There’s a million good reasons why musicians do cover versions, ranging from the commercial to the aesthetic to the practical. A band might want to display their influences, might be pushed by a record label to piggyback off another band’s success or simply need to beef out their live set.
When bands get to certain level of influence they are able to record whole albums of cover tunes, something we’ve seen from artists as disparate as Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses, Skid Row, Slayer, Metallica, Rush, Tori Amos (more on her later), Overkill, Peter Gabriel, Scarlett Johansson (!), and Rod Stewart.
Often the best cover versions come when a band offers a radical reinterpretation of the song in question, pulls it from one musical genre to another. Should you find the Black Sabbath boxed set, titled appropriately enough, “Black Box,” the bonus dvd contains footage of a very young Black Sabbath cranking out “Blue Suede Shoes.” Who knew that Black Sabbath had any boogie in them?
Cake’s version of “I Will Survive” works precisely because the style of music goes against the song. While Gloria Gaynor sang her little heart out, as they say, on the original, John McCrea’s laconic vocals make it sound like he could barely survive dropping his ice cream much less having his heart stomped on.
Sometimes the cover even becomes the definitive version. One thinks of The Who’s thunderous version of “Summertime Blues” or Sid Vicious’ doing “My Way.” And only the most devoted Dylan chauvinist would think that the original of “All Along the Watchtower” surpasses Jimi Hendrix’s take on the song.
As a lifelong listener of heavy metal, I’ve often noticed how well metal bands do covers from outside of their musical sphere. Many songs have been given the metal treatment, the contrast between the original and the reinterpretation made all the more apparent through the shift in musical styles.
One thinks of Celtic Frost doing “Mexican Radio” or Anthrax doing “Got the Time” or Exodus doing “Pump it Up” or Marilyn Manson’s various takes on 1980s synth rock. Or Nazareth’s thumping version of Joni Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight.” Or Megadeth’s blistering take on “These Boots Are Made for Walking.”
As an example, I offer that when Joan Baez wrote “Diamonds and Rust” I’m pretty sure she never envisioned it sounding like this.
Personally, I am pissed that Velvet Revolver split up. They were a) a far more viable band than Axl Rose’s solo efforts under the G’N’R name and b) the last bastion of sleaze rock out here. And do we ever need more of that! Their second album “Libertad” was brilliant (funny enough the only false moment on it was a cover of ELO’s “Can’t Get it Out of My Head” but I don’t think any band could save that song). In their early going they did covers to flesh out their live set including “Psycho Killer.”
Not only does this version have some serious swing and swagger, something not associated with the art rock darlings The Talking Heads, it shows off a side of Slash’s guitar playing that is not often seen–that is his ability with a slide, an underused implement for contemporary six-stringers.
Leave it to a metal/funk/rock/tribal/classical band like Faith No More (amazing as it is to recall but there was a time around 1989 where it seemed that this was going to be the band of 1990s, but then Nirvana came along) to resurrect this chestnut from the 1970s disco-prog group Sparks, allowing Mike Patton to show off his little-used falsetto.
While hard rock and metal bands have pulled songs into their fold, rarely does the favour flow in the other direction except in novelty form, like Dread Zeppelin (reggae covers of Led Zeppelin sung by an Elvis Presley impersonator), Apocalyptica (Finnish chamber quartet doing Metallica) or Hayseed Dixie (AC/DC done as bluegrass).
An exception is Tori Amos. A prolific cover artist, the chanteuse has released a full album of them, an EP, and participated in numerous tribute records, recording everyone from The Smiths to the Rolling Stones to the Boomtown Rats to Neil Young to Nirvana to Leonard Cohen. Here is some grainy footage of her transforming Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” the punishing closer to 1986’s “Reign in Blood,” into a dirge.
Needless to say, it is considerably slower than the original; it is in fact more than twice as long. It’s also worth noting that for a singer whose audience is largely women and is as invested in covers as she is, she has never (to my knowledge) recorded a song by another female artist.
Sometimes things just come right out of left field. According to their website the Scala Choir from Belgium is composed of 60 teenage girls under the direction of the brothers Steven and Stijn Kolacny. Starting out as a classical choir, they switched to singing pop artists like U2, Nirvana, Depeche Mode, Rammstein, and Radiohead, among others. Somewhere along the line, an inspired choice of musical programming led to a cover of the DiVinyls:
This is so wrong on so many levels (and if I have to explain what they are, get some help perv) and yet so funny. The difference between simply listening to this (which would be hilarious enough) and watching it, comes down to the choirmaster who comes off as just a little too… enthusiastic about the whole proceedings as far as I’m concerned.
Slang vocabulary can be a tricky thing. It constantly updates itself and failure to keep current can lead to many an embarrassing misunderstanding. I had never seen such an embarrassment set to music until I discovered this.
Gail and Dale, “One Toke Over the Line” (1971)
I should mention that this episode of Lawrence Welk aired in 1971, right on the heels of the release of Brewer and Shipley’s hippie folk drug anthem. Presumably, all the references to Mary and Jesus were behind the idea to do this song as an evangelical spiritual. Unfortunately, there was no Google search around to help them figure out what a toke was. I’m certain that these two fresh-faced youngsters never had one toke period, much less gone one over the line.
Looking back on it from this day and age, what I love about this version is that it is performed utterly, completely and truly without a hint of irony. Its unintentional humour is a result of Gail and Dale’s (wonder what they’re up to?) totally sincere earnestness. Watching and enjoying it in 2010 is absolutely another matter though.
- Christopher Doda