Random Pop Culture Apocalypse: Cover Songs

March 15, 2009

(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.


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