With Cher's ABBA cover album coming out soon, we look at how artists mimicking other artists can be both lazy and progressive
Cover versions: the good, the bad and the unlistenable
When Metallica’s mighty tour rolled into Minneapolis a few weeks ago, the rock behemoths decided to honour that city’s favourite son, Prince, by tackling his huge hit When Doves Cry. Oh dear. Their version – a bizarre duelling-guitars monstrosity – has since been widely decried as one of the worst cover versions, ever.
Cover songs can go very wrong, and there are many woefully misguided efforts by major artists: Take That singing Nirvana, Limp Bizkit mangling George Michael and Duran Duran taking on Public Enemy. Factor in the throwaway versions of great songs on television talent shows, advertisements and across YouTube, and this is a facet of the music world famously dogged by dubious quality.
Look beyond the high-profile missteps, though, and covers can also be clever, surprising and hugely positive. They can launch careers, highlight neglected talents and even bring people together. Every musician has a “cover” story.
“I feel like there’s a bit of a stigma when it comes to covers, and I understand why,” says Maddie North, aka So Below, who has braved these stormy waters. The New Zealander made a splash this past summer by covering Crying on the Bathroom Floor, a 2017 dance floor smash by Muna. Thankfully people loved North’s more ambient take too.
“Personally I find covers kind of boring if it’s just another artist singing the song the exact same way, with similar production,” she explains. “That’s why when I do covers, I change everything – chords, melody –I take out and rearrange lyrics so it’s a completely new interpretation from the original.”
Creative covers can reveal hidden depths in familiar songs. Legendary diva Cher recorded a whole album of ABBA tracks, Dancing Queen, which she launched recently with an enjoyably husky version of SOS. But more interesting is Portishead’s haunting rendition of that song, for the 2016 film High Rise. Slow and achingly brittle, it soundtracks a montage of utter mayhem, a far cry from those kitsch old ABBA videos.
One of Portishead’s UK trip-hop contemporaries, Hybrid, also shine light on great pop songwriting, with the final track of their impressive new album, Light of the Fearless. It’s an atmospheric version of Tom Petty’s Won’t Back Down.
“On the surface, it seems a very outwardly shiny, bouncy song,” says Hybrid’s Charlotte Truman. “But when you put the lyrics in a different setting – we started with vocals and piano – it can change the way you hear it and perceive it. We wanted to highlight how powerful the lyrics are: it’s an amazing song. It’s our homage to the great Tom Petty.”
Metallica’s aberration aside, some of the most timeless covers are tribute songs: Roxy Music turned a neglected John Lennon track, Jealous Guy, into a huge hit months after his death. And more recently the beloved Washington band Death Cab for Cutie released a version of My Backwards Walk, by Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit, whose singer Scott Hutchison died in May. It’s a finer eulogy than words alone could ever convey.
The 1950s-fuelled trio SadGirl recently issued a double homage – a cover of a cover. The rollicking guitar track Jack the Ripper was originally recorded by Link Wray, but the LA-based rockers also admired a version by the lesser-known Charlie Megira.
When he died in 2016, they started playing it too, as “a tribute to both guitar legends,” explains Misha Lindes of SadGirl.
Lindes is passionate about covers and their place in rock/pop history. “The whole tradition of folk music, which has led to rock and roll and contemporary pop, is based on the idea of sharing melodies and rhythms,” he says.
The traditional Mediterranean/Middle Eastern folk song Misirlou springs to mind here. It was recorded by the surf guitarist Dick Dale in 1962, and eventually became the supercool theme to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Covers took a murkier turn as music became big business from the 1950s onwards. Songs by black blues artists in particular were appropriated by white pop stars, with little recognition or reward. Today, anyone can release a cover song, without permission, so long as due credit is given. That boost can be life-changing for the original artist.
In 1974 the British folk-rocker Nick Lowe released the song (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding, which was eventually covered by Curtis Stigers, then included in the 1992 film The Bodyguard.
Its soundtrack album became the biggest ever, selling more than 42 million copies, and those royalties have helped fund Lowe’s work ever since. The album also featured Whitney Houston’s cover of I Will Always Love You, which alerted many people to Dolly Parton’s songwriting abilities.
Novel covers can also launch new talents. The Irish country singer Catherine McGrath recently released her debut album Talk of this Town, having conjured interest with her countrified YouTube versions of songs by Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift.
Social media can be brutal, but honest reactions were actually the goal. McGrath admits that she “wasn’t very confident” that she had something special, and “thought YouTube was the best place to find out.”
It certainly worked, as she now counts Elton John as a fan. And he can relate, having started out singing covers of pop hits for cheap compilation albums.
Singing someone else’s song can even bring cultures together,
musically and otherwise. During the late 1970s, the British punk scene
attracted an unwanted far-right audience, which bands like The Clash
actively challenged by covering reggae tracks.
Several decades on, Hollie Cook continues that genre-blending. The daughter of punk legend Paul Cook, drummer with the Sex Pistols, she performed with the reformed punk band The Slits and is now an acclaimed reggae singer, whose latest single is a mellow take on the UK garage classic Sweet like Chocolate. Random covers can introduce you to music “you wouldn’t necessarily have been drawn to before,” she says.
Sometimes they bring the artists together, too. One of Cook’s regular covers is Hurt So Good by the great Jamaican singer Susan Cadogan. This summer, they performed at the same festival.
“SHE came up to ME and told me how much she liked my version of her classic, and my music,” Cook recalls excitedly. “She was even down the front at one of my shows. One of my heroes! That was madness.”
A sweet response indeed.