Monday, November 19, 2007

A Guide to the Cover Version

Cover versionsI was recently given a copy of "Radio 1 Established 1967" which is an album containing a song from each year of Radio 1's existence covered by a modern artist. Most of the bands seem to have made faithful replicas of the songs they are covering, others have opted to put their own mark on songs. Which strategy is best? You don't want to deliver a karaoke version, nor do you want to "murder the original".

Often the choice of cover version hints at the covering artist's musical tastes and influences. For the listener, it can act as a pointer to areas of music that the listener may wish to explore further - Elliott Smith would cover songs by The Beatles, The Kinks and Big Star in his live performances, and all three are worth further listening.

There are many reasons why a band will record someone else's song, to find out why, you need to read my "Guide to the Cover Version".

Tribute album

Someone will come up with the idea of re-recording a classic album or doing an album of one artist's songs with a selection of acts choosing a song to cover each. A good example of this would be The Smiths is Dead or the Leonard Cohen tribute I'm your fan. The most horrific example of its form is George Martin's collection of Beatles covers, In My Life, sung by motley collection of hacks and celebrites, including Jim Carey barking along to "I am the Walrus".

Indie band covers throwaway pop song

If a "serious" Indie artist wants to show that they have a sense of humour, or wish to engage in a bit of "so-bad-it's-good" kitsch, then they can pick a song as far as possible away from their area of expertise. Travis's cover of "Hit me baby one more time" and Joyrider's cover of the sublime "Rush Hour" by Jane Wiedlin, come to mind. It doesn't always work; Belle & Sebastian have covered Rod Stewart's "Baby Jane", which is ill-advised at best.

Pop star covers "credible" song

When Paul Young decided to cover Joy Division's "Love will tear us apart", the former Q-Tips front man must have been looking to shrug off the memory of singing "White bread, brown bread, all sorts of wholemeal bread" on "Toast". The All Saints cover of "Under the bridge" annoyed many sweaty men without shirts, while Gareth Gates & Will Young's "Long and Winding Road" could have been an incitement to riot. Often this category of covers is referred to as "murdering the original", but there are positive exceptions like the Byrds "Mr Tambourine Man" for instance.

An album of "standards"

At Christmas time, one is guaranteed to find an album of "standards" being performed by someone. Whether it is Robbie Williams, Westlife or Rod Stewart, a big band is wheeled out to create a stocking filler for the aged parent.

Old-timer covers modern song

An ageing rock legend can borrow hipness by covering a more modern song. A good example would be Johnny Cash recording Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" or anything recorded by Tom Jones in the last 20 years.

Cross-genre shock

To generate a bit of publicity, a cover version can be taken out of its original context to provide shock value. Who would have thought that the Smiths classics "Stop me if you think you've heard this one before" or "How soon is now" would be covered by such hamfisted hands as Mark Ronson or Tatu, respectively?

Time signature shock

A sure-fire way to disorientate your audience is to change the time-signature of the original. St Etienne performed this trick with Neil Young's "Only love will break your heart"; transforming its 3-time lilt into a 4-time plodder.

The Mash-Up

Not strictly speaking a cover version, but more of musical nod than sampling, a mash-up is one song sung over the backing track of another. Although it sounds like it could be a recipe for disaster, it can have devastating results, with the Sugababes' "Freak like me" knocking the Adina Howard original into a cocked hat.

Insipid boy-band slush

Louis Walsh's bands generally gorge themselves at the cover version table, their sweet tooth making the product a vile and sticky concoction designed to entrap the musically undeveloped and their twisted parents. Nothing good can come of this. Usually these songs fall into the "murdering the original" category, but there is a certain amount of "blue on blue" fire here, with the originals being by Manilow, the Osmonds or some other hapless balladeer. Walsh has turned musical grave-robbing into a lifestyle choice for a procession of Irish farm-hands.



Blogger Polarbear said...

What a well researched article!

But surely you are not slagging St. Etienne's classic cover. Even if you are you have inspired me to buy that usb enabled gramophone.

That cover of "Stop me if you think you've heard this one before" gets played to death here on BSB (British forces radio). It is rubbish but at least you can sing along.

1:21 am  
Blogger Glynn said...

I was never a big fan of St Etienne, to be honest, but it stuck in my mind when thinking about cover versions.

9:04 am  

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