Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question comes from Cover Me writer Jordan Becker: What cover song made you reevaluate your feelings about the original?
In the past, Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done” always came across to me as morose and external. Although I have always liked the song (cemented by his Unplugged version years later), the weight of it never resonated, perhaps because the effects of heroin use are foreign to me beyond cultural references. Add to this the fact that most “Needle” covers I have heard pale in comparison to Neil’s original. But then I heard the Pretenders cover it on their box set Pirate Radio and everything changed.
The above clip was taken from the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in ’95. Chrissie Hynde, who lost half her band to drug addiction before the Pretenders’ third album was even a concept, introduces the song as being from the heart, and what follows is a cathartic moment: what she sings, she has lived. Standing in the new capital of Rock ‘N’ Roll in her home state, whatever trauma she has incurred from the events in the past are history. Will she cry? No. Will she rock? Fuck yeah. What follows is glorious and alive, and might I say even ends in happiness. To see that happiness after a song rooted in such pain? I’ll take it.
I grew up during what was probably the Golden Age of Classic Rock Radio, the 1970s. There was a common body of songs that everybody seemed to know, because they were played to death on the major rock stations in all markets. “Jailbreak,” by the Irish rock band Thin Lizzy, was one of those songs that was part of the soundtrack of my high school years. I’m sure that I cheered to it when I saw them open for Queen at Madison Square Garden in 1977. The next year, though, I was off to college, and music changed. Thin Lizzy was not cool for those of us who were listening to punk, and new wave, and all that came next. So I sort of consigned “Jailbreak” to a mental box of classic rock tunes that I was done with.
But everything in music seems to come back in style, and artists as diverse as U2, Henry Rollins, and Metallica have expressed their admiration for Thin Lizzy. In 2007, I went with my son, who was a couple of years older than I was when “Jailbreak” was released, to see Jason Isbell opening for Son Volt at Irving Plaza in New York. Jason and the band let rip with an incredible cover of the song. And it made me remember what a great rock song “Jailbreak” was – tight, intense, and above all, fun. You can see how much fun Isbell is having in this clip, from a show in Nashville in 2008, just playing his ass off, without the heavy issues that inhabit most of his own songs.
The first time I heard Chromatics‘ “Into The Black,” I had a lot of Nyquil in my system (strictly for medicinal purposes!). For some reason I hadn’t tuned into the new Chromatics album, Kill For Love, and while everything was hazy and I couldn’t breathe throughout my nose, I thought, “Hey, why not?” I instantly fell in love with every track on the album. I did, however, find myself listening to the opening track over and over. It had a ghost-like quality to it. I knew the words, but I didn’t know how. Either way, it made me a little… fuzzy. I figured I was just loopy from my combination of decongestants and hot toddies.
A few weeks later, a friend of mine was playing Neil Young and there again was that eerie ghost feeling. Hey, I know this song. I thought long and hard, and then everything connected. I was completely blown away that the song I fell so deeply in love with was a cover. In a way, I almost felt betrayed. But I knew I had heard Neil Young’s rendition first, and it wasn’t some Nyquil-induced psychic powers that fed the lyrics into my head while listening to the Chromatics take on “Into The Black.”
I will always have this weird connection to Young’s original song ever since hearing the Chromatics rendition. In a way, I can’t tell who is paying homage to whom. They both have such a ghostly feel to them, almost as if each band wrote the song at the same time but in separate universes.
I swear I am not on Nyquil or any other substance right now. Watch the fantastic video for the Chromatics’ take above, and you’ll understand what I mean.
In a catalog full of arty future-funk jams, TV on the Radio rarely gets more straight-out RAWK than “Wolf Like Me.” Its appeal is its immediacy, which makes it their one surefire smash in concert. Though the lyrics are opaque, the beat and melody are uncharacteristically accessible, making it their one – dare we say – singalong song.
Everything that’s good about the original, though, is even better in Local H‘s cover. They strip out any residual traces of subtlety or nuance and just go for kick-in-the-balls meathead rock. The original seemed loud and energetic enough at the time, sure. But it turns out with only a distorted guitar and drum bashing that sounds like Meg White on ‘roids, Local H does loud and energetic even better.
You couldn’t escape Lady Gaga if you tried in 2010. Everywhere you turned, there she was – on radio and TV, seemingly on every red carpet, and cleaning up at every music award show that you can name. “Bad Romance” was ubiquitous, from hair salons to weddings, shopping malls to freaking doctor’s offices – you could not go through a day without hearing it at least once. And don’t forget the bizarre, “Thriller”-inspired video that has been viewed around 7 trillion times.
Yet for all the times I’d heard the song, I’d never really listened to it. It was pop music, and I’m not a pop music kinda guy, or so I liked to think at the time. So I never really got past the candy coating of the production.
Then came Lissie.
I was reading this very blog – yes, I was a reader before I was a writer – when I came across this post. I clicked the link and started to watch the video, and Lissie had me at her first “Oh.” She had stripped away all of the pomp and circumstance of Gaga’s version to reveal the truly great song that was underneath. Her version starts simply, just her voice and some soft guitar strums. But then it builds into the first chorus and it opens up gloriously.
Hearing Lissie’s “Bad Romance” sent me back to the original, which I now listened to with a completely different set of ears. I was hooked. Not only did Lissie cause me to re-evaluate “Bad Romance,” she made me re-evaluate Gaga’s entire catalogue. Lissie turned this rock’n’roller into a huge Lady Gaga fan.
I touched on this in an earlier post I wrote about the Doleful Lions, but not only is their cover of “Silly Girl” worth returning to, there are days when I find it necessary.
I first heard “Silly Girl” on Liveage!, the Descendents’ live greatest-hits album. An excellent example of punk-pop at its loud-fast-rules best, “Silly Girl” moved at the perfect speed for its setting (five of the songs don’t pass the forty-second barrier), but way too fast for mine. I could enjoy it, but I couldn’t absorb it.
What I missed, Jonathan Scott of the Doleful Lions caught, and I’m so glad he returned the gift with his cover. Slower and gentler, “Silly Girl” reveals itself to be a snapshot of young unrequited love, with all its aches, regrets, and focus on the smallest of details. The thing is, these were in the song all the time, but I had been oblivious for too long – like the silly girl herself, I never knew he had those feelings. But now I do, and now I can appreciate the original in a way I couldn’t back when it would have been really helpful for me to register its message.
If you have a question you’d like us to answer, leave it in the comments, or e-mail it to covermefeature01(at)gmail(dot)com.