(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What's under the covers?

How do you feel about cover songs? I have a few different thoughts about them. First of all, as a musician, I’m conflicted. There are songs I love to hear so much that I get great pleasure from playing them myself. On the other hand, I hate covers. You see, when I was first learning guitar, I had painstakingly learned Stairway to Heaven. This is a normal rite of passage for all guitarists of my vintage or so, along with Sweet Home Alabama, Iron Man, and Satisfaction. Anyway, I forget who I played it for, but their reaction still echoes in my brain: "That’s not how the record sounds." Years later, I came up with the right response, "Well, I’m not Jimmy Page and he doesn’t have to play a beater like my old Crestline either." Still, my visceral reaction was to stop playing any recognizable covers. This was a patently passive-aggressive attitude but it did drive me into developing my own voice as a writer and my playing style.

I eventually overcame my problems with covers, but I suspect this still fuels my attitude about them as a listener: I really prefer cover versions that drift significantly away from the original, like Jimi’s version of All Along the Watchtower or Kronos Quartet’s version of Purple Haze. Many of the covers I perform have their own drift, albeit not quite so drastic, like my acoustic arrangement of Purple Haze or my take on Dire Straits’ Romeo and Juliet. This is sort of like the folk tradition of making an old song your own.

I would split the world of covers into three groups: the drifters that reposition the song in a fairly significant way; the precise, note-for-note approach, staying as close to the original as possible; and the default approach, which generally follow the arrangement but don’t quite aspire to obsessive imitation. This last case is not so interesting but the first case has the greatest potential.

Lots of performers have made the big leaps. The two I mentioned above are good examples. The problem is that it’s really easy to slip from a great re-imagination of a song into a cute joke. Sure, Dread Zeppelin doing reggae influenced Led Zeppelin or the Austin Lounge Lizards covering Pink Floyd’s Brain Damage are both entertaining, but they’re not really great art.

Two of my personal favorites that do transcend are Nouvelle Vague and Charlie Hunter. I’ll also throw an honorable mention to Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé (more on this in a moment).

Nouvelle Vague is a concept group by Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux, which favors Latin versions of punk/new wave songs.Give a listen to this excerpt from their version of Guns of Brixton by the Clash. They’ve really turned this piece on its head – the distant vocal delivery contradicts the drive of the lyrics to create a wonderful sense of cognitive dissonance. At the same time, the sparse arrangement echoes something of the punk ethos. Even though some have dismissed this work as the kind of camp I mentioned above, I really think there’s something cool here, whether intended or not.

Charlie Hunter’s example is his jazz version of Bob Marley’s Natty Dread. He covers the whole album, with each song taking the original melodies and arrangements as a starting point to showcase Hunter’s jazz sensibilities. Compare Charlie to Bob with these samples of Lively Up Yourself. Hunter stays true to the original, but pulls a totally different feel.

Coming back to Steve and Eydie, their cover of Black Hole Sun is a case where camp grows into art somehow. By no means was this a labor of love (a brief interview about this song with Steve Lawrence is here) and yet it really works for me.

I know I’m skipping plenty of other great examples, like the Easy Star All-Stars version of Dark Side of the Moon or Henry Kaiser’s work on Those Who Know History Are Doomed to Repeat It or that other one that you’re sure I should have mentioned. I’ll leave you to track those down on your own.

The other two classes of covers (the precise and the standard) are not quite as interesting to consider, but I personally prefer the latter. The note-for-note covers tend to be found mostly among tribute bands. Here’s a YouTube example of Rico Pereira from Surfing With the Cowboy playing the Stevie Ray Vaughn song, Lenny. This is a great technical achievement, but it's ultimately an artistic dead end. There’s a lot to be learned from working out a piece this way, but performing it live is like dusting off the original 8-track for yet another play. A serious tribute band, be it an Elvis, Beatlemania, or the Joshua Tree (U2 tribute) is striving to deliver a real sense of the original. So, the entertainment part trumps art for art's sake. Still, for me, there’s always a jokey element to this. I know that what they do is technically challenging, but I don’t quite get it.

The standard approach to covers is to more or less deliver on the original song. The arrangement is roughly the same, but often it is constrained by the natural style of the performer: the Beatles covering Roll Over Beethoven, the Blues Brothers, or that band playing down at the corner bar. Ultimately, most of my own covers fall into this range, even though I wish they were a little further out.

As a musician, I’ll step back for a moment and ask the non-musicians out there: Do you like cover versions? How close should they be to the originals?

If this whets your appetite, drop by the Covers Project.


  1. Hey man, it's Cheesus from the Electric lounge... I u want a fun bunch of cover's check out the Squirrels version of Dark Side of the moon (the not so bright side of the moon), personally, I love it! I have it posted on my blog if you wanna check it out.

    My take is similar to yours in the try to do it different department but I guess it all depends.

    Hey, you made a comment on my page about bands that don't get proper credit (Space Fish). I urge you to check out my posts for The Charging Hoses, Salty the Pocket Knife and Pitbull. All great bands especially the Hoses, they are very dear to my heart!

  2. Thanks for the tip on the Squirrels, Wikipedia makes them sound really cool. Sort of Franken-cover artists. I'll definitely check out the music on your blog.

    Thanks for the visit. I've enjoyed your reviews on your site. I'll be digging deep through your back posts.

  3. Yeah, a lot of covers are lame, but every now and again, I find a CD like "Deadicated" where I like some of the covers better than the original. On this album, for instance,

    Burning Spear's "Estimated Prophet" is stunning.

    Zevon/Lindley's "Casey Jones" is better than the original.

    And I like the Junkie's "To Lay Me Down" a ton as well (though, to be fair, my personal filter thinks that the Margo's vocals and Michael's guitar work makes *anything* better).

    Lastly, going back to Zevon in the Hindu Love Gods, their version of "Raspberry Beret" actually makes me *like* the song - no mean feat, that.

  4. You're right - there are plenty of times where the cover can exceed the original (All Along the Watchtower, Cocker's With a Little Help From My Friends). Or at least make you begin to appreciate it.