What makes a great cover?
How about whatever makes a
great song; a catchy melody, interesting lyrics, memorable singing, a
fisherman’s array of hooks, and original interesting production, created
again in an alternate universe, the same, but utterly different.
Example: “Alison” Elvis. Linda.
Bitter, angry accusation or tender love song lullaby?
same but such very different interpretations (and as much as you can
slag on Linda Ronstadt for being MOR, she has a lovely voice and her
Sometimes what makes a great cover
starts from an original that maybe you didn’t love but results in a
cover version that you do.
Example: “Up on a Roof” Drifters, James Taylor
I have learned to love the original Drifter’s version.
sometimes you have an adored original, but another version arrives that
makes you rethink everything you thought about the original until you
can’t pick favorites between parent and child.
Example: “Sweet Jane” Velvet Underground, Cowboy Junkies
Street tough declaration or narcoleptic lament? I defy you to tell me which is the definitive version.
And sometimes, a cover is so great that it makes you fall in love (sometimes again) with a forgotten or ignored original.
Example: “Nothing Compares to You” Sinead O’Connor, Prince (the Family)
remember The Family. It was the heyday of prince when every other song
on the radio had his input on it. I love Sinead’s version, but do
yourself a favor and go back to the source (prince, by way of family)
and tell me that isn’t fun and why on earth did you not dig it the first
Example: “What’s so funny about peace, love
and understanding?” Love the straight ahead, heart on the sleeve
barroom sprawl of nick lowe’s original. Love elvis costello’s snarly
cover, love midnight oil’s punky plea. I started out with elvis’s
version, swooned to midnight oil’s live version at their first ave show
in 1987 (“we aren’t known as the most optimistic band in the world, but
we like to think this is true” or something like that), but that
original version by nick lowe does me just fine.
to ask.com and Wikipedia, either "Yesterday" by the Beatles or "Eleanor
Rigby" are the most covered songs, with over 100 versions each. Can’t rightly
recall any other versions of those two versions. In fact, I can’t
recall any cover of a Beatles tune that I’ve liked (and yes, Elton John
and Joe Cocker, I’m talking to you). Not sure why that is, because all
those songs have everything I would expect in an original. But I’m
not saying you shouldn’t mess with the classics, you just have to, as an
artist, have the right intent when you are covering a song.
me to love a cover, I think the artist has to really love a song. It
has to mean something to them for a long time, something essential to
their understanding and appreciation of pop music (pop music meant in
the broadest terms possible). Just a nod to Bob, or a cover of this
week’s flavor because it’s a catchy song never really works for me. But
when Rickie Lee Jones covers “Rebel Rebel” you know she’s telling you
as much about herself as she is about how much David Bowie meant to her.
And I’m a sucker for that layered history in a cover. (I love her
“Walk Away Renee” cover too. She owns that cover like she wrote it;
another of her sad, lost characters drifting along the edges and it
breaks my heart whenever I hear it)
should reinterpret or redefine a song. I don’t want a paint by numbers
covers. Those carefully guided, not for note re-enactments are
pointless and although they might be sincere homage to the original,
they always smack of laziness or artistic bankruptcy. Hard enough to
make one successful cover that compliments the original, much less
exceeds it. rare is the artists who regularly delivers. And don’t even
get me started on the full albums of covers. Those just mean
fulfilling a record company contract and I can’t bear to make myself
listen. The caveat to that corollary is Famous Blue Raincoat which is
just a brilliant album and pretty much every cover on that album is
genius (even getting Leonard Cohen to cover himself).
cover should change the context or the original. Take a heavy metal
tune and turn it into an acoustic finger pick (Mark Kozelek, especially
the AC/DC covers, excels at this endeavor) They can either reinforce
the meaning of of a song or completely subvert the intent. Either is
fine with me. I just want there to be some purpose behind the cover,
other than I like it and I wish I had written it (or I could maybe have a
hit with it).
I would suggest the worst way to cover a
song is to go all HGTV on it. A redressing of the original, with throw
pillows on the couch and flower bouquets on the mantle isn’t going to
make a great (or even good) cover. Slapping a new coat of paint on a
wall might update the room, but this year’s color is next year’s dated,
so fancy new production probably isn’t going to cut it. Video might
have killed the radio star, but muzak, rock a bye baby and disco have
done in their share of great songs too. I love my Kylie Minogue, but
that HiNRG Stock Aitken Waterman cover of “The Locomotion” is inhumane
torture. And I’m not sure Grand Funk Railroad’s rock retread is much
better (although the harmonies on that cover ALMOST make me listen all
the way through). And I’ll never believe that “god save the queen”,
for all its supposed import as a political statement (wasn’t there can’t
really attest one way or the other), is not remotely listenable in the
sex pistols’ version (whether it is listenable as a national
anthem is also completely debatable, but besides the point). Style only
covers substance and I would rarely say it results in a good “cover”.
me, the best covers strip a song down to the beams and find the
structure underneath. Go down to the bones of the song; the melody, the
rhythm, and the lyrics and work from there. I’m not saying a cover
needs to be bare or anything, but that might be the place to start
before you start knocking out walls or putting in new windows and
reimagining lighting. Where is the meaning of the song? Is there room
to change the context? Can the lyrics be subverted? Once you have the
bride stripped bare, then you can start reimagining. A.C. Newman’s
“Take on Me” is a great example of a cover done right. Pull the melody
apart from the production, forget about the video (albeit a super fun
one), layer on some fairly simple but complementary production and
you’ve changed an overplayed locked in the 80’s pop hit into a great
lost wistful indie anthem (also, this just occurs to me, but is A-Ha the
father to Postal Service?).
Who are my favorite cover-ers?
always have a soft spot for Linda Ronstadt. I’ll make no apologies.
She introduced me to a lot of musical history in her well chosen covers
and her versions are indelibly etched in my younger psyche. I get that
people wanted more from her, but she was just fine for the time for me.
And she still is.
Surprisingly, Manfred Mann’s Earth
Band is pure genius. “Blinded by the light (pretty much my single
favorite cover, even more incredible when you consider that I can not
listen to the Springsteen original),” “For You” (ditto on the can’t
STAND original part), “Quinn the Eskimo,” (believe it or not, this
cover, heard when I was 10 directed me back to that Bob Dylan guy), I
even am partial to their cover of the Police’s “Demolition Man.” They
definitely know how to reconstruct a song and make it utterly unique and
I can’t hardly have a discussion of covers
without mentioning the two songwriters whose songs are likely covered as
much as anyone not in the Beatles. Obviously, Dylan first and
foremost. What about his songs make them so coverable; all the above
mentioned items early in this entry. And add to that his, ahem, unique
voice, allowing a cover-er to make a distinct interpretation that is
unlikely to adhere too closely to the original. The Byrd’s covers, “Mr.
Tambourine Man,” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” are a couple stellar
Most likely you’ll go your way and I’ll go
mine, but the #2 guy behind Dylan would be Leonard Cohen. But here’s
the thing as much as I love his songs, and a lot of his lesser known
songs are completely ripe for brilliant covers, no one quite does Cohen
right. And EVERYONE covers Hallelujah (this has got to be the song with
the most covers ever, right?). And they are all shite. What is it
about this song that doesn’t allow anyone to do something interesting
with it? Is it a Beatles syndrome again, where everyone is so in love
with the original that they are afraid to reinterpret it? dunno, but
everyone is so reverential with this
song. Piano arrangement
with tasteful strings, copy Cohen’s phrasing. Bring on the angels and
add a little extra bombast. Boring.
Ok. I’ve showed you mine, now you show me yours? What are your favorite covers? And cover-ers?