Monday, 23 January 2012

Cover Songs : Walking The Tightrope

A song is anything that can walk by itself – Bob Dylan

In order to create a good song, a song that connects with others and somehow manages to tap into the common consciousness of a moment and become worthy of adoption by the populace as a theme tune to their lives, it is usually necessary for the songwriter to give a little of their soul to the cause. In writing a song, the writer is offering the chance for others to have a small window into their innermost core, they are laying themselves bare for scrutiny, for rejection, and making a gamble as to whether others can tap into whatever emotion they have chosen to make public.

As a result of all these factors and emotional investments, the act of covering someone else’s song is therefore something that should not be taken lightly, and goes a little way to explaining why cover versions can often sound cheap and lifeless. It is one thing for an artist or band to take a song and inject their own twist on the emotions and words originally presented, bringing to the table a whole new wealth of experience and delivering the piece and it’s history to a whole new genre and audience, but when we see (as we so often do), songs which are covered purely for financial gain and an easy ‘hit’, it is somewhat disheartening to see someone’s personal efforts cheapened and churned out like a soulless business transaction. You can almost picture the sterile business meeting that has occurred among the big-wigs of the record label, propositioning a new talentless artist with a masterpiece of yesteryear with little or no regard for the piece of art as personal property, no consideration for the life events, emotions or people who played a part in the original inspiration of the song. No thought for the moment in time where those words and ideas were first scratched upon paper and set free like a caged bird to find their own way in the world.

Putting a song out there for public consumption must be a great yet terrifying act of faith, and in doing so one must hope that their brainchild is treated with respect. It is a shame therefore, that often the songwriter loses all ownership of their work and it is often down to the people in suits to decide where, and being sung from whose mouths, these fragments of themselves will end up.

With these thoughts in mind, I have been compiling a list of cover versions which I believe do the original songs (and their writers) justice, and others for which the motives and the finished piece sound more as though they have taken a piece of genius and aggressively stamped all over it, reducing it to a mere one-dimensional version of it’s original self. However, that is not to say that a cover version does not have the potential to completely outshine the original and provide it with something that it was previously lacking, as though the second set of hands it falls into are able to have a strange insight into what the original required in order to take it to a whole new level. On these occasions, it is as though a number of factors have been brought into perfect alignment, serving to demonstrate a global level of understanding between human beings; that people from different eras and backgrounds can somehow work together to make something incredible.

Below I give mention to six songs; three of them being brilliant covers, and three not so great. In compiling this collection I was pleasantly surprised to note that I found it much easier to think of the positive examples (possibly due to the choice to ignore anything related to the X Factor as they are too big an offender to even begin discussing, or because one probably represses the memory of hearing a song they know and love being absolutely disrespected). Also, it is worth mentioning that while Bob Dylan’s work does not appear in this list, his incredible song writing has ensured for a number of brilliant (and not so) covers over the last forty years, however it is simply that there is not one song in particular that I could decide upon to discuss below.

Three brilliant cover versions;

Placebo – Running Up That Hill (Kate Bush)
As one notes when observing a great songwriter like Kate Bush, the potential for a brilliant cover version is already heightened due to the quality and malleability of the original piece. Placebo’s version of Running Up That Hill is incredible, adding a whole new dark and brooding twist to the song, with Brian Molko’s delivery of the line ‘make a deal with God’ sounding more like he is making a pact with the devil. The thunderous electrical take on the piano and drums ensure this cover sounds a lot more downbeat than the original, a lot more pained, as though a fresh input of suffering is being filtered through each and every note in the struggle to understand the person that the protagonist has fallen in love with, but the fact that they are of a different gender makes this empathy so difficult.

The White Stripes – Jolene (Dolly Parton)
It is always great when a cover version completely surpasses its original genre, as this is the most likely way for a song to reach an entirely new audience. The White Stripes are quite the masters at the art of brilliant cover versions, partly due to the respect with which they treat the original, and because of Jack White’s desire to nod to various influences in a respectful manner. It is always amazing when a cover manages to bring light and excitement to a song which perhaps, would have otherwise gone unappreciated by many people due to the nature and genre of the original. What The White Stripes have achieved here, is getting a new generation of music lovers singing a country song from 1974 at the top of their lungs, indulging in the heartfelt pain of a wife singing to her husband’s mistress not to steal him from her.

Johnny Cash – Hurt (Nine Inch Nails)
Johnny Cash’s take on the 1995 song by Nine Inch Nails has got to be one of the finest examples of how songs have the potential to be approached from an entirely different angle, thus giving the words and sentiments entirely new perspective and meaning. For example, hearing the words “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel”, sung by a thirty year old has an incredibly different effect than by a man of seventy one with severe health problems and – in hindsight – only several months to live. The power and emotion behind Johnny Cash’s performance in this song is so potent it can reduce you to tears; the fact that he wasn’t the one to actually write the words seems entirely irrelevant, for what he brings to the table is so much more. The great genius of this song also lies in the fact it was somewhat unknown in its original state, particularly in the UK, and Johnny Cash has taken what was otherwise a far from outstanding song and made it into four minutes of utter magic, and an ode to the vulnerability and mortality of human existence.

(During the research for this piece I also discovered that Leona Lewis recorded a cover of this song in a vain attempt at Christmas number one last year. While I hope I never hear it, this goes to demonstrate the thoughtlessness and lack of respect that can so often exist when it comes to selecting a song to cover. What on earth could a twenty-six year old who’s been handed the world on a plate ever bring to this song?)

Three questionable cover versions;

Mark Ronson ft. Daniel Merriweather – Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before (The Smiths)
An incredibly insulting cover, particularly when one considers that Daniel Merriweather is on record as saying he was entirely unfamiliar with the original song and that he was ‘never a Smiths fan’; so why does he feel he has the right to ruin it for everyone else? A prime example of a song which has been covered, and in the act of doing so, any emotion or weight that the original carried has been duly compressed into a flat piece of ‘sound’ for consumption by the iTunes generation. The concept of bringing disco vibes to a song by The Smiths should surely have been shot down at the first hurdle (and as I have mentioned before, a change of genre is brilliant when covering…if it works, which this explicitly does not). One must surely hope that if Morrissey had been given any say in the matter, he would have prevented it from happening and released a tirade of insults on Mark Ronson and his one-man quest to cover every song ever written (on the subject of which, what was Valerie all about? It wasn’t even a good song in the first place).

David Bowie – Across The Universe (The Beatles)
Perhaps an odd choice, but I chose this example because it demonstrates how, even when a number of great things come together on paper and it looks as though something good could come of it, the reality is often very different. Now you could argue that the fault here lies in an attempt of covering a song by The Beatles (which is obviously never a good idea), however as a huge fan of both them and David Bowie, upon first sitting down to listen to this song I was guilty of anticipating something wonderful - particularly when one considers John Lennon is actually featured on Bowie’s version, and it was done entirely with his blessing. However, what ensues is actually an absolute atrocity, and I warn you now; never listen to this version. Much to my dismay, it not only provides an incredibly unpleasant listening experience, but it has also ruined the original for me. The effects are that far-reaching. It’s hard to put one’s finger on exactly what is so offensive about this song, but what it does demonstrate is that the volatile nature of covering another man’s art means that some kind of unfathomable alignment needs to occur for it to pay off, and even when every other factor is seemingly in place, success is far from guaranteed.

Ed Sheeran – Skinny Love (Bon Iver)
Now, without this blog turning into a hate campaign against Ed Sheeran, I simply had to include this example as it best represents the crime of covering another’s song but leaving absolutely no trace or stamp of personality on it, thus rendering the whole experience utterly pointless. Therefore, what Ed Sheeran has chosen to do with his cover, is inflict a lot of unpleasantness on others for no real purpose. Bon Iver’s original from 2007 is a truly magical song, and it is incredibly insulting to hear Ed Sheeran dilute it to a level of disposable trash, with the usual jerky guitar and croaky voice that we have heard a million times from his like before.

One of the cover songs’ most wonderful qualities is also its downfall. While, when done correctly, a cover version could inspire the listener to hunt down the original and thus open the possibility of discovering a new band, artist or album that they would have otherwise been unaware of, they also have the ability to lead people to believe the version they hear is the only one in existence. Imagine a whole new generation being brought up to think that Hallelujah is a song by Alexandra Burke. I just hope that any one with a vague amount of interest in music will have done their homework and learnt that such things are simply untrue.

To return to the Bob Dylan quote at the beginning of this entry; “a song is anything that can walk by itself”, this illustrates that a good song has the power to head out into the world and carve it’s own journey, have it’s own experiences and take on a life of it’s own apart from that of the original creator. I believe that good songs are not written, but they are given as a gift to the songwriter, that the person in question was at the right place at the right time and were subsequently able to channel something from the universe in order to convert an emotion or experience into musical format. While this maybe an incredibly romanticised way to view the whole thing, it does mean that anyone who chooses to cover a song should not take the decision lightly for it is a huge responsibility, and to abuse the song’s trust is simply criminal.

Here is Johnny Cash with Hurt: 

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