Covers, the hardest songs

All right, covers. For some reason, many people have a big problem with artists playing cover songs. I am not quite sure why actually, something about not being original possibly? Obviously there is a danger if all one does is copy/paste the original arrangement, choose the same kinds of sounds etc. But then is that really to do a cover? Hang on to that thought; lets look at the originality argument first.

The idea of playing only your own original material is new. It is actually very new, only about 40 years or so I would argue. Observe jazz: while I am not an expert on the genre in any way, I do know that playing songs written by other composers and performers is integral to the genre. Where would jazz be without “My Funny Valentine”? To play existing material intermingled with your own new material is simply to play jazz music. Looking back further, one finds that this is true for other genres as well – blues, and going back further, dancehall standards and folk music. And then stepping back further: classical music, opera – religious hymns? Clearly, music is actually more about playing existing material than it is about the constant production of new works.

So what has happened? Well, at the risk of sounding like someone else’s broken record – capitalism and consumer culture happened. Society has changed from a relatively slow construct lumbering along the path of history into something altogether more mercurial, driven of course by the explosive technological and political development since the mid-1800’s. At least in the west, making and spending money has become the prime objective in life. With that comes the idea of culture as something disposable, and the constant – and artificial – need of new things.

No wonder covers are unfashionable.

Of course, there are bands who are simply too original in themselves to play much in the way of covers, such as King Crimson. Also, Bono has always claimed that U2 were simply too bad at their instruments in the early days to play any covers – originality through ineptness, so to speak.

On the other side of this is the cover band. Normally considered to be at the bottom of the artistic food chain, they are nevertheless often the bands that are able to make a living playing music, usually a blend of current hits and golden oldies. The upside is that one gets to play music, for a living. The downside is that the only music that really works is the popular, radio friendly stuff. Originality is usually limited.

So covers are not something we should be afraid of doing, but not to excess, depending on genre. But how then to go about playing a cover? Still hanging on to that thought from earlier?

Obviously, the sound of a cover depends a lot on the type of instrumentation you have at your disposal as well as the general genre you play in. If you play in a metal band, your covers will have a certain metal-ish flavour – the tendency to use bone crushing distortion is higher than in a folk duo, so to speak, and the tendency to use gentle vocal harmonies is more pronounced in a folk duo. And so on and so forth.

On the other hand, this means that one will almost always bring something new to a song when doing a cover, by default. But just using different guitar sounds and then copying everything else is not exactly bringing something new. This newness can be a completely different sound, a new take on the melodies – or indeed a new melody altoghether – or, and this is often forgotten about, a new context. A few exemples of a successful cover follows below:

This is Neil Young covering “All Along the Watchtower” at a concert celebrating Bob Dylan.

So not exactly a novel context, but the man simply steamrolls the song with his enormous sound and enormous, well – Neil-ness. I would hate to have to follow a performance like that, and I think that at that time and that place, only Bob himself would be able to pull it off. The last verse and the end are brilliant.

Covering this song is almost a cliché these days: Jimi Hendrix completely reshaped it and since then blues-rock guitarists everywhere have produced endless note-by-note copies.

This is Jeff Buckley’s famous cover of “Hallelujah”:

It has been completely rearranged from Leonard Cohen’s original, of course. Sadly it has also become somewhat of a staple “sad song” in US television shows, which has watered it down significantly. Too bad, as Buckley really makes it his own, a good song even though I prefer Cohen singing it.

This is José González covering “Heartbeats” by The Knife:

This is a good example of a cover becoming more well known than the original. In sound it is completely different from the original. It gained widespread attention by being played in a Sony tv advertisment.

This is Patti Smith covering “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, live.

I love how she sings “dangerous” and “yeah”. This song is right up there with “All Along the Watchtower” and “Halleluja” in terms of being more or less a cliché, but this radical rearrangement (here is the original for comparison) is so far from the original that it sounds completely new again. And as the lyrics are so well-known, it is utterly familiar at the same time. Together with a passionate performer who still takes liberties with the lyrics we get one effective cover.

All right, a performance like that can not be topped so enought with the videos.

The Patti Smith video demonstrates possibly the most important thing about doing a cover: if you are a good performer and the material matters to you, it does not really matter if you wrote it or not. Passion is the key.

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2 thoughts on “Covers, the hardest songs

  1. mistersilva74 says:

    Well, sometimes cover versions are better than the original ones and Jeff Buckley’s work on Cohen’s song is absolutely great. One of my favourite’s ever.
    Anyway, if you have time, check my blog. It’s about alternative music and I hope you can find something you like there!


  2. Hans B says:

    Meandering thoughts. Nice writing, makes me proud…

    The concept of original and cover was almost impossible to understand before the time of recording devices. Music would be dead long ago if you only could play your own material. There would be no cozy sing-along nights around the campfire. The core of music and why it is the highest art form, to my opinion, is that it is all about communication. Communication and a feeling of that you share emotions and private feelings with others.
    You somewhere along your lifeline hear music that move your heart and feelings. Later on you hear another version of that same music, slightly different, but it adds to your experience and the feeling of connection, both to the composer and the performer. (Oh, I know, there are covers that do the opposite, but why pay attention to them?)
    What would we do with all the music when the composers die, if we couldn’t use “covers”? Poor Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler, the whole gang!

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