A few weeks ago I was driving home and flipping through radio stations (my CD player is on the fritz). I managed to tune in just as one station was playing a cover version of "Mrs. Robinson" by Simon & Garfunkel. And you know, at first, I was almost uncertain it WAS a cover. Other than lacking Paul Simon's distinctive voice, the song varied little from the original. It was more like a cover-band version of the original – a tribute if you will. And I was forced to ask: What's the F%$&ing point?!
S&G did that song just fine the first time. I love covers as well as the next guy. Go ahead and give us your take on a classic hit, but if you don't have anything new to say about the source material, don't say anything at all. Write your own music. And if you're not good enough to do that, make way for someone who is!
There are plenty of great covers out there and there's plenty of shite. This isn't a best/worst list, but there are some lessons to be learned from those who have done it well, and those who should be playing their local Kiwanis club. First up – the Do's.
Five Great Cover Versions
Love You Inside Out – The BeeGees vs. Feist
Feist's version of this BeeGees hit brings down the tempo, but keeps just enough of the cheezy synthesizer sounds to let this song sound good in 2007, even if it's likely to sound very dated in about 10 years. It's a fate that befell the original after all. Inside Out had a great chorus and enough of a funk groove to make it big on the charts. It has suffered in later years – garnering little airplay because it didn't hold up when synthesizers went out of fashion in the '90s. This remake slows it down a bit and, while it loses some of the funk, it put a bit more emphasis on the verses, and pares down the accompaniment enough to give Feist's somewhat delicate voice a chance to shine. That and our current sensibility to retro-'80s synth-pop means this version sounds fresh…for now.
Lesson: Music that's sounds dated, but is from the period that is currently in vogue among retro circles, makes excellent source material.
Smells like Teen Spirit – Nirvana vs. Tori Amos
That had to be tough. A hard driving "alternative" rock song that was pretty much credited with popularizing a new style of rock music. Taking that as your source material – trying to make something new into something new – was a big challenge. Tori's pared down, piano accompaniment and slowed-down tempo make this song sound completely different. In fact I've played it for people and they had no idea it was the same song. That's impressive. Both versions have something wonderful to offer – a subdued aggressive energy or a dense piano-laden laziness – and they both stand on their own.
Lesson: Give your source material a completely different feeling using new instrumentation, tempo, and dynamics. It won't work for every song, but there's gotta be a lot of source material that it would work with.
Crazy – Gnarls Barkley vs. Nelly Furtado
Similar to the lesson above – Nelly's take on this very catchy Gnarls Barkley hit is a pared-down version accompanied by acoustic guitar and a male voice on harmony. It's a sweeter version. The original had great energy and a wonderful vocal performance but it was almost over-produced. So, paring it down was a more obvious way to go. The original version of this song had a fantastic hook – just a great and original melody line. But there was nothing awe-inspiring about the production/instrumentation that made me say "don't touch this song, it's already perfect."
Lesson: Take source material that has a weakness (or don't try to remake songs that are already perfect).
This is just as an aside but, in my opinion, there are few "perfect" pop songs in the world. So please please please, never try to remake Under Pressure by Queen and Bowie. Everything about that song is perfect and it has aged really well. From the baseline to the desperation in Freddie's voice, and the easy way that he and Bowie have with one another. I can't imagine improving on that song.
I am however, still waiting for someone to remake She's a Maniac by Michael Sembello. That hit from the movie Flashdance had so much energy and was such a great pop song, but it's really dated now. An update is warranted. Anyone have any ideas how to keep the energy but lose the cheese?
Hurt – Nine Inch Nails vs Johnny Cash
Nine Inch Nails had a really productive period with the Downward Spiral album, and Hurt was one of the best songs on it. While I always found it a bit too awash in keyboard sounds, it was nothing if not forceful. The heavy bass chords made certain of that. So when Johnny Cash – a country legend – decided to cover this song by an Industrial-music artist, I was skeptical. But it worked beautifully – not least because Johnny's voice had become aged and sounded fragile. His own capabilities as a singer completely changed the feel of that song – and we've wound up with a incredibly different take on the same song. It's still slow and a bit of a downer, but now it's much more fragile and heartbreaking.
Lesson: Use what you've got. If you're a hard rock singer and you decide to cover an AC/DC song, don't expect it to leave much of an impression.
Lay all your love on me – ABBA vs. Erasure
Erasure did a great job with its album ABBA-esque. They released four ABBA covers, but managed to steer clear of "Dancing Queen". Remaking Dancing Queen would have been a huge mistake – not because it's inherently perfect, but because it's ABBA's signature song, and with ABBA not likely to ever reunite it would be sacrilege to take that song on. Not to mention people have so many fond memories tied to the original. A remake couldn't help but fail. Of the songs they did cover, Lay All Your Love on Me was the best. Erasure took a lesser-known ABBA hit and ramped it up. Yes It's cheesy, yes, but so was ABBA, really. Cheesy in a good way – and that's simply amplified here. ABBA put out great club hits, and this is nothing if not a great club cut.
Lesson: Pick a lesser-known song from the original artist. You'll have a better chance of turning people on rather than turning them off as they compare your work to the original.
And now… the Bad
Don't let the sun go down on me – Elton John vs. George Michael
I can't think of a more perfect example of a cover that is essentially the same as the original. George Michael's version of this simple beautiful Elton John ballad is an absolute knock off, right down to the guitar harmonics leading into the first chorus. All that changes is some of the ornamentation in Michael's voice. it's not enough. In fact, the only part of the remake that I like is when Elton John enters for his half of the song. His voice has become so much stronger since his original version and this is an artist at the peak of his career singing one of his hits. It's like a concert. Michael's addition is basically as a backup singer here. Save your money and buy Elton's Live in Australia album to get a great version of this song without Michael, and with Elton singing in his mature voice.
Lesson: Involving the original artist doesn't necessarily mean the version will improve on the original, especially if you don't bring something new to the table.
Blackbird – The Beatles vs. Sarah McLaughlan
I don't know if I've heard ANY good Beatles covers. It would be difficult given just how amazing those four guys were, especially in the later years – and not just in terms of a melody line, but in terms of the depth of their arrangements and instrumentation. It would be hard to outmatch them. With this bland remake, McLaughlan had a real opportunity to take Blackbird and add to it. But all we get is a simple version with guitar? Why bother. The only real change is to a woman's voice. Why not change the instrumentation to Piano at least – isn't that McLaughlan's instrument? – like Tori Amos did for Smells like Teen Spirit.
Lesson: Don't try to remake a Beatles tune unless you're going to change it completely.
Perfect Day – Lou Reed vs. Duran Duran
This was a tough call for me, because I'm not a huge fan of Lou Reed's vocals, so I actually prefer the Duran version in some ways, but if I'm looking at it objectively, the Duran version is basically a straight-up remake with a little smoother vocals, the Duran electronic wash, and their staple fretless bass sound. It lacks the clarity of the original, not to mention the piano ornamentation. In all fairness, this song does have a Duran-ness to it, so in a way they did make it their own, but it's still such a different version from the original that it needed to be made.
Lesson: Despite your desire to offer a 'tribute' to another band by 're-doing' their music, they have, in all likelihood, already done it better. Play it for your friends, but don't use it as filler for an album when you know a better version exists.
Smooth Criminal – Michael Jackson vs. Alien Ant Farm
I'm not a huge Michael Jackson fan, but this was always one of my favorites of his. I never thought it got a fair shake – especially when crap like "The Way you Make me Feel" was reaching #1. So I was excited to hear someone was going to do a remake. Then I heard it. You know, punk or speed metal or whatever that thrashy stuff is, just has very little musical merit. All you get it a heavily distorted voice and the remnants of some guitar chords, and a drum line. There's not room for anything more in terms of arrangement. The original had some really nice vocal backing that's just completely gone in the remake – or actually replaced by some silly falsetto that sounds completely mocking of the original.
Lesson: don't make something that's less than the original. Paring something down can work to help bring out something you might not have heard in the original. Ramping it up and distorting the crap out of it just takes away from what was probably a better song than what you've wound up with.
Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd vs. Scissor Sisters
I love the Scissor Sisters. They have a great sound of their own, but while this was a hit, it kind of irked me. The original Comfortably numb is pretty near a perfect song in my opinion, and yes I know that's subjective, but there's great guitar work, beautiful orchestration and characterization in the vocal work from the two lead singers (this is from a concept album after all). I find this remake almost strays too far from the original for me, but not so much that I hate this version. There is something redeeming about it. It's not going to replace the original as my favorite, but this version has it's place. It's a song that was obviously styled for play at a dance club, so SS deserves credit for not just grabbing a sample from the original and simply reworking it into some shell of the original. It goes a bit too far from the source, but I suspect that's partly due to my love of the original. Okay, so maybe this isn't the best example, but I'm tired.
the lesson is not to stray so far from the original that you lose everything good about it.
You can probably think of a better example for this lesson.