That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
Today we introduce a new recurring feature titled, “That’s A Cover?” Our goal is to shine a light on original songs that are not nearly as well known as their cover version(s) and to analyze what factors combined to make the cover more popular than the original. Oftentimes the cover is simply better than the original. Sometimes it’s a generational thing; put 25 years between an original and a cover and it’s no surprise when Generation Y doesn’t recognize Generation X’s original. (No Billy Idol reference intended.) A cover version of an old, semi-obscure song featured in a new hit movie or TV show can also explain how a cover can overwhelm an original. Never underestimate popularity, either – who among us hasn’t offered a great idea at school or work and had it ignored only to see the same concept embraced later when proposed by a more popular, fair-haired classmate/co-worker?
For our inaugural piece, we’re taking a look at a band too small to have a cult following – until a quartet from Athens, Georgia plucked one of their B-sides from obscurity seventeen years later.
The Clique – Superman (original)
White Whale was one of the great independent record labels of the 1960s. Their flagship band was the Turtles, but they also had an interesting support cast, including Dobie Gray, Nino Tempo and April Stevens, and Warren Zevon, who wrote some of his earliest songs as a member of White Whale’s staff. White Whale also signed Houston “sunshine pop” band the Clique and turned them into a studio project, replacing all but lead singer Randy Shaw with studio musicians and providing Shaw with songs to sing. One of those songs was “Superman,” written by producer Gary Zekley, who also cranked out hits for The Grass Roots, Spanky and Our Gang, the Mamas and the Papas, and Jan and Dean. The Clique found “Superman” too bubblegum for their liking, but followed the label’s desires and recorded it in 1969 for their only White Whale release. “Superman” was the B-side to the Clique’s biggest hit, “Sugar On Sunday,” but was pretty much forgotten until 1986.
R.E.M. – Superman (The Clique cover)
The majority of us first heard “Superman” in 1986 as covered by R.E.M. on their fourth album, Lifes Rich Pageant. The first cover on a R.E.M. album was an early example of a hidden track, unlisted on the jacket and buried at the album’s end. The jangly guitar in the original no doubt appealed to R.E.M., but it wasn’t enough to make Michael Stipe enthused to sing lead. So Mike Mills cheerfully handled that job (his debut as lead vocalist), with Stipe on background. The R.E.M. version was actually recorded a couple years prior during sessions for Reckoning and features a screeching intro which came from pulling the string on a Japanese Godzilla doll.
So why do we know the R.E.M. cover better than the Clique’s original? Put it down to quality, popularity, and novelty. The Clique was regional and obscure to begin with, while Lifes Rich Pageant marked the advent of R.E.M. breaking out of college-radio-darling status and into the mainstream. R.E.M. also featured greater instrumental prowess than the Clique, thanks to the work of guitarist Peter Buck, drummer Bill Berry, and bassist Mills. The polish of Pageant‘s lead single “Fall On Me” and the power pop feel of “Superman” captured new listeners who may not have been moved by Stipe’s mumbling obscurity on earlier albums. Also, the original comes off feeling a bit stalkeresque, while the cover is more confident and powerful – just like Superman, no doubt. Add in the novelty components (weird intro, Mills lead vocals, hidden track, obscure cover) and there’s a lot of interesting angles to view the R.E.M. version from.