A Guide to the Cover Version
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 albumSomeone 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 songIf 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" songWhen 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 songAn 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 shockTo 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 shockA 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-UpNot 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 slushLouis 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.