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: What’s your favorite example of an artist “covering” their own song?
This is a question I’ve gone back and forth on. Some days I’m a purist: Did the singer write it? Did the singer perform it first? If the answer to both questions is no, then it’s a cover, Q.E.D. But then I think, when Paul McCartney sings a Beatles song in concert, he’s certainly not the same person he was when he wrote the song over half a century ago, right? When Bruce Springsteen does his acoustic blues version of “Born in the USA,” that’s much more than a re-arrangement, isn’t it? Hasn’t his reworking changed the song completely – and isn’t that what the best covers do?
Whether they count as according-to-Hoyle covers or not, the original hits can be so enlightening – and so fun – when given new life by the original artist. Case in point: Joe Jackson‘s a cappella version of “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” Likely as not, some people in the audience only knew Jackson for his big hit, and only came to see him play it. Well, he gave the people what they wanted, but he did it his way, wrapping something old in something new and giving the crowd a palpable sense of discovery. He released this on his Live 1980/86 album, but it’s even more fun to see a live version in action (in part because, like several of this video’s commenters, I had no idea that Jackson stood six-foot-three).
In his book Box of Rain, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter claims that both he and Jerry Garcia wrote the words and music to “Terrapin Station” separately on the same day. The two merged their work together, and it ultimately became the sprawling 16-minute title track to the Dead’s 1977 studio album Terrapin Station. The work is so complex, with multiple different movements, that the band never played it live in its entirety.
Hunter recorded a version of the track for his 1980 album Jack O’ Roses. He strips away all of the studio theatrics of the Dead’s piece. Instead, his acoustic rendition passes through multiple different eras of folk music. He adds pages and pages of new lyrics, channeling medieval folk tunes, 19th century train songs and Homer-style epics. He sings about well-known folk music characters such as Stagger Lee and Peggy-o. He also tells the story of “Jack O’ Roses.” Jack travels on an epic quest that passes “East of Eden,” then through hell, a lion’s den and “Terrapin.” Listening to Hunter cover his own song is like peering into the extended universe that exists just beyond the Grateful Dead’s music.
While Hunter’s 1980 album version is solid, his live rendition from 2003 gives you the full effect.
In the early ’90s, Elvis Costello wrote and recorded “Complicated Shadows” as a demo for Johnny Cash. The Man in Black passed on the opportunity, and we were rewarded with a full rock, balls-out cover of “Complicated Shadows,” recorded live at New York’s Beacon Theater and appearing on the last album Costello recorded with the Attractions, All This Useless Beauty.
Wait, what? A cover?
Yes, at least according to my religion. Because I contend that every performance of a song after it is originally recorded is a cover. And I could easily amend that to the first time it was performed.
To complicate the shadows even more, a dozen years later, Costello re-recorded the song for his bluegrass album Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. Featuring legends such as Jim Lauderdale and Jerry Douglas, Costello swings back to the original with a teamwork of twang.
For what it’s worth, I like the rock version the best, but in this hearty debate that we cover lovers have, and perhaps differing opinions on this very page, I think it’s clear that this is the gospel truth. As Jolie Holland once said, “If you are playing a song that you wrote, then you are still covering that song.” Amen.
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The Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” is just one of at least six songs from American Beauty, the largely acoustic crown jewel of the Dead’s studio albums, that would become mainstays of the band’s repertoire long after the Dead transformed into American’s greatest jamband. Despite the protagonist’s bleak prospects of spending his life in jail if the sheriff and his twenty hounds manage to catch up with him, the song has a relaxed, scruffy, almost buoyant charm, and it’s one of the Dead’s most covered songs.
The unique relationship between Jerry Garcia (who co-wrote “Friend of the Devil”‘s music with John Dawson) and David Grisman is presented in a gentle and fascinating documentary called Grateful Dawg (2000). Directed by David’s daughter, it draws on family videos, interviews, and concert footage to offer an intimate look into the deep friendship and collaborative relationship between the two master musicians. “They were born out of the same cosmic egg,” explains one interviewee. The documentary shows their first meeting at a 1964 concert by bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe. It also explores the formation in 1973 of their short-lived but stellar bluegrass band, Old & In the Way.
But most of the documentary focuses on the camaraderie and interpersonal chemistry between these two bearded, larger than life, musical geniuses. They usually met in Grisman’s living room or basement studio, places where Garcia could discard his heavy load as the ironic leader of one of the world’s most famous bands and “just be Jerry.” Supported by an expert rhythm section, they worked hard to convert already great songs into amazing covers. Bluegrass was always their starting point, but they would often reach out to incorporate other musical forms as well.
During the last five years of Jerry’s life, David recorded virtually everything they played together. Acoustic Disc, Grisman’s label, has released eight collections of these sessions. Most are extraordinary cover tunes, including two versions of “Friend of the Devil.” My favorite is a slower, cautionary tale version from their first album called simply Jerry Garcia/David Grisman (2001.) Grisman provided the mandolin flourishes on the original version of the song from American Beauty, but here, he is Jerry’s full and equal partner.
I’m firmly in the camp that believes that an artist doesn’t cover their own songs, but instead can interpret them in different ways. Maybe it is a distinction without a difference, but this blog is called Cover Me, not Interpret Me, so we have to make some distinctions, right?
Nick Lowe has run through a number of musical guises in his long career—a pub rocker as a member of Brinsley Schwarz, “Basher” the producer of early new wavers, a master of power pop, a roots rocker, a country stylist, a pop crooner, and most recently, touring with surf-rock eccentrics Los Straitjackets. So it isn’t surprising that he has reworked some of his songs to fit whatever style he was currently playing, and “I Knew The Bride (When She Used to Rock 'n' Roll)” is a great example.
“I Knew the Bride” is a fun song, in which the singer, somewhat wistfully, discusses how he remembers when the bride at issue, who is marrying a rich stuffed-shirt and is now all posh and proper, used to hang out in her jeans at the bar, drinking and flirting and dancing and having fun.
The first version of the song was released in 1977 by Dave Edmunds on his Get It album (on which Lowe played bass), and it is a rootsy rocker typical of Edmunds’ style. Later, when Rockpile – which featured both Lowe and Edmunds – appeared live, they imbued the song with both punk and twang. Then Lowe released what I’d call a bouncy version of the song on his 1985 solo album The Rose of England, with very dated sounding production by Huey Lewis, who also plays the harmonica and sings background.
But my favorite version is the one which came out in 1978, on the Live Stiffs album, from a Stiff Records European tour that also featured Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric, and Larry Wallis. Billed to “Nick Lowe's Last Chicken in the Shop” (although introduced at the show as “Nick Lowe’s Led Zeppelin”), which included Edmunds on guitar and Rockpile’s drummer Terry Williams, drummer Pete Thomas from the Attractions and others, they rip through the song in a messy, ’70s punk way.
Nowadays, when Lowe trots out the old chestnut (and it appears to be one of his most played songs), he plays it with more of Edmunds’ rockabilly tinged sound than his Stiffs Live energy. But it still is a show stopper.
Famed singer, songwriter, producer Lee Hazlewood is probably best remembered for writing and producing Nancy Sinatra’s iconic number one hit, “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” Recorded in December 1965, the song bolted to number one in February 1966. By the end of the year, it was covered at least two dozen more times, including this version from Hazlewood’s own The Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood album. Here, the song starts off with familiar instrumentation and the “psychedelic cowboy’s” recognizable baritone – but as far as covers go, with the exception of some storytelling and punched up horns later in the track – it’s arguably unremarkable.
The same can’t be said for what Hazlewood would do forty years later on his final studio album. On 2006’s Cake or Death, he would team up with old recording partner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Duane Eddy, for a coolly reimagined, swinging roots rock version, called simply “Boots.” The raspy-vocalized track featuring ballsy brass and Eddy’s signature tremolo guitar was a parting gift from a multi-talented artist who would pass away less than a year later, leaving us with the question: Was one of these versions a cover, or were they both?
Darius Rucker throws back to his start in Hootie & the Blowfish, updating the sound of their most popular hit to fit his new musical style. This country-fied “Only Wanna Be With You” starts with an extended banjo solo that doesn’t yet hint of the original song. Then the original intro commences, still on banjo, and “there’s nothing I can do,” the nostalgia kicks in.
No stranger to the cover (his hit “Wagon Wheel” was originally by Bob Dylan and Old Crow Medicine Show), Darius Rucker knows how to balance multiple musical identities. He keeps his strong singing style the same and lets the instruments drive the new vibe, giving plenty of space for dueling banjo licks throughout without being gratuitous.
Do you miss the no-frill, standard guitar of the original? For those Hootie & the Blowfish fans, you could get the chance to hear the original song again live; the band is reunited for a summer tour.
Chumbawamba were a whole lot more than their one hit wonder ever gave them credit for, actively choosing to being a pox on society, or at least the establishment, from the early ’80s until they threw in the towel some 30 years later. During this time period they embraced any number of styles, from scratchy punk through to dance music, finally emerging on the other side as a politicized trad folk band, perhaps where they best could park their defiantly anarchic agitprop views. The folk music movement in the UK has a long history of political activism, stretching back from from Ewan MacColl to, more recently, Billy Bragg.
“Homophobia” is one of their earlier songs, a relentless assault on the gay bashing then so prevalent, pulling few punches. This is, I guess, the original, as appearing on 1994’s Anarchy, the album I first heard, got, and saw, in action, at Guillfest, near Guildford, U.K. Starting as (and based upon) a traditional unaccompanied song, it gradually builds up, a glorious combination of socio-political polemic, heavenly vocals, all-conquering trumpet, and a perfect production. This is the version the live unit tended to stick with, it becoming, by the end, a totally acapella chorale.
The single that came out contemporaneously, though, is an altogether brassier, in-your-face effort that actually hit the undulating foothills of the hit parade, number 79. Along with the video, I think it packs one hell of a punch, in a style and stance somehow entirely different from the other one. Altogether, in either version, a better song than “I Get Knocked Down,” maybe the time wasn’t right, and, anyway, the concept of being a top pop band never seemed to sit happily with the band, arguably responsible for the halving of the band. (No-one has ever said.)
At the time of writing, despite the option left unopened on their website, so far their has been no return of the Chumbas. I live in hope.
My 8-year-old walked into my room and asked me what I was doing. I explained I was writing something for Cover Me about “Mr. Jones.” As the song opened he asked me who was playing the cover. “No, it is the Counting Crows – it’s not really a cover, they’re just reinventing their own song.” His jaw dropped as he listened to the quiet, minor key opening that so severely contrasts the original that he loves. So even though I don’t consider this a cover, I absolutely appreciate when an artist reinterprets their own work.
Here, the Crows and singer Adam Duritz, five years removed from their breakthrough debut, rethink the yearning for fame that “Mr. Jones” is built on. Most noticeable are a number of changes to the lyrics. The song opens with some lyrics by Roger McGuinn about becoming a rock star and is considerably slowed down. Duritz no longer wants to be someone to believe in; now he says “you should not believe in me.” Probably the most noticeable is his profane proclamation that maybe it’s not so great “when everybody loves you.” Finally, he ends with lyrics from another Counting Crows song, “Miller’s Angels,” which is something the Crows do often when they play live. It’s clear, on this song and many others, that the band sees their songs as living documents that change over time. While I don’t think that qualifies as a cover, I do think it’s the best way for an artist to view and perform their art.
I know, choosing Bob Dylan is almost too obvious. Pretty much every live performance he’s ever given could fall into this category. His rearrangements are so dramatic they can render the songs near-unrecognizable, from a reggae “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” to a punk-rock “Masters of War.” Just last summer, he rearranged “Gotta Serve Somebody” around the Peter Gunn theme, then a few shows later rearranged it again as a boogie-woogie number.
Of the million examples I could choose, I picked the one that came first to mind: the “Like a Rolling Stone” I saw him perform last fall. It stands out because this is the one song he almost never rearranges. It began life as a mid-tempo rocker in 1965 and, over the decades, it’s remained basically the same. The little tweaks along the way – a backing singer here, a new guitar solo there – pale in comparison to the wholesale reinventions of other songs. Even Bob’s MTV Unplugged performance of this rather famously plugged song doesn’t differ too much. Setlist.fm tells me I’ve personally seen him perform the song 18 times in 14 years, and they’ve never varied much. Until this latest.
Dylan varies his setlists so little these days that him resuscitating “Like a Rolling Stone” – a song he’s played more often than anything else except “Watchtower” – last summer made headlines. But the real news wasn’t the oft-played song’s return after two years away, but its new arrangement. This 2018 “Like a Rolling Stone” starts basically like all the rest, the band amiably choogling along behind Bob. Then, halfway through the first verse, things shift. The band suddenly stops. The tempo slows, and it becomes a quiet duet between Bob’s voice and his piano. For those moments, a song you’ve heard a million times hits you anew. The rare Dylan song that’s seemed impervious to change finally finds new life.
In my experience, “Like a Rolling Stone” has long been the worst-covered Dylan classic. Performances by other artists or by Bob himself rarely measuring up to the original recording. But after playing it for fifty-plus years, he finally found a way to reimagine the most formerly untouchable of his songs. It may not be technically a cover, but hopefully it offers inspiration for one. The great “Like a Rolling Stone” cover has yet to be recorded, but Bob finally offered some guidance for how that might be done.
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