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 staffer Mike Misch: What cover song shouldn’t work as well as it does?
One of the great things about writing for music blogs is learning something that I didn’t already know. When I thought to write about Yes’s cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” it seemed like a perfect example of a cover that shouldn’t work. The original, a classic example of folk storytelling, is a wistful snapshot of two people making their way from Michigan to New York by thumb and Greyhound bus. You can hear the fatigue in Simon’s voice as he sings the heartbreaking lines:
“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.
So how could a 10-minute cover by English prog-rock titans Yes ever work? Because they don’t even try to capture the feeling of the original. Instead, they just turn it into a Yes song, filled with prog-rock pomp and virtuoso playing. When you come down to it, lyrics were never Yes’s strong suit, anyway. Their most popular song, “Roundabout,” contains the following lyrics:
In and around the lake
Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there
One mile over we’ll be there and we’ll see you
Ten true summers we’ll be there and laughing too
Twenty four before my love you’ll see I’ll be there with you
And despite that, “Roundabout” is a great song. So, if you like Yes, you will like their cover of “America,” even if it really has nothing to do with the original. And if you don’t like Yes, nothing I say will convince you.
But what was it that I learned? That Yes’s cover was actually influenced by a similar cover by a band that has virtually been forgotten, 1-2-3 (which later changed its name to Clouds). It is hard to listen to Clouds’ music from the late 1960s without seeing how they influenced the entire prog-rock movement, before pretty much disappearing from our collective memory. In fact, 1-2-3 was performing their version of “America” even before Simon & Garfunkel released the original, based on a demo tape Simon had left in the studio in England. And, based solely on this live version, an argument can be made that it is superior to Yes’s (if not to Simon & Garfunkel’s). Jon Anderson has publicly acknowledged hearing the 1-2-3/Clouds cover before Yes did theirs. Not only that, but David Bowie, who was a friend of members of the band, also heard their cover, and probably was influenced by their version when he performed “America” at the Concert for New York, after 9/11.
Listen to this cover of “Why Can’t This Be Love” by Arab Strap a few times. More than any other song I claim to love, this one had to grow on me. I’m not sure that I even stuck with it the first time I put it on. I had to convince myself to revisit it, knowing that I really do like Arab Strap and should find this cover enjoyable. But it does sound a little bit drunk. And a little bit karaoke. But hit play again. What you originally take as a simple programmed beat to sing over, you realize is significantly more organic than what Van Halen did. And while the backing isn’t elaborate, it does allow singer Aiden Moffat to really sell it as a karaoke singer. Now hit play again. This is a man who is possibly drunk, but (more importantly) is definitely feeling the song. It’s not rock and roll any more. Somehow, Moffat has turned Van Halen song into a lament that is full of real feeling. Let that sink in, listen to it one more time, and try not to love it at least a little bit.
Messiah complexes and musicians go together like, well…messiah complexes and musicians.
Bono is on an eternal quest to save the world, John Lennon was vilified for stating that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, Nas was figuratively crucified for his “Hate Me Now” video where he was literally (mock) crucified, and Kanye is Kanye.
I’ve long held the belief that Prince is a god. Not the God, I don’t think, but definitely some sort of messianic figure to help us sinners get through this thing called life through his irrepressibly funky music. And Prince the Redeemer helps solidify this theory with “I Would Die 4 U.”
Considering the source, it’s obviously about how a man is so smitten by a raven-haired muse that he would die 4 her. Or maybe it’s a funk-synth take on Romeo + Juliet. Or maybe about orgasms because the French refer to them as “little deaths” and Prince is all about that shit.
Twenty-five years after the original’s release, Los Angeles Mariachi Punk band (yup) Mariachi el Bronx released their Spanish-influenced cover of this Purple Rain classic.
Sublime in both influence and musicianship, this cover conjures up imagery of sun-splashed palm trees, tattoos of the Virgen de Guadalupe and rosaries dangling from the mirrors of gleaming low-riders. It opens with brassy horns brazenly blaring into action while a clattering rhythm section keeps the tempo. Lead singer Matt Caughthran croons (with the vaguest hint of a Mexican accent) about how he’s not a human but a dove, your conscious and your love.
Sure, you could still construe this as a song about lovers, but when he drops the line, “I’m your Messiah/And you’re the reason why,” it removes all doubt.
While Prince enjoys keeping you on your back, he’d much rather keep you on your toes. What better way to do that than creating a song fulfilling Psalm 98:4 – make a joyful noise unto the Lord?
And honestly, nothing sounds more joyful than a mariachi punk band singing a Prince song about the King of Kings.
I grew up in the era of alt-rock. That meant as a teenager I had a strong obligation to hate country music, which I did. But something happened along the way: I realized maybe there was something not so bad about the rootsy/bluesy side of traditional country. Over time, I started to find music closer and closer to Nashville that I could enjoy. One artist I was pleasantly surprised by was Dolly Parton. I discovered that Parton has a shocking amount of great music and that her voice is amazing. On the flip side, I have always enjoyed Led Zeppelin and all that they brought to rock. But what many consider to be their greatest gift to music, “Stairway to Heaven,” never blew me away. Sure, it’s a good song, but I don’t think it’s in their top ten, let alone the greatest ever. All of this is to say, here’s a cover that shouldn’t work on paper: the Queen of Country covering a song that few dare to even attempt. But maybe because of my irreverence for the original and an open ear ready to learn something new from the country music side, this cover floored me the first time I heard it. It is at once exactly what you would expect yet completely different than anything you could imagine. Give it a fair shot and you might find something new.
When Bob Dylan entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce Springsteen said in his induction speech, “the way that Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind.” When Sam Cooke covered Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he revealed that in the proper setting, Dylan’s words could free your body too.
“Blowin'” had gone to number two on the charts (thanks to Peter, Paul and Mary) and sealed Dylan’s reputation for songwriting genius, but faced the danger of ossifying into a slow, earnest tune sung by slow, earnest folkies on the stairs of the local animal house. Then along came Cooke to smash that guitar, Bluto-style, without even a murmured “Sorry.” (You’ll recall Cooke had not one but two songs on the Animal House soundtrack.)
Cooke, one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century, used the song both to expand his audience and to testify to it; its message also spurred him to write “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which joined “Blowin'” as one of the greatest civil rights songs of the sixties. Most importantly, he made it possible to be moved by Dylan’s words, both intellectually and physically, which nobody – not even Dylan himself – had ever been able to do. Cooke worked to bring people together in a way that his business didn’t understand; by the time they caught up with him, he was gone. Thank the Lord that while he was here, he and Dylan joined forces to open that tremendous floodgate.
Usually, those covering mainstream, teen pop artists go for the hip, ironic approach. After all, how serious should you try to be if you are covering Britney Spears? The original “Oops!… I Did it Again” is a well-produced top-40 nugget, but Britney is using her little girl trying-to-be-sexy voice, and the song sounds tired before you get to the end of its three and a half minutes.
Though Richard Thompson always speaks with a wink and a smirk, he suggests that by taking the song “out of its original hands and giving it a slightly different interpretation, perhaps, we can reveal its splendor.” He then proceeds to do just that. With a mid-tempo, folk rock approach delivered by Thompson’s voice and guitar, you would never guess the source of the song. Thompson recorded “Oops!… I Did it Again” for his album 1000 Years of Popular Music. In the performance shown above, he does have a bit of fun introducing a sing-along and playing the melody Renaissance style for a verse. It shouldn’t be as much fun as it is.
There would seem to be no quicker way to trash a then-burgeoning indie band’s credibility than by your grandmother’s crush Tom Jones covering one of their songs. But somehow, accompanied by a gospel trio, a horn section, two percussionists, and freakin’ Joe Perry, Jones’ big-band version of Arctic Monkeys’ “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor” totally killed at 2007’s Concert for Diana. It’s gaudy and glitzy and screams Vegas right down to the all-white suit, but he turns all that into an asset, turning a grungy little pop nugget into a full-blown stadium-wrecker. For whatever reason Jones never put it on an album – or even performed it live again – which is a shame. It might be the best thing he’s ever done.
Oh, Miley. Miley, Miley, Miley. Here you are, in this video, wearing a bedazzled t-shirt with your face on it. No pants, just that t-shirt, with your infamous tongue lolling out. Your matching jewel-studded baseball cap – which is backwards, of course – would never have led me to believe you were capable of such a – dare I say it – poignant cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” Cyrus slows down the wedding dance floor favorite, much like Obadiah Parker does in his rendition. It is through this slow, swaying acoustic rendition, that we get a glimpse of the emotional range of the original song… that is, until she starts twerking during the “shake it like a polaroid picture” bit.
A comedian covering a Beatles classic. Should be fun. But will it be good? In the case of Bill Cosby and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the answer is, surprisingly, yes. From its wobbling horn intro on the announcement of the one and only Billy Shears, Cosby’s take on the classic album opener grooves. Bill wisely hands the chorus off to a group of background singers, who he peppers (bad pun intended) with goofy interjections as they wax rhapsodic about the eponymous band. When Cosby takes the vocals back and declares, “I don’t really want to stop the show, but I thought you might like to know,” one can’t help but think he’s about to ad-lib, “There’s always room for J-E-LL-O.” The song would still be great even if it had been just another one of his commercials.
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