Cover versions are always tricky – for some fans, the thought of another artist messing about with a song by their favourite singer can come across as sacrilege; for many others, a cover version can bring to their attention music that they might never otherwise hear. At their best, cover versions can reveal unfamiliar elements in a familiar song, uncover hidden depths, and add an extra dimension to established work. At their worst, cover versions are simply pedestrian, lazy reworks, or mere replicas (slavish copies). Many renditions veer on karaoke or like those over-hyped performances (which are inflicted on an undeserving public courtesy of “reality” shows such as The Voice, Pop Idol and The X Factor), they seem mainly designed to demonstrate vocal gymnastics, rather than exploring the essence of a song. Far from making an iconic song their “own”, the performer ends up with a Xerox facsimile.
Our preferences for particular cover versions (even over the originals) are purely subjective. The other night I was at a small social gathering, and the host started playing Frank Sinatra’s version of “Mack The Knife”, a recording from late in Ol’ Blue Eyes’ career. Hearing it for the first time, I recognised the song and the singer, but not this rendition. My own reference for this particular arrangement of the Weill/Brecht standard is probably Bobby Darin – but he was following in the footsteps of Louis Armstrong who first brought the song into the Top 40. Perhaps if I had heard Sinatra’s version first, would that be my reference point?
There are probably lots of songs we all know by way of cover versions, rather than the original. Which is understandable. First, in jazz, country and blues, of course, standards and evergreens are the staples of many a repertoire. Second, in pop music of the 1950s and 60s, multiple versions of the same song (usually written by jobbing song writers, rather then by established performers) would be released, often at the same time, to cater for different markets. But in both these categories, these are not so much cover versions as different interpretations – which is not quite the same thing, in my view.
What draws me to a particular cover version tends to be one or other of the following factors: first, what prompted or inspired the artist to record their own version? second, does the new recording bring an unfamiliar artist to my attention, that I then end up exploring further? third, how does the cover version interpret a well-known number, beyond replicating it?
Here are three examples of cover versions, whose original recordings were unknown to me when I first heard them, and which remain my reference points for these songs – but they have also prompted me to explore the original artists’ back catalogue:
- “Song to the Siren”, written by Tim Buckley, as recorded by This Mortal Coil
- “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”, written by Sly & The Family Stone, as recorded by Magazine
- “My Funny Valentine”, the Rodger & Hart evergreen, as recorded by Elvis Costello (who was referencing Chet Baker’s version)
In contrast, here are three recordings of songs which I love, but I hate these interpretations, because, as happens with many cover versions, they do not add anything, or they are poor replicas, or the vocal interpretations are simply out of kilter:
- “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, written by Joy Division, and bludgeoned by Paul Young
- “Ziggy Stardust”, written by David Bowie, and made soulless by Bauhaus
- “Hallelujah”, written by Leonard Cohen, and rendered overwrought and histrionic by Jeff Buckley (sometimes less is more – as demonstrated by John Cale’s majestic and elegiac interpretation, recorded a few years before Buckley brought out his version)
Of course, a good song will generally shine through, regardless of performer, style or arrangement – revealing itself to be a perennial work of art. A few random examples:
- “Computer Love”, originally by Kraftwerk, but turned into a laid back, disco-style torch song that manages to bring warmth and humanity to an electronic classic by Glass Candy
- “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, a classic ballad by The Smiths, yet when rendered as “The Light 3000” by Schneider TM & Kptmichigan, it becomes a mournful song of love, loss and regret that could easily have been performed by HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey”
- “She’s Lost Control”, Joy Division’s post-punk anthem, given a reggae makeover by Grace Jones that works because it sounds like Ms Jones could easily be singing about herself in the third person…
But for all my reservations, cover versions do have their place. If it wasn’t for This Mortal Coil, I wouldn’t have heard Big Star’s “Third” album; if not for Nick Cave’s “Kicking Against The Pricks” album (which at the time, set off a trend for tribute and covers albums – with varying results…), I’m not sure I would have encountered much of his own music; and without Robert Wyatt’s series of cover versions in the early 1980s, I probably wouldn’t have been as engaged by or aware of the music of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis or even Chic….
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