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Cover versions. They're everywhere: whether the sublime or the ridiculous. You might say (or rather a record exec might say) that recording a cover version of a hitherto-popular song is a sure fire way to get very popular very quickly (see the cover of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" by the cast of breakthrough American series Glee), and in fact to enable the original artists to regain a little popularity (see the exact same case).
But sometimes, it all goes horribly right. I've been working on this Blog for some time (in my head of course), and with a little help from my friends (incidentally, the Joe Cocker cover version of that song is a good'un) I think I've finally cracked it. Behold, my captive audience:
Covers That Are Better Than the Originals*.
"ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER"
All right, start at the top why don't we. This is quite possibly, and arguably, the most famous cover version in contemporary music. And I would like to state (and should have done so earlier) that I am not about to stand on my pedestal and widdle all over the original artists. Click on the link above and you may find a silent appreciation for Dylan's work. Embellished with Hendrix's trademark guitar handiwork and given 'attitude' with the inclusion of bass and a drum kit, this version was so highly appreciated that Dylan himself now plays a version akin to it at his own shows. The inclusion of it in recent blockbuster film The Watchmen has caused another surge in popularity. And come on: how many of you had honestly heard of Dylan's version first?
Previously unheard-of Scottish band Gun scored a big one with the almost unthinkable premise: make a rock cover of a hip-hop song. Personally I like to think of this cover as 'different' rather than 'better', but taste accounts for much: a lot of my Facebook critics preferred Gun's version as it made a previously niche song instantly accessible to a wider audience. I partially agree; a lot of people can enjoy the pounding guitar substitute for trademark 80s synth or the change in vocals from typically 80s Black hip-hop sass to melodious but gravelly, but admittedly those who are fans of the original (like myself) will enjoy it merely as a re-interpretation of the original. Cameo also enjoyed a little revival amongst those old enough to remember arcade dance game Dance Dance Revolution (guilty as charged).
Ahh...it's hard to listen to this track without the mental image of multicoloured balls bouncing down a hill. The original reads a bit like Kate Bush meets early Hot Chip, whereas the cover feels much more laid back and comfortable in contrast to the jerky, robotic palette of effects over The Knife's original. This is a cover that doesn't actually deviate much: listen to the synthesizer melody from the original and it is basically substituted with an acoustic guitar. Male vocal covers of female vocal-led songs (and vice versa in fact) are often interesting to listen to, simply for the pleasure of wondering where the vocalist will take the melody. Simple yet pleasurable.
"I JUST DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH MYSELF"
Here we have another track which sticks to the same basic melody, merely substituting the instruments: Jack White's pained drawl instead of Dusty's blythe voice, a striking chord on the guitar after every phrase as opposed to a brass fanfare. Bacharach was known for his orchestral 'pop songs' and the 'Stripes have done well, stripping the track down to the bare bones and resourcing it as a rock anthem. Where Dusty sings of a failed relationship against the dramatic backing of a full orchestra (strings and all folks), the White Stripes have reduced it down to nothing only to have the song sound just as 'final' as the lyrics themselves suggest.
Now I have to say: I actually prefer the Tears For Fears version. And I believe I prefer it not just because I am a huge fan of most things to gain populace in the 80s (see also: Queen, studded leather, Bruce Springsteen's buttocks), but because the simplified version that was incidentally the music chart number one of Christmas 2003 is incredibly sad. Anyone remember 2003? I do, and it was pretty depressing: the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrates over Texas, the first case of SARS is discovered in Korea, the Western invasion of Iraq begins, two bombs detonated in Mumbai kill thousands...isn't that a "mad world" itself? And the track: like many of the previous tracks reviewed in this blog, it takes a synthesizer-laden anthem down to the basics: piano and vocals. There's a tiny bit of strings and production on the vocals, some overlay...if you listen to the first few bars of the Tears For Fears original, what does it convey? A beating rhythm; panic, rushing about. Pulsing, wailing synths. Contrast that with the melancholic minor chords of the piano and the plaintive voice of Gary Jules, and to me this song feels like it should be slipping un-noticed out of your speakers and going to sit in the corner facing the wall. Re-worked like this, this song saddens and terrifies me...and I'm not entirely sure I'm quite ready to face that. But Joe Public loved it, and its feature in cult favourite film Donnie Darko certainly helped.
"WHAT'S SO FUNNY 'BOUT PEACE, LOVE AND UNDERSTANDING?"
Now this is a welcome example where the cover and the original are from the same genre. Costello, now more of a singer-songwriter in his recent years, started off as a mostly punk/New Wave outfit and was actually a good friend of Lowe himself. I think what makes this a particularly good example of a good cover was the input: Lowe at this point in Costello's career was actually the group's producer, and was attributed not only with the writing credits but the production credits also. A version was recorded by crooner Curtis Stigers for the 1992 film The Bodyguard; the royalties from which made Lowe (as he put it himself) "a very wealthy man", but somehow the Costello version has been met with more acclaim. Perhaps its Elvis' despairing and condemning delivery of the vocals, perhaps the rich harmonies or maybe the New Wave edge familiar to that era (where acts like Blondie and the Talking Heads were becoming household names).
Aha. You see what I did there? I'd like to think I'm broadening my readers' minds by offering a choice; what I'm actually doing is being a bit of a smartarse. Let's assume none of you jumped to the latter conclusion and soldier on. I firstly say listen to the original because I bet you thought the song originated with Soft Cell. Which, quite frankly, stands as a testament to how good the cover version was. My Facebook reviewer (which was in fact, my own father) described the Soft Cell version as "a slice of definitive 80s" which really is a nice way of putting it: synthesizers from the melody through to the drums, the neo-Gothic subtext...which brings us nicely into Manson's reinterpretation of the track as a grinding, slamming piece of Gothic mash. It's as if someone melted the '45 of the Soft Cell version onto their fist, wrapped a Gothic-studded belt around it and punched you square in the eardrum. Lovely.
Now a staple on chick-flick soundtracks everywhere, Aretha switched the gender role with her version of this song. Both versions are definitive R&B: the rest of the world can keep their Beyonces and
Rhiannas Riyannas Riyhannas Barbadian women. The versions themselves aren't that dissimilar, both firmly planted in the Rhythm and Blues genre, but subtle changes like the lyrics ("You can do me wrong / While I'm gone" becomes "I ain't gonna do you wrong /...because I don't wanna") make a big change. The woman has attitude, there's no pleading any more. And that is why this version is so popular; similar to Franklin's "Think" which had also been adopted as a feminine anthem.
Original by John Lennon, cover by Roxy Music
Mr Ferry and Co. received a lot of criticism for releasing this 'tribute' to Lennon in March 1981, months after Lennon's death. They even dubbed the 45" release 'Jealous Guy - a tribute' in his honour. Personally, nothing will come close to Lennon's tender piano ballad, but Roxy Music brought the single to a new audience and provided a fitting re-interpretation at a time when reflection upon Lennon's music was paramount. The traditional-ness of the original ballad style is toned down, proving that "piano does not necessarily a ballad make", and Ferry's melodic whistling over the third verse and out-tro adds to the wistful portrait of the self-confessed, apologetic green-eyed monster. Lennon could be tender at times, and Roxy Music brought back the tenderness is a display of what I do not believe to be cashing in on the death of a 20th Century icon.
There are many more I could write about (and will do again at some point: I'm aware of this Blog's now considerable length), but for now I'll leave you with a few one-sentence reviews of bad cover versions. Because, let's be honest, a few words is all they deserve.
"Walk This Way" covered by Sugababes and Girls Aloud - Watered-down imagining of arguably the best Rock/Hip-Hop collaboration ever. Watch out for hastily re-written lyrics that suck all of the sex appeal from the original.
"Fireflies" covered by Elliot Minor - Realeased all too soon after the genius of the original, leaving a slightly bitter taste in the mouth. Unoriginal take on an inventive song; the orchestrated introduction completely detracts from the sparse beauty of the original and the piano pieces are now too all-over-the-place, distracting from the melody. Also, the inclusion of 'dildo' in the lyrics just f*cking immature. Sorry.
"Sweet Child 'O Mine" covered by Sheryl Crow - This is like downgrading the song to 'Easy Listening'. Really not my cup of tea, and probably not anyone else's. Please go away.
"Under Pressure" covered by
Satan Vanilla Ice and Jedward - I'm sorry, I can't review this needless exploitative rubbish. Listening to more than thirty seconds converts me to such blind, violent outrage that I may rip out my own intestines and start strangling people with them.
"Under The Bridge" covered by All Saints - Where has the melody gone? It's been converted into mewling "arr-and-bee" drivel by
The Amazing Farting Drivel Band 90s girl group All Saints. At least the guitar riff is still mostly there, albeit smothered like a flower by weeds.
"Wonderful Tonight" covered by Damage - "Tonight, tonight, tonight" croons the identikit lead singer over a cringe-inducing synth harp and Spanish guitar interpretation of the riff. Listen at your peril: it gives me nightmares about a Dystopian future where all boybands will be forced to cover classics as some weird record label rite of passage. Oh wait - isn't that already in force?
That's all folks. Tune in again soon, while Neety starts trying to organise things. Don't say you weren't warned.