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 cover song you like by an artist you dislike?
Now before I get hate mail for putting Bob Dylan on the list, let me explain. I think Dylan is a fantastic songwriter. Having said that, I feel like Dylan – along with Randy Newman and Burt Bacharach – fits in the category of songwriters that should stick to writing music, but leave the singing to other folks. (Admittedly, there are a few exceptions to the rules.)
The other part of this equation is I hate the song “Yesterday.” Well, maybe not hate. Let’s just say, I don’t long for “Yesterday.” Here’s the thing. When your friends and family know you collect cover tunes, they all feel like it’s their obligation to give you a “mix tape” of their favorite covers. And pretty much every single one of these contain a version of “Yesterday” that can cure insomnia. And I’m not just talking about the obvious ones like Michael Bolton here. I am talking about some of my idols: Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles and Daffy Duck. (No, seriously.)
But I digress. It was with one of these “mix tapes” that I first heard Dylan’s version of “Yesterday.” I definitely wouldn’t have listened to it on purpose.
On first listen, I thought it was a very good Dylan impersonator that overemphasized the annoying qualities of his voice that I have grown to hate. After doing some research, though, I found out that it comes from a CBS Recordings outtake bootleg called Possum Belly Overalls.
I now listen to this song on a fairly regular basis. Yes, it’s still Bob Dylan’s voice singing a song that I wish would go “so far away,” but I am strangely drawn to it.
It’s a tricky business having a songs-related OCD, with its strictly adhered principles around what is good/allowable to listen to and what is dreck fit only for garbage-eared civilians. (Rock snob? Moi? Surely not……) On my particular axis of evil, (Sir) Tom Jones is a no-no. Don’t give me his friends-with-Elvis schtick or his longevity cred, and I don’t care how many allegedly ironic covers and collaborations he has done – to me he remains the archetypal bar-room belter, honking hoarsely to those infirm of ear and taste. Leaving off the hair dye and growing a goatee do not a legend make, even if your producer has heard the Johnny Cash American series of albums, ‘cos all I’m hearing is Neil Diamond.
But some songs somehow transcend my off-the-fence opinions, and this is one. I absolutely heart “Gimme Shelter,” ever since hearing it on an automobile advert in the 80s, not even realizing, to my eternal, that it was the Stones, that pleasure doubling when I did. I have 13 different artists’ versions of it on my iPod, and I know there are many more. I’m not sure how or who teamed Jones up with New Model Army, clog-wearing counter-culturists appealing to the disaffected (and me)*, and on paper it sounds a nightmare. But it works. Grittier and more raw than most, the stentorian bellow fits the anger and rage of the backing. It’s great! Jones the voice? Hmm… OK, you win.
*How or who? Aptly, Shelter, a British charity for the homeless.
I know that the question asked for a cover I like by an artist I don’t like, but my choice adds an extra layer — the original is also by a band I don’t like. To be fair, Aerosmith’s original version of “Walk This Way” is a very good rock song — a great beat, a killer guitar riff, and the rapid-fire lyrics about, what else, sex. (And one that I have written about before.) But past that, and, I guess, “Dream On,” a great “power ballad,” I have no interest in Aerosmith. They always sounded to me like a knockoff of other, better bands, and the less said about their comeback, when they probably became even more popular, the better. And speaking of that comeback, it was surprisingly fueled by Run-DMC’s cover of “Walk This Way,” which brought Aerosmith back into the public eye after years of commercial irrelevance caused by the twin rock band clichés, drug addiction and internal conflict.
Rick Rubin, who may well be the single greatest selector of unlikely cover songs, suggested that Run-DMC cover the classic rocker. Both Run and DMC were against the idea (although not Jam Master Jay), but they did it, and it was great. Steven Tyler’s percussive delivery of the lyrics lent itself to a rap remake, adding drum machines and turntables worked with the song, and bringing in Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry was a masterstroke. But what really was brilliant was the video, which was set as essentially a cutting contest between Aerosmith in one room and Run-DMC in another room (although in a cost-saving move, other than Tyler and Perry, the rest of Aerosmith is impersonated by members of the otherwise unremembered band Smashed Gladys), until Tyler smashes through the separating wall and screeches the title. Great stuff. I’m pretty sure that I first heard this cover on MTV, back when, you know……
I’m a 50+ white guy from the suburbs, raised on rock, and I’ve simply never gotten rap music. There are a few rap songs that I like (you probably can guess which ones), and I can appreciate the dexterity of some of the rhymes and the power of some of the beats, but I just don’t like it. Run-DMC are far from the worst, in my mind, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to listen to their music. I understand that isn’t cool, or politically correct, but it just is — the same way that many people have told me that they hate punk, prog-rock, or singer/songwriters (three of the many genres I do enjoy). Music is most powerful when it engages on an emotional level, and for me, rap just doesn’t. But if it does for you, that’s great.
When the Weeknd first started releasing free mixtapes a few years back, he was an enigma. He wouldn’t play live, he wouldn’t show his face, no one was quite sure who he was. Now that he’s a certified star with a #1 summer hit, it’s hard to remember back, but initially he was super underground, weird, and mysterious – catnip for bloggers salivating over his latest tapes. However, I never understood the hype. The first breakout mixtape “House of Balloons” left me cold – and sleepy. The cough-syrup slog stripped all the fun from R&B without replacing it with anything compelling. I felt the same about his second mixtape, and then his third. With one exception.
The opening track titled “D.D.” didn’t read like a cover, but in fact he had just abbreviated Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” for some reason (being mysterious again I guess!). But here his formula worked. The strong melody finally brought some tension to his woozy production, like a bouncy pop song fighting to escape a worn-out haze. And the lyrics, about a conflicted relationship with a pushy groupie, fit the music’s dark undertones (would love to hear him cover Michael Jackson’s “Privacy” for the same reason). We named it the best cover of 2012, and it remains one of my favorites of the decade. For me, nothing else he’s done has come close.
It’s not that I think the Mighty Mighty Bosstones are a bad band, because I don’t. I just never bought in to their personification of the punk ‘n’ plaid lifestyle, couldn’t get past how similar all their songs sounded, and wished they hadn’t made commercials for Chuck Taylors. They always felt to me like one of those big wide puddles you see in parking lots – maximum surface, minimal depth. Does that make me ignorant? So be it, it’s how I feel.
Having said all that, I get a huge kick out of their cover of “Sweet Emotion.” The original combines hard-rockin’ verses with a languid, groovy chorus. After the fake-out opening, there’s nothing languid about the Bosstones’ cover. The bass carries the melody at full throttle, the drums set up shop in your skull and demand to be let out, the horns are just a great touch. And the way Dickie Barrett sings (or rather, vocalizes) the chorus – “SWEET! EMO! TION!” – gets me smiling every time.
When the craze regarding The 1975 came around not too long ago, it passed me by – resulting in nothing more than the English quartet mildly impressing me with one or two tracks. I didn’t see the appeal in their work (still don’t, to be entirely honest). Matt Healy’s voice is quite attractive, I suppose, and the music itself is fun, but why everyone around me was suddenly obsessed with them goes beyond me. What started off as indifference towards the band morphed into a mild dislike.
Until I listened to their take on One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.” And while I’m still not a fan of their music, with this discovery came a grudging respect for the band.
Let me quickly say that the answer to this Q&A kills two birds with one stone – this is a cover of a song I do not like, covered by a band I do not like, with the end result being a piece of music I very much do like.
What The 1975 has done with One Direction’s hit-single “What Makes You Beautiful” is so clever, I couldn’t help but laugh on hearing it for the first time. They’d taken an annoying, overplayed, and generic pop song and turned it into a soothing, emotional, and hypnotizing one. Healy’s vocal delivery fits perfectly with the somber pianos and mellow hand-snaps, and the raspy guitar lines coupled with smooth bass provide a poignant touch to the original.
All in all, a very well done cover by a band I do not quite like. Maybe one day I’ll get there.
I listened almost exclusively to Alt-Rock as a teenager growing up in the ’90s. There were some other genres that I was okay with, but I had an all-out ban on country music and R&B, which severely limited my horizons. So I knew about D’Angelo, but didn’t know any of his music when I saw his name attached with Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” a classic of my youth. I was surprised that R&B could sound like this: it was dark even as D’Angelo’s voice was light and bouncing throughout. I almost hear it as a perfect mix between some sort of shoegaze and jazz and certainly something I could have seen Beck putting out at some point. I’ve since come around on R&B and D’Angelo in particular and have learned that just because I think I know what sort of music a genre holds, there are always surprises to be found.
James Blunt. Enabler of the Prince Charming complex of pop music. A breakup mix could be all James Blunt, all the time. And for me, Hell is being stuck in an elevator with “You’re Beautiful” on repeat. Not that I’ve really heard his music*.
There was a time when there were no covers of “Where Is My Mind?” That time is long gone, and there might be a Bieber version coming soon. But back in the day, even right after it took off after it was used in Fight Club when everyone was like, “Hey, this is a pretty good song. Also, does that bullet hole in your cheek hurt, Ed Norton?”, there weren’t a lot of covers. James Blunt was one of the first ones to cover it.
And he did a decent job. One, his band did the background vocals that some cover versions leave out. Two, he did it electric. There’s no tiny Joey Santiago solo in this version, but still. It kinda rocked.
That being said, does it stand the test of time? I don’t think so. Maybe because I hate James Blunt. Maybe it’s because Blunt is looking around the audience while he’s singing the song, ready to signal his handlers on what girl he wants to shag backstage after the show. And that’s a thought that I’m sorry I put in your head.
*I mean, he’s got four albums out now. I Googled it. But I don’t need to listen to them to know they are all full of “You’re Beautiful Part II.”
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