You Can’t Judge A Song By Its Cover.
The art of tackling an existing song is a tried, tested- and a little tired- form. It is almost second-nature for new acts to cover established songs, yet few get it right. When the cover version is ‘just right’, however, it can be very special indeed.
LAST week I focused upon a wonderful year- for me- in music.
The year was- and is- 1994, and I stipulated that it was just a mesmeric year due to the quality of music being offered forth. Everyone has their favourite decade for music, and for different reason. I was curious whether a particular period of music is memorable because of the quality of songs produced, or because you are of a certain age. I was a six-year-old when 1990 arrived, and am curious whether I love the ’90s because it was at the same time I was really getting into music. I have thought long and hard and am of the opinion that it was the sheer weight of the music itself that was so memorable- and not because my infant mind received its first taste of new music. It was a decade that saw the discovery and continuation of some pretty awesome bands and acts, and entire genres were being popularised. Grunge was in full swing, and was still a potent and mighty force after Kurt Cobain’s death (in 1994). Britpop saw the likes of Oasis and Blur fighting it out for chart glory, and Dance music was really hitting its stride. I have looked back fondly, and seen what has come and what was offered up by the participants of the decade. There was a great deal of original music, and it was a prosperous time for all concerned. A lot of time has passed, and music tastes have changed somewhat. New genres and styles of music have been created, and there has been a shift away from the core and credentials of ’90s music, and towards something altogether different. It is true that there are some great Rock and Pop acts about, yet there seems to be less diversity, fewer memorable albums- as well as a dip in overall quality. As much as new music and original compositions are essential, and a way of demonstrating the prowess and personality of a musician, there is still a common thread running through music: the cover song.
Like a bad lawyer, making a terrific cover version requires a lot of trial and error. Before I examine specifics and the ins and outs, there is one point that needs to be made. I feel that there is a bit of a lazy tendency for new acts to cover music. On every album or E.P. there seems to be too many cover versions and not enough original material. It perhaps isn’t a criticism reserved to new music, as acts such as Michael Buble have made their name covering other people’s songs. During yesterday’s review of Alison Levi I mentioned Eva Cassidy a lot. Here is an artist whom only recorded a few original tracks; spending most of her (short) career playing other acts tracks. The thing that separates Cassidy from the subjects of my negative discourse is this: the quality. There was innovation and originality in every reworking Cassidy produced, and they were all synonymous with one facet: that voice. Cassidy’s voice could melt hearts from miles away; capable of delicate and hushed soprano whispers, through to full-blooded roars. Songs such as Fields of Gold, Over The Rainbow and Wade In The Water were transformed, and given a new lease of life. This is one artist whom could make any and every song her own, and is still celebrated and remembered today- nearly 20 years after her death. New acts have a right to attempt an existing song, and it takes some of the pressure off of their shoulders- in the sense that they have the words already written for them. Artists such as Bob Dylan have had their back catalogue stripped and reworked; it seems that it is almost a right of passage for a new artist to cover a Dyan. The problem with this is that the greatest songwriter whom has ever lived starts to lose some of his godlike status: when others mess up one of his songs. It is not the case that every attempt at a Dylan number has been a failure- there have been some greats- but there are few genuinely great versions. The issue with covering a track lies not with whom performed it first, but the lack of innovation put into reworking the song. It is all very well taking on someone else’s music, but if you are going to do that, it needs to be different. In my mind the only reason to cover a song is to try to make it better; truly different and something that sounds like your own. The greatest cover versions of all-time are on the list, not because no-one else thought of covering the track, but because they are worlds apart from the original: and a lot better in many cases. I shall examine the best and brightest of the art form later, yet for now, I must wag my finger. If you choose to tackle a particular track and put your own stamp on it, it is like being given a blank canvas. Of course you have to keep the words in place, but not all of them. The music can- and should- be very different; the melody can change and the running time expanded or contracted. A rather limp or lifeless Folk number can be transformed into a multi-part epic. A song of Bohemian Rhapsody‘s proportions can be rung from an unheard-of 1960s track; romantic and devotional tracks unveiled from dark and spectral Blues numbers. Stations such as Radio One have their Live Longue a platform for an act to perform a song of their own; but also tackle an existing one. I have tuned in a few times and never been blown away by the quality of the cover versions. It is largely due to the fact that the songs being covered are modern-day songs, and the quality is not there to begin with. I feel, however, that my generation is less innovative and intelligent when it comes to interpreting a song. Most of the best covers were reworkings of ’60s and ’70s songs, and recorded either a short time after the original, or a little way down the line. When considering my future music endeavours, I have decided that a debut E.P. should contain five original tracks. When it comes to subsequent releases, I have two songs in mind: I Fall To Pieces and Joan of Arc. The former, is a track recorded by Patsy Cline, way back in 1961. It is a country track recounting painful memories for its heroine. The song concerns the heartache at seeing a former love with a new lover; the pain and jealousy inherent- and perhaps recrimination and regret at letting them go in the first place. The lyrics are filled with emotion and heartache; yet the delivery and performance seems a little muted. Cline is a legend, of course, yet I Fall to Pieces is a song begging for reinterpretation. I shall mention The White Stripes later, and their renditions of Jolene, but in my mind, I Fall to Pieces needs electric guitar, drum; a wracked and pained vocal; and an epic and head-splitting composition. It is ambitious, but I feel that the lyrics are so simple and good, that there needs to be something done with it- a version where the intensity and full pain are extracted. Joan of Arc, is, as the title suggests, about the French folk heroine. Leonard Cohen wrote the track in 1971 for his album, Songs of Love and Hate. It has been covered a couple of times before, yet none- to my mind- have brought full life to the lyrics. The words concern Joan of Arc being burned at the stake, and the track is a dialogue between her and the fire. Lyrics talk about: “Well then, who are you?” she sternly spoke/To the one beneath the smoke/”Why, I’m, I’m fire,” he replied…“. In the way that one song can go from a restrained country song, to a heavy-hitting Rock track; the other a Cohenesque rendition which can be given additional shiver and intrigue, that, to me, is the point of a cover. It is not good enough to just sing a song and put the bare-minimum into it. Horrid shows such as The Voice and The X Factor gleefully encourage this sin of omission. As well as being cauldrons for pathetic fame-seekers and appalling sob story merchants, they encourage a lack of creativity. Every act covers a song- usually the same one that everyone else has- and the renditions are predominantly horrid and pointless. Even when we get to the end of the horrible series and a winner has been crowned: the resultant album consists of a large amount of insipid and horrible cover versions. Perhaps this has scared off the core of genuinely great music act- maybe there the T.V. pop muppets have made the cover song a poisoned chalice.
It seems all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten my songwriting hand. I feel it is admirable to include one cover version every couple of albums or so- perhaps more. If you think hard enough and make a great effort of it, then the rewards can be multiple. If you make the song your own, then it can not only get you a lot of praise, but alert young listeners to past masters. One of the best reasons to tackle a song is to make people aware of an act or artist whom has gone before- and ensure they are not forgotten. Tragically, attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, and there are probably some that do not know who The Beatles are; who wrote Waterloo Sunset etc. Ignorance is bliss, and it seems, something the young are not keen to be rid of. I have heard so many people ignore music or not know who wrote a song, because ‘it is before my time!’. Guess what? I was born in 1983, and I know when The Battle of Hastings took place. I listened to Swing music of the ’20s when I was a toddler; I am familiar with The Kinks, Sonny Boy Williamson and Neil Young. Music is more readily available now than it has ever been, so it is pretty pathetic when people overlook music because they are young. So many great albums, artists and songs are being ignored because people are becoming more stupid and self-obsessed. If it takes a modern interpretation of Tangled Up In Blue to make someone aware of Blood on the Tracks, then I have no complaints. It is a new Blues tradition that can take place- taking an old or existing song, giving it is a modicum of polish and making it visible to a new and fresh audience. It is vital and important that old and past songs are paid fair tribute; that new musicians recognise former glory and pay their respects and give their stamp to that song. If we lose the art of covering songs, then there is a danger of legends and all-time greats being ignored and relegated to the footnotes of music history. As long as too many obvious songs are not covered too often; that originality and boldness are key considerations; that diversity and fascination are offered up- then it could encourage others to be more adventurous and brave with their own music. It is true that there have been some truly wonderful reinterpretations through the years; yet there have been some truly shocking ones…
It is not hard to completely butcher a song. Ask the likes of Ronan Keating, who, for some bizarre reason, decided to tackle Fairytale of New York. The song was pretty near-perfect to begin; in no small part because of the chemistry and vocal interplay of Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl. I am sure MacGowan would be rolling in his grave; if he were dead. I hope he at least has a voodoo doll of Keating as I am not sure what possessed the man to urinate all over a classic track. There was no need for anyone to go anywhere near this song- as the original can not be topped. When it comes to bad cover versions, there have been a few that are truly eye-watering. Classic numbers have been taken on but some dismal artists- the resultant chaos is enough to put you off of music for all of time. M People (remember them?) wrecked Itchycoo Park; Will Young made mockery of Light My Fire, and perhaps most despicably of all, Take That covered Smells Like Teen Spirit. That track (the orignal) is considered to be one of the finest tracks ever written. It is celebrated because if the conviction and intention from Nirvana; because it represented a very real feeling at the time, and a genuine dissatisfaction and dislocation from Kurt Cobain. When put in the hands of a bunch of wet and weedy karaoke band, and the track loses everything. Luckily the Take That boys cannot completely ruin a song as great, yet should not have gone anywhere near it. It is when events like this occur, it makes me wonder if people are genuinely trying to lovingly pay tribute to a song- or just come across as a sick and annoying jokes. Madonna desiccated all over American Pie; Mark Ronson destroyed No One Knows– and Leona Lewis screeching over Stop Crying Your Heart Out. This is an extended list of feeble and unspectacular acts whose original material is not exactly spellbinding (except maybe Madonna’s early work). It is perhaps the fault of the writers of the tracks for letting their music be murdered; and I suspect financial gain overrules dignity and common sense. In the current scene there are too many examples of the atrocities listed above. It is difficult to make an average song good; maybe it is difficult to make a great song different- it is phenomenally hard to make a great song bad. It is perhaps testament to the ineptitude of some artists that they can take a wonderful gem of a track, and make it sound like a joke. I shall not spend too much time dwelling on some huge music failure, but the point is this: if you are going to make a hash of a song, then do not go anywhere near it. The point of covering a song should be to improve it; make it different in a good way, and above all, get the word out- in a positive way. There have been some covers I have heard that has compelled me to seek out the original; in turn I have then bought and discovered albums by that artist and become fans of the song’s author. I guess the mark of an incredible cover version is to both have respect for the original composer as well as the act covering if, and in turn, the necessity to seek out as much music by both as possible. When the trick is mastered, it can produce some wonderful results indeed…
I will mention three brilliant- and different- cover versions, as well as give an honourable mentioned as well. It is always going to be hard making a classic out of an average song, or elevating a track to untouchable heights if you stick too closely to the original. If you are tackling an acoustic number, then make it harder and more electric; if it is an old Blues number, update it and take it in a different direction- and so forth. The best and boldest cover versions earn their stripes because they take the original track, and completely change it- and improve on it in a lot of cases. One of the most radical about-face transformations was when Jimi Hendrix took on All Along The Watchtower. In the way that some musicians can turn a song into a pusillanimous mess; truly innovative artists can make a song utterly memorable. Of course Dylan is an artist whom will always have a host of people wanting to tackle his music. He remains the greatest lyricist of all-time and one of the finest songwriters to have walked the planet. His albums are not always up to his lofty standards, yet there are always great songs in the midst of his most average albums. In 1967, Dylan has perhaps completed an impossible trick: having created three of the greatest ever albums, in quick succession. In 1965, Dylan has released Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. That year saw him transform from an acoustic guitar-wielding Folk icon, into an electric-guitar sporting Folk god. The metamorphoses was met with criticism from the Folk elite, yet the year saw Dylan produce some of his finest work. A year later, Blonde on Blonde was released and a snowballing momentum created. The young artist was on fire, and not in the mood to slow down. John Wesley Harding was a celebrated and classic album, but not as good and memorable as his previous three. There were fewer electrifying moments; less in the way of out-and-out classics: it was more restrained but not exactly impotent. When the track All Along The Watchtower was witnessed and surmounted, few took a huge amount of notice. The lyrics were strong and memorable, but there was nothing that jumped out of the vinyl and lodged into the hippocampus. Stronger songs such as I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight were perhaps more long-lasting, but the album inspired one particular guitar hero. I am not sure what inspired- or intoxicated- Hendrix, but there was something in All Along The Watchtower that compelled him to pick up guitar and lacerate the track. The song- in its original song- is a relaxed and calm moment. Dylan’s version is like many of his songs: effective yet languid and calmly paced. Hendrix decided that the fine lyrics deserved a thunderbolt of energy and passion, and turned a minor track into a stonewall classic. It is not just the incredible and psychedelic guitar work that makes it a wonderful cover, but Hendrix’s impassioned vocal. Hendrix is an underrated singer and does not get credit in that respect, yet his aching and enraged vocal performance almost matches his head-spinning and maniacal axe work. Dylan has gone on record as saying he prefers Hendrix’s version and subsequently plays the song more in keeping with Hendrix’s reworking- as oppossed to the original sound. All of the words were kept in tact by Hendrix, but he took the weakest element- the composition and vocal work- and added punch, grit and mesmeric soul. If you hear the track (Right-click and ‘Open In A New Tab’:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJV81mdj1ic) you are captured from the first moments to the very last. It is rightfully considered as one of the greatest cover versions of all-time, yet is not my favourite. I shall lead to that, yet there is another that grabs my attention. Former husband and wife duo Jack and Meg White- of the sadly defunct Th White Stripes- burned a bright and bold trail over their career. The Detroit couple- whilst pretending to be brother and sister- turned out a string of wonderful albums of Blues Rock that borrowed its heart from the Blues legends of the ’20s and ’30s- yet introduced Garage elements and modern sounds to create a primal and intelligent blend. Jack White is one of the greatest songwriters we have, and dared to be different. Whilst his contemporaries- in the late-’90s/early-’00s- were copying the Garage and Punk bands of Michigan, White was updating the sounds of artists such as Blind Willie McTell and Son House- heroes that influenced and inspired the young White. The White Stripes produced original material of the huighest calibre, yet were skilled and impressive masters of the cover version. If you listen to Dusty Springfield’s I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself; it is not a song you would consider to be angry and overwhelming. In Jack White’s hands, the track was given a fresh lease of life and transmogrified into a tale of frustration, boredom and aching love. Every screamed and anguished vocal stabbed into your heart; his brutal guitar work pounded your bones, and Meg White’s solid drum-work bolstered and supported the epic and sweeping mood. It was when I watched the performance of a particular song on their live D.V.D. Under Blackpool Lights (Right-click and ‘Open In New Tab’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kS60oTRxh0g) that my jaw dropped. Swat pouring from White’s brow, and looking exhausted, Jolene was given a thorough going-over. Dolly Parton’s original was a Country music great, but seemed a bit merry for my liking. There was pain at its core, yet Parton’s rendition was cheery enough to make you gloss over that. Step up Jack and Meg who killed the crap out of it. A wailing and heartbroken vocal performance was accompanied by a spiking and pulverizing guitar tableaux. With Meg smashing and teasing her kit the duo wowed the Lancashire audience with a performance of raw and unadulterated anger and frustration. White reversed the gender roles- imagining himself as the man fighting for his man- making the rendition more curious and fascinating. You can tell from his contorted face and frantic performance that he means every damn word; he took a song that was soaked in Jack Daniels and Nashville rain and took it to Michigan: injected it with a razor blade, packet of cigarettes and a smashed apartment. Parton may have originated the track, but The White Stripes made it come alive. It has inspired me to be similarly-ambitious with I Fall To Pieces– these are songs whose lyrics suggest a performance filled with wracked and overwrought annotations. Before I get to the final- and my favourite- cover versions, I will honourably mention Johnny Cash. The departed great is considered by many critics to be the singer of the greatest cover versions to ever have been recorded- Hurt. The track was written by Nine Inch Nails, and appeared on the Goth Rock masters 1994 album, The Downward Spiral. That album was inspired by ’70s icons such as David Bowie, and the album explored a lot of the same territory that the likes of Bowie and Pink Floyd mastered in that decade. Hurt was the swan song that completed the album. In Reznor’s hands it was seen as many to be a musical suicide note; a plea from a depressed and overwhelmed young man- someone whom wanted an escape from the pain. It may have resonated with some 20 years ago- those whom felt the same- yet alienated some due to its dark themes and pained performance. It is a wonderful song, yet you get the impression that it is more important to its author than it ever will be to anyone listening. In 2002, Cash covered it as part of his album American IV: The Man Comes Around. That album was released just before Cash’s death, and his rendition of Hurt is considered a modern masterpiece. Whereas N.I.N. focused more on self-harm and depression, Cash took it to be a paen to Christianity and spirituality. He removed the profanity and gave the song time in rehab. The ailing Cash gave the song an eerie and emotional core the original did not contain, and it documented a frail legend not long for the world. The music video- shot in black-and-white- projected images of Cash from his youth to present-day (2002), and was an emotional and striking rendition. Seek it out on YouTube as it is rightfully hailed as one of the best covers ever, but I shall let you arrive at your own conclusions. Before I sum up, I will mention my favourite ever cover version. Leonard Cohen is seen by many to be a minor Bob Dylan- a more depressing and haunted equivalency, minus some of the genius. Cohen is overlooked when it comes to songwriting, as many are put off by his voice. It is a dark chocolate tone that means many do not listen hard and long to his music. It is a shame, as Cohen is one of the finest poetic lyricists of all-time, and no poor man’s Dylan. Sexually-charged, and with asexual innuendo of a title, Various Positions was a 1984 album that saw a slight dip in quality from the Canadian master. The album contained some brilliance, for sure. Dance Me to the End of Love was a brilliant opener, and a tender and romantic opener. The rest of the L.P. does perhaps not live up to this early promise, yet there was a song in its midst that would go onto receive a wonderful 10th birthday present: Hallelujah. Cohen spend three years writing the song, and completed dozens of verses. The studio version contained biblical references throughout; mentioning Samson and Delilah and King David. Biblical mention was woven into a masterpiece of love, sex and the fractious reality of relations. Cohen toiled on producing the final version, completing over 80 drafts. The version which appears on Various Positions is lyrical genius and one of the greatest songs ever, let down by only one thing: Cohen’s performance. With mawkish and grating ’80s electronics, poor production and a dour and flat vocal performance, the song was overdone and underdone at the same time. The result was a track which captured you with its poetry but left you sour when hearing it performed. There have been myriad versions of the song recorded; most of which are totally awful. The track has been wrongly seen as a funeral march and whored out to T.V. shows such as The O.C. Dreadful people like Alexndra Burke have helped to nullify its essence, where as credible artists such as Rufus Wainwright and John Cale have tackled it: yet not made any strides to own it. The man who claims that honour is Jeff Buckley (Right-click and ‘Open In New Tab’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIF4_Sm-rgQ). I mention Buckley quite frequently, mainly in terms of his vocal ability alone. When it comes to Hallelujah, kudos must be given to his interpretive skills. Whilst performing at Sin-e cafe in New York, Buckley wowed intimate audiences with his ability to reinvent existing songs. The likes of Edith Piaf and Van Morrison has their tracks turned into gorgeous gems by Buckley, and many a jaw was left dropping when witnessing the young man do his thing. Leonard Cohen’s 1984 work was premiered at this time, yet it is when it reached the studio in 1993/4, that its full majesty was revealed. Buckley could not have written it; Cohen could not have sung it- it was a perfect marriage built on a perfectly equally footing. The story goers that Buckley tried many takes and performed the song in different manners. There were angry versions; more ‘manly versions’, as well as faster takes. The one we hear on 1994’s Grace is the result of fusing several different takes together, and is one of the most startling vocal performances ever. After Buckley’s death in 1997, many foolishly have used his version of Hallelujah as a maudlin and sappy death march. Cretinous YouTubers have covered it in their hundreds and pathetically tried to get within touching distance of Buckley’s version. Jeff himself claimed his rendition was a ‘Hallelujah to the orgasm’, and is filled with sex, sweat and breathless passion. It is a spine-tingling and ethereal version that does full justice to Cohen’s brilliant words. Armed with just an electric guitar, the song is 1994 is about Buckley’s glorious voice; which turns a forgotten and overlooked song into a meditation on sex, love, death, religion- and life itself. It is a beautiful version which says everything music should say. The words were perfect: the result of years of work and reworking. The vocal performance was as pure and mind-altering as any in music history; backed by a gorgeous melody and sparse instrumentation. If Buckley had written the song himself it may not have received such acclaim. The shock comes when considering how radical it is compared with the original. It is a song that few would have considered covering in 1984, and fewer still in the ’90s. Buckley saw the poetic and mesmeric beauty Cohen had put forth, and adopted it as his own. Spending years himself working on various versions, Grace‘s central song is as perfect a parabond as any there has ever been. It is a perfect cover version and is my favourite as I find nuance and mystery every time I listen to it. It sends shivers down my spine and is something that few since have achieved with any song: it makes you want to write something that perfect; sing something so flawlessly: although you know you never will.
Thanks to songs like Hallelujah and All Along The Watchtower, we need to keep covering songs. It is true that masters such as Dylan, Cohen and their ilk are past their best or departed, but that is not to say that it will be impossible to top the greatest cover versions. There are so many underrated jewels waiting to be picked and adored, and many more songs crying out for a reinterpreting mind. It does not take the voice of Buckley, the guitar skills of Hendrix or White, nor the ill fate of Cash to make a song- there is a lot more to it. An average song can be turned into a work of art with the right amount of work; a great song can be made greater by adding electricity and energy; old songs can be made new and alive with the right amount of consideration. There are plenty of great voices out there; plenty of new acts and bands coming through, but all that is missing is the perception and pioneering attitude. There have been a few recent cover versions which are impressive, yet the majority of the greats were created between the ’60s-’90s. There is more focus than ever for new artists to write original material, as the competition is fierce indeed. It does not take much for a fickle industry to push an act through the back door, yet premature death will not arrive as the result of a lack of original material: more a lack of talent and determination. An act or band can gain fresh fans and huge plaudits by taking a risk; taking a particular song and turning it into something truly wonderful. If you can do it again then you are on to something; keep doing it and it will give a good name to an art form which has been hobbling into a menopausal mess as-of-late. If you are a songwriter- or not- there will be a song (or songs) that you have always wanted to tackle- there should be no fear. If is a rare Dylan cut or a modern-day Folk number, then take heed and think hard: how do you want to approach it and how can you make it golden? Too few artists understand the importance of making sure they do full justice to a song they cover- too many lazily phone it in. It is all too easy doing the minimum, and pointlessly mimicking the original; yet when you get it right and marry a song with a perfect melody and wonderful vocal; as well as a fascinating and curious composition, then something special can occur. My top 10 list shows what I mean, and it is not just the original song that will be improved and appeal to a whole new audience. A perfect cover version can make a band; it can inspire new ideas and thoughts, and breathe life into an act; into the music scene as a whole- and inspire aspiring songwriters to up their game and help- slowly- to change music. I hope that the next few years will se a genuine attempt at equalling the greatest cover versions ever. All the ammunition and impetus is there; all it needs now…
IS for a brave artist to step forward.
My Top 10 Cover Versions of All-Time:
Jeff Buckley- Hallelujah (Org: Leonard Cohen, 1984).
The Jimi Hendrix Experience- All Along The Watchtower (Org: Bob Dylan, 1967).
Nina Simone- Mr. Bojangles (Org: Jerry Jeff Walker, 1968).
The White Stripes- Jolene (Org: Dolly Parton, 1973).
Marvin Gaye- I Heard It Through The Grapevine (Org: Gladys Knight & the Pips, 1967).
Otis Redding- Try A Little Tenderness (Org: Ray Noble Orchestra, 1932).
Johnny Cash- Hurt (Org: Nine Inch Nails, 1994).
Whitney Houston- I Will Always Love You (Org: Dolly Parton, 1974).
Joe Cocker- With A Little Help From My Friends (Org: The Beatles, 1967).
Kate Bush- Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time) (Org: Elton John, 1972).