For me, the “cover issue” is a rather polarizing subject. While there are, of course, many tastefully-done covers in the history of pop, there are also an equal (if not greater) number that fall flat on their faces. I began thinking of the characteristics of both tasteful and shameful covers, trying to distill them into a single document. What follows is my simple guide for original bands weighing whether or not to cover a song.
UNDER THE COVERS
How to tastefully select your cover repertoire
DO cover a song if…
Your cover alludes to an obscure or underground influence. This type of cover, which I will henceforth refer to as an “homage cover,” has been employed since the rise of rock and roll. It serves a dual purpose: 1) It provides your audience with a point of reference from which to approach your music – an audience is far more apt to appreciate your music if it understands the lineage and traditions from which you sprung. 2) It is a form of “giving back” to your overlooked influences. The “homage cover” has its roots in the early days of rock, a time when it was common for bands to cover old blues, soul, and R&B tracks – songs that had been marginalized by mainstream audiences as “race music.” The Rolling Stones’ cover of “Little Red Rooster” is an example. By recording the Willie Dixon/Howlin’ Wolf track, the band provided its audience with some listening guidance (“If you want to understand where we’re coming from, have a listen to this”). It encouraged an entire generation of listeners to seriously confront a genre once considered entirely irrelevant, thus turning once-underground musicians into venerated icons. A later example can be found in Nirvana’s unplugged cover of “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam.” By covering the Vaselines’ track, Kurt Cobain paved his influence’s way into the pop music canon.
Your cover is of a standard. The challenge here is defining “standard.” There are, of course, actual standards – Gershwin’s “Summertime” or Jobim’s “Girl from Ipanema,” for example. There are also broader cultural standards – for example, “God Bless America,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Happy Birthday,” or “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The difficult category is that of “pop standard.” There are some pop songs that, for some reason or another, have lended themselves well to reinterpretation. “Hey Joe,” for example, has been covered by a number of people (Hendrix’s most famous version was itself a cover). Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” is also a standard, with numerous cover versions (most notably the ultra-gay 1985 David Bowie/Mick Jagger take) springing up since its original 1964 release. Basic rule of thumb: if numerous other bands/artists have covered the song before, it’s probably OK for you to do so as well.
The original version of the song that you’re covering is completely unarranged.Folk songs have always been ripe for reinterpretation – their lyrics are usually quite good, their structures are typically well defined, and their sparse arrangements are blank canvasses for those wanting to expand upon them musically. Is it a surprise that so many of Bob Dylan’s songs have been adeptly covered? Of course not – so many of Dylan’s tracks are brilliant song skeletons, waiting to be adorned by others. “All Along the Watchtower,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” – all have been successfully and tastefully reinterpreted by other artists. At the same time, the idea of covering a fully-arranged Dylan song is foolish. Because the original artist has already fully realized the song, covering “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Hurricane” would be inadvisable and presumably unsuccessful.
Your version of the song is ironic or parodic. Parody can be a form of both homage and/or criticism. Either way, it is an interpretive form that has its place in the world of music. Zappa’s “Flower Punk,” for example, is a “Hey Joe” cover that incisively lampoons hippie culture. Nirvana’s brief quote of “Let’s Get Together” at the beginning of “Territorial Pissings” is yet another example. Richard Cheese makes a living covering pop hits as lounge standards. Parody isn’t often the fast-track to artistic notoriety or success, but it certainly bears mentioning.
DO NOT cover a song if…
The song is canonical in its original form. This is the most vital of the cover commandments. Where is the logic behind covering a song that people already know and love in its original form? I’ll answer this one for you: there is no logic behind it. Doing such a cover only succeeds in a) insulting the original version and b) making you or your band seem foolish. Do you remember several years ago when Alien Ant Farm covered “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson? That was a great idea, wasn’t it? Imagine the flawed thought process (if there was indeed a thought process) going into that one: “Let’s cover a song by the King of Pop from the second highest-grossing record of all time. Maybe we can improve upon it.” I’m sorry. I thought that a Quincy Jones production with 32 million album sales was something that, you know, couldn’t really be improved upon by a group of nu-metal hacks from Riverside, CA. “Modernizing” a song that has already been etched into the public’s musical consciousness – the tackiest variety of cover.
You intend on reproducing the song as it was originally performed. Obviously, this caveat (and entire manifesto, for that matter) does not apply to cover bands. Rather, this commandment is chiefly aimed at the American Idol crowd. If you’re going out of the way to rip somebody’s work off, you may as well present an original take. Do people want to hear an anonymous 18 year-old girl from Florida doing “Chain of Fools”? A 32 year-old insurance salesman covering “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay”? Perhaps. These are, of course, American Idol viewers, not music consumers. But should they? Obviously not. Strip the interpretive component away from a cover and what do you have? Karaoke.
Stephen Press is a producer, critic, and songwriter based out of New York City. He is the author of the daily blog MP3some and records under the name of Nick Adams.