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The next best thing to songwriters

There have been a few bands that I’ve been surprised to learn didn’t write their own songs.  I mean, the bands from the 60’s, it wasn’t hard to believe.  Everyone knew that there were professional hit-writers and professional singers and everyone stuck to their job (except for those pesky Beatles).  But somewhere during the 70’s, that kind of thing lost a little of its cred.  It became much cooler to be a band or an artist that wrote and performed.

Three Dog Night was a good example of one of those surprising bands.  So much about their vibe seemed like a songwriting band.  So I was surprised to learn that they were in fact song interpreters.  And they were good at it.  They picked mostly songs that no-one else had made hits and made them their own.  Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and Hoyt Axton’s “Joy to the World” are just a couple of examples.

Manfred Mann was an especially masterful artist at interpreting other people’s songs.  Again, during the 60’s, that was normal.  “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” was written by professional songwriters.  And “The Mighty Quinn” was written by Bob Dylan.  But then came the 70’s and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band was born.

The only album I have of theirs is “The Best of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band”, and not a single song on it was written by Mann.  Three of the songs were Bob Dylan songs, including a live version of “The Mighty Quinn”.  But to me, their most impressive work was their reinterpretation of Bruce Springsteen songs.

If you listen to Springsteen’s original versions of “Blinded by the Light”, “Spirit in the Night”, and “For You”, they’re barely recognizable as the same songs.  In particular, the original “Spirit in the Night” has a sort of party feel to it, whereas Manfred Mann took the idea of “spirit” and basically made it spooky sounding.  (And thank goodness the Best Of album contains the longer earlier version of it rather than the much shorter one with Chris Thompson on vocals.)  And “For You” is one of the Earth Band’s best.

So you’ve got your Bob Dylans and Lou Reeds — celebrated songwriters who really can’t sing but sing anyway.  And then you’ve got the almost equally talented song interpreters who don’t write.  It really does take different strokes to move the world!

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