Under Cover, Part 1

The other day I was thinking about song covers*. More specifically, I was pondering what defines the “definitive” version of a song.

* For those unfamiliar with the term, covering a song has nothing to do with the CD case or LP sleeve–or adding a cover tag to an MP3. It’s the act of performing (live or in recording) a new version of a previously-released song. As usual, The Font of All Human Knowledge has more details.

This all started when the radio station I was listening to played four different versions of All Along the Watchtower: Bob Dylan’s original version, Jimi Hendrix’ cover, and two other covers, both by people I had never heard of, and who made such a minimal impression on me that I can’t recall their names. Yeah, I should have written them down, but I was driving at the time, so I’m claiming extenuating circumstances. Hendrix’ cover is widely considered definitive, to the point that many people think he wrote it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never much cared for All Along the Watchtower. To me the vocals feel perfunctory, and the instrumental breaks are the whole point. It would probably work better for me as an instrumental/jam piece (and in fact, I dislike the Grateful Dead’s take on the piece less than any other cover I’ve heard-–and I listened to quite a few in writing this post).

So what makes Hendrix’ take definitive? Well, Dylan himself has been quoted as saying “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” Doesn’t clarify much, does it?

My own opinion is that Hendrix released his version quickly (less than a year after Dylan’s initial release) and before Dylan’s version was released as a single. With Hendrix at the height of his popularity, and Dylan on a downswing, that meant many people heard Hendrix’ version first and most often. A study by North and Hargreaves shows a positive relationship between familiarity and liking–in other words, the more you see or hear something, the more you like it*. That suggests the status of “definitive version” has a certain amount of self-reinforcement: once it becomes popular, it’ll get more airplay, more people will hear it repeatedly, and it’ll become still more popular. In this case, Hendrix gets an extra boost. Since Dylan began patterning his performances of his own song after Hendrix’s version, that adds additional repetitions for listeners, and thus even more reinforcement to Hendrix’s recording as “definitive”.

* A fact that Top 40 radio stations have been using to record label’s benefit for decades.

One additional point: In most of the cases where a cover takes over from the original, the cover is in a significantly different style than the original, and attracts a different, and potentially larger audience. A few semi-random examples:

  • “The Man Who Sold the World” – originally by David Bowie, covered by Nirvana
  • “Hurt” – originally by Nine Inch Nails, covered by Johnny Cash
  • “Turn! Turn! Turn!” – originally by Pete Seeger, covered by The Byrds
  • “Proud Mary” – originally by Creedence Clearwater Revival, covered by Ike and Tina Turner

Disagreement? I’d be particularly interested in counter-examples, where the cover wasn’t initially popular, but grew in popularity over time.

I had an ulterior motive for bringing up cover songs–a sure road to fame and fortune. Check back Thursday, and I’ll reveal all.

2 thoughts on “Under Cover, Part 1

  1. Does a band get extra credit if it records the cover song with the other artist? I immediately thought of Aerosmith and “Walk This Way” … which was redone by Run-DMC and … Aerosmith … 10 years after the original. And, I can’t even tell you which was more popular. (The Googler says that the String Cheese Incident recorded a bluegrass version of the original — or the cover. I’m sort of surprised Aerosmith didn’t try to squeeze in on that one, too.)

    P.S. I believe that many youngsters today believe that “All Along the Watchtower” was written by Dave Matthews.

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    • Hmm. I’m not comfortable stretching the definition of cover far enough for Aerosmith to get credit there. But yeah, extra props for Run-DMC for finding a unique way to tie their version to the original.

      Dave Matthews? Dave Matthews?! Excuse me while I go weep for this latest sign of the impending fall of civilization. But at least it’s not Mumford and Sons. (Update: Oh, for [expletive deleted]! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21zTxO5P6Y8 )

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