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).
As you know, Prince unexpectedly passed away last week. As you may also know, in the last decade or so before he passed, he had a contentious relationship with cover songs. He was famously litigious about getting covers of his songs pulled off blogs and YouTube, and regularly questioned in interviews whether an artist should be allowed to cover another artist’s song without getting the original artist’s permissions. We even wrote a defense of covers to Prince five years to the day before his death (spooky). We loved Prince, but Prince didn’t necessarily love us – or anyone else who recorded or shared covers of his songs.
So today’s staff/reader question arises from that same debate, what specific cover might be the one to convince Prince that covers of his songs were a good thing. Our picks are below, add your own in the comments.
Today’s Question: If you could have introduced Prince to a Prince cover, what would it be?
The question is what Prince cover I would have introduced to Prince, but I know Prince has heard the Replacements’ live cover of “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” many times. Prince actually taught the Replacements how to play his own song. Never heard this story? Most people haven’t, since the ancient scrolls retelling those events have been lost for a long time. But I’ve just found those scrolls, and I will now retell the story of that faithful night:
It’s spring 1987, and the Minnesota Illuminati, the nicer and more talented sister chapter to the New York and LA Illuminati, is holding its quarterly meeting to discuss the plans for the year and to share ideas on how to make more abnormally amazing music. All the usuals are there: the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum, the Suburbs, the Jayhawks, Babes in Toyland, and of course, the grand marshal of the chapter, Prince. (Bob Dylan couldn’t make it, since he was jamming with the Dead, but he rarely came to these meetings anyway).
Early in the meeting, after the initial greetings and conversations died down, Paul Westerberg stands up and points at Prince.
“Prince!” he says. “We have practiced covering one of your songs. We will now perform it for you.” The Replacements play “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” before the council. It’s fine. They’re a great band, and they’re able to redo the song into a somewhat coherent power-chord romp with a nice sloppy yet tasteful solo at the end. The council is pleased. Except Prince. Prince is not pleased. Prince stands up, walks over to Paul, pulls out a pancake from his pocket, and slaps him in the face.
“No, Paul Westerberg,” Prince says. “You’re doing it wrong. Let me show you.” Prince takes Paul’s guitar and plays his own song in the Replacements’ own style. Prince plays the guitar and sings while also playing drums and bass, all at the same time. Everyone in the room is crying. The room begins to shake. A giant hole in the ceiling opens up and purple rain fills the room. It is majestic. Chris Mars is curled up in a ball unable to handle the sound of absolute beauty. Bob Stinson, who returns to the council to discuss possibly rejoining the band, becomes deaf from Prince’s 30-minute guitar solo, and he decides he’s not worthy enough and leaves.
“That was amazing!” said Paul. “That’s how we shall play it at our shows.”
“Yes,” says Prince, who then eats the pancake he used to slap Paul.
It’s the stuff of legend, and it’s the proper explanation for how the Replacements were able to successfully cover Prince. It had nothing to do with how good the band was. It was all because Prince taught them how to play it.
The video has been taken off YouTube, supposedly for legal reasons. But I think it was because the cover was so heavenly that mere mortals could not handle such a beautiful rendition of Prince. We are not worthy. [Editor: We found a version on Tumblr!]
Author’s note: I wrote this two years ago for a piece about Richard Thompson’s 1000 Years of Popular Music. I think that Prince would have appreciated Thompson’s stripped down version of “Kiss,” so I’m recycling it.
The idea that Richard Thompson would do an acoustic cover of Prince’s “Kiss” sounds bizarre, but it really isn’t; Thompson clearly appreciates the Purple One, referring to this song as “one of the best pop songs of the ’80s, by one of the best artists.” But even beyond that, Thompson’s acoustic arrangement takes the song back to its roots.
In 1985, Prince was working in the studio at the same time as a band called Mazarati, which included Revolution bass player Brown Mark. They asked Prince for a song, and he took an acoustic guitar and a boombox into another room, reemerging a few minutes later with a demo featuring only his voice and the guitar. Everybody hated it. But it was a song from Prince, so Mazarati took it, funked it up a bit and came up with this, which in many ways sounds like the Prince version. That’s because after Prince heard it, he decided to reclaim the song, as Mazarati apparently failed to say “no backsies.” He stripped out the uninspired vocals and the bass, added acoustic guitar (including the signature riff) and his own falsetto vocals, and voila, a hit single. Mazarati was forced to settle for background vocal credit. Thompson notes that he “strategically” sings it an octave lower, which makes sense.
Back when Prince had turned himself into a symbol, Howard Stern took to calling him “The Artist People Formerly Cared About.” The outpouring of emotion over the last week has proven that to be untrue. Like David Bowie barely a hundred days before him, Prince was an beloved otherworldly ambassador who’s been called back to his otherworld. That’s one way I like to think of him – not a little oddball, not a freak of nature, but a presence who accomplished all he did because he could, and after he’d done so, it was time for him to move on. There’s literally never been anyone like him – who else was equally devoted to James Brown and Joni Mitchell? – and thanks to his fabled vault of unreleased music, he’s going to be in the present tense for a lot longer.
“1999,” the title track from Prince’s breakthrough LP, would see its influence echoed in the Bangles’ “Manic Monday” (written by Christopher, a.k.a. Prince), Phil Collins’ “Sussudio,” and the work of Dump. When he wasn’t playing bass for Yo La Tengo, James McNew was recording home demos as Dump; one of those recordings was an album of Prince covers called That Skinny Motherfucker With The High Voice (a line from Prince’s Black Album song “Bob George”). In Dump’s hands, “1999” loses all its synthy exuberance; it’s slow and lonely and very hypnotic, so that when it stutters to a discordant halt, it feels like you’re waking up from the dream you were dreaming when you wrote this.
Listening to it again this past weekend, I realized that Prince had warned us back in 1982, which is as far in 1999’s past as 2016 was in 1999’s future: his life was just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last. But my God, what an incredible party it was.
I’m sort of agnostic about Prince, knowing, I expect, all the songs ladled out here, yet probably few of the ones he kept for himself. There seemed, for a time, almost a slurry of songs being made successful by others from material he squirrelled away on side projects. Why do I know these rather than the songs he kept for himself? OK, I know his big hit singles, admire them even, unsure whether I have or could sit through an entire long-playing record of his own. In the interests of fairness, as a covers nut, I have made an effort to seek out his original versions. And, it’s true, they don’t compare. But I don’t come to piss on this parade, knowing I will probably get there in the end.
I adore “Nothing Compares to U” and I well remember that video, all big eyes a-weeping and strings. Indeed, it launched my conversion to full-blown acolyte of la belle Sinead, hearing forever no ill of her and her harsh gentle tones. But then I heard this. The voice beguiling in its almost fumbled phrasing, the arrangement stripped back to a bare bone. What or who was this?
Actually coming late in his career, a 3rd, maybe 4th comeback of sorts, Jimmy Scott was born with Kallman syndrome, a genetic condition that prevented him from entering puberty, his voice and stature remaining that of a ten-year-old. Born in 1925, he was a singer with Lionel Hampton’s band, having his first hit in 1949. Sporadically rediscovered over subsequent decades, including a ‘90s tour supporting Lou Reed, somehow he maintained his voice despite hard living, alcohol and tobacco, as well as the hormone treatment which gave him an extra eight inches of height at the age of 37. And, yes, it is him in the final episode of Twin Peaks, singing “Sycamore Trees.” He died in 2014 at 88. And, I’m sorry, Sinead, but his version is incomparable.
Prince’s original “Take Me With U,” from the Purple Rain soundtrack, has many sounds Prince loves: funky falsetto, hooky synth lines, maximum dance-ability. There are a few signature sounds this particular song doesn’t have, though: gospel, tight horns, call and response vocals. Which is why I think he’d dig Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings‘ 2009 cover of it, which includes all those things.
Another reason he’d be predisposed to like it: he was a fan of hers. In a Paris concert she gave in 2011, he surprised her by taking the stage six and a half minutes into a frenzied “When I Come Home” (a song he’d told her was “the funkiest”). The best thing about the video of that is that she briefly acknowledges him – and then keeps right on dancing. She doesn’t ham it up with her much more famous accompanist and doesn’t let his magnetism steal her spotlight. He happily becomes a backing musician, playing some guitar licks but otherwise supporting the phenomenon that is Sharon.
Which is what the best covers – like this one – do. It allows the covering artist to shine, assisted by the original without being overwhelmed by it. On that concert stage, Sharon owned the spotlight with an assist from Prince. He should appreciate a cover that does basically the same thing.
In the mid-’80s, I took all of my record albums (a humble collection of 20) down to Prism Records in Charleston, South Carolina, and traded them in for four brand-new CDs. Compact disc players had just come out, and I had the fever for digital cowbell. At the time, I had a choice of only about twenty or so. I chose Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Meddle, along with Prince’s 1999 and Purple Rain — all Japanese pressings. Prism Records would become a victim of Hurricane Hugo, and its owner, an eclectic albino Beatles fan nicknamed “Billy ‘Bino,” would sadly never recover.
The elation I felt from hearing the first notes of “When Doves Cry,” which seemingly could be cranked to eleven with digital sound, was transformative. It was obvious that Prince was saying he could be Jimi Hendrix if he wanted to be, but he wanted to do so on his own terms. Alas for us rock and roll fans, Prince would never fully make such an ambitious rock and roll album again. He did what he wanted to do, and we were lucky just to be alive to witness it.
The Waterboys have been performing “Purple Rain” for years now, and although Mike Scott wasn’t born with the blackness of Prince’s voice, his passion shows he’s listened to the sermons on this thing called life and has worshipped at Prince’s altar of rock and roll. Clocking in at more than 10 minutes, the performance is elevated to the heavens by Steve Wickham’s brilliant violin playing. It isn’t a substitute for the guitar here – it IS the guitar. Can I get an amen?
I don’t know how Prince felt about country music. I do know that he blended genres within his his own work, and that a great song is a great song, regardless of genre. In the spirit of that, I’d introduce Prince to Jackson Taylor‘s mashup of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “Purple Rain.”
When a hard-nosed country rocker can throw your song into a bar full of rednecks and they not only don’t blink an eye but cheer for it, you’ve done your job. “Purple Rain” isn’t just a great pop song, it’s a great song, period. I believe Prince would have appreciated that crossing of audiences, so I’d love to have been able to show him this performance. Wherever he’s at now, the music there is better for his presence.
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