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, courtesy of staffer Jordan Becker: What’s a cover song you hate, and why?
It has, in recent years, become something of a tradition in the UK for the department store John Lewis to select a classic song for their Christmas advert and have it covered by a modern artist. Previous picks have included The Smiths and Guns & Roses.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “The Power Of Love” is, in the UK at least, a massive Christmas song after it hit the top spot in December of 1984 and had a nod to the nativity in its promo video. For me personally, it’s the highlight of the band’s career. For a band that could do camp turned up to 11, this showed a more serious side to their songwriting.
It’s not that I think Gabrielle Alpin, who was chosen to cover the song in 2012 for the store, did an awful job as such. But it just seems to lack the (for want of a better word) power the original had. It becomes bland, something Frankie just never were. Maybe my gripe is not with the singer herself, I think the issue I have is that, unfortunately, most of these new interpretations suck all the soul out of the originals. I don’t know whether it’s because department store’s aren’t meant to have connotations of being edgy and different but they are instead intended to be safe and familiar, and certainly family friendly.
I love cover versions, but a maudlin solo guitar or piano rendition of one of my favorite songs is not going to prick my ears up. I understand the store may not want to use a heavy dub cover of “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree” or a hardcore punk take on “Rockin’ Robin,” but the method of trying to ‘folk up’ an old song to give it warmth and authenticity (again, feelings the marketing team want transposed from folk music to how you feel about the store) just doesn’t work for me.
And I don’t want the world to see me
‘Cause I don’t think that they’d understand.
When everything’s made to be broken
I just want you to know who I am.
No doubt there is not a single one of us who hasn’t heard – if not, at one point in our lives or another, even belted out – these lines to the Goo Goo Dolls’ hit ballad “Iris.”
The song, written for the romance drama City of Angels, propelled the band to stardom in the late ‘90s and would come to spend a record-breaking 18 weeks at the top charts in the US, garner 3 Grammy awards and essentially come to be known as the anthem of heartbreak for the forlorn.
It’s kind of hard to imagine a song as beautiful as this could possibly go wrong.
Enter Sleeping With Sirens.
The only thing worth listening to in this interpretation is the first ten seconds, after which this attempt at a cover quickly plummets into disaster. There are some songs you just shouldn’t touch – or ought to attempt reworking with caution – and the Goo Goo Doll’s “Iris” is one of them.
Sleeping with Sirens’ version doesn’t work – what was a surge of melancholy and impassioned longing in the rough vocals of Johnny Rzeznik is bastardized by Kellin Quinn’s falsetto cries; the emotional storm of the original is severely dampened by the softening of the tune and the gritty quality that was “Iris” fails to come across. Rzeznik’s heartbreak and loneliness fail to bleed through, and the ballad’s frustration and anguish falls flat.
To sum up: I just really disagree with the vocals and arrangement of this cover. Sleeping With Sirens transformed a tune of passion into the wailing of a prepubescent boy. Granted, the band’s lead singer is known for his particularly high voice, and while I’m sure it works for his own music (pure speculation – after this, I’m not terribly interested in listening to what else they have to offer), it doesn’t work for “Iris.”
If you are a regular reader of Cover Me, and therefore are a lover of the art of the cover song, you know that some covers are praised for their faithfulness to the original, but sometimes that faithfulness can be criticized as slavish or unnecessary. On the other hand, we often praise a cover that boldly reimagines the source material, although that approach can lead to disparagement, too. Which only goes to show that critics are just people with opinions, and aren’t always consistent. And when I say “critics,” I mean myself. But almost always, a good cover respects the original, even if it changes it.
The only good things that I can say about the Manfred Mann’s Earth Band cover of Springsteen’s “Blinded By The Light” is that I hope it made people check out the then somewhat obscure singer-songwriter from the Jersey Shore who wrote the original, and I also hope its popularity led to some nice royalty payoffs to the incipient Boss. Although, based on the little I know about Springsteen’s business situation back in the day, it is possible that he never saw the money. But on its merits, despite the fact that it became a Number 1 hit (something that Bruce himself has never achieved as a performer), I hate this version.
Why? Because it didn’t only change the style of the song from a rootsy, soulful, semi-autobiographical rocker that reveled in internal rhyme and wordplay to a sort of prog-lite song, it changed the lyrics, left out a bunch of them and repeated others. I’m not a Springsteen worshipper, by any stretch of the imagination — I do think he is a great songwriter and performer, but not the greatest of all time. But even so, it always struck me as a slap in the face for Manfred Mann to cavalierly screw around with such clever lyrics. And frankly, some of the changes seemed completely random – why change “sights of the sun” to “eyes of the sun”? And, of course, what’s the point of the most famous change, from “cut loose like a deuce” to “revved up like a deuce”? Which has become one of the most well-known misheard lyrics, leading generations of listeners to believe that Springsteen wrote a song about a feminine hygiene product. (Springsteen has joked that the misunderstanding is the reason why the cover was so popular. Check out this link for his explanation of the lyrics and discussion of the Mann cover). Of course, at the time, Springsteen was a new, emerging artist, and not the Mount Rushmore-like figure he later became, so maybe the man behind the timeless “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” figured he had free rein to wreak havoc on the source material.
If I had never had heard the original, I suspect that my animus toward the cover would be less. In fact, I probably would consider it another pretty good classic rock song from my childhood. But, as with so many things in life, context is everything, and as a disrespectful bastardization of a better song, I ask that we consign it to the dustbin of history, and enjoy the original.
This was a lot harder for me than I expected it to be. First, I decided to avoid the Golden Throats, so-bad-it’s-good path, so no Williams Shatner or Hung. Way too easy, and not exactly going out on a limb. I had to hate everything about the song, which wound up voiding my first choice, Power Station’s “Get It On” – it would’ve been perfect, but bassist John Taylor threw in a couple licks that I really reacted (positively) to, and all the kitchen-applicance-rolling-downstairs percussion couldn’t scrub out those good vibrations. Finally, I had to know what I was talking about, so that meant I couldn’t discuss Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” as I still can’t bring myself to listen to that song all the way through.
Lucky (?) for me, the absolute perfect selection popped to mind today, thanks to the Rutles. If you’re not familiar with the Rutles, picture the Beatles filtered through the sensibilities of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Monty Python, and ’70s Saturday Night Live. Neil Innes wrote “Ouch!” to be an answer song to “Help!”, and it was arguably the strongest song of the album, good enough to pass as a Beatles original (not a crazy notion – at least two Rutles songs have appeared on Beatles bootlegs). In 1990, a tribute album appeared entitled Rutles Highway Revisited; a tribute album to a nonexistent band was a pretty funny idea in and of itself, and there are a few good covers on it – favorites include “Cheese and Onions” by Galaxie 500 and a gentled “I Must Be In Love” by Syd Straw and Marc Ribot.
But Peter Stampfel and the Bottlecaps should be taken out back and shot for what they did to “Ouch!”. The melody’s the same, but the lyrics are rewritten for no evident purpose. Was changing “Ow-ow-ouch” to “Darn-drat-shucks” supposed to amplify the wackiness? What kind of tribute is it if you make the song all about yourself? Is this a way of saying, hey, I don’t want to do the song you assigned me, so I won’t? In short – dude, what the actual hell?
I hate this cover more than any other because it colored the way I felt about the entire album, polluting a neat idea with its selfish posturing and doing so in less than ninety seconds, no small accomplishment. When you can’t quarantine a bad cover’s toxicity, you’ve got a cover that’s gone beyond bad into dangerous. That’s right, I’m calling it – “Ouch!” by Peter Stampfel and the Bottlecaps is the Ebola of cover songs.
My dislike for this cover of “Ayo Technology” is not, admittedly, just about Milow and his milquetoast crooning: I’m taking out my irritation with the entire Lazy Hip-Hop Cover phenomenon. Widespread across the Youtube channels and fifth-rate open mic nights of the world, this phenomenon imagines that any hip-hop song can be made better via a laid-back, “sensitive” treatment from a white guy with a guitar. Incorrect! While “Ayo Technology” may not have proved one of the most memorable songs of the 00s, it’s a fun, serviceable tune with a bouncy Timbaland beat. Milow’s version sounds like a Belgian with a head cold singing over a GarageBand backing track. Which it basically is.
I eschewed the more obvious picks – Pat Boone’s “Tutti Frutti,” Smash Mouth’s “I’m a Believer,” Britney Spears’ “Satisfaction,” etc – for a song that really offends me on principal more than anything: Joan Jett‘s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” First off, did you even know it was a cover? Most people don’t (the ones who don’t frequent cover song websites at least). And that’s the problem. It is a note-by-note copy of a minor UK hit by the Arrows that adds absolutely nothing. It’s perfectly serviceable karaoke, but instead of making it her own, Jett copies it note-for-note – even the “Ow!” in the opening is there in the Arrows version.
Yet because life is unfair, she has the #1 hit and launches her post-Runaways career off of it, while the Arrows are rendered music history footnotes. Sure, the fact that the Arrows’ Alan Merrill and Jake Hooker made a killing in royalties from Jett’s hit numbs the pain a little, but though they may have earned money, they saw their song stolen. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Jett’s version, but it’s a prime example of how, even in the world of covers, life isn’t fair.
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