The Devil You Know by Rickie Lee Jones


There’s an astonishing couple of minutes in the new “Get Back” documentary, pieced together by Peter Jackson from hours of unused footage, where Paul McCartney composes “Get Back”. With John Lennon late to the session, George Harrison and Ringo Starr look on as the riff and melody of the song formulate through Paul McCartney’s hotline to a higher creative power. It’s incredible to see something that is now so familiar be formed out of nothing.

I know that I have no objective critical faculties when it comes to The Beatles but I often ask myself whether “Get Back” would have been a hit if it had been created by Blue Acorn or any other unknown band. Is it a good song? I can’t really decide because I know it so well – I’ve heard it too often to consider the song dispassionately.

When I used to be a tutor to Year 7 students, who had just transferred from their junior school to a comprehensive school, I reminded them that this was a good time to reinvent themselves, if they wanted to. No teachers at their new school had any preconceptions about them, so if they wanted to present as a serious student, nobody would disbelieve them. Conversely, if they had previously been a brilliant student, no teachers knew this so they had to start again to confirm how they were. I guess this issue is the same whenever a child changes school or an adult changes job. A fresh start is an opportunity to create a new persona. It’s the start of 2022 and, traditionally, the time to form New Year’s Resolutions. However, it’s harder to do this when the people around you know who you are, know your past and may disbelieve you when yo say you are going to learn Spanish or take up gardening. A new start at a new school/job is the time to reinvent yourself and present yourself to others without any preconceptions.

So, if The Beatles had been able to reinvent themselves and had released “Get Back” without any expectations or any history of great music, would it now be considered a classic?

Roo and I have just finished watching “The Tourist” which is about someone who is in a car crash and when he wakes up, he can’t remember anything about his former life. As he tries to reconstruct who he is, questions arise about whether he needs to think about his past or whether he could be happy forming a new life from this initial reset. Musicians rarely reinvent themselves although Kevin Whelan released his new album under the name Aeon Station and Eric Clapton used the moniker Derek And The Dominos. If The Beatles had reinvented themselves with a new name and released “Get Back”, would anyone have noticed?

Rickie Lee Jones released 11 albums before “The Devil You Know” in 2012. In 1991, she released an album called “Pop Pop” which consisted of 12 covers of some of her favourite songs. Her version of “Comin’ Back To Me” by Jefferson Airplane is worth the price of the album alone, which is lucky because the rest of the album is mediocre. In my opinion. The other 10 albums have an incredible range of original material on them. Her stunning voice with its emotional range and versatility, combined with a constantly changing musical positioning meant that she had (and still has) a reputation for producing high quality, interesting and diverse albums.

If “The Devil You Know” had been released by Deidre Ann Smith and not Rickie Lee Jones, would I have ever considered listening to it? There are 10 songs on the album and, again, it is an album of covers. The choice of songs is impeccable. Her vocal performances are remarkable. The music is sympathetic and never bombastic. I really enjoy listening to it but I fear that if she was an unknown singer, I would never have considered it. I might well have asked what’s the point in listening to new versions of songs that I already love? This would be a real shame because her brilliant interpretations really enhance a series of well known songs.

Sympathy For The Devil” was originally released on “Beggars Banquet” which was the album after “Their Satanic Majesties Requests“. The lyrical content of the song, coming after an album whose title references Satan, confirmed The Rolling Stones as the bad boys of Britain in the late Sixties. It is commonly thought that this was the song that The Rolling Stones were playing when Meredith Hunter was murdered at The Altamont Festival in 1969 but, in fact, they were performing “Under My Thumb”. Rickie Lee Jones’ version has a sparse backing from an acoustic guitar and sinister bongo playing from Ben Harper, who produced the album. He is an American singer songwriter and has released 15 albums as well as collaborating with Dhani Harrison, Jack Johnson, Toots & The Maytals, Mavis Staples and many others. The live version on YouTube is even better than the album version. She has a unique vocal style which I really love.

Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is one of my favourite Neil Young songs and is one of the highlights of “After The Goldrush”. Rickie Lee Jones slows the song down to a funereal pace and while the original song made it clear that Neil Young was suffering, her version is heartbreaking. When she asks how it feels to be all alone, there’s no doubting the misery and suffering. Astonishing.

One of Roo’s favourite songs is “The Weight” by The Band. In fact, we named our second dog, Jack, after one of the lines in the song. Robbie Robertson has described the song as being about someone trying to do good but finding it impossible – events conspire against them and one thing leads to another so that in the end he thinks “Holy shit, what’s this turned into? I’ve only come here to say ‘hello’ for somebody and I’ve got myself in this incredible predicament.” By the way, Nazareth, in Pennsylvania, is where they make Martin guitars. Rickie Lee Jones’ version is pared down and haunting with a wonderful piano accompaniment.

John asked me recently to give my own answers to the New Statesman questionnaire. One of the questions was “when were you happiest?” Listening to Rickie Lee Jones’ version of Van Morrison’s “Comfort You” from Veedon Fleece, I have strong memories of being in a room at College in early 1975, listening to Van Morrison’s original version, holding hands with a girl and feeling blissfully happy. The following week it was all over and it was time to reinvent myself.

Other songs on this album include “Reason To Believe” by Tim Hardin, “Play With Fire” by The Rolling Stones, “Catch The Wind” by Donovan, and “St James Infirmary“, a traditional song covered by everybody.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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