Recently, I was trying to understand why people like the band Phish (another conversation for another day) when I came across them doing a cover of Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It. There have been many crimes against musical history, but this was particularly bad. Admittedly the original Will Smith version will not be lauded as one of the pinnacles of hip hop, but it was a summer anthem and it did win a Grammy. Watching a white dude in a viking hat rap over a prog rock version of this song makes for uncomfortable viewing. Unfortunately, this feeling is way too common when I listen to covers.
Covers rarely reach the level of the original song, but I feel pain when it gets to the point that they actually wreck the original. This is not me just being precious about original music. Take Joy Division, a band I love. There is a clear distinction between the cover versions of Love Will Tear Us Apart put forward by Jose Gonzalez and Fall Out Boy. Jose Gonzalez conveys the understated nature of the Joy Division song, but remakes it in his own image with his typical fast-picking classical acoustic guitar. This works. On the other hand, the Fall Out Boy version totally wrecks the tone of the song. Destroys it. And as often as I can still be heard shout-singing along to Sugar We’re Going Down after a few drinks, mixing this energy with Love Will Tear Us Apart is absolutely horrible.
I have been thinking about how cover songs go wrong and I came up with two reasons why they so often go down in flames:
It’s the same song!
Sometimes a cover is just a carbon copy of the original. We don’t have to go far for an example of this. Last year Cher released a whole cover album with her take on 7 ABBA songs. It should work. The meeting of two pop legends! What could go wrong? Well every one of the songs sound identical to the original, except they have Cher’s unique autotuned voice over the top. There was no creativity. It just feels like a cash grab on people’s nostalgia timed to coincide with the Mamma Mia sequel.
It’s a different song!
Sometimes the covering artist does make changes. But the changes completely miss the point of the song. This can make a bad cover terrible. A case in point would be the aforementioned Fall Out Boy, which put their emo-pop sensibilities all over a song that just doesn’t fit.
Another memorable one for me is Limp Bizkit’s cover of Behind Blue Eyes (originally by The Who). For the most part its fine. Not great. Nothing interesting, but acceptable. In the original song, after a couple of minutes of the slow paced build it gives way to electric guitar as the song finishes with a punch. In all their wisdom Limp Bizkit decided to cut this out, leaving the song with no payoff and instead replacing it with some indulgent and weird vocals. It just eviscerates the song. Why do this? It’s misguided and arrogant.
So these may not be the most helpful rules. There’s obviously a fine line to travel to actually make a good cover song. It can be done, though. I have some very happy memories of singing along to The Futureheads’ version of Hounds of Love. LCD Soundsystem’s cover of (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang was a highlight of last year. Many people think that Johnny Cash made a better version of Hurt and there are countless version of Hallelujah and everyone has a different favourite. But for every good cover it feels like there’s another Take That attempting to do Smells Like Teen Spirit. And let’s not even talk about Yoko Ono’s version of Imagine from last year. I’m not sure if it is worth it. Maybe, despite the odd piece of magic, we should simply ban cover songs. What d’ya reckon?
Words by Matt Paul.