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, from Cover Me staffer Raphael Camara: What’s a song that’s been covered too many times?
On the one hand, considering that Richard Thompson, for all of his critical acclaim, is still considered underappreciated, you could argue that there should be even more covers of his signature song “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” to increase the chance that more people will know about him, listen to him, maybe even buy his music (or at least get him royalties). There should be rap versions, electronica versions, big hat country versions and polka versions. Beyoncé should sing it, and the contestants on American Idol should be belting out covers. There should be K-Pop and reggae and a capella versions. But I would argue that it would be fine if we just left well enough alone. Because it is not possible to improve on Thompson’s original, so why try? And yet, they try. And fail.
A song written in the style of an old English ballad, but modern in the sense that its doomed highwayman rides a flashy motorcycle and not a steed, it is a perfect melding of musician and material. Thompson’s fingerpicking style and his old-sounding voice fit the story like the proverbial glove. And while there is a faction that argues that the song is overrated (as is there is a faction that says the same about any classic, because some critics need to take a contrary position to set themselves apart), it isn’t. Check out the performance above, from the BBC series Songwriters’ Circle, not only for Thompson’s incredible guitar playing, but for the looks on the faces of fellow performers Suzanne Vega (awe) and Loudon Wainwright III (rapture, if he isn’t sleeping), no slouches themselves in the songwriting biz.
So, if you are going to cover VBL, you need to come at it from a new direction. Most covers of the song simply play it straight, casting it as a folk song, to no great effect. Del McCoury, to his credit, turned it from an English folk song to a bluegrass tune, adjusting the lyrics to reference Knoxville (although to be fair, the relationship between British ballads and American bluegrass is pretty close). And McCoury’s version isn’t bad — even Thompson himself acknowledged its quality (as did the International Bluegrass Music Association, awarding it Song of the Year in 2002), although it has spawned its own unnecessary imitators.
Thompson has many other great songs, some of which are also often covered. Musicians could do worse than to decide to record or perform any of them. But my request is that you dig a little deeper, and choose something other than “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”
Let’s get this straight – “Hallelujah” isn’t one of Leonard Cohen’s best songs. Hell, it isn’t even one of his better songs – at least, not as he originally saw it. Appearing originally on 1984’s Various Positions, in Cohen’s post peak and pre-reinvention (pt 1) phase, “Hallelujah” was hopelessly drenched in choral backing, cheesy instrumentation and, in the video, a Cohen yet to be aware of self-deprecation. I’m listening as I type, and it plods, hallelujah, it plods. Cohen, years later, amazed and maybe appalled by the myriad versions (though perhaps not the royalties), quipped that his record company had no interest in the song at the time….. We can but wish.
Seven years later, ex-Velvet Underground maverick John Cale stripped it right back for a Cohen tribute record, I’m Your Fan, having asked permission of the author, receiving all alleged 80 verses by return, picking and choosing just a few of the racier verses. This appeared in the film Shrek, bringing way more of an audience than the records alone could ever have found, albeit with Rufus Wainwright providing the version, clearly similar in style and content, on the soundtrack. Wainwright’s friend Jeff Buckley had also picked up on it, largely duplicating Cale’s arrangement, but with the special added bonus of his own haunting vocal. Effectively, this now became the template, with accolade after accolade, and there it could have stayed. But this was not to be. Copies continued to slip out, female vocalists such as k.d.lang and Kathryn Williams joining the fray, adding little than a female perspective. Good, very good even, just unnecessary. “I moved in you,” anyone? But I still liked ’em.
Unfortunately, despite Cohen and lang having jointly agreed enough was enough, as she performed it in his company, the final kiss-off was yet to come in the heinous form of X-Factor, reality TV talent show, helmed by that arch-manipulator of public taste, Simon Cowell. No sooner had UK 2008 winner Alexandra Burke sung it to the top of the British charts than opponents to the show garnished support to swing other and earlier versions into the chart, notably Buckley’s, which promptly hit number 2. For a while it became ubiquitous, remaining so a staple in the world of singing contests and karaoke, more often destroyed than not. The very pervasiveness of the tune contrived even those who should know better into joining in, with Willie Nelson, hopelessly overblown, with the Cardinals, and with Bono and his spoken ghastliness being perhaps the nadir. Jon Bon Jovi, Tangerine Dream and Damian Rice have all performed ill-advised versions, singled out here only to avoid having to mention any of the others.
Such has my taste been soured by the saccharine of so many versions, I struggle, really I struggle to find one to display. You know all the good ones, of course you do, so here’s one to put you off forever, yes, it’s the Canadian Tenors with Celine Dion. Dare you?
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” was supposed to be an early peak in the career of Joy Division; instead, thanks to the suicide of singer Ian Curtis, it became their swan song. Curtis’s doom-laden voice (has any other twenty-three year old ever sounded like that?) suddenly signaled more than the end of a relationship, and the song found itself cloaked in a funeral shroud that it would never be permitted to remove. But oh, those lyrics. And oh, those drums. And oh, that hook. (No pun intended but totally intended.) Painful truths, knowingly or not, now came packaged in a catchy, upbeat pop tune that lifted “Love” higher and higher, for all the world to see.
Then the world started covering it.
I have a problem with covers chosen for their cachet; i.e. the original is cool, we’re playing it, therefore we’re cool, Q.E.D. This hey-us-too approach guarantees a performance that doesn’t (want to) tap into what went into the song, but will gladly pillage the song’s results. This leads to moments like PJ Proby’s wanting to know, “Why’s the bedroom so dadgum cold?”
Also, Joy Division got it right the first time. When others follow in this song’s footsteps, they sound like weak photocopies of the original. A few have done something interesting with it (Rodolphe Burger and June Tabor, take a bow), but the candle they hold to the original only serves to illuminate its true greatness.
The one band that gets a lifetime pass from me to cover “Love Will Tear Us Apart” all they want is New Order. Yes, technically they’re three-quarters of Joy Division, but when playing it live, they’ve introduced it, “This is a Joy Division song,” not “Here’s one of our early favorites” or some such. They’re truly a whole other band. More importantly, they may be the only band for whom the song serves as a catharsis, both for themselves and the fans. Everyone in the above video knows the story, some in greater detail than others, and for all of them, it doesn’t serve as a calling card for coolness. It doesn’t even serve as a tribute. It serves as a celebration of a life of a man who took a blowtorch to both ends of his candle, but provided a lasting, lovely light before he left. I’m glad the three of them got to do it live with Ian at least a few times.
The weather is getting warmer and that means summertime, which is good, and “Summertime,” which usually isn’t. Despite Gershwin and Heyward’s feel-good lyrics about easy livin’, fish jumpin’, and wing spreadin’, covers of this standard are more often than not treacly and maudlin. For whatever reason, performers use the song to capital-e Emote, replacing what should be a light touch with American Idol-style vocal showboating.
Billy Stewart’s wonderful upbeat version in 1966 should have set a new template, but the hit made barely an impact on covers to come. Instead, for the past fifty years we’ve only gotten more and more somber torch-song takes. Now not every slower version is bad, but singers, you’re probably not Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, or Janis Joplin, so stop trying to be. If you want to try a gypsy-ska or speed-punk version, I’m all ears. Otherwise, let us have one summer without “Summertime.”
Much like the rest of the world, I was instantly smitten by Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” – a song that quickly raced up the charts, earning itself number four on the Hot 100, number one on the Pop Songs charts, and eventually going on to garner multiple awards at the 52nd Grammy Awards. To this day, the fantastic build-up and raw energy with which the song effortlessly resonates never fails to get me up and jumping about. With its thumping, adrenaline-inducing beats and overwhelming good-vibes demeanor, “Use Somebody” is without a doubt a song for the ages.
While I wouldn’t dream of replacing the original, it is frustrating that when verging into cover territory, there seems to exist only two shades for the 2008 track: lonely keys and a tortured voice, or the beloved acoustic guitar rework.
Mellow pianos and longing guitars themselves wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fact that everyone seems to do it. The pianos worked nicely for Laura Jansen, and Matisyahu’s guitar manipulation sounded plenty decent, but enough’s enough. My issue isn’t that the song’s been covered too often, I’ve realized, but that not every possible version of the song has been explored. Where’s the creative boldness that transformed Foo Fighters’ aggressive classic into this, or the artistic brilliance that brought us this rendition of “Midnight City”?
Until someone can bring us a “Use Somebody” cover that breaks the status quo of acoustic guitar/keyboard rework, I hereby revoke the right to cover the song. It’s been done too often, and unfortunately, in all the wrong ways. (At least the Bat for Lashes version above does the dance a little differently.)
P.S. Writing this gave me a tremendous urge to re-listen to Kings of Leon, and man, I definitely shamelessly blasted and danced alone to them all night yesterday.
Listen, I understand why everyone wants to cover “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It broke modern music. The entire course of rock changed, and quickly, when this song hit the mainstream. It’s catchy and easy to sing. It’s even easier to play; 4 major chords followed by 2 simple notes. It sounds great acoustic, on 2 cellos, done by a ukulele orchestra, or played on banjo by a punk poet laureate. And despite Jack Black’s protests, it’s quite catchy as a piece by the Muppets Barbershop Quartet. I get it that if you are looking for a song that represents ‘90s alternative, there really is nothing better.
But here’s the thing: Nirvana has a boatload of incredible songs that are easy to play and are as catchy as anything the Beatles came up with. Try “Polly,” “About a Girl,” or “All Apologies.” And even more shockingly, there were other bands that released great hit songs that can be appropriated for cover purposes and are representative of the alt-rock era. So please, while your cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is probably pretty good, the market is saturated. It’s time to try something new.
Listen, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is a nice song. And I think we can all agree that almost anyone can sing better than Bob Dylan. But the key word here is almost. It’s been covered by the Grateful Dead, U2, Eric Clapton, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It’s been performed by The Jazz Butcher, Television, and Cat Power.
But it only takes one Avril Lavigne to fuck it up. Or even worse, Axl Rose. Because if anyone has ruined this song, it’s G’N’R’s impersonation of a cat being slowly tortured while inside a car being pounded by sledgehammers as it catches on fire and drives off a cliff. Hi. Hi. Hi yi ya-oh.
I’ll leave you with Antony and the Johnsons, who do a lovely version. If you disagree, then you’ve made my point. Stick a fork in it.
By the time you reach your early thirties, you’ve been to a wedding reception or sixteen, and you’ve learned three incontestable facts:
1. If the wedding is in New Jersey and the band does not play a Bon Jovi song, the couple will be bitterly divorced within the next decade. Forget Grandma and Grandpa – Tommy and Gina need to be the guests of honor.
2. At any given time, someone will be crying in the bathroom.
3. There is an 80% likelihood of hearing “I Only Have Eyes For You.”
“I Only Have Eyes For You” has become a wedding DJ staple which has saturated pop culture like vodka in a watermelon. The most prevalent version is the 1959 doo wop cover by the Flamingos. A gorgeous song filled with hummingbird soft falsettos and schooby-doo scatting as sweet as brown sugar, “I Only Have Eyes For You” has been featured in cinematic classics like American Graffiti and A Bronx Tale, as well as video games such as The Darkness 2 and Little Big World, and used to hawk everything from diet soda to luxury cars. As I came of age in the late ’90s, my favorite iteration of the song is featured in an eponymous episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
Since the song’s release in 1934, it’s been covered by a myriad of eclectic acts such as Art Garfunkel, Ella Fitzgerald, Human Nature, Frank Sinatra, and blues punk act Shilpa Ray and her Happy Hookers. A majority of these covers are great. Ella Fitzgerald brings a rich brassiness to the song and Jamie Cullum’s tinkling piano and low-and-slow like honey voice bring a whole other level of sultriness to the track. Hell, some covers are even exalted as high art, as seen in Song 1, Doug Aitken’s 2012 installation at the Hirshhorn Museum – a 35-minute cover featuring Beck and Devendra Banhart.
But it’s time to call a moratorium on them. Because of all of the millions of versions of this song that go by? A majority of them disappear from view, as I only have eyes for the Flamingos.
When asked this question, I was also reviewing a Beatles tribute album. Thinking about covers of songs that have already been covered hundreds of times, I realized that, for me, my being sick of a song being covered has little to do with how many times a song has been covered. For the moment at least, I believe that some songs are built to be covered more readily than others are.
“Here Comes Your Man,” for example, ought to be easy to cover. It’s not just a great Pixies song, but a great rock song with Beach Boys-y things going on and lyrics that can mean a bunch of different things, depending on how you wink. However, this song is a poppy siren that has lured dozens of cutesy coffee shop folkers and post-punk outfits to watery graves. To cover this song is to reveal that it only works as a Pixies song because there is no way to approximate the weird magic that is Black Francis and Kim Deal building up to the chorus without replicating it exactly, which defeats the purpose of covering it. Other versions have admirable components (violins, harmonicas, techno beats) and try to make the song their own; occasionally during the first verse I will let myself believe that this time will be different. However, the buildup to the chorus inevitably makes it seem like the covering artist doesn’t understand the original at all.
Some jokes can be repeated by anyone. Some can’t.
Songs, I think, are like that.
Does every song that mentions Christmas have to be turned into a Christmas song? Maybe not, but it happened to “River” from Joni Mitchell’s Blue, her 1971 album with some of the best romance and breakup songs of all time.
“River” is really not a Christmas song, though it mentions Christmas, reindeer and holidays, and the piano intro and outro reference “Jingle Bells.” That is all used to set the context for a personal story of lost love. It’s a beautiful, wistful and sad song.
Covers of “River” were slow to come around, but they’ve picked up momentum over the years, cloning exponentially, and now, when December rolls around, they are hard to avoid. Everyone from Barry Manilow (it’s exactly how you imagine it) to Robert Downey, Jr. (better actor than singer) has covered “River” with almost nothing to add to the song.
Almost every cover is similar to the spirit of Joni’s original, voice and piano or acoustic guitar with, perhaps, some strings thrown in. Sarah McLachlan, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor all do lovely versions of “River,” but they stay true to the original. There are very few that do not.
One of the first covers of “River” came via Dave Van Ronk in 1973. Where Joni’s voice is pristine and airy, Van Ronk’s is gruff and croaky. His version is as simple as Joni’s – just voice and guitar – but it feels like a polar opposite. It opened opportunities for others to rework the song, but few choose to do so.
River: The Joni Letters is an album full of exquisite covers by Herbie Hancock with guest vocalists. Corrine Bailey Rae is on board for “River.” Her vocals are very nice, but it’s Hancock’s arrangement and piano that makes this unique. His piano lines play with dissonance and timing and mingle with Wayne Shorter’s spacious sopranos saxophone. The song opens up and breathes and does not feel at all like Christmas. It’s a relief. Watch and listen.
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