Random Pop Culture Apocalypse: Cover Songs

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Mrs. Ladner has the kiddos off in the Land of Enchantment visiting their relatives on spring break. Rather than sit around in my boxers piling up pizza boxes and watching tons of NCAA basketball (NOT that there is anything wrong with that!) I am out of town myself, in the Raven, a great coffee bar in Prescott Arizona.

So as long as I’m here, chugging cafe mocha, I may as well blog, so here is a random subject for you: cover songs. I love cover songs. Cover songs are recordings made by one artist that were previously made popular by another artist. For reasons that I’ll try to figure out as I write this, I tend to like a much higher percentage of cover songs. Perhaps it is simply because nostalgia, not gravity, is the most powerful force in the universe. Perhaps it is something more than that, however.

Back in the day, there were songs that were “the standards”and you were judged as a performer based on how well you sang them. More than that, how entertaining you managed to make them.

Needless to say, people sitting around singing the same songs all the time would get boring. There is a reason however that certain songs achieve standard status-there’s something special about them.

My favorite thing about a good cover song is that an artist or producer have recognized something special about a song, even if it isn’t obvious. I remember watching the VH1 Behind the Music on Rod Stewart. Rod had hit a lull in his career, and a producer called him. The producer told Rod that he was a pretty good singer of pretty good songs, but a great singer of great songs. Rod’s next question was classic:

Do you have a great song for me?”

From this came Stewart’s cover of Tom Wait’s Downtown Train. Here is the original:

And here is what the now great again Rod Stewart did with the song.

I think it’s great that Waits wrote the song, but I can’t say I ever need to hear his rendition again. Stewart said something to the effect of “Tom didn’t know there was so much soul in that song, but there was.” Stewart went on to make a fortune with a series of cds of- you guessed it- the standards.

Here’s another great example: Overkill by Men at Work. The original:

I kind of liked that song back in 1983, but I liked the 1996 cover by Lazlo Bane and Colin Hay much, much better:

My favorite sub-genre of cover songs is the ironic cover song. Here is the Carpenters singing their song Superstar:

Now, here is perhaps the greatest of all cover bands, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes version of the same song from their hilarious cd Ruin Jonny’s Bar Mitzvah. MFATGG is a side project which draws members from several different punk bands to do punk rock covers.

Now of course there are plenty of bad and awful covers, but generally, I like a higher percentage of covers than average. I think the reasons are fairly simple: nostalgia, but also a double quality screen. For the marketing of a typical song, someone is hoping that enough people will like it to buy it. If no one does, you probably never hear of it anyway, or ignore it if you do.

This applies to cover songs as well, but in addition someone has seen something in the song, or a way to put an entertaining twist on it. If it isn’t any good, the paragraph immediately above still applies, but if done well the cover starts with good material but benefits from a new twist and from the nostalgia factor.

So if you know of a cool cover that I’ve probably never heard, post a link in the comment section. It’s time for me to get an espresso.


41 Responses to Random Pop Culture Apocalypse: Cover Songs

  1. Marcus Winters says:

    Um — Matt — I love me some covers — but don’t EVER EVER EVER say that that hack Rod Stewart improved on anything, let along on Tom Waits. The Stewart version is more familiar because radio stations play his junk as if it were good, but it’s definitely not better.

    My favorite recent cover — The White Stripes fantastic version of Patty Paige’s “Conquest”.

    Here’s the original:

    Here’s the cover:

  2. How can Matt be so smart and yet so wrong? Covers on average tend to be worse than the originals. I agree that covers tend to be good songs, but that is largely because people don’t bother to cover bad songs. The selection effect is huge.

    But the question is not whether covers are good, but whether they are usually better than the original. The problem with covers is that they lack the authenticity of the original. To be truly great a song, like great drama, usually requires that we suspend disblief. That is, we have to believe that the singer means what he or she is saying — that it really comes from his or her heart. Of course, singers, like actors, don’t really mean the things they say and aren’t really talking about themselves. But we want to believe that they are.

    We have greater difficulty suspending disbelief for a cover because we are acutely aware of the fact that the song has the words of someone else — not the singer. It’s like me doing an impression of Marlon Brando in The Godfather. We might believe that he really is Don Corleone, but all that anyone could think when I “cover” it is that I am imitating Brando (despite my striking physical similarity and ace acting skills).

    This is why the best covers are those that take a song and make it their own, usually by changing it substantially. The best cover among the group Matt provides is by MFATGG because it is quite different. But even that cannot compete with the Carpenters.

    And Rod Stewart? Rod Stewart!?! Even his original songs sound like pale imitations of other songs. If David Bowie is at the cutting edge of the next sound, Rod Stewart marks the death rattle of whatever type of music he rips off. “Maggie” was at the tail end of the singer-songwriter era with jangly mandolin. “Do You Think I’m Sexy” was after disco had jumped the shark. “Young Hearts” marked the end of the 80s synth band.

    I know that I’ve already alienated the Meatloaf fans with my I Won’t Do That post, so I am now prepared for the Rod Stewart onslaught.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Jay, how can you be so smart and yet so wrong?

      The issue is not whether most covers are bad. Most songs are bad, so it’s no surprise if most covers are bad. The issue is, does the existence of covers increase the total amount of good music, compared to what we would have if the time and resources now invested in covers were invested in original music?

      It’s kind of like the Pass the Popcorn edition I did a while back on sequels. I said that most sequels are bad, but that’s no surprise because most movies are bad. At least with sequels you’re building on the foundation of a successful original movie, and you have some more efficient consumer access to information about the product due to branding.

  3. Marcus Winters says:

    I disagree with Jay — though there are certainly bad covers out there, when done well they can really add to the experience of a song. Very often I hear a cover and it can really change the way that I think about a song, and that can be wonderful.

    Take the recent movie, Across The Universe — which is basically just a reason to have a bunch of Beatles covers. Some of this was absolutely terrible — the Fantastic Mr. Kite was hideous, for example. But then you get gems, like the cover of I Want to Hold Your Hand. I was actually very touched by this version and it made me really think about this already wonderful song in a brand new wonderful way — sexy, longing, and heartbreaking.

    Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D92Lyxj7U7Q

    So, I guess I disagree with both of you guys — cover’s aren’t generally good or bad — they just are.

  4. Brian says:

    Covers are most often lame–but they are always entertaining, probably because of nostalgia as you point out. There are some gems, as Marcus points out with the White Stripes. They also covered “I just Don’t Know What to do With Myself” (like some old Dusty Springfield song) on a previous album and it totally rocks.

    The White Stripes:

    This just works cause the White Stripes rock. That’s the deal with covers–good artists make good covers and it’s fun to hear them do it. We all want to hear Nirvana cover a song (Bowie’s “Man Who Sold the World” or Stevie Wonder do the Beatles “We Can Work it Out.” We are all saddened when Phil Collins butchers Cindi Lauper.

    Some more of my favorites are Red Red Wine–not even the UB40 version, the version by Tony Tribe:

    which is the original reggae cover of the original-original by Neil Diamond:

    I don’t think I need to post a link to the UB40 version, it should be permanently etched in our brains. At any rate, Tony Tribe really improved on Neil’s version.

    Can’t beleive you brought the Carpenters into this without mentioning their cover of the Klaatu song, “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.” This was irony before irony was cool…unless they meant it, I’m not really sure. Most extraordinary song to hear them sing though.

    Dude, noone can play Men at Work but Men at Work. This is proven at minute 3:30 of your Overkill video in which the lame-os trying to cover the song actually have to bring in Colin Hay from Men at Work to sing the high part at the end. Yeah. Nuff said.

    And, by the way, Rod Stewart sucks. My grandma has that album of him doing standards, and loves it.

    Nuff said.

  5. matthewladner says:

    The Gimmes can’t compare to the Carpenters? You couldn’t pay me to listen to the Carpenters, but the Gimmes, can’t get enough.

    Bringing in Colin Hay to cover his own song makes the cover extra cool, but even before that, the cover was better than the original.

    I’m sure Rod Stewart will be crushed to hear that you guys think he sucks. Maybe he will console himself by visiting his vault to count his millions 🙂

  6. Stuart Buck says:

    Covers CAN be better than the original. For example, here’s French/Jewish singer Yael Naim doing a jazzy version of Britney Spears’ song “Toxic.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5pP55u9s10

    More controversially, I’d say that George Michael’s rendition of the Beatle’s “Long and Winding Road” was better (and he did it at a concert for Linda McCartney, so at least one of the Beatles probably liked his performance): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OtEFbtwH-7I

  7. Marcus Winters says:

    The Jonas Brothers make millions — but that doesn’t make them good

  8. matthewladner says:

    Who are the Jonas Brothers?

  9. Marcus Winters says:

    Brian — good catch on “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” — an even better White Stripes cover.

    Seriously — does anyone rock harder than Jack White?

  10. matthewladner says:

    So far I’ve watched “Conquest” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

    They are both fun-keep them coming.

  11. Marcus Winters says:

    I give you the Jonas Brothers — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScXLHgPcZuc

    Why can’t kids music actually be good? Did anyone see these guys butcher Stevie Wonder on the Grammy’s? Seriously, why did Stevie agree to that? Does he need some cash?

  12. matthewladner says:

    Jonas Brothers = Yeesh

    We’d be better off having someone cover Hanson’s MMMBOP

  13. matthewladner says:

    Greg is correctamundo!

  14. Stuart Buck says:

    I left a comment, but it disappeared?

  15. matthewladner says:

    I guess so- do a cover version of your original and try again!

  16. Stuart Buck says:

    Covers CAN be better than the original. For example, here’s French/Jewish singer Yael Naim doing a jazzy version of Britney Spears’ song “Toxic.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5pP55u9s10

    More controversially, I’d say that George Michael’s rendition of the Beatle’s “Long and Winding Road” was better (and he did it at a concert for Linda McCartney, so at least one of the Beatles probably liked his performance): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OtEFbtwH-7I

  17. Stuart Buck says:

    It has links and seems to get held up in “moderation.”

    Going out on a limb: I’d bet just about any cover by George Michael will be better than or at least equal the original. Here’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dfd7a1hEJf0 And Queen’s “Somebody to Love”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8c7x2JD_j-0&feature=related

  18. Stuart Buck says:

    OK, I left two more comments, both with links, and both got held up in moderation. How come everyone else is able to post links? I sense discrimination. 🙂

  19. Stuart Buck says:

    Another example: George Michael’s cover of Elton John’s Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtZB4jluIO4

    Is there any other singer who has basically been asked by so many different original artists to do cover versions of their songs?

    Now one exception might be George Michael’s cover of “Roxanne.” Not sure I like such a slow and understated version. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSyOCx6ZXfM

  20. Brian says:

    There is only one way to resolve this, and I think I have it figured out. What Matt failed to consider is that he is wrong. Had he realized he was wrong I am sure he would have agreed with the rest of us who are right.

    Rod Stewart is lame and the Men at Work version is SO much better. See Matt, it all makes sense now.

  21. Michael F. Cannon says:

    There is something to your thesis, Matt. Covers are not better as a rule. Hear, e.g., Johnny Cash’s cover of NIN’s “Hurt.” But it is often true, as with Elvis, the Dead, and sometimes Bob Dylan.

    I find your choice of examples interesting, though. EBTG did a much better cover of Downtown Train — before Rod. (Maybe that’s how Rod knew there was so much soul in it.) Lazlo is better than the original, but not nearly as good as Colin Hay’s acoustic remake of Overkill, which nailed the song’s melancholy.

    I have to hand it to you on Superstar, however. Maybe it’s because I’m an irony junkie. Or maybe it’s because MFATGG made something fun out of a song that the Carpenters (and, for that matter, Sonic Youth) had made so bloody awful.

    I recommend Shawn Colvin’s album Cover Girl.

  22. matthewladner says:

    I thought of another factor this morning in explaining why I generally like covers better than originals. Often I think I’m just bored with the originals, and I’m a bit of a novelty junkie.

  23. Curtis Frazier says:

    Are people really asking how Matt can be wrong? I’m assuming this is an inside joke or something because in the 20 years I’ve known Matt, I can count on my thumbs how many times Matt’s been right about pop culture.

    My take – covers are AWESOME, but only in very small quantities. There is nothing better than a good cover (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAfQ-fDTAjM) at a live show. There isn’t much worse than hearing a god-awful cover on the radio 1000 times.

    Matt – just kidding.

  24. matthewladner says:

    No kidding-I have to at least get on to a pinkie after 20 years!

  25. matthewladner says:


    Jay tells me that you are just mad because you love MMMMBOP. It’s okay. It is pretty catchy, and there are ways to treat being a Hanson fan…

  26. Patrick says:

    South Park “cover” of the Jonas Brothers, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_1tg0TNadU

  27. Brian says:

    I’m sure Hanson will be crushed to hear that you think they suck. Maybe they will console themselves by visiting their vault to count their millions.

    See what I just did there? That was my cover of Matt’s “Money Equals Quality” argument. Not as good as the original, was it?

  28. matthewladner says:


    It was even better than the original! Except for the part where the Hanson brothers are sacking groceries somewhere in Oklahoma right now.

  29. Marcus Winters says:

    Matt — I just listened to all of the clips you posted. Now, I’m actually on the side that says that covers can be great, but not a single one of the covers you list is even close to as good as the original. It is already clear that Rod Steward cannot improve upon Tom Waits. The Lazlo Bane version of Overkill adds nothing at all to the song — it is just a reproduction of something that was recorded perfectly well the first time. And Me First sounds like a bad version of Green Day.

  30. matthewladner says:


    Tom Waits sounds like he is gargling a pint of road gravel and cigarette ash.

  31. Robert Enlow says:

    While I agree with Matt that cover songs are generallt better than average songs that have not been covered, I don’t believe – and neither does the author – that this means that all covers are good and all average song are less good than covers. What I think everyone needs to hear is the author’s true motivation in making his points. Basically, he’s bored an matter how good stairway to heaven really is he will hate it eternally b cause he was subjected to it too many times growing up. If this is the case – and I know it to be so – then dr. Ladner’s posting is Ann Rayndish in its egocentrism

  32. Matthew Ladner says:

    The first part of Enlow’s screed has stumbled into the truth-literally, as it was written during a St. Paddy’s Day pub crawl.

    The middle part is also true- due to overplay on the radio in the 1970s and 80s, I have a general aversion to so called “classic rock” and would certainly rather listen to someone scratch a chalkboard than to Stairway.

    The final part, though, is just completely off base. Obviously many originals are boring, overplayed and lesser versions subsequent covers. It is only in the purely selfless spirit of concern with the general interest that I point that inescapable fact out for the benefit of all mankind.

  33. Brian says:

    Ok, now that Stairway has been brought into the conversation I’ll add some more thoughts, as well as a link to a very neat cover song.

    I actually am on Matt’s side in theory–like him, I enjoy novelty, and cover songs are always entertaining to me for their novelty value. Usually the more they do not sound like the original the more I like them. The reason Matt and I got off on the wrong foot is that his examples were so miserable.

    Too bad you have this hangup about songs you’ve heard too many times. We all have that, but I actively try to keep it from spoiling a good song for me. That said, here is the coolest-most-novelty-rich version of Stairway to Heaven you will come across.

  34. Alsadius says:

    The two classic examples of covers that dramatically improved upon the original are Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt”, and Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower”. Mind you, all Dylan covers improve upon the original, but few of them manage to make legendary rock tracks out of Dylan’s warbly, overwrought crap. That said, a lot of covers are utter garbage. See, for example, any attempt ever to cover “Sympathy for the Devil”, even those by people who ought to be able to pull it off, or Madonna’s version of “American Pie”.

    Overall, the field of song covers is way too big for broad generalizations to be sensible. You’re just making silly statements for fun.

  35. What do you mean “making silly statements for fun?” This is all deadly serious. : )

  36. aw60nj says:

    Here’s a cover that is a dramatic improvement over the original. Check out Van Atta High’s pumped up cover of Afternoon Delight: http://www.myspace.com/vanattahigh

  37. Thundercats_hoe says:

    who is this matthew ladner ? he sounds scrumptious !! heh ;P

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