Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Matthew Vadnais lives in Beloit, Wisconsin. He’s been writing for Cover Me since 2015. Of all his Cover Me essays, he especially likes his reviews of the albums paying tribute to Blind Willie Johnson, Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression, and Jason Molina.
Tiffany – I Think We’re Alone Now (Tommy Jones & The Shondells cover)
At some point in eighth grade, I was walking from my small town junior high school to a Youth Group meeting at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church with someone named Bryce. I know it was a Wednesday because that was the day of the week that school ended an hour early specifically so people could do church groups. Bryce who was very excited to tell me that Tiffany’s breakthrough hit was a part of the medley that the band was going to be playing for the Spring concert. After Bryce spent several minutes fantasizing about Tiffany somehow showing up in Crookston, Minnesota to join the concert, I responded that she hadn’t even written the song. When neither Bryce nor anyone for whom I recounted the story seemed to care, I became acutely aware of covers as something I thought about differently than many other folks. In part because I was thirteen or whatever, I had a hard time explaining what was bugging me. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that I was worried that some of the subtle meaning of Tiffany’s ode to peach schnapps and extended make-out sessions that parents seemed to find so scandalous would be lost if no one realized that it was a repurposed song from a supposedly simpler time of poodle skirts and malt shops.
Henry Rollins and Bad Brains – Kick out the Jams (MC5 cover)
If Tiffany helped me understand the importance of knowing the original version while trying to triangulate meaning when contemplating a cover, this version of the ubiquitous pre-punk MC5 song fomented a more problematic potential: what does one do when a cover is just plain better than the original. I don’t actually know if the Rollins/Bad Brains cover is better, but I do know that context matters and that Pump Up the Volume did far more for the cover than the rest of MC5’s problematic-slash-racist catalogue did for the original. Of course, part of me wondered if the thing that made the difference so obvious for me had to do with relative sound quality; the crisis of primacy and the tyranny of the present are both forces that complicate the evaluation of covers. Nonetheless, the covers on this album were the next step in my theorizing about how covers worked. In comparison to the first song that got me thinking, I actually liked this one for more than a few weeks.
Tesla – Signs (Five Man Electrical Band cover)
I’m not actually sure this cover changes anything in the original. It didn’t do much to complicate or extend my sense of what a cover can do, but it was important to me that it wasn’t a Tesla song. As the rest of Tesla’s catalogue receded in my opinion because of a general souring on hair metal, it posed a different kind of conundrum: what does one do when a band’s favorite song is a cover? In any case, of all the songs I listened to in junior high, this one most comfortably fit into the space between my real taste and things my parents could sing along with.
The Gipsy Kings – Hotel California (The Eagles cover)
This one was a revelation on an album – Rubáiyát, a 40th anniversary album on which new Elektra artists covered old Elektra artists – filled with revelations. I think it was probably the first time I realized that I simply liked covers more, or at least differently, than I liked other songs. Though I might not of worded it as such, the album made it clear that the cover merged the acts of making music and listening to it. No single track was more important to me than this one; the simple action of singing “Hotel California” in Spanish not only clarified a lot of the content of the original for me, it removed the blinders that had remained safely in place while growing up in northern Minnesota and helped me not only reimagine the song but California itself. It was an important stepping stone to a completely different sense of my place in an increasingly large and small world.
Pearl Jam and Neil Young – Rockin’ in the Free World (Neil Young cover)
“You know this guy,” Eddie Vedder said after debuting a song off of Vs. He was talking about Neil Young, who took the stage as the MTV Awards scrim behind them shifted from red to purple and the opening chords of a song I had heard a bunch of times but never really listened to started. In part because I was already an acolyte of and for Pearl Jam, this song ushered in an age where I let Eddie Vedder act as a musical Sherpa, leading me to songs that I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. He almost never steered me wrong; more importantly, I realized that I was almost as interested in the things a band listened to as I was in the music they make. Also, this cover totally holds up. While Young’s guitar solo isn’t probably an act of covering, since it’s his song, it remains vitalized and particularized by happening inside this moment that very much belonged to Pearl Jam.
Frozen Embryos – I Wanna Be Sedated (The Ramones cover)
This is probably cheating since the cover doesn’t really exist in totality. We never hear the full version, only enough to know that guitarist Jordan Catalano – the love interest in My So-Called Life, the show on which Frozen Embryos is a cool high school band – needs to step up and become the lead singer. Still, it was one my favorite moments of the show and a moment that spoke to me about the vitality of covers. There was something about singing the cover that Catalano, played by the impossibly talented and troubled Jared Leto, was able to tap into that wouldn’t have been possible in a song he had written. It connected the act of being in a band to singing in my shitty car while waiting for a train, a connection for which I was immensely grateful.
Radiohead – Nobody Does it Better (Carly Simon cover)
Thom Yorke introduces a live version of this that became a bootleg as “the sexiest song ever written” and, provided that one finds Thom Yorke capable of trafficking in sexy, it’s hard to disagree. No single cover I’ve encountered so fully embodies the twin purposes of a cover – archiving the original and making things new – so fully or simultaneously as this one. Two minutes of strafing Jonny Greenwood pyrotechnics underneath Yorke’s “baby you’re the best” merge what’s best about the original song with what’s best about Radiohead.
Björk and PJ Harvey – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones cover)
Though this was recorded long before I was ready for it, it’s stayed a version I come back to again and again. Understated to start and ebullient to finish, I find it cerebral and muscular in equal measure. More theoretically, it’s a cover that functions to remake meaning in part by positioning the song in ways that the original was never capable of functioning. This song, in particular, spent decades making meaning as a rock anthem while being coterminous with white male privilege in rock and roll. Here it gets flipped on its head. It remains immensely pleasurable for me to here Björk just Björking the shit out of it while PJ Harvey does her zombie chanteuse thing. It’s a great cover.
They Might be Giants and the staff of the Onion – Tubthumping (Chumbawamba cover)
I don’t have much to say about this beyond the fact that it continues to make me feel things, every time. The first time I heard it, I was completely unprepared. There is something endlessly edifying, for me, about the sounds of nerds of a thousand stripes uniting to reclaim a terrible song as something of astonishing power.
The National and St. Vincent – Sleep All Summer (Crooked Fingers cover)
These last few have gotten away from the songs that taught me about covers and trended towards versions I find simply to be good songs. There are a hundred more in this category. However, this one makes the list because it has stayed remained one of the tracks I put on playlists for friends for several years. It’s a great version of a fantastic song.