Thoughts on that stuff we listen to, and sometimes watch

‘Steve Jobs would walk in, say ‘this is far too big’ and walk out…’ MusicMatch, the iPod and the Dell DJ (repost)

This is a repost of the post that appeared a couple of days ago over on my other blog, The Rivals, where I’m asking questions, posting stuff and so on for the book I’m writing about Microsoft, Apple and Google – to be published by Kogan Page, delivery date July. Let me know what you think, and contribute too over on the other blog.

In case you’re interested in how the book will read, here’s something that I wrote last night. It’s looking at one of the key stages in the iPod’s development: the very early stages. So here’s some draft content. It’s got notes and repetitions and things that need to be tweaked, and the name of the main interlocutor has been removed because, well, that’s for the book, isn’t it?

Comments welcome (eg “you left out the bit where…” or “just as important in 2002 was…”). And I’m really interested in hearing from anyone who:
– worked for/with Microsoft around the time it was trying to get Windows Media Player/Audio/Janus implemented

– worked for/with Microsoft on its “online services” system – MSN – while it was being passed by Google in 2002-4 for revenues and market share: what did Microsoft think, internally? (I’d be just as interested in talking to someone who mentioned this to Microsoft as an ex-Microsoftie.)

– worked for/with Google pre-IPO who could talk about its thinking over whether it wanted to confront Microsoft.

And pretty much everything else on Microsoft/Apple/Google. Get in touch, or tell the people you know who know and ask them to get in touch.

Text starts below. Nice picture!

Photo by Olivier Bruchez on Flickr. Some rights reserved

The launch of the iPod in 2001 intrigued MusicMatch, and soon they were talking to Apple about the possibility of tweaking their software so that the millions of Windows users – a huge, untapped market for the iPod – could use it with their machine. At the time the iPod’s iTunes software only worked on Macs, and required a high-speed Firewire connection – which every Macintosh since 1999 had, but which was comparatively rare on Windows machines. Even so, enough had it (because the Windows PC market was so big and various) that it made sense for MusicMatch to offer it.

In July 2002, Apple introduced its second-generation iPod, with up to 20GB of storage – and introduced “iPod for Windows”, which used MusicMatch’s software to connect to Windows PCs.

BBB knew that the relationship with Apple was on borrowed time: “we could see that if it took off then they would write iTunes for Windows and steamroller us,” he recalls. But the experience was fascinating, and there was always the possibility that MusicMatch might be able to engineer some way to hold on to Apple – or perhaps to get Apple to hold onto it.

He had a number of meetings which Jobs attended: “generally he would walk in, say ‘this is shit’, and walk out,” he recalls. “Or he would say ‘this is far too big. It’s too bulky.’”

At the time the music business was in flux. The original incarnation of the file-sharing network Napster had been downed in the courts, but that had led to a hydra-headed decentralised sharing system called Gnutella, which had no central index as Napster had had. The record labels had nothing to aim at.

Since they were unable to shut down those networks, the record labels’ logical next move was to prevent music being ripped from CDs onto computers; that would prevent new songs being uploaded and shared, and should tamp down piracy. “Sony had had success in Japan with the MiniDisc format, which prevented you from copying songs back and forth,” said BBB. “Together with Sony Music, they seemed to have the formula. And Sony Electronics was huge in those days.” So the labels pressed for similar copy-prevention technology – known in the business as “digital rights management” software – to be included in music players and ripping software, and separately on CDs.

BBB adds his own context to the labels’ drive to get DRM instilled everywhere: “in the record business, everyone feels that they got screwed in their last deal. So in the next one they’re always looking to get the best possible deal. Songs will have different publishing rights in different countries. And the record labels and the publishers don’t see eye to eye. It’s a recipe for disagreement.” And for stalemate.

But Microsoft was listening to the record companies’ calls. It was a company full of skilled programmers who would be able to write software that would implement DRM to prevent copying. It quickly devised a strategy: using its Windows Media Audio format (which “independent” tests suggested gave better listening results and smaller files than MP3 at the same compression ratio). Files ripped on PCs using Windows Media Player, the default system, would be transferred with DRM onto digital music players so that the songs could not be copied onto another PC. That would tie the player to its owner’s computer. And uploading WMA files protected in that way to file-sharing networks would mean they wouldn’t work on the PCs of anyone else who downloaded them.

It was a brilliant strategy, except for two things. First, CD-ripping was still a minority sport limited to people who understood how to do it and what its purpose was; that meant they were specialists who were wise to Microsoft’s machinations especially the DRM,. (The high profile of Microsoft’s conviction in the antitrust case had eroded user trust that it was really acting in their best interests, rather than the interests of its partners.) They instead downloaded other programs – such as MusicMatch – which could play WMA files but could also rip songs into MP3 format.

The second problem was Microsoft overcooked the software, says BBB: “it was just too hefty for the hardware. It didn’t quite work right. There would be glitches, and the drivers didn’t quite work right, and the transfer was really slow.” That was because they relied on USB 1.1, rather than Firewire, connections. Firewire was about ?20-40 times faster[how much faster Firewire than USB] and USB 2.0, the faster standard that was comparable in speed, wouldn’t arrive until XXX[when USB 2 released?] and would take some time to become widespread in consumer electronics devices – particularly digital music players.

Then there was the industrial design aspect. BBB recalls seeing the prototype for the third-generation iPod during a discussion with Apple executives; Steve Jobs made an appearance – “he would kind of drift in and out”, is how he puts it – to pick the prototype up and criticise it for being too thick and then walk out.

A month of so later BBB was at the headquarters of Dell Computer in Austin, Texas. Dell was eager to get into this burgeoning market: it reasoned that it could use Microsoft’s software, and design its own hardware (as it did with PCs) but that unlike Apple it would be able to use its buying heft to drive down costs and so undercut Apple. The market was there for the taking.

BBB was handed a prototype for the Dell DJ player, which like the iPod used a 1.8” hard drive. “Jeez, this thing us HUGE!” he blurted out.

It was indeed noticeably deeper than Apple’s existing iPod, and substantially more than the forthcoming iPod – which MusicMatch knew about but about which its team had been sworn to secrecy, on pain of extremely costly legal action. “One of the Dell designers explained that that was because the Toshiba version of the hard drive had its connector on the side, and the Hitachi one had it on the bottom, but because they were dual-sourcing they could get the price down by 40 cents,” BBB recalls. “That was the difference in a nutshell. Apple was all about the industrial design and getting it to work. Dell was all driven by their procurement guys.”


In September 2003 Apple launched its third-generation iPod, supplanting the one that Dell’s engineers had been comparing their design against. This one was notable for two features: four touch buttons just below the screen, instead of being embedded into the scroll wheel – a feature that was abandoned in the next generation as unwieldy – and a proprietary 30-pin dock connector on the bottom of the device. That allowed it to connect to a Firewire or USB 2.0 port, via a cable. (The buyer had to specify which cable they wanted.)

more to come….

DRM? MP3? From the 2001 catalogues: Windows XP won’t be able to create high-quality MP3s

This story was first written for The Independent to appear in its 13 April 2001 edition. $2.50 for every copy of iTunes? One wonders if Apple will ever remove the facility to encode in MP3 from iTunes….


Technology Editor

Are you still listening to MP3s? Microsoft wishes you wouldn’t; and so does the record industry – the first because it would rather push its own, proprietary music-digitising format, and the latter because MP3s have, it claims, undermined the business through web sites such as Napster.

Although millions of Internet users have shown themselves to be hooked on the MP3 format, which can turn music tracks into small files that can be swapped and transmitted over the Net, Microsoft said that its next consumer operating system, Windows XP, due out in autumn, will “not include” the ability to produce high-quality MP3s.

That will severely restrict the listening quality of any music turned into an MP3 with that program. Instead, anyone trying to digitise music will be encouraged – not particularly subtly – to use Microsoft’s own “Windows Media Audio” (WMA) format.

Meanwhile RealNetworks [CORR RealNetworks] of Seattle, which was set up by a former Microsoft employee, is also pushing its proprietary RealPlayer format for digitising music.

The intent: to ease computer users to a position where they cannot send each other copies of music without paying for them. Both the Microsoft WMA and RealPlayer formats have “digital rights management” software, with copyright protection built in that will automatically police the use and sharing of music between computers. Only people who can show they have permission to listen to a WMA or RealPlayer file could listen to it on their computer – unlike MP3s, which can be swapped freely.

The WMA format does have the advantage that songs take up less room on disks. But with new technologies providing exponential increases in storage in all formats, that is unlikely to be a burning issue for consumers.

The intent of the two companies to have their own formats used by consumers belies the obvious popularity of MP3s, which are produced under an open standard: anyone can write a software program that will decode them, although software to create MP3s calls for a licence fee payable to the Fraunhofer Institute, which developed the format. That costs $2.50 for every copy of the software produced. For Microsoft, which hopes to sell millions of copies of XP, that could add up.

“We think at the end of the day, consumers don’t really care what format they [record] in,” said Dave Fester, a manager at Microsoft’s Digital Media Division. He said that despite the new restrictions, XP will do “a great job of making sure our player will play back MP3s.” But for new content that users might want to create, he says there “are clear advantages” to not using MP3.

Clear for Microsoft, and also for the record industry, which has been driven to distraction by the success of MP3s, particularly in the form of the Napster file-swapping service, which has allowed tens of millions of people to download literally billions of tracks without paying for them.

That is where consumers and the record industry diverge. “The industry doesn’t want [MP3] pushed, and Microsoft and RealNetworks don’t want it pushed. The consumer is going to eat what he’s given,” said David Farber, former chief technologist at the US’s Federal Communications Commission, who generally opposes the company.

He thinks that XP will be a major weapon in that. “When Microsoft decides to put something in their operating-system support, it becomes the standard,” says Mr. Farber, who against the company during the Microsoft antitrust trial. “The average consumer will use what comes on the disc when he buys the machine. They’re very effective in that way.”

But even those who wish MP3s would disappear allow that that might never happen. “It’s a little like the VHS tape,” said Steve Banfield, general manager at RealNetworks. “DVD is great, but VHS is ubiquitous and it isn’t going away anytime soon.”

–story ends–

What is Microsoft’s Songsmith like? Enterprise software, that’s what

There’s a powerful meme going around, especially on Twitter, pointing to examples where people have taken the vocal tracks of famous songs and then got Songsmith to write the music, which is what it’s designed to do.

So you get Stairway to Heaven, Roxanne, and a whole stack here by Dan.

Lord, it’s horrible. Which led Justin Williams to ask

WTF was Microsoft thinking with Songsmith? Here’s it does White Wedding by Billy Idol. Just unbelievable

Yes, what was Microsoft thinking? Well, let’s start. Someone thought “Apple does a music app.” (Garageband, below.) “We should do a music app. Apple’s one lets you create stuff. We should make it easier. We should write the backing – we’re smart. OK. Tunes follow a structure.” And then “what people sing follows a vague structure.” And then “we can fit the tune around the singing.” And then “what they sing becomes the structure.”

It’s enormously clever; but as the examples all show, utterly stupid. Songsmith has no notion of what a great melody, nor a great accompaniment is; indeed, it doesn’t understand melody, only the idea of progression through a structure. What the person is doing becomes essentially irrelevant; they’re just an input. Listen to enough of these ..creations and you start to notice a certain sameness to them that isn’t there in the originals (obviously). Everything is hammered flat. The surprising harmonies of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Not got those. The plangent arpeggios of Stairway to Heaven? Nope. The buzzsaw guitar of Jonny Greenwood, determined to break up Thom Yorke’s sweet-sounding chorus to Creep? No idea what you mean.

And to answer Williams’s question, what was Microsoft thinking? It was thinking what it always thinks. Reduce the human element to an input, put it in a box and make everything exist only in that box. Remove the space for human creativity that hasn’t been thought of already by the programmers. Think inside the box.

It’s pure enterprise (as in, big company) thinking, applied to one of the art forms that has been with humans for millennia. No wonder people are astonished and can’t stop pinging it around the intarwebs (for it has to be said, Songsmith is getting the most fantastic publicity – you’d think it was an Apple product).

It’s intriguing. Apple has Garageband, which is a tabula rasa, the original blank slate, that offers you fills and guitar and piano twiddles, but you have to do the creative act of putting the song together. (I’ve always thought it makes it too hard to create a long piece; why can’t I just say “I’d like to have something four minutes and 30 seconds long with this drum track, set it up please”?). Even pros use Garageband.

Songsmith takes away the blank slate. In its place it… tells you what it thinks you’re thinking. It is scary. I’d love to know what Microsoft’s engineers really thought before they released it into the wild.

And, of course, whether anyone will release a song “written” by Songsmith. Something tells me not.

Zavvi’s death is good news for Simon Cowell. Unfortunately. (Updated)

Popjustice rather neatly puts its finger on the problem with Zavvi going bust (as a result of Woolworth’s EUK, its distribution arm, demanding money sooner in order to cover its own problems):

You can complain about Zavvi as much as you like – and we have done – but its disappearance from high streets is terrible for music. With Woolworths also going, it means that supermarkets will overnight become even more powerful not just at dictating what music people buy but also – this is the important bit – which artists record labels sign and what music they produce.

Supermarkets running the British music industry is good news if you’re in Il Divo, or if you’re Duffy, or if it’s your job to keep repackaging the same 400 songs in an endless cycle of Valentine’s Day / Mothering Sunday / Love At The Movies compilations, or if your idea of alternative music is the new Razorlight album. But if you like anything else, or if you’re a current or future popstar making anything else, you are in for a difficult few years as major label A&R departments aim for the lowest, blandest, risk-freeiest common denominator options, and a generation of future music fans grows up listening to the results.

Tower, Fopp, Our Price, Woolworths, all the other independent places you used to buy music in a few years ago, now Zavvi: gone. What a load of old shit.

Which means we’re going to get more things like the dire version of Hallelujah that was our Xmas X-Factor No.1 – which, as Chris Edwards points out, indicates how folks like Simon C don’t really care for music, do ya?:

the X-Factor has not let us down by spraying both cheese and saccharine over a song that does a whole lot better with just a slice of lemon.

At first, Burke’s version seemed OK. Strip it of the baggage that goes with the X-Factor and you have a cover that isn’t all bad. Whoops, thought that thought too soon. Suddenly, the producer found the Dion-a-Tron and cranked it up to 11.

It’s crap. Utter Simon-inspired crap. Thinks that the title means it’s a song of celebration. Tell me, please, any music-biz readers of this blog, what edgy, inspired, unusual music has Simon Cowell ever nurtured into being?

Update: ah, here’s Simon Cowell’s Desert Island Discs. Well, that doesn’t tell you a lot; after all, a person’s DIDs are more about the things that they grew up with than the things they create (or nurture) now. Although I have to say that when I get invited on (you can laugh now) there’ll be some King Crimson, Queens of the Stone Age and Alanis Morrisette in there, as well as T.Rex and Slade. (Wow, that’s five already out of the permitted eight.) So yeah, perhaps it does tell you something.

Dear Coldplay, if you act like twunts people will dislike you (more than they do)

On Thursday night I heard Coldplay being interviewed on Radio 4’s arts programme Front Row. (I was making the school lunches.) The interview was conducted by John Wilson, one of the three presenters, and the two Coldplayers present – “frontman Chris Martin” (as we must know him) and drummer Will Champion.

They got the drummer along to do an interview about the music. Says it all really.

But the thing was that they acted like complete and utter twunts. From start to finish. Champion sounded like a sixth-former who thinks he’s funny. Martin made Andy Murray, the tennis player being lampooned on ITV’s Headcases as the misery phone line (“I saw a cat being run over.. it was horrible” delivered in a gloomy Scots voice), sound like a shaft of bright, helpful sunlight.

Let’s remember: this is an interview to publicise their new album, the one which has been called “the most important of the year”. By Guy Hands of EMI. Not by anyone else. Because listening to the single, it sounds like more of the boring same that they slipped into with their third album.

Now, Wilson may not be the most penetrating interviewer, but he can get people to talk when they’re prepared to talk. Compare and contrast his interview with Kate Bush, who was prepared to talk about things, even through Wilson’s puppyish enthusiasms, and engage.

Instead, it seems that Martin walked out of the interview after nine minutes.

Why? Because Wilson had the temerity to ask him some questions.

When asked about a speech he made at a music awards ceremony in 2005 where he said the band would be away “for a very long time”, Martin said: “I always say stupid things and I think Radio 4 is the place that will most remind me of that.”

Seems a reasonable enough question. But no, what does Martin want?

Presenter Wilson questioned whether the new album – full title, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends – was a morbid reflection of the band’s lyrical obsession with death.

“I wouldn’t agree with you there at all, no,” said Martin.

“I’d say you’re journalistically twisting me into saying something I don’t really mean.”

No he’s not, you self-important git. He’s asking you a question about something you said very publicly. You’re free to disagree. It’s called conversation.

A few minutes later, Martin said he was “not really enjoying this” and that he did not really like “having to talk about things”.

That’s kind of a problem if you’re publicising your album. So tempting to ask “Well, by this stage – the fourth album – Radiohead was making OK Computer Kid A (thanks Paul Waite), Led Zeppelin made Led Zeppelin IV, Muse made Black Holes and Revelations, all pretty strong albums. (Well, you could quibble about the Muse one. Actually, point out that the Muse one is weaker than the two that preceded it.) Do you think this measures up?” (OK, that might be a touch provocative. Feel free to add stonking fourth albums in the comments!)

Or even “Did you go about the writing process in a different way? Were you trying to write a different kind of music? [Because you completely failed – CA]” But no, Wilson didn’t get the chance.

Hearing this, though, one has to think: there’s no chance I’d ever buy another Coldplay anything. I bought their first album (after sampling it on the original Napster – ah, memories) and thought Rush Of Blood to the Head was great. The next one, though, complete aural stodge. And I’m sure this one is too. But after hearing their unperformance when they should be trying to inform, if not please, their (potential) listeners, I’m certain: even if they were giving £5 notes away with every track, I wouldn’t have it in the house. Sod off and FAIL. Maybe it’ll teach you humility.

You’ll notice the interview isn’t in the Editor’s Pick at the Front Row page. Colour me unsurprised.

At the Guardian, Elizabeth Mahoney weighs in:

First, how much I’d like to see Martin – if a weird mingling of existential realms were possible – in Surallun’s boardroom, telling him instead of Front Row presenter John Wilson, that he really doesn’t like “having to talk about things”. Second, how none of us is ever going to love a fragile celebrity buckling under the pressure of nothing more than a pre-recorded interview, especially one as mild as the Front Row encounter. Third, how much I’ve always winced, listening to Martin in interviews, thanks to his lame attempts at kooky humour, and that it was a relief in some ways that he’d walked out. And fourth, more positively, what a fine show Front Row is.

And on John Wilson… Ian Shuttleworth comments on that blog post:

Back in the days of Kaleidoscope, John Wilson once mistook me for Athol Fugard. More precisely, he called Fugard “Ian” and spoke to him about my segment, and since we were the only two guests in the studio, then by implication surely I *must* have been the legendary South African playwright… I cherish that moment.

Other comments? “Phew – Coldplay are rock and roll after all,” says Mark Mulligan of Jupiter (ironically, methinks).

Oh, and do feel free to tell me about great fourth albums of our time. (Update: durr – how remiss of me to forget Queens Of The Stone Age, whose amazing Era Vulgaris is still them but expands what they do in all sorts of sonic, tonis and rhythmic areas. Josh Homme = genius in my book: listen to any of the songs and then imagine yourself sitting down with a blank sheet and coming up with any of those riffs (particularly I’m Designer). Compare and contrast with Coldplay. End of.)

Update: John Harris reviewing it on Newsnight. He really, really hates it.

At the Guardian: why Apple’s secretive approach works, how ISPs got forced into a corner on filesharing, and the Tech Weekly podcast.

Unease at filesharing crackdown

The government’s threat to force ISPs to police illegal sharing of copyright material is a music industry victory but a worry for everyone else

A sample:

Now, the music industry has used its lobbying muscle with the government – which is always happy with an industry that employs thousands and generates millions of pounds in taxable revenue – to force ISPs to sit down and create a new framework to choke downloading.

By contrast, ISPs don’t employ thousands and don’t generate millions in export sales. In some ways, it’s as simple as that.

Why Apple’s secretive approach is so effective

It turns out that there may be very deep reasons why Apple’s secretive approach entices us so, and Microsoft’s doesn’t

It’s based on some intriguing (and not yet fully published research) but it goes suggest why vapourware works, if you’re dominant, and perhaps why the AppleTV – preannounced (remember?) as the iTV – didn’t set the world alight.

Tech Weekly podcast: Video Bloggers and Alternative Realities

A look at entertaining technologies this week: interviews on video blogging with the people behind Diggnation, Boing Boing and zefrank, and the makers of the Torchwood Alternative Reality Game tell us how they put it together. And take a ride in the elevator to make a pitch.

In the Guardian: reviewing MusicStation


MusicStation is how sounds on the go should be: cheap, easy and offering a wide range of tracks

And it really is – this is a subscription service on mobile which works, really well. The incredible thing will be if any of the mobile providers think that they can make their pay-to-download systems work. (Vodafone offers this, and I think it should quickly bury the whole music side of Vodafone Live!.)

I know people trot out arguments about music subscription – if you stop paying, all the music vanishes! Oh no! But look, if you like the music that much, then you’re getting to listen to it all the time you have it. (And if you want it in some other context, you can pay for the CD or individual track.) If you don’t like the music enough to actually buy it, then you clearly don’t care much if it vanishes with your subscription.

The benefit here is that you can sample tracks or albums without worrying that it’s costing you (there aren’t even data charges) and the record labels get a cut each time you play a track (not just download). So I’ve paid my tithes towards Robert Fripp’s fortune in the past week or so.

The real argument in the past has been that subscription services don’t work very well, and they aren’t portable. This is portable, and it works really well. It’s a no-brainer: if I was out of contract, I’d think this a strong reason to switch to Vodafone, at £2 per week. It also means you don’t have to spend on an iPod or other MP3 player – in itself, saving you some money, surely.

Tribute bands are the new classical music: and here’s what I’d like to play..

Reading Nick Carr’s splendid rant about the idiocy of those who think that iTunes and its ilk are the apotheosis of the music industry, because “they have split music down to its component piece.. the [individual] track” brought together a couple of thoughts for me.

The other evening I went to a friends’ house, where they were giving a recital – a string quartet. As they’re professional players – one half of the Alberni Quartet, in fact – and one of them was playing a Stradivarius, and as supper was laid on as well, you could say that it was about as good as “going round to a friend’s house to listen to some music” gets.

Interestingly, they played two complete pieces (Mozartr and Schubert) and then, as a sort of mini-encore, played the fourth movement of Ravel’s F major quartet. I love the piece (particularly the second movement, but hearing the fourth on its own was almost jarring.

(Enjoy the second movement. Go on, you’ll like it, even though it’s not the Alberni doing it:


But classical players are a shrinking pool. Except… ask yourself, what precisely do they do? Re-play music written by someone else, precisely. Which is exactly what tribute bands do. There are dozens of them – read last Friday’s Guardian article, the copycats who got the cream. And they go out and they slog away, re-playing music written decades ago in some cases, note-perfect, intonation-perfect.

And the names are so splendid. Green Dayz. B-Muse. I think I’d enjoy the job of lead guitar in B-Muse. The guitar work’s not that hard. It’s just the vocals might be a stretch. And I’d have to wear a syrup. And stand in a trench. But at least with their repertoire, you could cook up a storming gig every night.

Weird to think that rock music has created its own spinoff classical universe. But that’s what classics are, aren’t they? The group doing repeating Genesis’s Supper’s Ready is doing a 20-minute piece, one-off, and the audience will know if they go the slightest bit wrong.

It’s only possible once a year: Borat, and then the Eurovision judging

We watched Borat. Sacha Baron Cohen is without doubt the bravest person I’ve seen on film in millions of years. And hysterical.

But to move from watching that – from between our fingers – to the judging and point-allocating and general toshness of the Eurovision song contest, which now seems to include everyone who doesn’t have a coast adjoining the Pacific Ocean, was simply to move from the sublimely ridiculous to the completely ridiculous.

Though I think Terry Wogan is falling out of love with the competition. He couldn’t bear it, I think – seeing his old, old friend being turned into some sort of eastern European plaything. Aw.

Cover versions, pt 1: of Joni Mitchell, bad and brilliant

I’ve grown to love Joni Mitchell’s music; it’s a gradual thing where you discover that she just couldn’t do a bad song. Well, she could, but then she did a great one to make up for it. And the other thing is that people do really rubbish cover versions of her songs, in general. Which is what has made the release of an album of cover versions of Joni Mitchell songs – A Tribute to Joni Mitchell (iTunes Store) or the website itself, where you can listen and compare the songs. Oh dear.

For example, Bjork says “The first record of hers I discovered was Don Juan’s Daughter; I was around fourteen, fifteen and I knew it by heart (still do, every instrument, every noise, every word).”

Except as Andy Kershaw apoplectically pointed out on the BBC’s Front Row arts program, it’s called Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. And Joni’s version is just miles better.

OK, so kd lang has a great voice and has done some nice versions on 49th Parallel. But in general, covers of her songs just go nowhere because they don’t have her swooping voice.

Except for Nazareth’s version of This Flight Tonight. You’ve not heard of it? Not surprising. It was in 1973. I remember it really well because I was just a kid, really into the charts, and the sound of it (and the drumming pattern, which is what I was into those days – four on the hi-hat per beat sounded so radical) is just amazing. It really sounds like being in a tiny crate of a plane in the blackness with the lights down below. And very heavy.

To quote Nazareth’s history site:

it was their knack of coming up with totally fresh covers of strong songs written by other people that broke them abroad. They became huge in Canada after This Flight Tonight soared up the singles charts there, whilst reaching number 11 in Britain. Taken from Joni Mitchell’s 1970 Blue album, Nazareth’s version – produced by Deep Purple’s Roger Glover as part of the Loud’N’Proud sessions – is more than a re-working. What they’ve done is taken the song from its folk-ballad roots right through to heavy metal. Small wonder then that Joni Mitchell both was stunned by and loved this version, reportedly even calling it a Nazareth song from then on.

Here it is on iTunes – thanks, macuser.

The weird thing is that the Joni Mitchell original (at the iTunes Store) does sound rather watered-down compared to the Nazareth one, which has all sorts of weirdness going on in the background. There’s only a small number of cover versions which are better than the original. And there’s only a miniscule number of people who ever do a better version of a Joni Mitchell song. But this, amazingly, is one.

Travis did a good cover of “River”. But I can’t think of any others where the cover is better than the original apart from Nazareth’s. Any offers?