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But Have You Heard the Cover Version?

I’m not entirely sure why I like cover songs so much. I just do. By my iTunes’ accounting, I have 1.3 days worth of cover songs on my laptop. That’s 2.53 gigabytes’ worth of music files, or some 517 individual songs. I have five versions of The Doors’ “Light My Fire”; three versions each of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” REM’s “Everybody Hurts,” and The Cars’ “Drive”; and also a handful of reinterpretations of the ever-popular Oasis hit “Wonderwall,” done by everybody from Green Day to the Mike Flowers Pops. Somehow, I’ve ended up with 14 different versions of The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” This is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” scenario if ever one existed.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I have to wonder: Where does reinterpretation come in? In the early days of recording, it was pretty common for artists to be asked to do a faithful version of somebody else’s work for release in regional markets — but today, with copyright laws and reliable national distribution and all, it’s very rare that a modern cover song is a note-for-note replication of an original. An exception to this is Senor Coconut’s “El Baile Alemán” — an album consisting solely of Kraftwerk covers, copied nearly to the letter, but in a flowery, Latin-American style. It’s crazy, and it works.

One of the things I really enjoy about listening to another artist’s version of someone’s song is finding the unexpected bits and pieces that I’d not noticed before — those elements which, in the remake, are brought to the forefront. I’d never actually listened to the lyrics of “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes until I heard Jocelyn Schofield’s cello-and-piano torch song version. Sure, I’d heard the song a million-billion times, but had I ever really listened to the lyrics? Nope. And The Ramones’ version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain” is far more tense and biting than the original, in my opinion.

Sometimes, an artist will personalize a song by changing a few words here and there, or messing around with the verses a bit. That’s how Frank Sinatra preferred to do things; his take on “Mrs. Robinson” turns Simon and Garfunkel’s classic from a contemplative pop song to a full-on Vegas showpiece, partially by putting his imprimatur on the lyrics: “And you’ll get yours, Mrs Robinson, fooling with that young stuff like you do, boo hoo hoo, woo woo woo.” Simon and Garfunkel’s original is sophisticated holds a bit of cultural criticism, while Sinatra’s version is full of chastisement and mockery. In the 1990s, The Lemonheads took yet another approach to “Mrs. Robinson”: They kept the lyrics intact while completely rebuilding the song underneath them, turning the softly upbeat folk number into an rousing, uptempo indie rock hit.

Then there are those bands that do more than reinterpret a single song, but manage to create an entire genre of reinterpretation unto themselves. Petty Booka is a Japanese duo that covers old-fashioned Hawaiian folk songs, but also covers modern hits like Madonna’s “Material Girl” and Steppenwolf’’s “Born to be Wild” in the same idiom, strumming the songs out on ukuleles and singing them in high, pillow-soft voices. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes turn every track into barroom punk, and darn good barroom punk at that; their versions of Billy Joel’s and Neil Diamond’s 1970s hits get your blood going in ways the originals never did. And Nouvelle Vague reinvents the punk and new wave songs of the 1980s (and a few classics from the 1960s and 1970s) in a sultry bossa-nova style, with touches of Serge Gainsbourg. The band’s co-founder Marc Collin even made an entire record of songs from 1980s movies — “A View to a Kill,” “Arthur’s Theme” and “Footloose” among them — in that swinging, 1960s pop style.

I’d probably not listen to The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” of my own free will, but the Toy Dolls’ “The Devil Went Down to Scunthorpe” gets cranked up to 11 on a regular basis. Admittedly, there is a bit of ironic amusement in my enjoyment of “Scunthorpe” that cannot be denied, but I do also feel a a measure of pure delight, too. Come on, modern versions of Henry Mancini instrumentals are just plain fun! Reinvention, pastiche, novelty, call it what you will — cover songs are an entirely other way of listening to some already great music.

If you’d like to get an earful of some cool reinterpretations right now, check out The Covers Project, Rewind, Cover Me and The Coverclub. And WFMU’s splendid Beware of the Blog often digs up cover songs the likes of which you’ve never before imagined. WFMU introduced us to that cover of Devo’s “Mongoloid” by a German choir. ‘Nuff said.

Lorien Gruchalla


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One Comment »

  1. I am also a covers fan (I have over 100 versions of Amazing Grace) and spent this whole post nodding and muttering “Yes! Yes, exactly!” Thanks for the links at the end — I see hours of productivity falling away before my eyes.

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