What's a cover version?

Posted Tuesday January 30, 2007 by John Gunders in |

Recently Rage started playing a cover of “Echo Beach” by Newcastle band, The Humm.

A friend emailed me to complain about it, which started me thinking about covers and their role in popular music. Originally of course, covers were designed to make music recorded by unsuitable (ie, black) artists available to a white audience. This continued the long separation of professional songwriters from professional musicians. As history and popular myth would have it, The Beatles were the first to break this separation (although six of the fourteen tracks on their first album were covers).

In later years, the cover became a good way for an up and coming (or let’s face it, second-rate) band to gain immediate recognition, and I suspect that’s the way “Echo beach” is being used by The Humm.

But there is another use of covers: when a version of a song develops the original to a point where it can almost be considered a different piece. This is where my friend comes in:

I’ve never been one for minimalistically dealing with musical heritage. If you’re going to redo the song, you should aim to do better than the original, not just “do it our way”. It should be a tribute to the song, not an ego-thump by muscle-heads like The Humm.

Without sounding like an Arts graduate, there are some serious philosophical musicological issues that disturb me here. Are we a world artistic community celebrating and developing our heritage or a bunch of competing cave-persons displaying our gym-enhanced biceps? Showing only that we aren’t really good enough to bother covering those songs…? It’s vandalism!

I won’t say that I disagree with everything Jon says here, but there are a few points. Maybe not “better than the original”, but certainly different to it. A few years ago The Foo Fighters released a cover of Jerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” that was almost indistinguishable from the original, except that the sax solo was played on guitar. Why bother? Working out and playing accurate covers is a really good exercise for trainee musicians, but pointless for anyone else.

Compare that with my favourite cover: Cake’s version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”. The disco version was recorded as a club vehicle and was intentionally bright and upbeat, and it became almost an incipient “girl-power” anthem, with its positive lyrics and female vocal. The Cake version, on the other hand, with typically lo-fi instrumentation and down-beat male vocals almost reverses the meaning of the song. No longer a celebration of independence and self-reliance, this is a note of world-weary and stoic acceptance by a guy who’s had his heart ripped out. I’m old enough, and nerdy enough to quite like the disco version, but the Cake cover is awesome.

So why listen to covers? I’m with Jon in wanting the music to which I listen to be fresh and innovative (which doesn’t necessarily mean “avant-garde”); which acknowledges its musical heritage, but isn’t derivative of it; and which says something meaningful (which could be as simple as “hey, listen to my cool new guitar sound”).

Obviously, these sorts of debates are usually couched in terms of authenticity and inauthenticity, but as I have said elsewhere (oh yeah, that’s right, in my thesis) that distinction is difficult to sustain (summary: we all have our own versions of authenticity, so it’s meaningless to generalise). But when arguments of authenticity do arise (and that’s all the time) one of the main tropes is of creativity and originality. Pretty obviously this is going to dismiss the Foo Fighters’ cover, and allow Cake’s.

Maybe it would be fun to start a list of favourite covers. Please contribute…

Your Comments

  1. LeisureArts writes:

    Posted: 30 01 2007 - 04:18 | Permanent link to this comment

  2. Nick Caldwell writes:

    Posted: 30 01 2007 - 05:05 | Permanent link to this comment

  3. John Gunders writes:

    Posted: 31 01 2007 - 06:26 | Permanent link to this comment

  4. Jonathan writes:

    Posted: 4 02 2007 - 09:25 | Permanent link to this comment

  5. Ian Rogers writes:

    Posted: 5 02 2007 - 08:22 | Permanent link to this comment

  6. Catherine Howell writes:

    Posted: 6 02 2007 - 21:20 | Permanent link to this comment

  7. Nick Caldwell writes:

    Posted: 7 02 2007 - 07:43 | Permanent link to this comment

  8. John Gunders writes:

    Posted: 7 02 2007 - 08:17 | Permanent link to this comment

  9. Catherine Howell writes:

    Posted: 16 02 2007 - 15:28 | Permanent link to this comment

  10. John Gunders writes:

    Posted: 19 02 2007 - 03:07 | Permanent link to this comment

  11. Catherine Howell writes:

    Posted: 19 02 2007 - 15:13 | Permanent link to this comment

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