The Power of a Good Cover: A Conversation with Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby
It was a cover that brought Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby together and a string of covers that honed and solidified their live act. With the release of Two-Way Family Favorites, the real question for this eccentric duo is not “Why a covers album?” but instead, “What took you so long?”
When Amy Rigby heard that new wave legend Wreckless Eric was coming to her show in Hull a decade ago to DJ, she was understandably nervous. After all, Eric’s “Whole Wide World” had been a staple of her live set for years. She was planning to play it that night, by coincidence, in the very pub that Eric had launched it decades before, while a student at the Hull Art College.
Jumping in with both feet, the alt-Americana songwriter asked Wreckless Eric to join her for the song. After a bit of two-guitar fumbling, he said to her, “There are just two chords in the song and both of yours are wrong.”
“And then he realized that I was just playing it in a different key,” Rigby remembers. “So we played it in his key instead.”
That bit of awkwardness aside, the song worked its magic. “As soon as he started playing in his key, as soon as I heard the ticking, the ‘chink, chink, chink’ of the song, it was such a thrill,” she remembers. “Even now, any time we play it, it always gives me a thrill, because it’s just like the record.”
“To me,” she adds, “that’s the power of a good cover.”
That was also the beginning of an unusual partnership between two songwriters. Wreckless Eric was a veteran of the Stiff Records stable of melodic punk rockers. Amy Rigby was the acerbic author of albums like Diary of a Mod Housewife and Till the Wheels Fall Off. There was chemistry from the start, but with both involved in relationships and careers on two different continents, not much happened at first. It was only five years later, at one of Yo La Tengo’s 2005 Hannukah concerts at Maxwell’s that the two reconnected, fittingly enough, over a pair of covers.
“It was ‘Red Rubber Ball’ and “Je T’Aime’,” Eric remembers, “and we did them so badly. It was just after midnight, everyone was euphoric and drunk and loved-up. We went on stage to rapturous applause… and left to complete and utter silence.”
Undeterred, Rigby asked Eric to join her on her “Cynical Girls” tour with Marti Jones. “He was kind of like Jack Tripper in Three’s Company,” she says. “He knocked at the door, wearing a bathrobe and then he’d come on and play some songs with us. Anyway, so that was the start of how we were playing together more regularly and then we moved in together. And started recording, and just became a group.”
It is maybe significant that both Rigby and Wreckless Eric describe themselves as a “group,” rather than a couple or a family or married people, all of which they are. You get the sense that music is the thing that binds them together, serving simultaneously as the foundation of their partnership, their jobs and the main structure of their lives together.
And in fact, it was the workaday demands of their lives together as musicians that led the two to covers. “Apart from being artistes or some rubbish like that, we’re a group,” says Eric. “And being a group, we have to rehearse, because if we don’t, we won’t be any good, you know.”
Some bands play their set lists to practice, but this pair had such a large repertoire (his songs, her songs, their songs, a whole laundry list of songs they both liked) that the set list changed show to show. Besides, what fun was that, playing the same songs over and over? How could they ever expect to grow as a band?
“So we play songs,” says Eric. “Quite often, one of us will just start playing a song and say, ‘Do you know this?’” He adds, “Sometimes, fairly frequently, one of us won’t know the song in question, or will have a very dim recollection of it, and this is usually me. So, I just go, ‘Okay’ and approach it like a new song.” He says he couldn’t remember “You Tore Me Down” at first, even though he’d owned the Flaming Groovies’ Shake Some Action for years until someone stole it, and had only the vaguest notion of how the Turtles’ “I Get Out of Breath” went when Amy brought it up in practice.
As a result, the songs on Two-Way Family Favorites have a loose, easy-going feel to them that reflects fondness rather than worship. The songs, recorded over time in the studio built into their shared French home, are warmly embellished with harmonies, guitars, keyboards, bass and drums, but not fussily synchronized to the originals. One short, funny cut on the album called “Scotland Then & Now” pits Rigby singing “Loch Lomond,” against Eric’s version of “Bye Bye Baby,” a medley they cooked up in the car on the way to a festival in Scotland.
“We’d sing that one occasionally in the car, just to amuse ourselves,” says Eric. “It was almost impossible to record, because we would get the key off the motor driving 80 miles an hour.”
That song is lighthearted, but the album overall has a weight to it that Rigby attributes to the time in which it was recorded. “A lot of the album has a kind of gravity that I don’t think we really were aiming for,” she says, thoughtfully. “Maybe it was just how we were both feeling in the dead of a very tough winter. The last year really was kind of a hard year. Everybody’s been hurting financially. Everyone’s kind of battered. But it does feel like trying to sing some kind of strength or persistence.” She adds, “That’s why I love ‘Silver Shirt’ because you’re kind of saying goodbye to some kind of dreams, but you’re going to keep going on and it’s quite uplifting to me.”
“Silver Shirt,” arguably the album’s best, is a song by Plummet Airlines, a mid-1970s band that, like Wreckless Eric, recorded on the Stiff label.
The song, Eric says, came out in 1976, which, like the present, was a difficult time for the music industry. “No one was actually sure if rock and roll was going to carry on,” he recalls. “The detractors of punk said, ‘This is the death of rock and roll.’ And the people who were for punk also said, ‘This is the end of rock and roll.’ The industry was changing. And I think that that song somehow captures all of that.”
The industry limped on, but without Harry Stephenson, who never got signed, never made another record and never sold more than 500 copies of his one and only single. “It’s a shame because he was a terrific songwriter,” says Eric. “He did an A and B side and that was it.”
Oddly, Stephenson turned up in France while Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby were recording Two Way Family Favorites. “We went in our local bar, in the middle of nowhere in France, and the owner said, ‘There’s a guy that knows you just come in, but he’s gone now,’” says Eric. “He had a number written down and the name Harry Stephenson, Plummet Airlines. But by the time we got in touch with where he was staying, he’d gone home.” The band has heard from other authors of the songs they cover. Cyril Jordan sent a note to Wreckless Eric when he heard about “You Tore Me Down,” then his partner Chris Wilson got in touch with Rigby.
So far, no one’s heard from Abba songwriters Benny Anderssson or Bjorn Ulvaeus about what may be the most eyebrow-raising cover on the album, Rigby’s take on “Fernando.” It’s a fairly faithful rendition, indicating a love for the 1977 chestnut that might not be shared by Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby’s fan base. (Full disclosure: the author had had her lifetime fill of Abba by roughly 1981.)
“Any time I start playing that song, people would groan, basically, like ‘We don’t want to hear this song,’” says Rigby, who nonetheless regularly plays it live.
Eric, too, has run into flak on this one. “A friend of mine just looked at me, gave me this hard look and said, ‘I don’t like Abba,’ he admits. “It’s polarizing. You know, some people say, ‘Oh, Abba, no.’ But other people say, ‘We love Abba.’ But those people may be disappointed because ours is not like a happy-go-lucky version of Abba. And the people that don’t like Abba, will maybe see something in it. I don’t know.”
But the bottom line is that Wreckless Eric and Rigby play the songs that have meaning for them, and if you want to tag along as they run through versions of the Who’s “Endless Wire,” or Tom Petty’s “Walls,” or even Brian Wilson’s famous “In My Room,” welcome aboard.
“The language of musicians is playing songs,” says Rigby. “But you have to have a need to do a specific song. Sure, sometimes, you might get the inclination to do familiar songs in a familiar way, if you’re playing live, if you’re playing bar gigs. You can get a whole room of people more on your side if they hear something they know. But that’s really no reason to do it. You don’t want to stoop to pandering.”
The trick is to balance what’s special about the song itself with what the performer brings to it. “Sometimes songs come along when people are not ready for them, so a cover can help them connect to them,” she says. “Other times, the performer can bring something to somebody else’s song that wasn’t there for the originator.”
Eric’s attraction to covers is less theoretical and more practical. “Every record I put out, someone writes a review where they say, ‘He’s not a very good singer, but…’ Which is a shame, because I think I sing quite well, really,” he says. “And they say these things about Amy and they’ll say about the two of us, they’ll say that our harmonies, one review said that our harmonies were ‘sketchy.’ Which I don’t think is right at all. They’re very tight. But the thing is, what occurred to me is that they might say, ‘Oh yeah, he can’t sing’ because they don’t actually know what tune we’re singing. So if they hear us singing one that they actually know the tune for, maybe they’ll not think it’s something else. Or maybe not.”
But for whatever reason, every indication points to Wreckless Eric and Rigby doing more covers, and perhaps another album of them. “We’ve got loads that we’ve started off and never done anything with,” says Eric. “There’s ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane,’ which we’ve done a lot live. There’s ‘Goin’ Back,’ the Goffin and King song. Gosh. It’s really like an endless list of stuff.”
“We could call it Three-Way Family Favorites,” he adds, impishly.