What with the girls and guys over at 6Music busy celebrating the joys of the cover version this week, the thought bubbles springing up in the LGM compound suggest that it pays to be wary. It pays to be wary of most things, of course, cynicism good company when the nights are long and the cocktail cabinet needs replenishing, but when it comes to Track X, originally by Act Y, reinterpreted by hoodlum or hoodlums we’ll label Z, all too often the cover is shorthand for laziness, or novelty, compensation for a lack of material, or (perhaps even worse) a shortage of imagination.
It’s a far from universal truth (as we’ll discuss later on). Indeed, there’s an argument to suggest that segregating any random stack of records into two distinct piles – one marked grand, the other labelled no thanks – would report a similar correlation, regardless of provenance (I haven’t done the maths, although feel free to run with the idea if you’re at a loose end). Still, this doesn’t detract from any conviction that innovation isn’t the medium’s primary strength, and that the manifest of shimmering back catalogues besmirched – even if only slightly, or at an angle – by an ordinary version of another’s song winds long across the musical landscape.
In other words, come the revolution, any outfit planning to release a cover version will have to subscribe to a strict set of rules if they’re not to get an early morning visit from the goon squad, toting billy clubs and a trebuchet or two (I know this because the cabal of armed crazies scheduled to overthrow the government have put me in charge of the playlist; revolutionaries agree that it’s important to get the key policies in place without delay or pain upon the ears). Accordingly, I hereby present LGM’s Ten Rules Of The Successful Cover Version. Disobey at your peril…
Rule One – Supplant the original. Dispense with any homage shtick – blow it out of the water. Those fuckers are gonna pocket the royalties no matter what; you may as well piss all over their legacy whilst you’re feathering their nest. Call this the Nirvana rule; of giving the source material too much respect (‘The Man Who Sold The World’; their various Vaselines covers). If you’re planning to be too faithful, I’d very much be querying the purpose of your endeavour.
Rule Two – That concept of simply transposing your default sound over the source material and expecting alchemy to start suddenly drifting up through the floorboard cracks – it ain’t ever gonna happen. The Delgados’ version of ‘Mr Blue Sky’ pisses all over the ELO original (and thus broadly adheres to Rule One) – yet when compared to everything else The Delgados ever recorded, it’s at best an adjunct – at worst, a borderline atrocity that never needed to happen.
Rule Three – Purveyors of smug, twee, heavily sanitised versions of slightly-edgy indie anthems thus eviscerated for Christmas-themed adverts – dramatically slowed-down, and usually performed with a breathy vocal and acoustic guitar or piano – will be first up against the wall.
Rule Four – Don’t be goofy. Don’t be ironic. Keep tongue firmly out of cheek. Give it up, sunshine – you’re just not that amusing. The Futureheads’ take on ‘The Hounds Of Love’. ‘Too Drunk To Fuck’ by Nouvelle Vague. ‘Lost In Music’ by The Fall. The Lemonheads’ biggest selling single – also known as Simon & Garfunkle’s ‘Mrs Robinson’. All phenomenally ugly. And about as entertaining as type two diabetes.
Rule Five – Avoid anything that Morrissey’s had anything to do with; the definitive has already been recorded – unless you’re Sandie Shaw and happen to have The Smiths as your backing band, that is. (Conversely, if you happen to be Morrissey, avoid ‘Satellite Of Love’. And ‘That’s Entertainment’. And ‘Moon River’. As much as I adore him, he does alas have a penchant for a dodgy, uninspired cover).
Rule Six – And on a similar theme, don’t cover the Fabs – I have the sneaking suspicion that it may have been done before (‘Dear Prudence’ by Siouxsie and the Banshees, which layers the proposition with a genuine mystique totally missing from Lennon’s piece, and Cornershop’s wonderful Punjabi version of ‘Norwegian Wood’ being the only exceptions). Seriously; if you’re that enamoured with the ’60’s, go cover Herman’s Hermits, instead – I’m sure the cash will come in handy.
Rule Seven – Recording that album entirely comprised of various covers; the crap you’ve been inspired by all these years – it’s a shocking idea. Nauseating. Self-indulgence of the severest magnitude (Bowie’s Pin Ups, for example. Moondog Matinee by The Band). Whether an exercise in contract fulfilment, misplaced tribute, or just plain egotistical nonsense, the errors that comprise a one-off reinterpretation are invariably compounded when extrapolated over the format known as LP. Which leads me to…
Rule Eight – Don’t be called Duran Duran. Thank You is a brilliant album – should unintentionally hilarious product float your flotilla. Seriously – I struggle to think of a worse LP; it’s got that whole self-gratification thing writ large. A selection of material that gruesomely exposes all of the band’s musical deficiencies in a most unflattering light. ‘White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)’, ‘911 Is A Joke’, ‘Watching The Detectives’ – ye gods; Simon Le Bon could pop round and be sick in your ears, and it still would be a more enjoyable experience than this record.
Rule Nine – ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’ by The Slits. No. Never. Go away.
Rule Ten – Be Johnny Cash. Sort of – in all honesty, his American Recordings series contain as many lows as highs (the world has never needed another version of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, for instance – in fact, I’m far from certain that it ever needed the original). Yet when the planets aligned and his mojo started swinging (‘The Mercy Seat’; ‘Personal Jesus’), his flair for musical storytelling, married to such stark production, operates as a testament to all that is good and holy with recorded sound. His take on Trent Reznor’s ‘Hurt’ rightfully grabs the plaudits; the skeins of vulnerability he weaves with his voice never fails to bring a tear to the eye. But for me the finest example of stamping something ordinary with so much personality is a track called ‘I Hung My Head’. This is a Sting song – and as you’ll have ascertained, the original is little more than an exercise in moribund over-earnestness; a limp pastiche of what Gordon Sumner evidently thinks Country music represents. What Cash effortlessly achieves is transformation by transplantation, relocating the narrative in a setting that’s so both sympathetic and naturalistic. “Early one morning with time to kill / I borrowed Jeb’s rifle and sat on the hill” – as a cautionary tale of life and death, the Man in Black sings this as if events are in real time. As if it genuinely happened, and that his fate is set. If story is all about empathy, Cash nails it here.
Okay – I’m obviously being a wee bit facetious with such rules (which in itself ain’t right; music should always be taken seriously; blanket dismissals of an entire medium are trite and flatulent); there are obviously thousands of cover versions that add and don’t detract. That twist and mould and shake the original in manifold appealing patterns. That give life to something left rotting on the shelf. You’ll have your own list (that you can tell me in the comments); mine would include Robert Wyatt’s version of ‘I’m A Believer’, ‘Iron Man’ by The Cardigans (which manages to guide the Black Sabbath enterprise in a wonderfully different and unexpected direction), ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ by Saint Etienne (which I imagine would be on most people’s best covers breakdown). Also: ‘Tortoise Regrets Hare’ by King Creosote (the b-side to the James Yorkston original), Robyn Hitchcock’s take on ‘The Ghost In You’ by The Psychedelic Furs from earlier this year, and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’, delightfully disassembled in the lunatic laboratory that is Dougal Reed (previously featured here).
And my favourite example of pure pop alchemy? You could call it an example of how naff mainstream indie pop can be, and what happens when subsequently placed into the hands of a professional. Sleeper were not an interesting band – in fact, they couldn’t have been more Britpop if they’d spent every Wednesday afternoon ferrying Phil Daniels and Patsy Kensit around Belsize Park in a bunting-festooned wheelbarrow. Time has not been particularly kind to Sleeper’s output; from this distance their records sound spectacularly flat and generic; a formula that tasted a degree of success, but if you subtract vocalist Louise Wener from the equation – “opinionated” and “ballsy” (apparently), unafraid to feed the music press with “controversial” copy whilst singing about relationships in a manner primed to turn the head of a certain demographic – I doubt they’d have sold a tenth of the records they actually did.
Sleeper disappeared from the music scene after a few albums… and that should have been the end of the story, except for the arrival of Elvis. Costello – very much my preferred Elvis. He recorded a beautiful song for a fairly obscure compilation album in 1997, a track entitled ‘What Do I Do Now?’ – and lo and behold if it wasn’t a cover version of a Sleeper song. This is a great example of how naff Britpop really was, for stripped of its catchy, up-tempo shallowness the song is transformed into something far darker, loaded with emotion and allocated a far wider spectrum of subtlety – evidence that it isn’t the songwriting that makes the original so anaemic, but rather the Britpop condiments smeared all over both production and performance. Costello’s take has emotional literacy that not only far outweighs Wener’s, but also guides the listener through a very particular brand of raw feeling. A version with marvellous integrity, then – and everything a cover should be.
Elvis Costello / What Do I Do Now?