Judging a Song By Its Cover - Articles - Soundblab

Judging a Song By Its Cover

by Rich Morris Rating: Release Date:

The cover version gets a bit of a bum deal in today's pop culture, despite the fact that up until The Beatles, recording versions of other artists' songs was normal practice. Singers and performers from Elvis to Nina Simone were judged largely by their ability to breathe new life into standards, show tunes, forgotten spirituals or even radical interpretations on classical pieces. For the genuinely talented, everything was fair game. In the progressive, experimental jazz of the 50s and 60s especially, the tactic of taking something familiar and stretching it into radical new shapes became a way for those at the forefront - Coltrane, Ayler, Davis etc - to show how far and how fast their music had evolved.

Compare such wild experimentation with today, where the cover version is the preserve of X Factor sausage factory alumni, warbling out some cack ballad (it's always a ballad) chosen by hands unseen to optimise their demographic 'reach', and it's easy to see why covering someone else's tune is not held in high esteem. But sometimes a cover version can be a vital, culturally important act. In punk and post-punk, a wise choice of cover was a useful way for bands, often so new they had scant original material, to tear up the established songbook while also slyly referencing musical loves which were verboten in punk's austere regime. Sometimes a cover can be so great, it instantly renders the original obsolete. Sometimes it can make you look at a song in a whole new way. And sometimes... Sometimes a cover can just be funny, silly and wonderful.

Here are six of the best.

The greatest cover ever? Recorded by the tea lady after Island Record's original choice of producer, big-shot reggae artist Dennis Brown, turned out to have no idea what to do in the studio. Plus the drummer, Maxie, had never played with them before. And it's still a work of total, elemental genius.

A radical reinvention for this Iggy Pop classic. Grace and musical partners Sly & Robbie replace the original's Bowie-produced art-punk lurch with spacey dub atmospherics and a stoned, skanking rhythm. Still sounds sexy and weird as hell.

On paper this sounds like a hot mess - undying rage-bag Mark E Smith, a man marinading in bitter and fag butts since 1976, gets to grips with a fleet-footed disco classic. And yet... Behold the freaky majesty! Smith even mutters some smouldering French nothings at the start. And is he really calling Leeds a "palace of excess"? We don't know, but this sounds like your alcoholic uncle dropping an E for the first time and is thus awesome.

Sung with more tenderness and conviction that Gary Barlow could ever summon, McAlmont & Butler's lush, trembling cover of Take That's 'Back for Good' shows how even a boyband ballad come become a thing of wonder in the right hands. This is the definitive version.

Recorded live in 1963 during a turbulent and violent year for the civil rights movement, Ayler's reading of this showtune-turned-standard is full of heat, sex, sadness and bubbling menace. From the first discordant sax honk - sounding across between a police-car siren and a child's wail - to the drifting, desolate piano - this revolutionary piece of music articulated what many African-Americans were feeling more eloquently than words could manage.

And finally - a work of absolute, undisputed genius.

Comments (14)

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Without doubt my favourite cover is Sonic Youth's version of Superstar by the Carpenters. It's bloody awesome. Also Ciccone Youth (who are basically Sonic Youth as well) covering Madonna's Get into the Groove. I'm off to sift through my cds to...

Without doubt my favourite cover is Sonic Youth's version of Superstar by the Carpenters. It's bloody awesome. Also Ciccone Youth (who are basically Sonic Youth as well) covering Madonna's Get into the Groove. I'm off to sift through my cds to see what else is ace.

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Yeah, I love that cover of Get into the Groove.

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Used to put that Slits song on nearly every compliation I made for friends, it's amazing! The Wedding Present have done tonnes of great covers. There's their version of the 'theme from shaft' on the 'Boing!' single and their cover of 'Falling'...

Used to put that Slits song on nearly every compliation I made for friends, it's amazing! The Wedding Present have done tonnes of great covers. There's their version of the 'theme from shaft' on the 'Boing!' single and their cover of 'Falling' (Twin Peaks music) on the 'Silver Shorts' single for a start... The Cribs doing the Replacements 'Bastards of Young' on the 'I'm a Realist' single. And, quite possibly, my favourite cover; Suzanne Vegas' 'Luka' as interpreted by the Lemonheads on their Lick album...I've seen Low do a cover of The Smiths 'Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me' live and that was reaaallly good too.....I love a good cover version...

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Here's a few more: Rage Against The Machine's Renegades album is all covers and most are top notch. The 3 Meat Puppets tracks that Nirvana do on their unplugged album are good but not as good as the original. Faith No More's cover of Black...

Here's a few more: Rage Against The Machine's Renegades album is all covers and most are top notch. The 3 Meat Puppets tracks that Nirvana do on their unplugged album are good but not as good as the original. Faith No More's cover of Black Sabbath's War Pigs is better and even heavier than the original. The Cardigans cover of Black Sabbath's Iron Man is brilliant.

Does Oasis' career count as a cover version?

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Wow, that William Shatner video just blew my freakin' mind! What a guy....

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Shatner's version of Lucy in the Sky is equally as mental and possibly trippier than the original.

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Have you heard his cover I Want to Sex You Up by Color Me Badd? Has to be heard to be believed.

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agree with Wedding Present's 'Falling', Lemonheads 'Luka' and Ciccone Youth - 'Into The Groovey', I love Low's version of Joy Division's 'Transmission', Codeine's cover of 'Atmosphere' and Girls Vs Boys cover of 'She's Lost Contro'l. The Afghan...

agree with Wedding Present's 'Falling', Lemonheads 'Luka' and Ciccone Youth - 'Into The Groovey', I love Low's version of Joy Division's 'Transmission', Codeine's cover of 'Atmosphere' and Girls Vs Boys cover of 'She's Lost Contro'l. The Afghan Whigs' 'Uptown Avondale' EP has four great covers on it, Spanish band Migala do an amazing cover of The Cure's 'Plainsong'. Of course St Ettienne's version of 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' is just lush and there's a whole album of Slowdive covers out there, best one is The Gathering 'When The Sun Hits'.
My favourite cover of all time though is Schneider TM's electronic version of The Smiths' 'There's a Light That Never Goes Out' renamed 'The Light 3000'

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GRF4dZW9df0

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on and this glorious re-imagining of The Smith's 'This Charming Man' by Maggie 8 called 'Charming Lady' - just brilliant:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maMNvtzbAxs

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Yes, Schneider TM's cover of 'There is a Light' is awesome! Should have been in my list really - oh well. I'll have to check out that other Smiths cover, Steve. Better than the shite one on that advert I hope!

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