People sometimes slag the cover band, diminishing the act of performing others’ work as far beneath that of the songwriter and composer. But cover songs can be fantastic musical expressions, not least because they represent the ancient human practice of the oral tradition: The most durable songs get handed down from performer to performer, striding across eras and generations, gaining resonance or changing meaning, losing a verse here and picking another one up–becoming authorless, mysterious, cross-bred, and enduring.
Sometimes a good cover by an excellent and innovative musician transcends the original–or gives it new shades of meaning and association. The best tend to be strong in the performer’s distinctive style, rather than a by-the-numbers rehash of the source material.
Cover songs can become so definitive that they themselves spawn their own echoes–just the kind of musical intermingling that gives a tune real lasting power, even the suggestion of immortality.
Here are a few well-known examples of strong, well-crafted cover songs that have enjoyed rich second, third, and fourth lives in the hands of loving performers.
(Editors Note: please excuse all the YouTube links but it was the best way we could think of to help you listen to the tunes while reading).
Paul McCartney’s composition “Yesterday” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONXp-vpE9eU) was notable upon its release–part of The Beatles’ Help record–for featuring none of his bandmates on the recording: It’s simply Paul and his plaintive acoustic guitar, supported by strings. “Yesterday” is considered one of the most covered popular songs in history: According to Guinness World Records, it was recorded a staggering 1,600 times in the two decades since its 1965 release alone. “Yesterday” cover songs span generations and genres: Elvis Presley (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKp0V6lJHpk&feature=related) and Frank Sinatra (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTp-alwH74E), two dominant symbols of pre-Beatles popular music in America, tackled it, as did such disparate artists as Boyz II Men (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBhjUscIaYQ) and Plácido Domingo (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRRP9TwON3I).
All Along the Watchtower
Bob Dylan, a contemporary and mutual admirer of the Beatles, also ranks among the most covered artists of the last 50 years: Other performers have been recording his immortal tunes since he first burst upon the American folk scene in the early 1960s. Among the most celebrated examples is Jimi Hendrix’s fiery take (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2bYJQFQMs8) on Dylan’s 1967 composition “All Along the Watchtower,” originally released on the muted, ethereal John Wesley Harding. Hendrix’s version is, now, likely the best-known–considered by many to be definitive–and plenty of subsequent covers by everyone from Neil Young (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMsLuzgt7W4) to Pearl Jam (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMPgzmYSTwE) tend to take their cues from his apocalyptic, distorted storm of electric guitar and howled verses. So widespread are renditions of Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” that Dylan’s original recording (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YanjY9CsPDQ)–lonesome, desolate, and loping–is worth its own rediscovery.
One equally legendary contemporary of Dylan’s, the Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, has had his own fair share of songs–such masterpieces as “Suzanne” and “Bird on the Wire”–covered by others. In recent decades, his early 1980s composition, “Hallelujah,” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFIPlUQDPzo) has found increased resonance in numerous cover versions–perhaps most famously Jeff Buckley’s (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8AWFf7EAc4), although John Cale (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckbdLVX736U) (and Bob Dylan, incidentally, in some of his ’80s concerts) was among the first to tackle the monumental, numinous tune. Some of the most powerful renditions are those Cohen’s fellow Canadian k.d. lang (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_NpxTWbovE) has delivered.
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Keith Richards has confessed that the relentless guitar riff that drives the Rolling Stones’ 1965 classic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bz_WqVSDofg)–one that came to him, allegedly, in dream–was an imitation of a horn section like those so defining of the sound of Motown, Stax, and other soul/R&B labels of the day. The connection was made manifest when Otis Redding, backed by the incomparable Booker T. & the M.G.’s, laid down his own rendition (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=olxm2W9X9lI)–complete with the outfit’s signature, super-tight brass taking Richards’ motif to its logical extension. One can only imagine how satisfying it must have been for the Stones, for whom American blues and R&B were polestars, to hear Redding’s soulful take on their tune: some kind of cross-pollination.
Decades later, the American singer-songwriter Cat Power recorded a radically different version (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcm7Tts0G3Q) of “Satisfaction” on The Covers Record, a collection of her spare, transcendent renditions of songs by a range of other artists. One of the standouts of that indie classic, Cat Power’s “Satisfaction” is heavily slowed, driven by a mournful, unaccompanied electric guitar–the trademark riff abandoned–and the singer’s characteristically breathy vocals: quite distinct from the Stones’ edgy, aggressive, and sexualized original.
What a Wonderful World
On some days, this tune–composed by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss, and first recorded by Louis Armstrong (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2VCwBzGdPM) as a single in the late 1960s–is an overexposed chestnut; on others, it manages to achieve the simple, clear-eyed beauty it evoked upon a long-ago nascent hearing. This ode to the everyday miraculous has been recorded by scores of artists. A trio of late, supremely talented musicians provides a representative collection: Eva Cassidy rendered a pure, stunningly beautiful rendition (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEBBGSgO16M); Joey Ramone, in a posthumous release, gave it the rock-and-roll treatment (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8IoO5nkxT_4), staying faithful to the melody; and Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwoʻole wove a ukulele-driven, elegiac medley (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&v=y5JicO2bKec&NR=1) of “What a Wonderful World” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Guest post contributed by Daniel Kimbrel, for Bearshare.com. Daniel is a movie buff and freelance writer. He contributes to a number of music sites online. You can download free music with BearShare.