Cover songs have never been bigger. They are everywhere these days, from cover-based TV shows like American Idol and Glee, to radio covers like those seen on Triple J’s Like a Version series, and countless amateur YouTube versions of practically every conceivable popular song. This August, when Ryan Adams announced that he would be covering Taylor Swift’s world-conquering 1989 album in full, the spotlight was once again drawn on to the fascinating art of creative reinterpretation. Join Innocuist for a look through the illustrious history of cover songs, from those who do the original an injustice, to those covers which may even topple any other version.
For his part, Adams’ attempt at reimagining last year's biggest pop album in his signature bohemian country rock style was a fairly dismal failure. A few parts worked on the level of Oh, that melody actually sounds good in country rock music!, but there were too many insurmountable hurdles in Adams’ way. No matter how much Adams aimed for a crossover success that would garner him a new legion of younger fans, there was just no getting around the fact that lyrics like "'Cause the players gonna play/ And the haters gonna hate/ Baby, I'm just gonna shake," sounded frankly ridiculous coming out of Adams’ mouth. The Swift originals are by now so ubiquitous that practically no one can replicate their impact through a cover version, least of all a downtrodden middle-aged country singer with no particular attachment to the content.
Cover versions have been with us since the earliest days of recorded music. The Chicago Tribune described the term in 1952, as “trade jargon meaning to record a tune that looks like a potential hit on someone else’s label.” For decades, musicians have made some other artists' song their own, either for the purposes of tribute, competition, betterment, or parody. Several such covers, such as Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 version of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower have become far better known than their originals. Watchtower became a Top 10 hit under Hendrix’s dramatic but respectful reinterpretation (Hendrix practically worshiped Dylan), and the cover is now remembered as one of the blues man’s signature tunes. For his part, Dylan acknowledged Hendrix’s genius:
“It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day. I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way… Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”
This is perhaps the most interesting and mutually respectful example of a cover song surpassing its original. Yet certainly, the mind who originally wrote the lyrics and melody of a song will always have a unique bond with that piece of music. No matter how closely a fan like Hendrix relates to a record, the author of that tune will forever be the sole custodian of the inherent meaning, the inherent spirit contained within. For instance, that soul-searching moment in which Leonard Cohen wrote Hallelujah will forever be his, even though most people will remember that song through Jeff Buckley’s haunting interpretation.
Covers like Watchtower and Hallelujah come about because a fellow artist respects another's work enough to record their homage to it. Great cover versions will always deviate from the original to a greater or lesser degree, and perhaps the subjective success or failure of a cover boils down to a listener’s preference of one emotional interpretation over another. Much as one translation of a work like Anna Karenina from the original Russian to English may completely change the overall feel of the piece, a cover song like Hallelujah takes someone else’s subject matter and places it in a different context, changing its impact. Though Cohen will always ultimately own the words and music of that song, perhaps the power that Cohen’s song had on Buckley was more forceful than the impact the composition had on Cohen during its conception. Perhaps, in the right place and time, a fan’s interpretation may occasionally surpass the emotional weight of the original.
There is subjectivity in all of this, of course. Who is to say whether Billie Holiday or Nina Simone recorded the definitive Strange Fruit? Who can boldly say which of the Righteous Brothers’ or Elvis Presley’s version of Unchained Melody is the better? Or, for that matter, whether Blue Suede Shoes was best as a Carl Perkins song or as an Elvis cover? Conversely, Jack White’s version of Jolene is so different from the Dolly Parton original that few listeners will be fans of both; rather, the same fundamental song and story will appeal to two very different tastes. It all comes down to the way in which a song’s message is conveyed, and whether a different version of a piece of music can take the original to a more impactful place for a given listener.
But occasionally, an interpretation becomes the dominant example of a work of art. C. K. Scott Moncreiff spent almost a decade translating Marcel Proust’s mammoth novel In Search of Lost Time lovingly, word by word, from French to English, to stunning success; it is now generally considered foolish for any other writer to attempt a new English translation of Proust’s masterpiece. Similarly, Tainted Love is so Soft Cell that Gloria Jones’ brilliant soul original has all but been surpassed, left behind in the wake of Soft Cell's biggest hit. Most fans don't even realise that Tainted Love is in fact a cover. And I Will Always Love You became one of the best selling singles of all time under Whitney Houston’s direction, to the point that most music listeners will forever associate that song with her. That Dolly Parton wrote and recorded the original has become almost immaterial
There was a time when there were so many versions of a given song that the original was in danger of being forgotten. To cite Unchained Melody again, that song is - to most - quintessentially Righteous Brothers. Yet their version came after the track had been around for 10 years, and already recorded and released by at least 11 other high profile artists. More recently, The Smiths' beautiful Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want has been professionally covered countless times, by everyone from Franz Ferdinand to The Decemberists, Deftones, Muse, and The Weeknd. In fact, there are so many versions of that song that dozens of music listeners may each have their own, separate, preferred iteration.
Other times, a cover version may be less advisable. These can be truly awful, from Kid Rock’s Fortunate Son sacrilege, to Aerosmith’s hatchet-job of Come Together, and Susan Boyle’s head-scratching version of The Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses. Meanwhile, Limp Bizkit’s Behind Blue Eyes and Miley Cyrus’ Smells Like Teen Spirit or - shudder - album-length Sgt. Pepper’s cover are best forgotten and never spoken of again, though I feel honour bound to include them on any Worst Covers rundown. Happily, however, there are karmic cover song counteractions: Guns N’ Roses abysmally took on the Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil, and the universe responded by giving us Cheryl Crow's terrible Sweet Child O’ Mine.
On the polar opposite end of the spectrum, only a handful of cover songs have entered the hallowed ground inhabited by Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Buckley. Sometimes, great songs can be taken over by strangers, years later, and made even better. When Joe Cocker covered With a Little Help From My Friends in 1969 at Woodstock, he proved that even The Beatles could be beaten at their own game, taking Lennon and McCartney’s upbeat classic and slowing it down, changing the chord structure, and turning the song into a wild, untamed beast of a tune. Elsewhere, the success The Clash enjoyed with their cover of The Crickets' 1960 song I Fought the Law has effectively made it so that any further cover of that song will be a Clash cover, not a Crickets cover; the punk group created the definitive edition of that piece of music.
Perhaps the most remarkable transformation of a song through reinterpretation came in 2002 when Johnny Cash covered Trent Reznor’s haunting Nine Inch Nails classic Hurt. Cash had been covering a diverse array of music for his late-career American albums, and had proven a master a making others' songs his own. Yet it was still a shock to hear his stripped-bare take on Reznor’s suicidal ode to misery. It had been eight years since Reznor released Hurt, at the emotional nadir of his life, boarded up in the Sharon Tate house where he recorded The Downward Spiral. Cash’s version would end up as the last well-known song he released before his tragic death in 2003.
Reznor later recalled his emotional response upon hearing Cash’s Hurt along with its accompanying video, as echoes of Dylan's Watchtower sentiments reappeared:
“I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.”
Cash turned Reznor’s lyrics outward, taking a deeply introspective meditation on depression and projecting it into the world as he stared death in the face. Lyrics like “What have I become?/ My sweetest friend/ Everyone I know goes away/ In the end,” became doubly poignant, sung in the life-worn voice of a man who’d seen it all and was ready to move onward. “If I could start again/ A million miles away/ I would keep myself/ I would find a way.” The song is partly brilliant because of its sparse musical treatment, but largely, it works so well because of what it meant and when it was released. A song by a skinny gothic rock kid from Pennsylvania had become the eulogy of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists.
And therein lies the power of a great cover. Who is to say what a particular combination of words and notes will mean to a listener? When every one of the great covers mentioned here were recorded, an emotional thread was teased out of the original; a powerful feeling that may or may not have already been apparent. Through bold efforts, covered songs can take on entirely new meanings, new forms; they can become better, worse, or simply different. Ultimately, the art of covering another artist’s music has given us some of the best songs of all time. Long may each other’s songs continue to resonate with all of us.
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