O Cover, Where Art Thou?

In a thunderstorm of crackling guitar charging its way through the 1968 music scene, Jimi Hendrix introduced the potential of the cover version to the masses with his emphatically bombastic reworking of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”. It was by no means the first cover ever, of course, nor was it Hendrix’s intention to make it an emblem of the possibilities of nicking an acclaimed artists work, but in terms of rock music the impact it had should not be played down. A folk track had been taken and then amplified and distorted beyond reason, and the result was utter magic. Without it, many years would have passed with rock acts feeling too worried to pursue re-recording one of their favourite tracks, humbled by lack of precedent in the “good covers” department. As it is, bands of today can look back on classic songs and think, “Hendrix did it, why don’t we give it a go?”

And so, here comes my celebration of the cover songs that really work, and an appreciation of the ability of musicians to take an already established track and make it feel fresh and new.

Hallelujah. I couldn’t start anywhere else, surely? Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s even less jovial classic is what made his status as a legend start to take form (his untimely death tragically cementing it). The popularity of this song has spiralled upwards in recent years. This has been down to firstly a cover version by Rufus Wainwright for the soundtrack to Shrek, where the meloncholic air that is achieved unfortuantely grates too much against its kiddy-film surroundings to really work, and then to last years UK Christmas No. 1 courtesy of the All-Seeing Si and his new puppet Alexandra Burke, which saw the strained words morphed into identikit sentimentality. But that is the openess provided by Cohen on the original, it really can be re-done in nearly any way, for most audiences. It is a universal song waiting to be interpreted.

Buckley’s version of Hallelujah is a prime example of an accomplished singer/songwriter taking a piece of music and messing around with it to see what can be added. Buckley makes a simple acuostic guitar sing as much as he does, he tests and experiments with interludes and fills, almost nonchalantly pulling out winning ideas. Though I’m a fan of the song, I wouldn’t call it perfect (the opening track from “Grace”, Mojo Pin, is a far more suitable and compelling starting point to Buckley’s discography, in my mind), but the joy of the cover is that small alterations can be made to an already known song in an attempt to add to it, introduce new elements and just see how it comes out. A re-working of a song can be seen as a form of alchemy, changing a known formula as opposed to the creation involved in writing new songs.

When you are influenced by a band, there is an urge to somehow namedrop them, or perhaps simply technique-drop them. Early Radiohead gave us rehased Pixies and Nirvana, but as they grew towards the end of the 90s as a more mature collective, discrete covers of Neil Young songs began popping up during their shows. Check out the Cinnamon Girl over on YouTube here (apologies for the poor quality, only version I could find), and you can also see an interview with Thom Yorke where he discusses Young here. I love this aspect of cover versions, a band putting forward to their fans someone who they should be checking out, telling them “we love this song, why don’t you?” An introduction to new music is always welcome, and the cover is a great way of doing that.

Another interesting use of covers that I’ve noticed is starting to become more dominant is that of an artist covering (or remixing) a song as a b-side to the song itself. I have great love for the LCD Soundsystem track “All My Friends”, but it is not the sort of song I would expect to see covered by convention indie guitar-bands. You could say that my mind was blown when I discovered that the single release included a cover by Franz Ferdinand. Now I don’t know who decided that was a good idea, but they deserve a medal, or a really well-made Italian pizza. It doesn’t matter about the quality of the song (although it is admittedly a very enjoyable take on it) because of its removal from the original, and the admittance that it is a bit of fun, an intriguing idea out of left-field that they just ran with, and it worked.

By uttering the strained, wounded phrase “I hurt myself today”, Johnny Cash immediately and definitively countered, in a way my words never could, the argument “a cover is not personal”. Taking other people’s words and making them about yourself and your own situation is what a consumer of music should do, in my opinion, but for Cash to go one step further and tell people how it applies to his life, without changing a single word, is very clever, and gives a breathtaking result.

I couldn’t leave this post without giving a nod to Feeling Good. The descending piano melody is open to interpretation from all quarters, and the simple yet overwhelmingly pleasant vocals by Nina Simone in the original has plenty of room for prospective vocalists to try out their malismas. My knowledge does not extend quite as far back as the time the original was released (I’m a 00’s man after all, my last 5 posts might have clued you in on that fact a tad), but I am aware of covers by Muse, My Brightest Diamond and Eels, and the variety of style yet the consistency in quality between these three songs is worth listening to (my favourite being the one by My Brightest Diamond, the moment the horns first hit is luscious beyond compare).

An interesting fact about the Muse version of Feeling Good is that they used it so well as a replacement for traditional filler at the back end of an album. Not only that, but it is now one of the highlights of their epic live shows, showing that a conversion of a song can work well as a part of a whole. The album does not stutter as one would think it could when it reaches a cover. That it is made to blend well into the mood of a 50 minute piece is certainly a notable advantage of cover versions.

The joys of covering a song, and listening to the result, is that it provides a combination of diversity and similarity, a test of a musician’s ability and an experiment on the ideas of old. A lot of people will say covers are performed by bands running out of ideas, but I say that instead it is because of the excess ideas and invention a band will have spilling over into already known material. And I welcome more, more evolution and creativity and morphing of ideas. More covers that introduce me to a bands influences. More subtly dropped b-sides or live tracks that I can unearth on the back end of a fans mixtape.

(Oh, and in case you were wondering, yeah, I thought up the title before I thought up the concept. Sorry.)


About Alex Pavitt
I work in the field of emotion. My tools are instinctual feelings and my laptop is the medium between my brain and the outside world. I deconstruct and rebuild. I imagine. I steal other people's lyrics because somtimes, my own words aren't enough. I spend all of my time somewhere inside my head. I worship Douglas Adams, and in the back of my mind I am always painfully aware that I will never be as good as him or, for that matter, anybody else.

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