Cover songs - why the hate? (NOT a poll on faves)

Cover songs are a popular item here, but whenever a thread asking for favorites comes up, someone will invariably donate their 2¢ about why most covers songs either suck or shouldn’t be done.

Why so much hatred? Are there some guidelines of how a cover song should be done (if at all)?

Just donating my own proverbial 2 cents, but…

If a song is a touchstone for a generation (Don McLean’s “American Pie,” for example,) it shouldn’t be covered by anyone, and particularly shouldn’t be covered as a “club” song.

My opinion is not meant to “diss” any particular person, incidentally. I’d also hate to hear Beyonce’s version of “Material Girl,” or Lenny Kravitz’ version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” or “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Blackeyed Peas. I just think that some songs have already seen their definitive versions recorded. IMHO, the best cover songs re-introduce fun, but insubstantial songs (i.e. “Blue Suede Shoes” - Elvis vs. Carl Perkins or “I’m a Believer” - Smashmouth vs. the Monkees;) or they re-introduce songs to a new generation or audience (i.e. “Statesboro Blues” - Allmann Bros. vs. Blind Willie McTell or “Hurt” - Johnny Cash vs. NIN;) or they actually add some musical nuance to the original song (“Respect” - Aretha vs. Otis Redding, “Red Red Wine” - UB40 vs. Neil Diamond, “All Along the Watchtower” - Jimi vs. Dylan.) I think that the basic “guideline” should be “Can I add something to this song?” However, it’s gotta be hard for many (most?) artists/bands to be objective about whether they’re adding to the canon, or just making “new and ‘exciting’ noises.”

Cover songs are a bit like remakes of classic movies. Lots of people tend to resent them even if they are well done, because they seem like a sacrilege.

There’s nothing wrong with covering a song. It’s just that if the artist can’t do anything interesting with it, it’s a waste (or maybe a sales ploy).

I think Run Amok got it spot on. If youre not adding, then why do it at all. Of course adding is pretty subjective. I think taking it in a different direction is enough.

Exactly. If a cover is simply pretty much a note-for-note rerecording of the original then what’s the point? It needs to be substantially different to have any value in my book. I don’t agree that songs that are touchstones of a generation cannot be covered well. I can think of two covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” off the top of my hand that I think are pretty good: one by Tori Amos and the other by The Bad Plus–a pop/rock/jazz trio. Actually, I just thought of a third: the tongue-in-cheek analog synthesizer instrumental version by The Moog Cookbook. All these are good covers.

Bad covers–to me, anyway–are like Less Than Jake’s version of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender.” I mean, why does this cover exist? It’s just a sped-up version with nothing added to it. Or Madonna’s “American Pie.” It’s stylistically a bit different than the original, but completely misses the mark. Absolutely soul- and emotion-less performance. Same with Phil Collins’ “True Colors.” Phil removed all quirk and character from this song with near surgical precision.

Have you heard Paul Anka’s version? It’s, um, unique.

There are some cover songs that piss me off and those associated should burn in a fiery inferno for all eternity. My Chemical Romance’s cover of “Under Pressure”, for instance. I never liked the band before that, but hearing their absolute murder of this song was the last straw. Anywho, I guess I agree with what’s already been said. If the artist adds something to the song or revives it and gives it new meaning, then it is a worthwhile cover. For instance, the Jimi Hendrix cover of “All Along the Watchtower” along with the Dave Matthews Band cover of the same song have both given meaning and revived it for new generations.

I personally have rarely met a cover that I liked. I think that is because I already know original and comparing it hoping to prove it is inferior, especially if it a song I already love. Finding out that a song you like is actually a cover is like watching an old movie, black and white 1940’s then you find out that it was a remake of an even older movie and the version you watched was not even the first one.

What does it matter if someone else covers a song? If it is a good enough song then at least newer listeners will be exposed to it. And maybe, even better, maybe they will find the original artist and become a fan. It is not hurting you or me either way. I did not like Madonna’s “American Pie.” But maybe some younger kids decided to try out Don McLean. Who knows.

That being said, cover groups like A*Teens who covered only ABBA songs word for word, note for note, well, they make baby Jeebus cry.

My take on covers is that the original composer/lyricist write a song, they intend it to sound a particular way [that is sort of why they wrote it…to get it out of their head and into yours]

You can have a good cover of it. It sounds like the original music, and the vocals sound the same [with variants for differences in voices.] More or less a remake. An example of this would be Stripped by Depeche Mode covered by Rammstein [which DM consider the best cover of that particular song.]

You can have a good cover of a song, or even a remake going from electric to acoustic [Warren Zevon did some good acoustic versions of his stuff, and MTV unplugged has artists doing acoustic versions of their music, many of which are incredible. There is something very essential about an acoustic performance that can be an almost transcendent experience.]

You can even have a good cover doing a change in style [Who shot the Sheriff, mentioned in the OP] as long as the differences are relatively minimal.

Then there is the horror that is best typified by the pure and unadulterated craptastic versions of the american national anthem where it gets done in rap, or pseudo-motown, or even Rosanne Barr <shudder> It is pretty much impossible to take a “classical” style song and rocking it up. Personalizing it and ‘making it my own’ is horrid. Sing the damned song the way the composer intended it. That is why the little dots are on the funny paper in the first place.

Re: Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” His version of the song was SO much better than the NIN original. Actually, if my friend wasn’t pulling my leg the other day, apparantly the guy from NIN said the same thing. Of course, it’s Johnny Cash. He could sing the Hokey Pokey and it’d send goosebumps down your back with the sheer Johnny Cash-iness of it.

Covers in general can be interesting… sometimes I just take it as the band doing a song they liked as a sort of tribute (I don’t imagine most folks listen to a song, say “I hate this, I bet I can sing a better version” and THEN make the cover) So basically, the cover of the song can sometimes be good just because the musicians obviously enjoyed singing it. I’ve found this to be the case with Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, who refer to themselves as “The greatest cover band ever, with dozens of fans all over the world” (All they do is cover songs, my favorite ones being a punk cover of Science Fiction Double Feature by Richard O’Brien and their cover of the Hava Nagila (It’s… interesting.) The only one of their songs I’d summarily define as “Bad” is their version of Hava Nagila they did to the tune of “Feliz Navidad.” shudder

I mean, you aren’t trying to tell me that you’ve NEVER tried singing some of your favorite songs, even if it was just in the shower or in the car?

Also, sometimes a guy will just take a song in a totally bizzare direction, such as Richard Cheese, who does swing-band jazz covers of just about anything that seems to sit still long enough. His songs can be hit-or-miss (His cover of “Down With the Sickness” was great, his cover of “Wrong Way” by Sublime… wasn’t.)

Something else that I’ve begun to get into is classical music remixed. For an example of this done really well, check out a string quartet called Bond. They do classical music with some very cool mixing jobs done. It also helps that the entire string quartet is made up of highly attractive female musicians.

I like when people cover my songs.

Yeah, I wrote the song with an idea in mind, but I like listening to other musicians take on it.

I agree with RunAmok’s post and would like to add:

The similarity with films is pretty close for me. One of the things that I don’t like about remakes of popular or successful material is that it takes zero brains or creativity. It’s also a blatant attempt to exploit something that the public already likes. How much creativity, how much artistic courage, could it possibly take to do a cover of a recording that sold 10 million copies? You already know you have 10 million people who like the song and are willing to pay money for it. That’s not art, that’s a con.

This comes into play, too. Look at blues music. Why is it okay for some blues songs to be re-done hundreds, even thousands of times? Because the songs are sparse arrangements, a core that is solid but has few frills. Each artist is able to decorate the framework however they wish, and since the framework is good, their effort is usually rewarded with something terrific.

When an artist can find that kind of song, in any genre, they have found a good candidate for a cover tune. Same with films.
Having said all that, let me explain that I have a collection of over 240 versions of “Louie, Louie”. You just can’t beat 3 chord rock and roll.

Like I said, to me this is pointless. If it’s going to sound like the original, why even bother covering it? The only time this is acceptable is at a concert. As a recording on your LP, you have really to ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish.

Anyhow, music is not supposed to only sound one way. I mean, heck, go back to the classic composers and see how many different “covers” we have from that era: Brahm’s Variations on a Theme of Haydn or Variations on a Theme of Schumann or Liszt’s Variations on a Theme by Bach, etc… Not exactly the same as a cover, but the same general idea.

Or listen to various performances of your favorite classical artists. Interpretations can be all over the place. Some performers embellish Bach all over the place with improvised ornamentation or whatnot. Some play “straight” from the music. Even while playing “straight” you have A LOT of interpretive choices. You might find one performer play Invention #13 in A-minor at a tempo of 80 bpm. Another might fly through it (like Glenn Gould) at around 150 bpm.

One, most rock songs never reach the “little dots” on the “funny paper” stage. Two, even in written music there is plenty of room for interpretation, hence my last few paragraphs on classical music. Three, I don’t think most composers in popular forms of music would insist on one and only one correct way of playing a song. It’s very interesting to see what other musicians can do with the same material. I mean, just look at jazz music. It’s got the words, it’s got the funny dots on the paper, but every band’s version of any standard sounds completely different than any other.

There’s nothing wrong with doing covers. The key is to do a good cover. I’ve heard songs that were note-for-note renditions of previous songs (the more recent version of “Killing Me Softly,” for instance), and that strikes me as completely pointless.

There are also just plain bad versions of songs.

But there is one difference between cover songs and movies: songs were made to be performed by others. It’s a matter of bringing to the table something new and good.

For instance, consider “The Letter,” by both the Box Tops and Joe Cocker (who was a master at covering songs). Two great songs, both slightly different.

BTW, in blues and jazz, cover songs are common. Jazz started out by covering songs by major composors, and blues musicians constantly rerecord songs they like. No one really gets upset over that.

My problem with covers is when they are blatantly used as promotional oomph to sell a record. You can tell when a producer says “Babe, you’re the next big thing, we’ll have you do ‘Incense and Peppermint’ as your single, hook the listeners, then Booyah! Platinum baby!” :rolleyes:

The ones I respect (and tend to like) are the covers that sneak in buried in albums by established bands that show the artist paying a genuine tribute, experimenting uniquely with an established song, or as a sly nod and wink to fans. I’m thinking of things like Alice Cooper “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” or David Bowie “See Emily Play”.

From my own experience, unless it’s something like jazz or country, if someone does a cover that sounds too much like the original, and I hear it, it just makes me drag out the original and listen to that (if it’s something I have access to.)

There’s a big difference between being lazy and just trying to score a Top 40 hit for your career, or being creative enough and interested in doing something innovative with an old song. You could choose between No Doubt’s boring rote copy of a great Talk Talk song, that ads virtually nothing to the original, except for reminding Talk Talk fans of how great Talk Talk was, or you can just listen to Talk Talk again, which is really much more satisfying. Or you could choose something like Senor Coconut’s album of Kraftwerk covers done brilliantly in various Latin music styles, which is so entertaining on its own, that you don’t need to put on Kraftwerk because the Senor Coconut versions are so interesting on their own.

I just think it’s a matter of laziness, steps away from typical bar band garbage, as opposed to innovating, which to me is clearly a better option.

Count me in as one who doesn’t see the point of covering a song note-for-note, word-for-word, changing nothing.

One example I can think of would be a cover of Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” that came out a few years ago. Same song, nothing too original about it, the only change they made was adding heavier guitar in there. And it was the first single and only hit for this band (sorry, can’t remember the name), and it totally smacked of “Hey, this song was a hit, we’re pretty sure it could be a hit, so go make us some money!”, as Gargoyle mentioned.

If you’re not going to add something to the song, why cover it? I loved it when Tori Amos did “I’m on Fire”, the Bruce Springsteen tune. Bruce sang it like your average lusty frustrated young man. Tori added this kind of desperate-and-intense mood of a woman who wants something she’s not sure she should want. I love both versions, as they both suit different moods.

And please, just because you’re either an obscure artist or one fading into oblivion who needs an adult contemporary hit, don’t do another cover of “Big Yellow Taxi”. I know, I know, easy radio play and nearly guaranteed to get into the Top 40, but either do something original with it or just let it be. I don’t need to hear anyone other than Joni sing it!

Well, my cynical 2 cents goes something like this:

Most people can’t bear to listen to music outside of their little niche of what they like to listen to. They have no real appreciation of the musicality of something, but rather tie it to who they are and identify with the artist in a way that the song exemplefies. (Sorry didn’t mean to sound like I’m quoting Trotsky Theorists).
Basically you have people who have been raised to listen to music that is defined in as incredibly small a category as can be imagined. Move them outside of it, and they can’t appreciate it because they have no understanding of it on a musical level – only an emotional reactionary level. If someone does an incredible reggae version of “Hotel California” they won’t get it because it isn’t the Eagles and it doesn’t sound exactly like what they hear. The death of live bands and the rise of lip syncing in concert has to do with peoples inability to accept reinterpretation of songs, even by the artists who create it.

People own songs that are important to them and don’t deal with change. They have no feel for artistry. They really want something the same only different (which explains the incredible sales of NKOTB, N’Sync, Backstreet Boys and all of their ilk. The unbelievable number of completely indistiguishable pop pincesses, and, not to leave other genre’s out, the metal bands that melt into sameness, and country pop songs that all follow the same basic formula.)
Not that I’m bitter or jaded or anything, no nothing like that.

When cover songs are good, they’re very very good, but when they’re bad, well…

Some songs fairly cry out to be covered. Good material, but somehow the original version doesn’t live up to the song’s potential. Think the Everly Brother’s “Love Hurts”- good song, Nazereth made it great. Or, “Get Ready”- the Temptations version is a bit too smooth for my taste, but then Rare Earth came along and put some grit into it, and that’s the version most of us remember. And Deep Purple’s “No One Came” (tucked away on Fireball)- since the moment I first heard it, I have wanted to see what David Lee Roth, backed by just the right band, could do with it.

Some songs are fine the way they are, but a rocked-up version of a slower song can really get a girl’s estrogen pumping- think Rainbow’s version of “Still I’m Sad” and Rainbow’s version of “Still I’m Sad” (a song so nice, Blackmore covered it twice, once as an instrumental, once with the lyrics, both totally kick ass).

A lot of times a cover will work just because the covering band had freakin’ attitude- the Dead Kennedeys “Viva Las Vegas”, “My Way” Sid’s way, the Circle Jerks cover of “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” (if you’ve never heard this last, try to lay your hands on it, it’s hilarious- part of a medly, IIRC, but still well worth a listen, and that’s from someone who hates medleys)

Then there are songs that should be left exactly the way they are- “American Pie”, for one, and just about anything by Black Sabbath or Gordon Lightfoot.

But many, if not most, covers, fall on their butts, because some producer thought it would be a great idea to cover a great old song, but with more “modern” background music. And really, the Bananarama version of “Venus” just doesn’t do anything for me.