performed by ABBA’s female vocalist Agnetha Faltskog), as with so many of their local covers, the gesture was really more about the band’s effort to learn the words, the guitar notes, and a little bit of local culture in the first place. –Katherine Flynn
43. “Born on a Train”
By Magnetic Fields
Performed: Seven times in 2005 and 2007
In this early studio recording, a winningly shy Win Butler attributes the band’s signing with Merge to hearing this song on the radio when he worked at a Boston shoe store. (Try not to linger to long on the uncanny image of young Win Butler sizing you for gym shoes). Faithful to the original, it is almost adorable hearing Butler singing deep from his throat in homage to Stephen Merritt’s iconic mumble. –Kristofer Lenz
Performed: Twice in 2007
It’s always a little more special when Arcade Fire cover a song by a contemporary (rather than a classic). This track from Clinic’s debut album, Internal Wrangler, is subdued and careful, elements Win preserves in his loving performance. The twisting melody and alternately dark and sweet lyrics make a clear case for why the band found inspiration in Clinic. –Kristofer Lenz
41. “Kiss Off”
By Violent Femmes
Performed: Seven times in 2007 and 2008
Another Neon Bible-era portrayal, “Kiss Off” is the angsty classic from the Violent Femmes. The eponymous 1983 album came largely out of singer-songwriter Gordon Gano’s high school days, thus its stripped down and at times ostentatious nature is perfectly explained and warranted. Arcade Fire fully absorbed the mental register that this song connotes. Using a megaphone for the vocals and during some performances smashing instruments, we see the “fuck it, and fuck you” nature of the track. It is the kind of song whose lyrics you shout and can’t help but sound whiney — a proclivity that has never taken a great leap for Mr. Butler. –Katherine Flynn