After a year of piano lessons, I’m getting closer to sitting down with a new piece of music and coaxing the song out of the notes on the page. I have a long way to go but I’ve played “Lil Liza Jane” and “Careless Love” and my ear recognizes the tunes.
That got me thinking about the nature of creativity.
If I translate someone else’s notes into instructions for my fingers, is that creativity? How about doing a paint by numbers or sewing a store-bought pattern?
We don’t seem to question an actor’s talent if he didn’t write the play or the movie, but with music, does it matter more that the person singing also wrote the lyrics and the tune?
The notion that serious artists have to write their own songs seems to have grown over the past two decades. Today, even the fluffiest of pop acts is credited as having written their own material.
“We as an industry … don’t look at someone who has an incredible voice as an artist, whereas having an incredible voice is artistry,” says Jody Gerson, an executive vice president of EMI Music Publishing. “I think people place more of a value on an artist if they write their own songs. It gives them credibility.”
Is “My Way” less Frank’ Sinatra’s because Paul Anka wrote it? But wait a minute, if Paul Anka wrote it, why don’t we associate him with one of our most recognizable American songbook tunes?
As this question was kicking around my head, WNYC’s Soundcheck aired a show about great cover songs. They linked to the AV Club’s Undercover project, which features bands covering a variety of songs, including They Might Be Giants doing Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping.”
The beginner’s sheet music for “Respect” is closer to Otis Redding’s version than the Aretha Franklin interpretation I know so well. So what about Aretha’s take on “Respect?” She so thoroughly owned the song through her own interpretation, instead of doing a straight recreation.
To help me consider the creativity and artistry of playing someone else’s music versus writing your own, I asked my Facebook friends for their favorite covers.
Sandy Volk was the first to chime in, mentioning Jimmy Hendrix’s take on Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” among others.
Then Mary Jean Babic added, “To add another ‘All Along the Watchtower’ comment (and not only because I’m a huge Battlestar Galactica fan), there’s a cover of that song on the first ‘A Nod to Bob’ album by a band called Tom Landa and the Paperboys. It is amazing. It takes the song in a completely new direction, one with a hard-driving Irish fiddle element. In fact, you don’t even know what song it is until the lyrics start, and even then you’re like, “Really? This is THAT song?” I guess if you’re covering a great song you’re two steps ahead from the get-go, but then to make the cover a great song in and of itself is a tremendous feat.”
Catherine Mulligan has a two-disc playlist of her favorite covers so she had several to contribute, including “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Lick the Tins – “because ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’ was life changing,” and “Hurt” by Johnny Cash – “because, well, have you seen the video?”
“Can’t Help Falling in Love”
Mary Jean also commented, “Alternately, a great artist can cover a so-so song and also make you look at it with new appreciation. Check out Richard Thompson covering Britney Spears’s ‘Oops I Did It Again’ here; he gives a pretty cool explanation at the beginning of why the song appeals to him, and even at the end shows the audience what it has in common with 16th century ballads! Which just goes to show that Richard Thompson can’t be bad, no matter what he does.”
Eric Carvin got at one reason a cover can work — the musicians convince you the story is their own. “I’m a big fan of what the Clash did with ‘I Fought the Law.’ Unlike the original, I feel like these guys really did fight the law. And I suspect the law won.”
My piano teacher Sheldon Landa chimed in with, “Stevie Wonder covers the Beatles track ‘We Can Work It Out.’ That’s the funkiest most energetic version of a Beatles song I EVER heard. The song is already so great. Perfect pop harmonies and deep lyrics, but here comes Stevie, sprinkling in the soul and funk, taking things to the NEXT level.”
Doug Rowe, who should start a business where people pay him to tell stories about what he knows about music, not surprisingly added depth to the conversation.
He wrote, “I find that I tend to adore ’60s R&B arrangements of pop/rock songs, like Wilson Pickett’s smoking take on ‘Hey Jude’ and Aretha Franklin’s gorgeous version of The Band’s great song ‘The Weight’ (and both of which, oddly enough, feature a young Duane Allman on guitar during his session days in Muscle Shoals, Alabama).
“I could go on and on, but the problem with a topic like this is that SO MANY popular songs are, in fact, actually covers, even songs that are considered the ‘definitive,’ and in many cases ‘original,’ versions. Before The Beatles hit the scene, nearly all pop singers and bands – apart from rare exceptions like Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins and a few others – performed non-original material, so the bulk of the songs that I like that happen to date from before the early ’60s or so could be considered ‘covers,’ even if the original was merely a songwriter’s demo. Even well into the mid-’60s, nearly the entire repertoire of some of my favorite bands, particularly in their early days, consisted largely of covers, like The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Animals, and many other bands that came out of the British Blues Boom.
“Really, almost the entire blues genre consists of covers, some exact, some slightly changed (and re-credited!), and I love untold numbers of those songs, so it’s impossible for me to pick a favorite ‘cover.’ There are particular blues and rock songs that have become standards, and the whole point is to see what a new take on it brings to the table, things like Tiny Bradshaw’s ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’ (I have about 20 different versions of that one!) or Don Nix’s ‘Going Down’ (I’ve got nearly as many versions of that!)…the list is endless.
“Of course I love several of Hendrix’s covers, and as mentioned, his version of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” is one of the greatest interpretations of another’s musical work ever recorded, but there are so many great Hendrix covers of other bands, as well as so many great covers of Dylan by other artists! There are bands I love who did lots of instrumental covers of vocal tunes, like Booker T and the MG’s and The Meters. Most of Jeff Beck’s career consists of covers, even in his early bands featuring vocalists (one of my favorite covers ever is of The Yardbirds’ ‘Shapes Of Things’ on the first Jeff Beck Group album, 1968’s Truth, so slowed down and chunky!). I’d better stop typing, or I’ll be up all night!”
Roger Hitts, whose musical knowledge rivals Doug’s, chimed in with “‘Crossroads’ by Cream, ‘Pretty in Pink’ by Social Distortion and virtually the whole catalog of Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. And of course, Ms. Winehouse’s take on ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ will bring a tear to your eye.”
Jeff Hoomaian wrote, “As you know, with over 20 years of DJing along with the love of all types of music, I’ve come across my fair of cover songs. The ones I like are ones that tend to lend a little bit of a newness to the style of the song, but without hindering the integrity of the song. I have a pretty generous collection of cover songs and could list many here, however, since this is an attempt at some sort of brevity, here you go:
“The biggest cover song I can think of commercially (so many have been made) but may have to be Manfred Mann’s ‘Blinded By The Light.’ I say that because so many people truly think it’s HIS song, while in all actuality, it was already done and composed by an up and coming singer from Asbury Park, NJ, named Bruce Springsteen. Maybe you’ve heard of him by now :0). Most of the other cover songs that have become hits are ones that you already know – ‘Bang A Gong’ (Power Station), ‘Crimson and Clover’ (Joan Jett), most of those mentioned above. Even if they were from a different era, they have some sort of ‘recognition’ factor to the listener. A few obscure good ones, based on my reasoning above would include: Garth Brooks, ‘Shameless’ (Billy Joel); Rickie Lee Jones, ‘Sunshine Superman’ (Donovan); The Bangles, ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’ (Simon & Garfunkel); Communards, ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ (Thelma Houston); Aztec Camera, ‘Jump’ (Van Halen), the aforementioned Lick The Tins, ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ (Elvis) from the Some Kind of Wonderful soundtrack – what a amazing Celtic-influenced take on a classic. Some of these are showing my affinity for the ’80s, oops.
“Maybe a few more – Sting’s version of ‘Little Wing’ (Hendrix); Duran Duran, ‘Fame’ (Bowie). Limp Biskit ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ (The Who); Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Higher Ground’ (Stevie Wonder); John Mayer ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ (Hendrix), and one of my ultimate favorites – Johnny Cash, ‘Personal Jesus’ (Depeche Mode). Ah, music, my first TRUE love…I will never forget you. Back to work…”
John Lofy called “Sweet Jane” by the Cowboy Junkies and “No Woman No Cry” by the Fugees “perfect covers. Each is completely distinctive, and quite different from the original, and each could only have been done by those bands. Yet they so ‘get’ the core of the original versions that they illuminate what the original writers were saying.”
Lloyd Miller shared, “Eric Bachman, lead singer for Archers of Loaf (’90s indie rock from NC) went on to form a rotating band called Crooked Fingers to showcase his steps towards the more mature singer/songwriter work that followed the angular and obtuse rock of AoL. Awesome original material focusing on fringe characters and storytelling. They released an EP of covers called Resevoir Songs. Every track’s a winner, but this cover of Prince’s ‘When U Were Mine’ shines brightly.
“Essentially, the goal of a good cover is to help a listener hear the song for the first time again. In my mind, it has to be a completely different take, or why bother… Weezer’s cover of Britney Spears’ ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ is a close second place. :)”
After I noted that Britney and Dylan were both making frequent appearances in the conversation, Douglas Rowe came back with, “Well, the reason Britney is coming up so much is that so many artists just cannot resist the (rather obvious) irony of covering something that is regarded as throwaway pop trash, while at the same time they get to do a song written by professional songwriters with airtight melodies and hooks that hold up well to different arrangements. Said artist’s often hipster audience gets to enjoy a guilty pleasure of a pop song, while still feeling superior to it…a hipster win-win!”
With all of that to get you thinking, what do you consider creativity and talent? Is technical perfection performing someone else’s composition creativity? What about taking someone else’s song and reinterpreting? What role does the writer have versus the performer?
For your listening pleasure while you contemplate that, here’s a Spotify playlist of many of the covers mentioned in this post. Feel free to contribute more, if you like. (You do need to have a Spotify account to listen, but it’s free.)