Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Sean Balkwill makes his home in North Carolina. He’s been writing for Cover Me since 2013, and has also served as the site’s art director. Of all his Cover Me essays, he especially likes his pieces on Glen Hansard and the Replacements, both of which feature Sean’s artwork.
When I thought of the idea of writing about the personal connection to cover songs, I thought it would be great to also extemporize on the question, “What is a cover song?” So I’ve decided to write about a list of songs that changed the way that I looked at cover music itself, both on a personal level and on a wider trek to define what a cover song is. Here’s my thoughts…
The Smithereens – The Seeker (The Who cover)
I should say it’s not the studio version of the cover that I’m influenced by here, though it’s more than capable. It’s the version from their New York City 1986 Live EP. When a song takes on many forms, such as live renditions or various cover versions, slight changes in pacing or arrangement are important to the obsessive fan. I’ve been known to listen to twenty YouTube versions of a cover before I write about it here. On this track, the Smithereens comes out with sonic fury, setting the city on fire.
Johnny Cash – Rusty Cage (Soundgarden cover)
From time to time you hear a cover song and that introduces you — or reintroduces you — to an artist. I never was a fan of Cash’s early stuff, and except for a few songs, I’m still not. But once he hooked up with Rick Rubin, everything changed. Unchained, the album that “Rusty Cage” comes from, was not a full covers record, but it’s close enough. With Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as his backing band, songs like this Soundgarden tune positively rock the house.
Elvis Costello – Everybody’s Crying Mercy (Mose Allison cover)
I’m a huge Costello fan, and this performance I saw live on MTV Unplugged. And then it disappeared for a decade or more. It popped up on bootleg CDs for a while, then made its way to YouTube, where it’s periodically taken down for copyright infringement (hence the studio version linked above). Costello performs in Karl Wallinger “Grow the beard. Find the doubt” mode, and no song classically shouts “I’m a dirty hippie” than this Mose Allison ode to sanity. Listen to it today.
The The – I Saw the Light (Hank Williams cover)
Sometimes cover work changes your view of an artist. I never was a fan of Matt Johnson’s early work, but when he audaciously came out with a Hank Williams cover record, as a music columnist I had to write about it. What did I say? Who knows, it’s on newsprint in a box somewhere. But once the dirty distorted vocals started on “I Saw the Light,” I was hooked, and I went back through his catalog. Dusk is still one of my favorite albums.
R.E.M – Voice of Harold (R.E.M. cover)
I was reading an interview with Jolie Holland a couple of years ago, and she said something bold: If you are playing a song that you wrote, then you are still covering that song. That especially goes for this song. Michael Stipe sang the liner notes to a gospel album instead of the proper lyrics to “Seven Chinese Brothers.” And for some reason, it works. It’s clearly his and R.E.M.’s song, but they are covering their own song, and it’s tracks like this that changed my perspective of when artists cover their own songs. This is from R.E.M.’s album Dead Letter Office, a cornucopia of b-sides and alternate takes. Even bands that don’t traditionally record cover songs release one or two on similar collections in their catalogs, which is why fans like me seek them out.
World Party – Happiness Is a Warm Gun (The Beatles cover)
It seems to me, and maybe I’m wrong, that there weren’t a lot of Beatles cover songs for decades after they disbanded. I’m pretty sure it’s because somebody would sue the fuck out of anybody that did, but I’m not sure then or now who that even was/is. Michael Jackson? God? Who knows?
I remember the first time I saw a Paul McCartney concert where he was singing Beatles songs, and I thought, “Holy shit, Paul. You’re going to get sued by somebody.” Anyhoo, jumping around, there’s a big disagreement over whether cover music should be reverent or reinvented. It’s the former here and it is fucking fantastic and I’ll say World Party is so underrated and that’s all I have to say about it.
U2 – Silver and Gold (Artists United Against Apartheid cover)
I would be remiss not to put a U2 song here, even though I’ve long left them behind. They were the classic band full of spit and fire early on who then became complete caricatures of themselves. “Silver and Gold” was originally released on the anti-apartheid Sun City album; Bono recorded a raw, and I might say uninspiring, jam with Keith Richard and Ronnie Wood. It was later featured in the live concert film Rattle and Hum, and the studio version finally wound up on a b-side to the single “Where The Streets Have No Name.”
Early cover aficionados would often find cover songs on b-sides of international releases worldwide. Such 45s or CD singles would cost as much for an extra song or two as the album itself, and it was a crap shoot if the covers were any good or not. But if they were, it was the purest form of music fandom. This was one of those times for me, buying a 3” CD-single from a Tower records for some exorbitant amount of money.
Echo & The Bunnymen – People Are Strange (The Doors cover)
From The Lost Boys Soundtrack. Ian McCullough’s nasal voice is the furthest thing from Jim Morrison, but Ray Manzarek’s keyboards bring the Lizard King’s spirit back from the other side of the Door. The significance here is when a band you’ve listened to for years changes its sound and owns it. Though purists hated the pop shift, I loved it.
The Pretenders – The Needle and the Damage Done (Neil Young cover)
Sometimes covers show a deep connection to the soul of the original song. The definitive version is the live performance they did at the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. After Chrissie Hynde says, “Here’s one from the heart,” obviously referring to her lost Pretenders, everything melts. The fact that they recorded this in Ohio, Hynde’s home state, makes it that much stronger.
Prince – Nothing Compares 2 U (The Family cover)
One fascinating perspective that I read (of who said it I can’t remember) is that the first recorded performance of a song holds the distinction of being the original song. When the original writer of the song performs it, they are covering their own song. Obviously this could lead to literal fistfights among music fans, but I hold to it. Billie Holiday didn’t write “Strange Fruit,” but nobody considers it to be an Abel Meeropol cover, do they?
Prince covered his own song (first released by his side project The Family), and he released it a few years later. And no offense to the Sinead O’Connor version, but when he did, he brought it home. And it’s glorious.