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 staffer Jordan Becker: What’s a great cover of a cover?
All it takes is “somebody said you’ve got a new friend” to put us right in the corner, watching him kiss her. Rightfully deemed an American anthem, Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” creates a little fizzle in the air every time it comes on. You can feel the mood of a room shift. In HBO’s Girls, Lena Dunham’s character goes from a subtle, shoulder shimmy to full on dance party mode in a matter of seconds.
Everyone can find a connection to “Dancing on My Own.” We have all pasted together a broken heart with a dance beat, dancing to feel seen. Each kick drum beat is telling us to per-sista, per-sist. We are fine. But then Calum Scott’s version came on the scene, and everything changed. The song was completely transformed, stripped of its walls of electronic sound, we were suddenly forced to stop dancing and instead actually feel our feelings. Then the revelation hits: wait, are we… sad?!
This cover of a cover brings us full circle. We’re back to hearing from a female voice, but now we’ve let our guard down. Meg Birch’s light, acoustic guitar touch balances her full voice. The beat isn’t even emphasized with a hearty guitar tap, the musician’s version of a fist pump. The bridge in this “Dancing On My Own” a la Scott is the loudest part of the song, contrasting the Robyn version which is all party until the “music dies” in the bridge. But after this build up we’re left with the quiet, hearing the lyrics for what they are, both a mantra and a plea: “I keep dancing on my own.”
The idea for this Q&A came to me in my car, coming home from work, listening to Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country channel, and hearing Robert Earl Keen’s cover of Richard Thompson’s classic modern ballad, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” one of my favorites (I talk more about Thompson’s original here). Keen’s version, from his 2015 album of bluegrass covers, Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, is a fine version, as one would expect from Keen, backed by a crack band, and produced by country legend Lloyd Maines. But if you are doing a bluegrass cover of “Vincent,” you really are covering Del McCoury’s version (although Keen doesn’t change the locale from Box Hill to Knoxville, as McCoury did).
McCoury was introduced to the song by his sons Ronnie and Rob, both top-notch musicians and members of dad’s band, and he recognized its quality right away. Their then-surprising cover, released in 2001, on Del and The Boys, turned the song into a bluegrass classic. Based on an unscientific review of the Internet, it seems that since 2001, there are about as many “McCoury-style” covers of this much covered song as there are “Thompson-style” covers.
Although I had a little trouble getting my head around it the first time I heard it, I’ve come to appreciate the clever arrangement and the virtuosity of the playing. And I think that it proves something basic to this website, if I might project myself into the mind of its creator, which is that a song’s greatness can be demonstrated by its success as a cover performed in a different style.
Thompson has made favorable comments about the McCoury version — in 2018, he appeared at Delfest, a music festival celebrating the legacy of the McCourys, and said, “I’d like to thank Del McCoury for popularizing this song in the United States. He sang some different words, but that’s okay. This, however, is the only version of the song you’ll hear today in B-flat.”
And, in fact, Thompson joined McCoury and band on stage later that day for a hybrid performance-—in C—-swapping verses with Del, and adding his distinctive guitar to the bluegrass. I can’t find a video, but a downloadable file can be found here.
It would take a much more knowledgeable musicologist than me to discuss the relationship between the British ballad style of the original, and the Appalachian-born bluegrass style of the covers, but hearing them fused, even in an under-rehearsed performance, was fascinating.
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My standard for a great cover of another cover is that the first-generation cover has to be materially different from the original song. Otherwise, the second-generation cover can’t be distinguished from a cover of the original song. With that in mind I offer Potliquor’s version of You’re No Good (1971), followed by a great cover by Van Halen (1979). Originally recorded by Dee Dee Warwick (Dionne’s sister) and an R&B hit later for Betty Everett (1963), Linda Ronstadt famously took a slightly country-rock taste to the top of the Billboard 100 45 years ago (Feb. 15, 1975). Before Linda, Potliquor emphasized the power chords and moved this song into heavy metal category. Van Halen took the heavy metal baton and upped the ante (and the heaviness) as the lead-off track to Van Halen II.
When the words “doobie” and “Jesus” appear together in the same sentence, it’s usually in reference to the Doobie Brothers’ epic cover of “Jesus is Just Alright.” The band of unrelated brothers recorded the song for the 1972 album Toulouse Street. Not surprisingly, given the song’s sentiments, it was originally written by gospel singer Art Reynolds, whose group the Art Reynolds Singers released it on the 1966 album Tellin’ It Like It Is. The song received a rock n’ roll overhaul courtesy of the Byrds, who included a cover on their 1969 album Ballad of Easy Rider. The Doobies’ version plays more like a cover of the Byrds’ track as opposed to the gospel-powered original. The song is still a part of the Doobie Brothers’ setlist. With its hard rockin’ groove and guitar solos, it’s the type of classic rock tune anyone can jam out to, no matter what your creed.
I love how songs can grab a life of their own, far away from the ear of the author, germinating into something new. The cuckoo in the nest starting his own family, even. What’s even better is when the author hears the cover, gets the cover, and covers the cover, but we are getting over-convoluted and this wasn’t the brief anyway, so I wasn’t allowed Dylan covering Hendrix covering Dylan: Robbie Robertson’s licks and the overall electric storm on 1974’s Dylan livefest, Before the Flood, unmistakably belying that source.
Moving, thus, swiftly on, let’s stay with Dylan. Roger McGuinn used to do a live show, a solo acoustic tour of his back pages, as much chat as playing. Clearly his debt to Dylan gets a mention, introduced by his playing “Mr. Tambourine Man,” first in the style and cadence of the original, and then with the transformation wreaked on it the Byrds, a whole sway away from that initial urgency. A massive hit in 1965, it was much better known than the earlier original. And there are as many covers of the song, more probably, that invoke that feel than not.
So, spoilt for choice between The Marmalade, Teenage Fanclub, and Stevie Wonder, it had to be Stevie. In 1966, “Little” Stevie Wonder was still on the cusp of transition from child prodigy harmonica whizz to R&B colossus. His sixth album, Down to Earth, was his first with his voice having broken. Whilst it included 4 of his own (co)writes, largely it was a ragbag of almost random covers, trying to instill a sense of adulthood and a steer away from a purely pop market. Thus, alongside “Bang Bang” (yes, that one) and “Sixteen Tons,” we get this charming spin on the song, clearly the Byrdsian jangle to the fore, a nod too to the vocal harmonies. But also, if you listen hard, a hint, just a hint of Dylan’s phrasing. I am hoping Wonder, whilst still a tool of his producers, was showing, even then, that he knew what was what.
When Steve Wahrer performed “Surfin’ Bird” on American Bandstand, he claimed that he and his bandmates wrote the song. This was news to the Rivingtons, who had written “The Bird’s the Word” and “Papa Oom Mow Mow,” the songs the Trashmen had turned into a medley. The threat of a plagiarism lawsuit quickly refreshed the Trashmen’s collective memories, and credit went where credit was due.
The Trashmen’s version, with its driving bass, Wahrer’s gravely garbled gabby vocal, and what Dave Marsh awarded a prize for “Longest pause for breath in a Top Forty record,” became the absolute standard, covered by everyone from the Cramps to Peter Griffin. The Ramones‘ version cranks up the volume way past the original, as you might imagine, but in the studio, it wasn’t sped up any further. (Live, of course, was a different story.) My favorite story about their version is that Joey wasn’t in the studio when they recorded it, and for the part in the middle where they stop playing during the vocal breakdown, they all just guessed when Joey would come back in, and it turned out they were right. Da bruddas may have fought a lot, but they sure did know each other.
We are coming up on a presidential election year, which has, more so now than previously, generated a fractious, contentious political climate in this country. How right, then, is the time for asking a question first posed musically back in 1974: what’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding? Glenn Brown, aka The Revenue Man, shoulders the burden of asking us that introspective question on his new release, due out this coming March 6th, titled 25 Years Behind. (You can pre-order it here.) Before looking at his old-school country take on this pub rock/new wave classic, a bit of history is in order.
“What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love & Understanding?” was first released in 1974 by Brinsley Schwarz, which, predating Bon Jovi by decades, was the name of both the band and its leader, guitarist Brinsley Schwarz. Although the band had some degree of success, they actually had more impact on the music industry as a talent aggregator. Bassist Nick Lowe (who wrote the song) later joined Dave Edmunds in Rockpile, and performs solo to this day. (He was also married to Carlene Carter for over 10 years, making him Johnny Cash’s son-in-law.) Brinsley Schwarz himself and Bob Andrews later joined Graham Parker and the Rumour, while drummer Billy Rankin played in Ducks Deluxe and Terraplane. Interestingly, one Declan McManus worked as a roadie for Brinsley Schwarz, where he was exposed to virtually all of their songs, including “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love & Understanding?”, which he would later go on to record under his stage name, Elvis Costello.
Which brings us back to The Revenue Man. Glenn Brown has always been a student of music, developing an appreciation for varying styles while learning his first instrument, the cello. While his background is without question steeped in country music and Americana, British new wave was not unknown to him. In recording this cover, Brown’s aim was to take it and make it his own. He told us:
I always loved Elvis Costello’s version and only recently realized he didn’t write it. And I really appreciated the, almost, punk energy singing those lyrics. I was playing around on acoustic one day and fell on the descending progression of the pre-chorus and recognized it. So I started playing around with doing it as a cover. While arranging it, I wanted it to go so far away from the original that it bordered on absurd, but not in a parody kind of way. I describe it as what would be playing on the jukebox in a West Texas dive bar during a zombie fight scene in a yet to be made Quentin Tarantino film.
True enough, the Revenue Man’s version is slower, more plaintive, and overall strikingly different. It gives off a definite honky-tonk vibe, with a prominent steel guitar, hollerback backing vocals, and a hefty dose of both echo and reverb on the mix as a whole. With a little imagination, one actually could visualize zombies fighting in a Texas bar while the band played on behind the chicken wire, and a 80-year old couple in scuffed cowboy boots slow-dancing in the corner, oblivious to it all. That being said, the world-weariness of Glenn Brown’s voice presents an interesting contrast to both Brinsley Schwarz’s original and Elvis Costello’s cover. The Brinsleys asked the titular question intellectually; Elvis spat it out with equal parts frustration and contempt. The Revenue Man, however, asks it through the eyes of someone who really has walked through this wicked world and these troubled times for a lot of years, and almost pleads with us to weigh the consequences of letting this question continue to go unanswered. If old-school country is your thing, or even if it’s not, The Revenue Man’s version of this generational classic is worth a listen.
Tom Waits’ version of “Hound Dog” sticks sonically closer to Big Mama Thornton’s original than to Elvis Presley’s version. It’s bluesy like Big Mama’s, every bit as rough and raw too. The polish and smirk that Elvis added to the number is long gone. But there’s a tell that Tom’s covering the Elvis cover in this New Year’s Eve 1988 live recording: He sings the rewritten lyrics.
Lines about catching rabbits and crying all the time were not in the Big Mama’s original recording. Contrary to popular lore, they weren’t first added for Elvis, but for the Freddy Bell and the Bellboys Vegas-revue version from which Elvis learned the song. Leiber and Stoller later complained that the new lines made no sense – an actual dog is lying about being high class? – but they did make them a lot of money. So this is actually a third-degree cover: Tom covers Elvis’s cover of Freddy Bell’s cover of Big Mama Thornton. But spiritually, he brings it right back to the original.
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