When I record somebody else's song, I have to make it my own or it doesn't feel right. I'll say to myself, I wrote this and he doesn't know it!
- Johnny Cash
- Johnny Cash
There has been a spate of programs across the BBC recently regarding music; or rather the BBC always has something on about music but this so happens to be regarding genres and ideas in music that interest me. In ‘Secrets of the pop song’ the beeb commissioned Guy Chambers (40 million record selling Robbie Williams collaborator) to write three pop songs of a distinct theme, the ballad, the breakthrough single and the anthem.
The later one struck me as odd because I’d always thought of anthems as something more fluid than the usual songwriting fare, more organic in the way they surface, essentially a song becomes an anthem as opposed to being written for that specific purpose. The appropriation of a song by an emotion is what really causes music to stick to our lives like internal postcards of places and times; it’s said that memories are better triggered by smell than by sight, where does sound fall into that hierarchy?
It becomes apparent that no matter how a song is written or by what intention it is produced it is the relevant appropriation by the public mindset which defines how a song will play out through musical history. One of the easiest ways to see this is through the cover version, songs molded and remodeled by other artists as tribute or by means of sharing the emotion they felt when they first heard the song.
I wanted to explore the idea of the cover version as (aside from being a better topic for the aforementioned anthem documentary) its idea I’ve always toyed with but never really dared to dive into. I have dabbled with remixes which are more of a deconstructivist approach to the whole process as opposed to the tributary nature of most cover versions. I also wish to look at the way in which the cover version can take on a life of its own and via public appropriation grow to overshadow the very artist who originally wrote it.
Whether you believe or agree with the theory its hard to suppress the evidence that most popular western music, no matter what the modern genre interpretation, stems from blues and gospel music prevalent in the deep south of America at the turn of the 19th century. Its influence on modern pop and rock becomes glaringly obvious with only the slightest peek into musical histories incestuous closet. The cover version too, has a basis in blues. Not so much by way of tribute to an artist or song but rather to a set of blues standards which exemplify the underpinning emotions of the medium and became so popular that it was almost an offence for a bluesman not to lick out at least one of these classics per set. The blues standards are the folk and fairy tales of the music trade, they tell the same stories and are founded on the same themes and emotions with only the characters changing. Musicians were not covering each other as much as spreading the word by retelling the stories of betrayal and condemnation. Deeply stewed in melancholy yet with an underdogs determined resolve the blues standards - although added to in number and variation over the years - are still part of any musician’s initiation and invitation to the blues.
When record labels predominantly hosting white artists latched onto the blues in the early 50’s these songs helped rocket stars like Elvis Presley into the cultural stratosphere. Sold on their performance, persona and reasonable ability to play the tracks, these stars were not the singer/songwriters we know today, they were the faces and voices for a myriad of hidden and just plain overlooked performers and songwriters. In terms of covers one of Elvis’ best known tracks ‘blue suede shoes’ was not only written by but released by one Carl Perkins only eight months before Presley was handed it as the breakthrough record we know today. The song was conceived while Perkins, Presley and country star Johnny Cash were touring together across the America, and even tough Perkins version charted considerably higher (#2 to Presley’s #20) the song is notorious in the public mindset, keyed in with Presley’s signature moves.
Later in his career Johnny Cash would record a series of five albums known as the 'American recordings’ brimming with cover versions new and old from artist such as Tom Waits, Beck, Sting, U2, Tom Petty and Sheryl Crow. Most famous is his rendition of Nine inch nails ‘Hurt’ which took on a life of its own for the waning country legend. When interviewed Reznor had this to say regarding the popularity of the cover.
"Having Johnny Cash, one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time, want to cover your song, that's something that matters to me. It's not so much what other people think but the honour that this guy felt it was worthy of interpreting. He said afterwards it was a song that sounds like one he would have written in the 60s and that's wonderful."
Much like the blues standards it was expected that a more popular artist be given the chance to take a song to a higher notoriety with songs passing between artists and record labels with little time in between, in the case of Perkins and Presley recording was just a month apart, the track has since been recorded by everyone from The beatles to Buddy Holly.
Not noted for his punk rock roots Holly turns up in another interesting I-never-knew-that-was-a-cover story. In the months following Buddy Holly’s death his former band The crickets took on Holly’s long standing friend Sonny Curtis to handle front-man duties. One of his first writing projects for the band - for release on 1960’s ‘In style with the crickets’ - was to become a punk mission statement in the form of ‘I fought the law’.
Getting from the be-bop and jive of 50’s rock ‘n’ roll to the anarchic nihilism of punk would take more than a simple leap of logic if followed along the regular lineage of musical evolution, but the beauty of the cover version is its ability, no matter what decade or genre, to be heard on its own terms and allow meaning and intent to drive the song as opposed to fad and popularity.
British rebels The clash heard ‘I fought the law’ on a jukebox in the studio while recording in
in 1978. It was instantly added to their line up and helped seal a staple success in the American charts for the band as well as becoming a mainstay and classic of punks reining years. It is when these songs are far removed and replanted in the style of the covering band that they become great and synonymous with the public conscious as never to have existed in their previous form. San Francisco
Whether you know the 1999 Kula Shaker #19 or the #4 for Deep Purple in 1968 it’s unlikely that the original version of ‘Hush’ sticks in your mind. Although written in the late 50’s by Joe South the song was not heard by the public properly until it was recorded by Billy Joe Royal in 1967. A year later while struggling with the torn identity of the band between hard rock and blues, Hertfordshire five piece Deep purple recorded a version which shot to #4 in the US charts and began the bands illustrious career into the annuls of heavy metal history. Their version of song is now a staple of hard rock in the 60’s and solidified the bands status in the emerging British metal scene.
The cover version, not only as tribute, also allows for great songwriting to outlast the perilously fickle nature of popularity within the music industry. Just as fashion has seasons and styles which wax and wane, so too do the peaks and troughs of chart worthy and significant musical approaches. From rock ‘n’ roll to punk, motown to synthpop, great songs covered and transferred across genre can relay the underlying glory of it original intent or simply become a tool, a muse to express a previously accounted for sentiment to an emerging artist.
Written by Ed Cobb in the mid 60’s ‘Tainted love’ is now an enduring story of a love gone sour and the subsequent escape to single life. Originally recorded by Gloria Jones as a B-side in 1964, the songs leading track failed to chart and it was thought that Cobb’s ballad to wasted affection would be lost from the ears of the public. Ten years later Motown had a second chance revival under the eclectic leadership of the 70’s mod movement in the
. Mod, like the early days of rock ‘n’ roll before it, drew a lot of influence from music predominantly based in black culture. Thrown in with the early rock of The kinks, The yardbirds and The who, Motown, Tamla and Northern soul were all given good grace in emerging subculture. DJ Richard Searling was first to spot the apt dynamic and style of ‘Tainted love’ and took to spreading the track across the mod scene, even going as far as re-recording it in 1976. Although the Searling version is still a staple of mod-revival it once again failed to chart and was left to be found once again by an altogether different genre. UK
While mod was based on black soul and gospel the synthpop glare of the 80’s was based more on the avant-garde electronic experimentalist and mechanical greed of Thatcherism. When ‘Tainted love’ finally got its chance to shine, shine it surely did, in the plastic wrapping of Soft cell’s 1981 reworking. The song took on a cold fragility of its own and set its steely, electronic heart to the pace of the enduring pop classic. The song has since seen almost every musical genre imaginable but none quite so memorable as the ubiquitous sampled claps and bloops which usher it onto dance floors today.
The tradition of closely released cover versions seen with Presley and Perkins continued well into the late 60’s with one of folks greatest and best loved songwriters falling folly to public uptake of a cover version.
Following a motorcycle accident and recuperation from
in 1966 Bob Dylan penned the famous ‘All along the watchtower’. A song of recollection and stepping away from a hectic and perplexing world, the three chord treaty, like many examples here, would not chart upon its release in 1967. Woodstock
It took the seeming musical divinity (and a myriad of retakes) for Jimi Hendrix to complete his cover after being given a copy of the track by Dylan’s publicist. Hendrix was no stranger to cover versions, based heavily in blues influence and releasing his drop tempo take on ‘Hey Joe’ a year previous, his electrified, cacophonic version of Dylan’s folk retreat buzzed with rebellion and the angst of claustrophobic summer cities.
It has been noted by a multitude of musical journalists over the years to be the quintessential cover version. Surpassing its original while conveying the same message of escape and bewilderment, it oozes Hendrix’ well versed yet adlibbed style to the point where Dylan himself has incorporated much of the Hendrix version into his own performance.
"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."
The cover version is still a foundation in the music industry today, from the saccharine Americana of Glee to the classical bashing cello-thrash of Apocalyptica, whether you are a breakthrough artist attempting to bury yourself in the collective consciousness of the music buying public of an established artist wanting to pay tribute to the music you love, the cover version is your key.
Even the movie industry is in on the game with directors seeping musical remakes into their work, Baz Lurhmann’s ‘Moulin rouge!’ in 2001 was wall to wall reworkings of everyone in every genre from Nirvana to The police, Nat king Cole to Elton John, Marilyn Monroe to Madonna and back again.
The cover version is musics nod to the past with it feet in the present, a simulacrum museum created from itself. It brings new fans to old music and old fans to new, a cover can usurp, honor or just plain revel in the music with no fear other than to be discarded but in the end it all boils down to understanding the music you love and, like folk tales of the past, helps to keep those songs alive.