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 Jordan Becker: What’s a cover that made a significant, annoying, and/or unforgivable change to the original lyrics?
I’m on record as saying that my favorite cover is Husker Du’s “Eight Miles High,” so it stands to reason that it’s my favorite punk cover too, but Dead Kennedys‘ “Viva Las Vegas” is a worthy runner-up. Elvis Presley made it sexy and fun, but the DKs made it a headlong pharmaceutical rush.
That’s reflected in the lyrics Jello Biafra altered. In the original, Elvis wished for more than 24 hours in a day, saying that “even if there were forty more / I wouldn’t sleep a minute away”; Jello changes that first part to “even if I ran out of speed, boy.” And where a dice-throwin’ King says, “Let me shout a seven with ev’ry shot,” Jello says, “Got coke up my nose to dry away the snot.”
The new lyrics would have stuck out like mustard in a coalmine if the old arrangement had been used, but they match up perfectly with the careening hardcore behind them. They might not even be noticed for a few listens. But once they are, there’s no question they add both atmosphere and a lick of humor to the song. As far as I’m concerned, what happened to “Vegas” really should stay in “Vegas.”
If I said “Land of 1000 Dances,” some of you may not know what I’m talking about. But if I started singing “Nahhh, na na na nahhh,” you would probably begin dancing involuntarily. (If not, check your pulse. You may be dead.)
Chris Kenner’s 1962 original sounds almost nothing like the party song that we’ve come to know and love. It starts off like a spiritual – where it mentions the song title – and then it changes into a somewhat generic 1960s R&B tune that could have been sung by anyone.
The famous “na na” part didn’t come until three years later, when the East L.A. band Cannibal & the Headhunters covered the song. Legend has it that lead singer Frankie Garcia forgot the lyrics and attempted to cover it up by improvising with some na-nas. The rest, as they say, is history. The song became a Top 30 hit, and the band went on to open for the Beatles’ second U.S. tour.
Since then, the song has been covered many times – most famously by Wilson Pickett – and almost every one is a cover of Cannibal & the Headhunters’ cover, not the original.
When I first heard that the Zac Brown Band was covering Jason Isbell’s great song, “Dress Blues,” I was pleased, because I believed that it would be great for Brown’s large mainstream audience to be exposed to Isbell’s songwriting. This was after Isbell’s Southeastern blew me away, and was getting positive notice in the music press and some mainstream recognition, but before his new album Something More Than Free was released, and topped the country, rock, and folk charts. Still, the idea that an artist with the following of Zac Brown would cover “Dress Blues,” was exciting to this Isbell fan.
Then I heard the cover. Overall, it isn’t terrible. I’m not a fan of the martial snare beat, but I get it — the song is about the military, and subtlety isn’t exactly commercial country music’s most obvious virtue. And then there is the addition of an interlude of “Taps,” which, again is pretty much an anvil dropped in the middle of the song. But the most egregious change is the lyrical modification.
“Dress Blues” is a song about the death of a specific person, Marine Cpl. Matthew D. Conley, who was killed at age 21 in Iraq in February 2006. He attended the same high school as Isbell, and despite an age difference, they knew each other. The song is a devastating portrait of a tragic death, and Isbell carefully and skillfully walks the fine line between honoring the fighters but condemning the fight. Isbell finally indicates his disgust in the key lyric – “What did they say when they shipped you away/To fight somebody’s Hollywood war?” By this, Isbell clearly meant that the war itself was something ginned up, not for legitimate purposes, but for phony political reasons, a real-life Wag The Dog. It’s also clear that he believes the bravery and honor of Conley and his fellow soldiers were not in any way diminished by the cowardice and dishonor of those who put them in harm’s way.
Brown, however, decided to change the lyric to “What did they say when they shipped you away/To give all in some God awful war?” First, changing “fight” to “give all” is really unnecessary, although it serves to ratchet up the jingoism a bit. But changing “somebody’s Hollywood war” to “some God awful war” eliminates any speck of moral ambiguity and takes the architects of the war – Bush, Cheney, and their crew – off the hook. No longer is there any question about why this 21-year-old kid was sent to die, just anger and sadness about the death. Final result: an extraordinary song that raises questions about the war is changed into another ordinary, maudlin song about a dead soldier. This may not be surprising, coming from a band that played at Mitt Romney events in 2012 and which, despite some attempts to move commercial country music away from songs about trucks, girls, and beer, still panders to the conservative politics of the country audience. But, as The New York Times noted in its review of Brown’s album, “The band tries to bend [‘Dress Blues’] into a shape that suits its own agenda, but even so, it’s a poor fit.”
Now, to be fair, Isbell has, at least publicly, been supportive of the cover. Responding to fans’ criticism of it, he Tweeted, “If you want more popular country artists to sing songs that have some real meaning, don’t be pissed at the ones who do.” But I’m not aware of any specific reaction he has had to the change in lyrics and meaning.
Honestly, I have nothing against Joss Stone‘s White Stripes cover “Fell In Love with a Boy” in particular. But it’s a notable recent example of a pet peeve: changing the gender of the lyrics to “fit” the gender of the singer. This unfortunate trend has been around since the dawn of covers. The Doors did it, the Beach Boys did it, heck, even Janis Joplin did it (Bobby McGee was originally a girl).
What is the logic here? Does a singer want to sound more “authentic”? Or, worse, do they want to avoid anyone thinking they’re gay? Because any fan that assumes that “I” in a lyric it by definition refers to the singer personally is an idiot (Randy Newman would be a real monster if that were true). And who cares if someone thinks you’re gay?
There are certainly legitimate reasons to change genders. The Animals changed the gender in “House of the Rising Sun” – but also changed the narrator from a (female) prostitute to a (male) gambler. Aretha changed the gender in “Respect” – but changed a whole lot else too to recast it as a feminist anthem. But most cover song gender-swaps are not so thoughtful.
Paul McCartney once wrote about the Beatles’ early cover of the Shirelles’ “Boys” for a box set: “We never thought we should call it ‘Girls,’ just because Ringo was a boy. We just sang it the way they’d sung it and never considered any implications.” If the Beatles didn’t worry about it, neither should anyone else.
Oh, yeah – you know who else didn’t change the gender on covers? The White Stripes.
In about 1994 singer-songwriter Tom Russell, whom I respect, and soul vocalist Barrence Whitfield, whom I don’t, got together, producing a couple of “good time” records for some sort of no-doubt-fine-at-the-time-seeming reason. Buddies out on the road, playing songs for the heck of it, that sort of thing. Sadly, along the way they chanced upon “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” Richard Thompson’s then-closest thing he had to a hit single, from the LP of the same name that he recorded with his then-wife, Linda. The original version, never more English, included a couplet about a “silver band just marching up and down,” a silver band being a variant of a brass band, but with silver-colored brass. This fitted perfectly the wistful longing in the ambiance of the song. Russell and Whitfield, all beer and piss, decide to change it to “a rock’n’roll band just rockin’ all around,” at a stroke reducing it to a raucous and regrettable bacchanal. Annoying? Yes, and just enough to hate them for it. (And I had to buy their wretched disc to upload it for your pleasure, adding insult to injury. Bastards.)
Some might find it sacrilegious to change the lyrics of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and I have no defense. Cooke’s song, 50 years old, showed a faith in a civil rights movement that is still fighting long after his death. I can even see some today looking at his viewpoint as being naïve, that change hasn’t come. I see that side too, and it is heartbreaking.
But musicians sing about the ideal, and Ben Sollee’s lyrics retains the heart of the original. A prayer for peace is universal. In the end, we all want to escape for four minutes or so to a better world.
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