It’s summer and time for a Random Pop Culture Apocalypse post.
Sometimes the person who creates something is not as well positioned as others to interpret and present it as someone else with a fresh perspective. I learned this during grad school when Paul Peterson would annually host a conference in which discussants presented papers rather than the authors. As it turns out, authors fall too much in love with every detail of their own papers and have difficulty distinguishing between what is important and interesting and what is not. The authors could respond to clarify or rebut the interpretations offered by the discussant, but the bulk of presenting was done by someone other than the author. And that approach made otherwise dreadful and boring academic conferences much more interesting and productive.
The separation of creator and performer is a common occurrence in other fields, particularly music and theater. The cover song, however, is especially challenging because we already know the interpretation offered by the original creator. When the cover differs from the expected pattern of the familiar original it sounds wrong to us. We tend to enjoy familiar repetition in music, something that Lisa Margulis writes about in On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind. The trick of a successful cover is to offer an interpretation that is dramatically different from the original. This allows us to forget the expected familiar song and appreciate the same song as something new and different.
I’m going to start a list of great cover songs that sound nothing like the original. Feel free to add your own in the comments.
Jump by Aztec Camera
David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen have got nothing on this cover by Scottish new wave band, Aztec Camera.
Our Lips are Sealed by Fun Boy Three
The song was actually co-written by Jane Wiedlin, the guitarist in the Go-Go’s, and Terry Hall, who was in Fun Boy Three and The Specials. The Go-Go’s released their original recording in 1981 and Fun Boy Three followed with their version in 1983. Strictly speaking the Fun Boy Three version is not a cover since it was co-written by Hall, but it is awesome enough to include in this list.
Mad World by Gary Jules
The Tears for Fears original is pretty great but this interpretation by Gary Jules is even better. And it has a great video.
I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself by The White Stripes
Jack White nails this cover of the Dusty Springfield original. And the video is… um… er… also fun to watch.
Heartbeat by The Vulgar Boatmen
This is an unusual cover in that the original was done by an earlier incarnation of the same band (or at least some of the same people). I know both are obscure, but I’ve previously written about The Vulgar Boatmen as the best band you’ve never heard of. The original by The Gizmos is by a band that you’ve certainly never heard of. But listen to both and marvel at how much a different interpretation can change a song, even when both versions are really good.
What do you think are the best cover songs that are nothing like the original? No fair picking covers that are better known than the original (e.g. most covers of Bob Dylan, etc…)