Under Cover, Part 2

Ready for that path to riches I promised? There’s something else we need to discuss before we get there, another factor besides familiarity that plays into a cover song’s popularity: the degree to which the cover differs from the original.

I often hear covers that are so similar to the original that I’m hard-pressed to tell them apart. I’m not going to embarrass anyone by naming names here–I’m sure you can think of your own examples–because the only explanation I can think of for recording a note-for-note cover is sheer greed: crank something out quickly and hope that the sheer familiarity of it encourages people to buy it. (Note that I’m talking specifically about covers on recordings and to a somewhat lesser extent, live performances. Doing this kind of literal cover is an excellent way to learn a piece or get familiar with a style, but one doesn’t normally sell rough drafts or setting-up exercises.)

At the opposite end of the spectrum from literal covers are ones so different they almost become new songs. The quick route to this category is by doing your cover in a very different musical style. Consider, for example, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme’s lounge interpretation of Soundgarden’s grunge icon “Black Hole Sun”.



The video of the lounge version is a fan-production, not an official release; the juxtaposition of the already-disturbing visuals with the hyper-relaxed lounge sound escalates the combined work to levels of brain melting previously only attained by the combination of Frank Zappa and massive doses of acid.

Another example, not so extreme, is the Austin Lounge Lizards’ bluegrass cover of Pink Floyd’s classic “Brain Damage”.



(My apologies for the useless video. I can’t find a live performance.)

(If you really want to mix and match, the Austin Lounge Lizards’ take on grunge can be found here. Yeah, OK, I’m getting a bit off-topic. How about a couple of covers of The Grunge Song to be vaguely relevant? I found a straight-up grunge version and ukulele solo version.)

I’d argue that most wildly deviant covers start out in late night/early morning drug and/or alcohol-infused jam sessions. Most of them are quickly buried when sunlight and sobriety strike; only a few pass the “why the hell not release this?” test a few days, weeks, or months later. As such, they’re something of an artistic quantum element, not truly susceptible to critical decomposition.

There is, by the way, a sub-genre of wildly variant covers that can probably be best characterized as “strictly commercial”. A prime example here would be the notorious “Pickin’ On” series, which renders a variety of popular artists’ music in bluegrass style, with results ranging from “predictable” to “incoherent”–or perhaps “incomprehensible”.

Whether you’re measuring deviation from the original or popularity, covers seem to fall into the familiar bell-shaped curve. There aren’t a lot of examples at either extreme; most of the action is in the middle. As we discussed earlier, popular covers draw on familiarity. They add something new and distinctive to attract attention but don’t go to the extreme of metaphorically slamming the listener in the head with a 2×4.

I have to speak anecdotally here, as there are far too many cover versions in the world for a strict statistical analysis. But it seems only logical that a cover’s best chance of eclipsing the original in the ears–and wallets–of the public is to shoot for the middle of the bell curve.

So there’s the path to fame and fortune I promised you. Find a popular piece and do your own cover. Make sure it’s clearly different, but not radically so. For example, change the mood, alter the instrumentation, or do a gender-swap on the performer and lyrics. Don’t go berserk, though. Stay in the same musical style, don’t change the song from a major key to a minor or vice versa, and definitely don’t change the chorus’ lyrics.

Release it when the original isn’t dominating the airwaves. Again, I’m working without a rigorous analysis, but I’d suggest you time your launch for four to six months after the person who originated the song dies. That way the radio tributes to the first performer will have given the original performance a familiarity bump, but they’ll have tailed off enough that your version will stand out.

Time it right, and presto! You’ll be forever identified with the song. At least until six months after you die, when someone covers your version.

One final note: None of the above absolves you from producing a good cover. Don’t rush it. In particular, and especially if you’re new to the cover game, don’t even try to cover The Thrill Has Gone. There’s going to be far too much competition to cover B.B. King, anyway.

Work on a few projects, build a portfolio, and have patience. Remember: Mick Jagger, Madonna, and–if you’re really patient–Marcus Mumford can’t last forever.

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.