On the merits of cover versions

Jo Gillot apologised for including three cover versions in her hour long set at The Dukes on Tuesday.  Ponies’ use of a censored version of ‘Saturday Night At The Bookstore’ to kickstart the Totally Wired Launch event has generated discussion in the comments of that review.  Go around the pubs tonight and you will find plenty of bands playing copies of popular hits.

So far The Lunecy review has steered clear of the tribute acts, the cover bands etc in favour of those trying to be a little more original, but is this just snobbery?  Is the cover version a bad thing?  Can it be a good thing?

Evidence for the prosecution: X-Factor and all those wannabes being forced by Satan Cowell to do banal copies of Take That or Kylie or The Beatles, thus stifling what individuality and talent they had that might indeed have been the ‘x-factor’. 

Evidence for the defence: The Beatles started off playing covers in The Cavern and The Star clubs.  

Exhibit 1: Aretha’s ‘Respect’ as compared to its original version.  One of the greatest records ever made, and a cover version.

So why do cover versions?  Being a great singer/guitarist/etc doesn’t automatically mean being a great writer (Billie Holiday, Eric Clapton, etc).   Nor does doing a cover occasionally mean a failing as a writer (Bob Dylan has done his share of covers.)  A cover can be straight homage as in Joyeux’s recent romp through ‘No Fun’ which was, in fact, great fun.  It can be an attempt at something new and different, stretching musical wings. 

It all comes down to personality.  Choose the right cover, after all, do we really need another version of ‘She Moves Through the Fair’?  Give it something of your own character, Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’ fits with his own songs musically.  And don’t use it as a crutch for your own laziness musically.   It’s not karaoke.

So, readers, what are your favourite covers?  Here’s a top 5 from me:

‘Feel Like Going Home’ — The Walkabouts with Mark Lanegan (the song I want played at my funeral)

‘The Hazards Of Love’ — The Decemberists (from 2009’s album of the year so far)

‘Ring Of Fire’ — Swamptrash

‘Naked If I Wanted To’ — Cat Power

‘Rock El Casbah’ — Rachid Taha  (the cover as statement.)

20 Responses

  1. I think that the best covers are those that add something a little different to the original. Not just a bland carbon copy – ala X Factor. I think a cover version can be a fitting tribute for some worthy and unknown artists (Like Tom with his cover of The Dicks’ classic Saturday Night at the Bookstore and Colin Bertram covering The Circle Jerks’ When the shit hits the fan) thus giving them exposure.

    Tribute bands I personally wouldn’t pay money to go see. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never get to Led Zep, Pink Floyd or AC/DC reunite, why would I want to see a pale imitation? I remember as a 15 year old going to see the Queen tribute band Magic in Oxford and remembering how embarassingly bad it was. I almost felt sorry for them.

    Anyways here is my top 5 cover versions…

    1. Evan Dando – Skulls (The Misfits)
    2. Dinosaur Jr – Just Like Heaven (The Cure)
    3. Husker Du – Sunshine Superman (Donovan)
    4. Minor Threat – 12 x U (Wire)
    5. Mudhoney – Hate The Police (The Dicks)

    • Thanks for mentioning my Circle Jerks cover Reza. As you say, good cover versions can lead you into checking out other bands and The Cramps did some fine covers in their time. As for my favourite 5, ones that come to mind are…

      The Stranglers – Walk On By (Dionne Warwick)
      Jello Biafra & DOA – We Gotta Get Out Of This Place (The Animals)
      Manic Street Preachers – We Are All Bourgeois Now (McCarthy)
      Nils Lofgren – Goin’ Back (Carole King)
      Iggy Pop – Louis Louis (The Kingsmen)

  2. You could practically see Pink Floyd by going to a Roger Waters gig. On the 2007 tour he also had Nick Mason on drums. Halfway there.

  3. Good Topic Kev, Unfortunately had to leave Jo Gillot early on Tuesday, only caught the Xtc cover, what were the other two?
    Love Covers detest Tribute Bands. Very hard coming up with a Top 5, should also mention that a lot of artists sometimes just bring out an album full of covers and it can work. Nick Cave “Kicking Against the Pricks” Patti Smith “12” Cat Power “Jukebox” and even the recent Scarlett Johansson’s covers of Tom Waits. Just remembered the recent Dylan film “I’m Not There” featured some great Dylan covers.

    Right my top 5 at the moment would be

    1. Police & Thieves – The Clash ( Junior Murvin )
    2. Avalanche – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds ( Leonard Cohen )
    3. Song to the Siren – This Mortal Coil ( Tim Buckley )
    4. New York – Cat Power ( Sinatra )
    5. Psychotic Reaction – The Cramps ( The Count Five )

  4. Bloody Hell Kev, i’m going to be thinking about this all night now – just remembered some more belters

    Looking At You – The Damned ( M.C.5 )
    I Know It’s Over – Jeff Buckley ( The Smiths )
    Mr Tambourine Man – The Byrds ( Dylan )

    and have you heard the Mark Lanegan “Long Black Coat ” ( Bob Dylan )
    which is on the I’m Not There Film Soundtrack.
    Great Shout regarding The Walkabouts/Mark Lanegan before Kev

  5. Covers are great. Especially the ones that get you thinking ‘I’m sure I know this – but what is it?’ Or the ones that force you to reconsider a song you’ve never rated.

    (Are you sure ‘The Hazards Of Love’ is a cover? I thought it was all Meloy)

  6. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged wouldn’t of been half as good without the covers, ( The Meat Puppets/Bowie covers were excellent ).
    Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower ” is more famous than the Dylan original, as is Sinead o Conner’s version of the Prince song “Nothing Compere’s 2 U”
    One cover i currently hate at the moment is the theme tune to the TV Show “The Wire”. It’s a terrible version of “Way Down In The Hole” by Tom Waits. Give me Tom anytime!!!

  7. Yeah kudos to Cobain actually. I got into The Meat Puppets through that unplugged set. He turned me onto lots of other stuff as well I’d never have heard of otherwise like The Wipers and The Vaselines. He is an example of someone who does covers well. Its’ a shame he didn’t live longer, I think he could have made quite a decent solo singer-songwriter. He had the voice for it anyway.

    I’d also have to add Robert Forster’s version of 2541 (Grant Hart).

    Yeah that is a terrible version of Way down in the hole. Great show tho’.

  8. Rich/Reza: which series of The Wire? as each had a different artist doing the same song.

    Beth: I thought the actual ‘title’ track was an Anne Briggs cover, but if I’m wrong substitute Beth orton’s version of ‘Dolphins’ with Terry Callier or, indeed, most of the covers mentioned by my esteemed commentators above.
    And I forgot one of my all time favourites Magnapop’s superb version of ’13’ by Big Star.

  9. I’m well behind on The Wire, just finished watching Series One.
    So it was the clown singing on the first series i’m taking offence to.

    One Tom Waits cover i don’t mind is The Ramones version of ” I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”

  10. Mind you Rich, The Ramones were hardly at the peak when they did that cover. A lot of their later material was pretty embaressing. Tho’ I still really love ‘Too tough to die’ – A definate Hardcore influence creeping in by that stage.

    I would say that they did a terrific version of Surfin’ Bird. Was that by The Cramps originally?

  11. I Saw The Ramones at Birmingham Odeon on the “Too Tough To Die Tour”, 1986? It was mental!!!
    The bouncers were all positioned at the side of the stage with baseball bats – i kid you not, it was insane, didn’t stop nutters invading the stage every few songs though.
    Hard to believe 3 of the Ramones are no longer with is.
    God, Life’s so Cruel!!!

  12. On The Wire:
    season 1 Blind Boys Of Alabama (no clowns in my book, but not their finest moment maybe)
    season 2 Tom Waits
    season 3 The Neville Brothers
    season 4 “DoMaJe” (er who??)
    season 5 Steve Earle (who also has a recurring role in the series.)

    Favourite Waits covers? Holly Cole did some good jazzy stuff like Heart of Saturday Night, Violent Femmes version of Step Right Up is fun, John Hammond jr did a decent album of Waits covers and I like Scarlett Johanssen’s album actually.

    • Mustn’t forget Screamin’ Jay hawkins’ Heartattack & Vine — a truly great cover.

  13. Nice attention to detail as ever by Lunecy (On The Wire Info). Looking forward to hearing the master himself on Series Two, which i’ve got on tape. Too busy messing about on the computer these days, rather than having time to catch up on tv stuff.
    Talking of Tom Waits covers – went to Mollie Baxter’s Birthday do at Gregson last night, only to hear an excellent Tom Waits Cover ( Cold Water ) performed by Kriss Foster, Tom from Ponies & Robin from Homemade Lemonade. WHAT TIMING!!!
    Forgot all about the Screaming Jay Hawkins version Kev, your right though, that was a great version!!
    Reza, I Think Surfin Bird was an original by 60’s Garage Band The Trashmen. When you think about it The Cramps did loads of brilliant covers, mostly songs by obscure 60’s American Garage Bands!!

  14. Oh yeah it was The Trashen wasn’t it. I think it was The Cramps who through their brilliant covers got me into all of those great 60’s garage rock bands. Yet again a band pulling off covers successfully. At their best covers get you into stuff you’d never have checked out otherwise. Or even still, a band does it so well that they manage to make the song their own. So much so that you get surprised when you discover it’s only a cover.

    I’d reccomend you all listen to the brilliant Peter Case Tribute album ‘A Case for Case’. Great stuff. Or even better A Tribute to Gram Parsons which is worth owning alone for Evan dando and Juliana Hatfield’s take of $1000 Wedding.

    On the minus side there’s Chris Cornell’s awful version of Billie Jean. So so tedious.

  15. Wouldn’t mind hearing that Gram Parsons one Reza.
    As well as the odd cover, i also like the idea of certain bands covering another artists album – i remember, back in the 80’s, reading about New York Noise Merchants Pussy Galore doing a complete cover of “Exile On Main Street” by the Rolling Stones. I would love to hear it, can anyone help? I’ve been looking for this for over 20 years – no luck anywhere.
    Me and a mate once spent a whole evening at home in a drugged confused state covering the whole of The Beatles White Album and thinking it was a good idea to record it. Once sober and sane the results were shocking!! The cassette tape was later used successfully in a Government “Just Say No” Drugs Campaign.
    We never even got paid royalties for it either PAH!

  16. Oh yes, the Pussy Galore one. I’ve got a couple of their albums but not that one. I’ll see what I can find. I’ll be happy to do you a copy of the Gram Parsons tibute album actually.

    Talking late 80’s/early 90’s alt-rock, I love Ciccone Youth’s cover of ‘get into the groove’. Completly bizarre to say the least. I also get moved ny Johnny Cash’s verion of Hurt (NIN), the video is just heartbreaking. To see this tough, great outlaw just a broken down old man.

  17. Rich: that sums up the original White Album for me, drugged and confused and shockingly bad.

    I don’t have Pussy Galore’s Exile, but I do enjoy Chuck Prophet & co’s version of Waylon Jennings’ Dreaming My Dreams album. Done in a day, messing about in the studio, but with superb musicianship and respect.

  18. I think cover versions are great things! They can bring listeners to a completely new type of music.
    My favourite cover is “It’s My Life” by No Doubt, originally by Talk Talk. They really brought that song to life!

    My new blog post is about the best cover versions around

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