Covered in glory: the tribute albums that saved careers and changed lives

This week brings new all-star love-ins dedicated to Elton John and Johnny Cash marginal releases in the context of their careers, yet tributes to lesser-known acts can prove transformative

There are, when you boil it down, two kinds of tribute albums. There are the ones featuring people youve heard of household names paying homage to other household names, genre stars paying respect to other genre stars and there are the ones featuring people youve never heard of. The latter tend to disappear into the ether, sometimes flitting across your consciousness when youre searching for something on Spotify. The former get the big push as is the case this week with Revamp and Restoration, two all-star Elton John tribute albums, and Forever Words, in which the Johnny Cash estate gets well-known musicians to write songs around words that the country star left behind.

The first tribute album I can discover in the sense of multiple artists covering songs by one act isnt really a tribute album at all. Its the soundtrack to the musical documentary All This and World War II, a peculiar combination of second world war newsreel footage and clips from 20th Century Foxs 1940s movies, accompanied by a soundtrack of Beatles covers Rod Stewart performing Get Back, Bryan Ferry doing Shes Leaving Home, Peter Gabriel having a bash at Strawberry Fields Forever (his first solo release) and three contributions from the Bee Gees. The movie was pulled from cinemas after two weeks, so disastrous was its reception, and the soundtrack album appears to be out of print, though of course a large proportion of it has been pulled together into a YouTube playlist.

All This and World War II soundtrack video

But the real boom in tribute albums began in the late 80s, when Imaginary Records, otherwise home to such indie luminaries as Cud and the Mock Turtles, began putting out records dedicated to assorted 60s heroes the Byrds, the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, Syd Barrett featuring genuine indie stars of the day Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, James, Ride as well as some of the less starry indie acts of the time (Dog Faced Hermans, the Dylans, the Original Sins). At the time, these albums served a real purpose: in a pre-internet age, lots of back catalogue was unavailable, and this might be the only way, bar scouring secondhand shops, you might encounter songs you had heard about but never heard.

And the right album could recontextualise an artist, too. In 1988, Johnny Cash was a staple of the cabaret circuit and creatively depleted when Marc Riley and Jon Langford put together Til Things Are Brighter, featuring young British musicians covering Cash songs. Cash was once again repositioned as an outsider, a rebel and he noticed. He felt a real connection with those musicians and very validated, Cashs daughter Rosanne told the Guardian in 2011. It was very good for him: he was in his element. He absolutely understood what they were tapping into and loved it. That album was definitely re-energising for him. The American Recordings series may have been the public rehabilitation of Cash, but Til Things Are Brighter looks like the first step on that road.

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It was, to say the least, a surprise … Mark Mulcahy.

Other tribute albums have an even more direct effect. Mark Mulcahy spent a decade or so as frontman for the Connecticut indie band Miracle Legion, a band whose excellence was never matched by sales, but who won admirers among their fellow musicians. After Miracle Legion split, Mulcahy continued making music, but then in 2008 his wife Melissa died, leaving him with three-year-old twin daughters to raise. At which point Mulcahys admirers rallied round and recorded Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy to raise money for him and enable him to carry on making music. This was the kind of lineup you might more reasonably expect from a tribute album on a major label, dedicated to a major star: Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe, the National, Frank Black, Frank Turner, Dinosaur Jr, Mercury Rev.

It was, to say the least, a surprise, Mulcahy tells me by email. I think it started with a couple of fans and friends. They were kind of cold-calling round to see who would contribute. It was all pretty far along before I knew about it. I didnt understand why they were doing it. Like most people, Ive never needed a benefit done. It was a humbling experience. I think I wished it wasnt happening.

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Ed Sheerans take on Candle in the Wind, anyone? Photograph: Joe Papeo/WWD/Rex/Shutterstock

For Mulcahy, the incidental effects of the album and the presence of so many starry names who gave his work a higher profile than at any time since the mid-80s, perhaps even higher were secondary to the practical. It was a fundraiser, a bucket brigade. I dont think I was thinking about the music as much as I was seeing a thing that honoured Melissa. Something permanent for her. Having said that, it was thrilling to hear the different interpretations of the songs that Id written or the ones Id written with Mr Ray. It was some happy in a cloudy time. It was wonderful proof that your friends are there when you need them.

The Elton John tribute albums wont have that effect. They might make obsessive completists go out and buy the albums, but really their purpose is to let Elton and the stars on the records bathe in a glow of mutual self-congratulation. Its hard to imagine anyone desperate to hear the songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin starting in any way other than streaming one of his own albums. Ditto the Cash release: if youre a Cash obsessive you might want to familiarise yourself with these unheard lyrics, but chances are this will prove to be a minor item in the catalogue.

But dont worry if thats all a bit too mainstream for your desires. Last week saw the Metal Bastard Enterprises label release Tribute to Beherit. That might be more up your street. What? You mean you dont want to listen to Raped Christ perform Sadomatic Rites? Why ever not?

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Marissa SafontCovered in glory: the tribute albums that saved careers and changed lives

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