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 Sean Balkwill: What’s your favorite original song that’s best known as a cover?
With all the soundtracks that reference the Beck Hansen version of “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime,” it has become the norm, and in many ways, understandably. Beck evokes a little more care-worn ennui into his vocal than James Warren; hence, arguably, a tad more gravitas. The school of hard-won experience. The Korgis are entirely a more naive proposition, neither sounding nor looking as if they have ever spoken to a girl, let alone kissed one – hardly surprising if one recalls their earlier existence as members of Stackridge, that never more boys only school prog band. But that makes their exquisite sadness all the greater, the wistful yearning for something utterly unattainable. Something I could o so strongly identify with at the time of the song’s release. I felt they were speaking for and through me, imagining the last dance or watching from the side. Much as I might think of myself more as a Beck, it is the original version I return.
The worst singer to ever attempt “Hallelujah” was the guy who wrote it. And Leonard Cohen surely appreciated the irony: the song every American Idol wannabe belts to showcase his or her pipes was written by a man who, by his own admission, could barely carry a tune. When he sings “I was born with the gift of a golden voice” on “Tower of Song,” everybody knows it’s a joke (perhaps why that song rarely gets covered well: if you actually have a golden voice, the line just sounds like boasting).
But after John Cale and then Jeff Buckley made “Hallelujah” famous – and thousands more maudlin covers made it closer to infamous – I find Cohen’s versions the best, precisely because the man cannot sing. Take the song’s very first recording, on 1984’s Various Positions, an album so unmarketable his record company refused to release it in the States. In some ways, the recording exemplifies the ’80s excess Cohen inexplicably seemed drawn to: drum machines, overproduced backing singing, the world’s cheapest-sounding synths. But amidst all that artificiality, one human element shines through: Cohen’s voice, struggling to keep up with its glossy surroundings. In a song so often overwrought, Cohen’s undersinging seems a refreshing change of pace.
Just as good, if not better, is the concert performance released on 1994’s Cohen Live album. Performed in 1988, still several years before the song became famous, Cohen changes every verse but the last, pulling from the more than 80 verses he reportedly wrote. No secret chords, baffled kings, minor falls or major lifts here – yet this new set of verses matches and maybe even tops the original. In 2018, I’m as sick of the covers as anyone – but I could listen to Cohen’s broken “Hallelujah”s endlessly.
I’d argue that Dave Edmunds’ versions of songs are usually better than—or at least as good as—the originals. “Girls Talk”? I’d take Edmunds’ cover over Elvis Costello’s original. His cover of Graham Parker’s “Crawlin’ From The Wreckage” edges out Parker’s. It’s at least a tossup as to whether his “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” improves over the Boss or whether his “Me And The Boys” is better than NRBQ’s. I like Edmunds’ take on “Get Out of Denver” better than Bob Seger’s, his “Almost Saturday Night” is better than John Fogerty’s, and “I Hear You Knocking” was a bit hit for the Welshman, successfully updating the Smiley Lewis classic. As only a few examples. (Although his instrumental cover of “Wuthering Heights” is nice, I’d still rather hear Kate Bush singing). For the most part, Edmunds doesn’t do much particularly radical in his interpretations, but he somehow improves most songs that he covers.
“Queen of Hearts,” though, was first recorded by Edmunds, although it was written by Hank DeVito, a pedal steel guitarist who has played with Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, and many others. It was released in 1979 on Edmunds’ excellent Repeat When Necessary album, which also included his covers of “Girls Talk” and “Crawlin’ From The Wreckage.” Not surprisingly, it is a twangy rockabilly song featuring Edmunds on vocals and guitar, backed by the always tight they-contractually-couldn’t-be-called-Rockpile (Billy Bremner on guitar, Nick Lowe on bass, and Terry Williams on drums). A couple of years later, singer Juice Newton released a version of the song with a remarkably similar arrangement, but just a bit slicker, a touch smoother, and thus way more radio friendly. And I’m sure that it didn’t hurt in the early days of videos that Newton is an attractive woman. “Queen” became Newton’s bestselling single, peaking at No. 2 on both Billboard’s Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary charts.
Despite the fact that Edmunds’ version only hit No. 11 in the UK and No. 12 in Ireland, and failed to make much noise on this side of the pond, I’d still take its sharper edge over the sweetened Juice.
In 1956, a black R&B singer named Little Willie John had a modest hit with the song “Fever.” If you know anything about the history of popular music in this country, you can guess what happened next. Two years later, in 1958, the white pop and jazz singer Peggy Lee covered the song, reworked the lyrics, and turned it into a worldwide smash. Even today on Spotify her rendition has 29.7 million listens, while John’s has just 2.1 million.
The trend of white artists reworking black artists’ songs and capturing a wider audience has been given many labels over the years: racism, cultural appropriation, or even just capitalism. Whatever it may be, the real loser is often the music itself. There are many great original songs and artists that have simply been forgotten by time.
The song itself was written by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport (aka Otis Blackwell). I first discovered John’s original on the Time-Life compilation The Rock N’ Roll Era: 1956. Until then, I’d always heard it referenced as a “Peggy Lee song.” John’s version is a forgotten masterpiece of ‘50s R&B. His booming voice carries the tune. He perfectly blends the slow-grooving bass and sax as he equates infatuation with illness. The original contains a few verses dropped by Lee, which are, naturally, a bit more suggestive. John’s version is truly “a lovely way to burn” and deserves more credit (and listens) than it will probably ever receive.
Sand is to gravel as Rod Stewart is to Tom Waits, and that doesn’t apply only to their voices. Fill a jar with gravel and you can still get some sand in there, fitting around the tiny rocks and filling the places where more gravel couldn’t go. That’s what Rod Stewart did with his cover of “Downtown Train.” “I’m sure Tom Waits wouldn’t mind me saying this,” he told one interviewer. “I realized there was a melody there in the chorus, and it’s beautiful, but he barely gets up and barely gets down to the lower notes, so I took it to the extreme. That was a case where I brought the chorus alive.”
Well, I’m sure Rod Stewart wouldn’t mind me saying this, but I prefer the original. Where Rod sounds like he can’t wait to get to that chorus, Tom is more about the pain of yearning for something you don’t know how to get. Put it this way: When Rod asks “Will I see you tonight on the downtown train?”, you know you’ll get a different answer than you would when Tom asks it. Where Rod struts, Tom skulks. Where Rod’s voice could make a Tom Waits song palatable for the masses, Tom’s acquired taste of a voice was more about expression of self, asking that question that needed to be asked, than about caring who heard him.
You can see the difference in their videos, too – Rod’s is as literal as it gets (“Let’s show him walking through a subway station! One with a bunch of trains!” “Okay, but show a sign that says ‘Downtown’ so people will understand.”), while Tom’s is super-cinematic, inclined both to the shadows and to the sources of the light that cast them.
I understand why Rod’s version was the hit. I just wish I lived in a world where Tom’s could be a smash too.
What a challenge! Of course there are many, many covers that pale in comparison to the original. But the thing about many of those covers is that the original will never be as beloved or sound as good, especially if you heard the cover first. So the list of options I could choose for this Q&A felt very short to me. Ultimately I picked The Meat Puppets‘ “Plateau” because I grew up with the Nirvana Unplugged in New York album and never really thought to go back and find the original songs until recently. Kurt Cobain makes it very clear that he is covering multiple songs from a band he respects and doing it on one of the biggest stages his band was afforded, even bringing them up to play with him. When I finally went back and listened to all the originals I realized that his version is very faithful to the original “Plateau.” The acoustic guitar-work is intricate and the vocals are off-kilter, but what makes the original better is something that wasn’t allowed in the cover – a great electric breakdown at the end of the song. It’s very psychedelic and kind of unexpected. All of the Meat Puppets songs that Nirvana covered are worth going back and checking out. They’re messier than the Nirvana takes, but depending on your taste you might discover a new band you missed.
Many people were introduced to Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)” from American Idol Gives Back, where Kelly Clarkson performed the song just 10 weeks after Griffin released it in 2007. Clarkson’s performance cemented her transition from a contest winner on the new American Idol to a top tier artist performing with Jeff Beck. It inspired even more covers, from Susan Boyle and others, as the draw of many gospel-like tunes have where a diva with pipes can show her skills.
But to me, something is missing from her performance: a certain level of emotion. Some of that is inferred, as there is some nuance between the creator of a song singing it versus someone covering it. The difference here is “This speaks to me because I love it” compared to “This speaks to me because I wrote it.” As someone that loves a good cover song, I bow to the original as one that cannot be matched.
In this performance, Griffin speaks to the crowd in such timid tones that at first listen, it is hard to predict what will follow. And what follows is a measured love letter to the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., written from the perspective of one small cog in the machine of a civil rights movement that is unable to go into retirement.
As I am writing this, on the one year anniversary of Heather Heyer’s death at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, amidst the racial animosity that has risen again, and the continual fight that black Americans have to achieve the American dream, it fills me with sadness that such a great song continues to be relevant, and that King’s dream is still a dream.
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