The Flaming Lips’ covers projects often come with weird twists. They’ve covered “A Day in the Life”…with Miley Cyrus. They’ve covered Dark Side of the Moon…with Henry Rollins and some band called Stardeath and White Dwarfs. And, in the newest incarnation, they’re releasing a Nick Cave tribute record…fronted by a 13-year old.
Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
When is a cover not a cover? If a song is written but never committed to any released format, what counts as the original version? Both questions that might raise askance of this set, a set that I believe can, and indeed should, pass muster for these august pages. After all, if it’s good enough for Woody Guthrie…
Jeffrey Lee Pierce is a name known more by association, I guess, than in his own right, popping up in the alongside others plowing the same vein. Literally. Whilst his lifetime recorded output, predominantly under the Gun Club soubriquet, may have been prodigious, he left enough unfinished and discarded songs to provide the bulk of the material in these three (so far) recordings.
Typically, the world of cover songs does not change that much year-to-year. You can point to big shifts across decades, sure, but the difference between cover songs in 2018 and 2019, broadly speaking? Negligible. But 2020 was – in this as in everything else – very different.
As concerts ground to a sudden halt, musicians turned to live-from-quarantine home performances, first on their social media, then, once some kind of business model got built up, on various paid platforms. And cover songs were a big part of that. Some musicians did themed covers nights, like Ben Gibbard on YouTube early on or Lucinda Williams’ more produced Lu’s Jukebox series more recently. Others just felt the freedom in such an intimate environment to try things out, spontaneously covering influences, inspirations, or even songs they only half knew. We collected dozens of those early home covers in our Quarantine Covers series, and still only hit a small fraction.
Musicians eventually settled in, and productions got a little more elaborate than the staring-at-your-iPhone-camera look. Witness the heavy metal comedy series Two Minutes to Late Night, which transitioned from a long-running live show in New York City to a series of YouTube covers with dozens of metal-scene ringers covering songs from their couches, corpse paint and all. Witness Miley Cyrus’s endless series of killer cover locales, from a fire pit to an empty Whisky a Go Go. Or witness long-running radio covers series like BBC’s Live Lounge or Triple J’s Like a Version – often the source of a song or two on these lists. First they had musicians tape special covers from home, then, in the BBC’s case, they moved to a giant warehouse studio for suitable social distancing. (Triple J’s pretty much back to post-coronavirus business as usual – sure, Australia, rub it in.)
There’s one other major way covers reflected 2020, and it’s almost too painful to think about, so I’ll just list their names. John Prine. Adam Schlesinger. Hal Willner. Charley Pride. So many musicians taken by this virus, many reflected in some of these covers (Pride’s death happened after our list was finalized, but tributes are already rolling in). In a year filled with tragedies, covers offered one place for musicians and fans to find solace.
Many of the songs on our year-end list reflect this terrible year in one way or another. But you know what? Many don’t. Because covers can also offer a fun respite from all the stress. Doom metal Doobie Brothers? Post Malone on mandolin? A viral TikTok hit by a guy who calls himself Ritt Momney? Those have nothing to do with anything! But they’re what we live for.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
Larry “Ratso” Sloman has worked with famous musicians for decades, from embedding with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour in 1975 to co-writing Red Hot Chili Pepper Anthony Kiedis’s memoir in 2004. But, until recently, he’s never been a musician himself. Last year, at age 69, he changed that with his debut album Stubborn Heart.
It includes a duet with his longtime friend Nick Cave, who in a forthcoming documentary calls Ratso “a very strange, exotic creature that walks backstage looking like no one you’ve ever met.” Now Ratso’s returned with a cover of Cave’s own “Skeleton Tree”:
Over our time tracking cover songs (13 years this month!), we’ve written about hundreds of new tribute albums, across reviews, news stories, and, when they’re good enough, our best-of-the-year lists. We also have looked back on plenty of great tribute albums from the past in our Cover Classics series. But we’ve never pulled it all together – until now.
Today a double album’s worth of material is being released to celebrate the U.K.’s legends of glam rock – Marc Bolan and his band, T.Rex. Coinciding with the group’s long-overdue induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in November, AngelHeaded Hipster (its name culled from Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem, “Howl”) features 26 covers of classic T-Rex songs by a diverse collection of artists ranging from Kesha to King Khan and U2 to Nick Cave.
AngelHeaded Hipster is produced by the late Hal Willner – who sadly passed away from complications from Covid-19 this past April. In the liner notes, Willner said, “As I was listening and getting familiar with all of Bolan’s work, I discovered that this guy was actually a great composer…I put him in the same pantheon as other composers that I’ve explored before (Kurt Weill, Thelonious Monk, Nino Rota, etc.). So, the concept for the album became to show Bolan as a composer…”
And he goes on to do exactly that.