During the tiny hours of Monday morning, Backyard Band was up onstage doing the cool alchemy that all go-go bands do: transmuting popular radio hits into ecstatic, percussive party music.
They covered everything from the kaleidoscopic rap of Outkast to the stoned pop of Swedish singer Tove Lo, punctuating familiar melodies with conga slaps and timbale thwacks until the songs felt like different songs. When the band trundled into a nasty-slow rendition of “Whoomp! (There It Is),” the rhythm became so sluggish, it almost seemed rude. “Whooooomp!” There it went.
But the citizens of the dance floor were saving all of their energy for the band’s cover of “Hello,” the ubiquitous Adele ballad that recently spent 10 weeks atop Billboard’s Hot 100. Backyard’s version is faithful to the heartsick melodies of the original, but not to its ponderous mood — thanks almost entirely to the band’s cannonade percussion, which demands a very different physical response. Instead of crying your eyes out to it, you dance yourself sore to it.
And for go-go — a hyper-local genre that now struggles to produce even regional hits — it’s a total smash. The cover is currently enjoying regular airplay on the District’s radio waves; it’s clocking serious views on YouTube; and it has enjoyed some pixelated ink from the likes of the Atlantic, BuzzFeed, the Fader and other online outlets. It’s a hit, but also a postcard.
We’ve seen this before, but it’s been a minute. Back in 2004, when Rare Essence took a crack at Ashlee Simpson’s soft-pop signature hit “Pieces of Me,” the legendary go-go band’s remake blanketed local radio, cementing the idea that a go-go beat doesn’t alter a pop song so much as thoroughly improve it. More recently, local DJs have started to retrofit sparkling top-40 hits with vintage go-go rhythms — Selena Gomez’s “Come and Get It” and Lorde’s “Royals” among them.
Covers have been a core element of go-go music since the late Chuck Brown invented the genre back in the ’70s. As a guitarist and vocalist, Brown was fluent in jazz and blues, and he frequently arranged various standards to fit over his exclusive new funk beat. In a way, his career was one long, subliminal jazz education class.
The go-go bands that followed Brown — which is to say, all of them — balanced their originals with their covers throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s, often blurring the line between the two. But that balance eventually fell out of whack, perhaps to the detriment of go-go itself.
Last year, I interviewed more than 100 musicians, managers, promoters and DJs in the go-go community about the various problems plaguing their beleaguered scene. One complaint I heard over and over was about the music itself: “Not enough creativity.”
The feeling is that, yeah, sure, a great cover might earn flickers of national attention, but only original songs will keep that attention. (Which segues into panic over the fact that CCB’s “Classy” might have been the region’s last original go-go hit, a song that made its ripples way back in 2007.)
But whether today’s go-go covers trigger wider excitement or squelch the songwriting process, there’s a third way to think about them.
In other genres — pop, jazz, country, rock, whatever — a cover almost always carries a coded message. Maybe an artist is genuflecting before his hero. Or showing off her own sophisticated taste. Or just having a laugh. Or lazily attempting to cultivate the warm-fuzziness of familiarity. Either way, there’s always something being communicated through the selection of the song itself.
With go-go, it’s different. The musicians in this profoundly insular scene tap into such a wide swath of songs, it’s as if the music of the outside world isn’t legitimate until it has been rewritten in the local rhythm-language of the go-go community. That’s why go-go covers almost never fall flat onstage. The beat itself immediately sanctifies the song. Every song. Any song.
This felt astonishingly clear last summer when I heard one of the city’s best young go-go troupes, TOB, launch into a monstrous rendition of “We Are the World,” a megastar charity single that now only seems to exist in the 1985 of our collective memory.
TOB’s take was completely unexpected, refreshingly raucous, confident in every way, and with no irony or cleverness to it. No smirking. No winking. The band was simply converting another pop song into go-go.
That same principle gives Backyard Band’s “Hello” its inside-out power. Outside of the scene, the cover might come across as a novelty, or even a plea for attention from a veteran band. But inside go-go, it’s almost the opposite. The global dominance of “Hello” is practically impossible to calculate, but even a song that’s taken over the entire world still has to be translated for this particular world. Otherwise, it might as well not even exist.
Ultimately, the impact that these covers have inside of go-go is more significant than the impact that they have outside of it — and, since Backyard released its version of “Hello” in December, the band has been drawing thicker crowds.
Outside the group’s sold-out show Sunday night at Liv nightclub, off U Street NW, a few fans who arrived too late to get in refused to call it a night.
Instead, they parked their cars on 11th Street and rolled down their windows to listen to “Hello” as it seeped out of the nightclub walls and into the sleepy D.C. streets.