Tuesday, September 29, 2015

When a Cover Song Isn't Really a 'Cover'

Great piece about cover songs by Ben Zimmer in The Wall Street Journal, inspired by indie rocker Ryan Adams' full remake of Taylor Swift’s “1989,” consisting of cover versions of all the songs from her top-selling album. He writes that while Mr. Adams takes a musical homage to extreme lengths, the “cover” has been a basic bit of music-industry lingo for nearly 70 years.

Zimmer explains the entire history of the practice -- labels wanting to cash in on popular songs by having their own artists re-record the hits of the day -- but what I found most interesting is that he touched on something I've wondered all along:

If you never heard the original, is it really a true "cover" as the term was coined by Billboard back in the day? (He cites Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" as a prime example.)

I can think of a dozen songs off the top of my head that I didn't know weren't originals:

"Bette Davis Eyes" (Jackie DeShannon/Kim Carnes)

"{There's) Always Something There to Reminds Me" (Lou Johnson/Naked Eyes)

"Tainted Love" (Gloria Jones/Soft Cell)

"I Love Rock 'n' Roll" (Arrows/Joan Jett and the Blackhearts)

"Come Back and Stay" (Jack Lee/Paul Young), etc.

Billboard defined a "cover" as a song you know that's been recorded by another artist. I guess the thinking is songs like the ones I've listen above are more akin to what people like Barbra, Liza and Whitney do -- record material written by others, which doesn't necessarily make them true "covers."

(This, of course, is not the same thing as being musically ignorant, like a cashier who was shocked to find out "This Woman's Work" wasn't a Maxwell original or a 40-year-old bar patron who thought Bananarama penned "Venus.")

I know it's strictly semantics, but I kinda like this stricter definition -- which means“Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia isn't a cover (even though it was originally by Ednaswap) and Sheryl Crow's "The First Cut Is the Deepest" is.

P.S. Speaking of gender-flipped covers, I'm obsessed with them ... as I wrote HERE.


Damian said...

While the (good!) examples you give are covers which, to a certain segment, become instead the definitive versions (in effect supplanting the originals), I've also enjoyed when I discover that songs I like are covers, leading me to the originals I was unaware of or had overlooked, so are introductions that don't compete with the originals so much as double the fun. The best example that occurs to me right away is a cover of the B-52s 'Song for a Future Generation' that cleverly updates the lyrics for a contemporary twist, as done by Chicks on Speed.


Other songs that have functioned this way for me are Ted Leo and the Pharmacists with 'Six Months in a Leaky Boat' (Sharkbite Sessions version), originally done by Split Enz, the Information Society's 'Are Friends Electric?' of Gary Numan's Tubeway Army, and Tori Amos with 'Rattlesnakes' of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. I always feel that people who quibble that "the original was better" or vice versa, which is a legitimate subjective reaction, may be depriving themselves of two good songs as opposed to one. My biggest gripe actually lies with those covers that don't depart nearly enough from the original, rendering them academic -- Marilyn Manson does this with 'Personal Jesus' and 'Tainted Love,' although his 'Golden Years' (Bowie) and 'Down in the Park' (Numan again) are solid redos. (The Foo Fighters, of all bands, do fun versions of the latter as well as Prince's 'Darling Nikki.') The Cruxshadows do a haunting (and gender-flipped) spin on The Eurythmics' 'Here Comes the Rain Again.'

Bob K said...

will go with what I think is the standard definition -"It has previously been recorded and released by another artist" I really can't go with "'Hound Dog' is not a cover if you were White, so you would not have heard Willie Mae Thornton, exept that it was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller" Back in the 20s-50s, nearly every artist recorded his/her rendition of the popular songs of the time. The Beatles covered Churk Berry and the Marvelettes. The Stones covered Muddy Waters, etc etc etc And the REASON to call the songs "covers" is that the artist has heard the earlier version, so his rendition is not a completely pure creation. All OK