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, suggested by staffer Curtis Zimmerman: What’s your favorite cover of a fictional song?
Los Lobos are one of the hardest working contributors to tribute albums in that whole canon; at least thirteen and counting, covering artists as diverse as Fats Domino to Richard Thompson. And Disney, appearing on Hal Willner’s epic Stay Awake in 1988. But their “Heigh-Ho” cover does not come from that; this comes from a later album, 2009’s Los Lobos Go Disney, featuring them and them alone. If you thought Tom Waits’ rendition from Stay Awake was weird, this Spanish language version goes a step further, a glorious canter through the introductory song to “Los Siete Enanitos.” In fact, any of the songs from this album could have made the cut for this theme. I made my choice on the basis of it being my personal Disney favorite, the one I will sing in the shower or on the bus. Los Lobos clearly appreciate a good cartoon, having been behind the theme and the incidental music for children’s TV series Handy Manny.
I have watched National Lampoon’s Animal House dozens of times in my life. I can regularly quote the film and regurgitate random facts about its history. Despite this, somehow it eluded me that the song “Shama Lama Ding Dong” originated with the movie’s fictional soul band Otis Day and the Knights. I only discovered this after hearing the jamband Goose’s cover of the song.
For years, I had always assumed that “Shama Lama Ding Dong” was an actual ‘50s doo wop tune, and the Knights’ version was a cover. Maybe I just confused it with “Rama Lama Ding Dong” or “Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp).” The latter asks the probing question “Who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong?” With its whimsical lyrics and doo wop chord progression, “Shama Lama Ding Dong” plays like it could have been a hit for countless streetcorner serenaders.
Otis Day and the Knights appear twice in the film. First, they deliver an epic rendition of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” during a toga party at the Delta Tau Chi house. Later, the band appears in a not-so-politically-correct scene at the Dexter Lake Club, where they perform “Shama Lama Ding Dong.”
Otis and co. are similar to such fictional band counterparts as the Monkees and Spinal Tap in that they eventually became a real band, too. Following the release of the film, actor DeWayne Jessie – who played the part of Otis but didn’t actually sing on the tracks – acquired the rights to the band name. He has been performing as Otis Day for decades (booking info is available on their website if you’re interested). The group even released an album in 1989 produced by George Clinton.
Goose is very much a real band. They’re an up-and-coming five-piece on the jamband circuit. The group has played cover songs from across the musical spectrum, taking on tracks by the likes of the Grateful Dead, Run-DMC, Paul Simon, Rupert Holmes and, yes, they’ve even done their own version of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” The group first performed “Shama Lama Ding Dong” in 2017, and it has remained in regular rotation in their setlist. Goose plays it as a slow, light funk song. They emphasize the romantic nature of the lyrics, making it both a sentimental love song and great outlet for jamming.
I admit it. I discovered Hedwig and the Angry Inch in reverse, meaning I saw the movie before I attended the actual Broadway show it was based on. And the stage version I ultimately witnessed was a latter day revival that featured Michael C. Hall of Dexter/Six Feet Under in the lead role. All of which is to say, I was a total latecomer to the Hedwig party. Yet I’m glad things unfolded in this backward way, because this sequence of events allowed me to blissfully re-live a unique, now extinct cultural phenomenon from my childhood. To my (old) eyes and ears Hedwig the film felt like a 21st century version of what we in ye olde late ’70s used to call a “midnight movie.”
Midnight movies were late night showings of off-kilter, weird, campy and occasionally rockin’ cult films that were across the board repellent to parents.
Around my suburban neck of the woods, the music-themed films were by far the most popular and talked about midnight options. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The Wall. Heavy Metal. The Song Remains The Same. These were the movies at which your older siblings and cool babysitters would get debilitatingly stoned at and then brag to you that they were the greatest thing they’d ever seen or heard. The fact that I was not old enough to attend these events only served to heighten my desire to see these movies. So when I finally got the opportunity to actually view one of these fabled “classics,” I could not have been more thrilled.
In an effort to keep us kids from running wild Over The Edge-style on the suburban streets once the 2:30 bell rang, the powers that be at my junior high arranged for some afterschool screenings of “rock and roll” themed movies in the auditorium. And so when I was 13 years old I got to see Ken Russell’s film adaptation of The Who’s rock opera Tommy on the big screen. I was blown away. In retrospect, my admiration had a lot to do with my lack of life experience because truth be told, the movie is freakin’ terrible. But at the time, holy shit. The needles, the beans, the blood, the hotness of Roger Daltrey; it was complete sensory overload for my sheltered soul. Tommy was loud and bizarre and I had absolutely no idea what it was about. Yet I totally loved it. I wanted the record, the tee-shirt, the everything. The most disturbing part of all is that I wasn’t even high when I saw it and still thought it was the greatest thing ever.
That first seminal experience of seeing Tommy is what watching the film version of Hedwig reminded me of. With its titular hero/heroine and ponderous plot, Hedwig was brimming with that same unsettling and garish Tommy weirdness. It was full of colorful, candy-coated, queer and disorienting imagery, all of its visual wonder set to anthemic, bombastic rock and roll delights. The object of Hedwig’s obsession and undoing, “Tommy Gnosis” even had the same first name. And so I found myself thinking about Tommy as I was watching it, all the while wondering what my 13 year old self would have made of it. The answer was obvious. No doubt about it, she would have been as enamored with Hedwig as she was with Tommy. And her favorite song would absolutely have been the hook-filled love lament that is “Wicked Little Town” (written by Stephen Trask). It’s proven to be one of Hedwig’s more popular cover choices over the years, a tribute to its swoonsome, seductive melodic beauty.
While I love the song enough that literally any cover of it has the potential to get me misty, none of them come close to the skeletal majesty of the 2003 version by Kim and Kelley Deal, aka The Breeders. Recorded for charity-tribute album Wig In A Box: Songs from & Inspired by Hedwig and the Angry Inch, hearing the sisters go low-fi, soft, sad and spare is revelatory. And when Kelley starts harmonizing with Kim halfway through? Well, it’s just, plain, oooooh…
A newly remastered extended-track soundtrack for Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is soon to drop in celebration of its 10-year anniversary (feel old yet, Mils? 😉), and the movie version of Metric’s “Black Sheep,” where they dropped in Brie Larson’s vocals for her stage performance as Scott Pilgrim’s ex Envy Adams, has just been released—without the movie dialogue—and is available on most streaming services. Larson does an admirable job of going toe-to-toe with Emily Haines, and the band…well, the band is exactly the same.
Which begs the question: Is this a cover? Is it karaoke? How much of the song has to change for it to be a legit cover?
For a period beginning in the fall of 2018, “Shallow” — a power ballad for the ages, and the musical keystone of Bradley Cooper’s swoon-worthy remake of A Star Is Born — felt inescapable. From its months-long perch atop the charts to its auspicious debut in the karaoke bar canon, “Shallow”’s resonance was huge, rare and immediate. Not since Esther and John Norman Howard had a musical couple like Ally and Jackson Maine (ahem, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper) swept us up so rapturously into their sea of schmaltz. Fast forward eight months after A Star Is Born’s release, and “Shallow” had trickled down to even the most discerning realms of Indie Rock.
On April Fools Day 2019, the iconic pairing of Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst shocked a club audience in the heart of East Williamsburg (and, perhaps, some small portion of the Internet too) with a live version of “Shallow.” From the video of the surprise encore performance, it clearly takes more than a few beats for the crowd at Brooklyn Steel to realize what’s going on. Then, in a massive wash of hoots and squeals at the 0:38 mark, it dawns — some kind of strange, glorious indie cosplay fantasy, manifested at last. Bridgers and Oberst, who perform & record together as Better Oblivion Community Center, appear to be all too aware of their duo’s real-life parallels to their fictional counterparts in A Star Is Born: the messy generational rifts; the machinations of fusing personal brands; the quiet melodramas of a closely-shared microphone.
But while Gaga and Cooper go all-in on Ally and Jackson’s maudlin earnestness in the film, Bridgers and Oberst instead slosh around in their “Shallow,” flooding the performance with a droll, knowing humor. Oberst is part of an older guard of indie rock that might initially seem trepidacious of being so self-aware on stage — performing a corny cover, or kidding about his own tenderness. (As reported by BrooklynVegan, Oberst even starts off the encore by saying, “I can’t believe I’m doing this…”). Yet, in another parallel to A Star Is Born, it is Bridgers’s Ally who revs up beyond all that anxiousness, and blasts off like a comet on stage. Bridgers is free to take Oberst along for the ride, and uninhibited enough to take “Shallow” to its extremes: both the highest of highs, as well as its lowest, and hammiest, of lows.
Indeed, the depth of the April Fools Day eye-wink here is as devastating and impressive as the performance itself. Listen at 3:06 where Bridgers digs into Ally’s iconic melismatic vocal bridge, and then sends the final chorus genuinely soaring at the peak of her range. Meanwhile, Oberst
lovingly apes along with his best Jackson Maine grumble, duetting just beyond the spotlight glow. Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst’s cover of “Shallow” joins indie rock’s disparate poles: an achingly beautiful performance, and a few good, sinking jolts of snark, existing gloriously in equal measure.
So that we can all appreciate how perfect the spirit of this cover is, let me set the scene. Begin Again is a movie starring Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightly with a powerhouse supporting cast, including Adam Levine, James Corden, Mos Def, Hailee Steinfeld, and Cee Lo Green. Ruffalo is a music producer on the way out, and Knightly is an inspiring musician and songwriter. Ruffalo hears Knightly playing in a bar on one of his darker days, and she reinvigorates him. Although he can’t get the blessing of his studio to record her, they instead DIY an album. The duo recruits musicians with the same pure of spirit energy and records Knightly’s songs throughout the city, capturing its sound as another contributing performer. By helping Keira Knightly’s character not give up on her vision for her music, Mark Ruffalo’s character finds his way back to his own.
Enter the Entmacher family. According to the YouTube description, this family has a yearly trip to the beach where they end up playing music, just for fun. Bonnie starts off with strong vocals, and then we are introduced to the other members of this cast one at a time. We have Devin, co-drummer and dancer. I straight up laughed out loud when the commentary on his improvised dancing scrolled across the screen. We have Ed on piano, and Mary on Bass; Ben on conga, and Danny on guitar. They all join in, the song building up in layers as it goes on. Everyone chimes in with the backup vocals, and you’ll feel like one of the family when you call out “baby!” with the rest of them. Danny even crushes the guitar solo towards the end, originally a big plot point for Steinfeld’s character. This is definitely my favorite song on Knightly’s fictional album, and the Entmacher family take the movie’s DIY initiative to heart.
Eraserhead was the 1977 surreal horror movie that put David Lynch on the map – or, maybe more accurately, three and a half feet above the map. As we follow Henry across the nightmare landscapes before and behind his eyes, we have only one moment’s peace. That comes when he visits the Lady in the Radiator, a wholesome blonde with a warm smile, who sings to him that in heaven, everything is fine.
The Pixies performed a cover of “In Heaven” for the BBC, featuring Black Francis in full-throated screaming mode. I much prefer this live version, with Kim Deal handling the vocals with all the warmth and promise the Lady in the Radiator offered Henry. The band sounds like they’re right on the verge of going from quiet to loud, but they never pull the trigger, giving the song an unbelievable tension that throws Deal’s vocals into even sharper, sweeter relief.
Monty Python member Eric Idle and Python music man Neil Innes created The Rutles, “The Prefab Four,” for a sketch show called Rutland Weekend Television. Innes, who had worked with Paul McCartney in his Bonzo Dog Band days, was able to brilliantly–and, for the most part, lovingly–parody The Beatles. Idle later played bits from Rutland Weekend Television, including The Rutles segment, when he hosted NBC’s Saturday Night in 1976 (before Live was added to the show’s name), and Lorne Michaels suggested expanding it to a one-hour show.
In 1978, years before Spinal Tap popularized the rock mockumentary as a genre, All You Need Is Cash appeared, featuring Idle as Dirk McQuickly, Innes as his writing partner Ron Nasty, Ricky Fataar, who had a stint in the Beach Boys, as guitarist Stig O’Hara, and drummer John Halsey, who played with Lou Reed, as Barrington Womble, better known as Barry Wom. Ollie Halsall (who was almost a Rolling Stone, had worked with Innes, and is cited as an influence by such artists as Alvin Lee, Allan Holdsworth, Rick Neilsen and Andy Partridge) actually sang and played the McQuickly parts which Idle mimed and lip synched in the film. A heavily disguised George Harrison had a cameo as a reporter. The cast also featured Python Michael Palin, SNL vets John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, and Al Franken, along with Bianca Jagger and Ron Wood. Paul Simon and Mick Jagger appeared as themselves.
“Piggy In The Middle” is the alt-“I Am the Walrus,” if John Lennon had used different nursery rhymes as inspiration. The title refers to a game that I remember better as “monkey in the middle,” or less insultingly, if not less infuriatingly, as “keep away.”
In 1990, the Shimmy Disc label released Rutles Highway Revisited, a tribute to the band, with a title strangely parodying a Dylan album. That an entire tribute album to a fake parody band exists is either genius or demonstrates that some people just have too much time on their hands. (We here at Cover Me fall on the side of genius.) “Piggy” was covered on the album by Das Damen, a relatively short-lived New York band whose name does not actually mean The Women. They do a pretty faithful cover of the song, heavy on the psychedelia of the original (and the original original), while avoiding the lure of singing in a fake British accent.
Before Obi Wan Kenobi and Gandalf, there was Merlin the Magician. The gray-bearded figure from ancient Celtic history links up with King Arthur in Medieval times, and Renaissance writers took the story deeper into romance and tragedy. Artists have riffed on Arthurian tales ever since, in novels and films, podcasts and Broadway musicals, and at least one prog-rock concept album staged on ice.
In most re-tellings of the tale, wise old Merlin had all kinds of power, but also a fatal weakness: a Welch witch. No, not Rhiannon, but an enchantress known as Nimue, who is after Merlin’s secrets. In Medieval sources, she’s typically a water-nymph or siren connected with underwater caves: “the lady of the lake” is her most famous moniker. In Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot (1960), Merlin gets entranced by Nimue’s song “Follow Me,” which she sings to seduce the wizard and lead him to his death. Merlin opened himself to new music and this is what he gets. The ironic thing is that Merlin knew the future and presumably saw this coming: shows you how irresistible a song can be in the hands of a strong female vocalist.
Not a lot of artists have followed up on “Follow Me.” Tony Bennett covered it in 1962, and Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington offered up a more swinging arrangement in 1967. Good stuff, but not big in water nymph energy. The best attempt is by Blondie on their eclectic Autoamerican release (1980). Deborah Harry is more rapturous on “Rapture,” the album’s biggest hit, but her voice on “Follow Me,” coupled with lush and liquid production, makes for a truly spellbinding cover.
I didn’t have an answer for this question until very recently. As a part of an excellent video where he breaks down the musical elements of the Backyardigans track “Castaways” and why it’s been shared extensively on TikTok, Youtubers Adam Neely and Martina DaSilva elevate this track into an even smoother bossa nova slow jam. DaSilva’s voice is reminiscent of Astrid Gilberto, and it’s this calmness and gravity that means that this track could be played in any late night bar and no-one would bat an eyelid. Beautifully smooth guitar frills add more texture to the track and mean that I’m still not tired of it, two weeks of having it on repeat later.
Milli Vanilli were a real band until they weren’t. Frontmen Rod and Fab, as you surely know by now – it may be the only thing you know about Milli Vanilli – didn’t actually sing on their records. I won’t retell the whole story, because I can’t do it better than Chris Molanphy did on his recent two-part Hit Parade podcast. But one of the many unfortunate parts of the saga is that, whoever sang ’em, Milli Vanilli had some really good pop songs! Huge hits that have been whitewashed from history. I guarantee “Blame It on the Rain” would still be covered often today if that scandal hadn’t happened.
Luckily, when we put out the call for covers for our tenth birthday album a few years back, J Hacha de Zola obliged with a version of “Girl You Know Its True.” The conceit of that album was covers of covers and, sure enough, “Girl You Know Its True” was not originally a Milli Vanilli song (another lie!). It was first recorded by short-lived Baltimore DJ collective Numarx, a version that Frank Farian, mastermind-slash-master-manipulator behind Milli Vanilli, somehow got onto. The Milli Vanilli saga is a bummer in so many ways. But at least it led to this killer cover.
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