Not Another Bloody Cover

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.

 

 

3 comments

  1. I always use the cover of There She Goes by Six Pence Non The Richer as a terrible execution of a cover. “I know, let’s take the hook out of the song!” someone actually thought. Maybe, it was ironically cool or something… or just crap.

    On the other end of the spectrum are things like Pink Moon by Sebadoh, that turned a folk song into an anthemic riot, and actually introduced the teenage me to Nick Drake.

    Those covers that both enhance the song and introduce you to the original artist are rare, but should also be treasured.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think just crap! There She Goes is such a catchy and charismatic song. That is a good pick for worst cover. Though I now have you to blame for it entering my ears so I will hold that against you.

      I didn’t think the Sebadoh cover would work, but it does. It really turns the volume up on Pink Moon.

      Like

  2. I have been thinking about this for a long time. I have always liked covers, but I don’t know why.

    I like music. I like listening to music, thinking about music, reading about music and hearing about music. While I think I like a variety of music, my taste in music is probably not as diverse as I think it is.

    So after thinking about this for probably too long, I would say that I enjoyed your blog post but you are simply listening to the wrong music when it comes to covers.

    I grew up in the US with FM radio, records, 8 Tracks, cassettes, then ipods. Before we got to the world of streaming, you could choose to play your own music or put on the radio which curated the music for you. Today you can easily pick the music you want to hear or skip past music that doesn’t appeal.

    When I like a song, I tend to feel very strongly about it. It goes to a playlist, so I can hear it more frequently. I seek out demo versions and alternative takes. I seek out covers. I don’t like all these versions, but covers give me more choice.

    Certainly there are bad covers. Lots of them. There are also endless others songs I wouldn’t want to listen to.

    Maybe this is an issue of how we consume music. If you cast a wide net, you’ll end up complaining about Fall Out Boy, Cher or Limp Bizkit. If you are less adventurous (like me), you’re probably unaware about any of these recordings.

    A minor point is that it is fun when you discover a new song you like is actually a cover. Then you get to seek out the original and compare. And then there are times you hear something thinking it is a cover and it turns out being original (Mayer Hawthorne). Or an OK Go song (“The Writing’s on the Wall”) is actually not a cover of a New Order song (“Temptation”).

    Anyway, my point is that covers are like music in general. There’s plenty that I won’t listen to, but I am thankful of the bounty of music I can try out.

    Here are some of my favorite covers.
    “Love Vigilantes” Iron & Wine
    “In Between Days” Ben Folds
    “Landslide” Antony
    “Digging Your Scene” Ivy
    “One” Aimee Mann
    “I Melt With You” Nouvelle Vague
    “No Surprises” Roman GianArthur, Janelle Monae
    “Lowdown” Chromeo (YouTube only)

    Keep up the good work on the blog.

    Like

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