Amid a flurry of covers albums, we retrace the roots of artists recreating others’ work
Covers LPs seem to be more in vogue than ever
There are a multitude of reasons why an artist might choose to release a covers LP. Recording an entire album of already famous, familiar material can dynamically revive interest in a splintering musical career, instantly fulfill a record company demand, and pepper the marketplace with fresh product during a period of artistic malaise.
Yet it remains a distinctly high-risk, high-yield strategy. If successful, the new voice is hailed as an insightful interpreter, shining fresh light and perspective on worthy existing material. But oh-so-easily the newer versions can be held up as poorer imitations, conceived for cynical gain – the results too often unnecessary and underwhelming.
At this moment, the hubristic covers LP appears to be more in vogue than ever. Earlier this month, vintage punk-metal band Motörhead unveiled the posthumous collection Under Cöver. Compiled in the 20 months since lead singer Lemmy’s death, the record gathers songs by The Ramones, Sex Pistols, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones and others released during the iconic band’s four-decade history.
In the same genre, on September 29, the first covers LP in the 48-year career of British rockers UFO, will be released. The Salentino Cuts will reportedly feature fresh versions of tracks by The Doors, Z Z Top, Bill Withers, The Yardbirds and John Mellencamp.
At the other end of the spectrum, Joan Osborne – the one-hit-wonder behind 1995’s One of Us – hoped to inject some relevance with this month’s Songs of Bob Dylan, an earnest but uninspired take on perhaps the most covered back catalogue in rock. And, on October 11, United States indie act Surfer Blood will release Covers, a wilfully scattershot collection crossing songs by Pavement with OutKast, Cream and The Breeders.
This trend may be at least partially explained as canny marketing in the internet age – with online searches for favourite songs and artists likely to throw up cover versions, thus providing the fresh interpreter with access to a whole new audience. Yet the idea of recording a “covers LP” – an album of music already made popular by other artists – is as old as the medium itself.
From the first days of the “long playing” vinyl record, which facilitated and dictated the modern day “album”, popular musicians like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett built their careers on singing other people’s songs.
A culture shift only came later, when from the mid-1960s auteurs like The Beatles and The Beach Boys began to assert creative control by composing not just entire albums, but conceptual suites.
The idea of the modern “covers LP” can be dated to October 1973, when then-reigning heavyweights David Bowie and Bryan Ferry went head-to-head with the duelling releases Pin Ups and These Foolish Things – that’s right, even at his least original moment, Bowie was a trailblazer.
The trend was solidified two years later with John Lennon’s lukewarm contract-filler Rock ‘n’ Roll – the former Beatle’s last release before a five-year hiatus. In 1978 came Willie Nelson’s dreamy standards-leaning Stardust, and a year later, after recording no less than 13 Dylan songs in their late-1960s heyday, The Byrds formalised their debt with the appropriately named compilation The Byrds Play Dylan.
Fast-forwarding into the 1990s, the covers album proved an easy dollar for a series of hard rock bands. Amid creative inertia, infighting and substance abuse, Guns n’ Roses’ classic line-up loaded the coffers one last time with 1993’s patchy, punk-flavoured The Spaghetti Incident?, while Metallica grounded themselves after a period of dodgy mid-career experimentation with Garage Inc. – released within a month of recording, in 1998.
Funk-metal band Rage Against the Machine bowed out with Renegades in 2000, which reworked material by rock legends such as Dylan and Bruce Springsteen alongside hip-hop contributions from Eric B & Rakim and Cypress Hill to potent effect.
Yet in a dispiriting case of full circle, moving into new millennium saw many of the same pioneers who defined the “artist album” turn in on themselves with seemingly obligatory covers LPs. Last year’s Blue & Lonesome found The Rolling Stones right back where they began, 52 years after their eponymous LP, recording an entire album of blues covers.
Released in late-1999, Paul McCartney’s spirited rock ‘n’ roll throwaway Run Devil Run came 24 years after Lennon attempted the same concept. Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson has spewed out a string of themed covers albums tackling Gershwin, Disney and Christmas tunes.
Other rock legends to weigh into the covers ring include Patti Smith’s sprightly Twelve (2007), which moves through 1960s rock to 1990s grunge, and Neil Young’s oddball pair Americana (2012) and A Letter Home (2014), which recast traditional and classic material in opposing electric and acoustic frameworks. After a period of artistic and commercial decline, Johnny Cash’s career – and credibility – was given a dramatic shot in the arm by then-hip-hop producer Rick Rubin, whose pared-down productions recast Cash’s trademark baritone as that of a wizened troubadour looking back from the profundity of the gravestone.
Starting in 1994 and stretching after the artist’s death into a sixth volume, the covers-leaning American Recordings series thrillingly strafed from traditional tunes to modern alternative works by Depeche Mode, Soundgarden and, most famously, Nine Inch Nails hit Hurt. By contrast, in the absence of any fresh material, Bob Dylan – the songwriter hailed among the most original ever born – has devoted his last three releases to reimagining the songs he grew up with, topped by this year’s three-disc Triplicate.
Despite his time-ravaged vocal delivery, critics praised the warm Americana glow of Dylan’s approach – a welcome alternative to the pomp most acts apply to the “Great American Songbook”. Because at this point the tired standards album concept has been milked thoroughly dry, with existing contributions from everyone from George Michael (Songs from the Last Century) to Sinéad O’Connor (Am I Not Your Girl?) and Robbie Williams (Swing When You’re Winning) to Joni Mitchell (Both Sides Now). The most irritatingly persistent contributor to the format may be Rod Stewart, who in 2002 began milking easy currency, if not relevance, with the first of his five-part The Great American Songbook series. Of course the most valuable contributions to the covers genre have more than mere nostalgia in mind – and it is invariably younger voices that have the most innovative things to say.
Live hip-hop group The Roots paid fitting respect to late production pioneer J Dilla with the excellent, moody mixtape Dilla Joints in 2010. Arty American singer-songwriter Cat Power authored a slow-burning fans favourite with The Covers Record in 2000, which almost unrecognisably stripped back an eclectic cast of rock classics into haunting, ethereal solo arrangements. Nick Cave devotees relish his early release Kicking Against the Pricks, which adds the Bad Seeds’ trademark gothic drama to blues, folk and traditional material.
Deliberately recasting a group of familiar songs in a divergent sonic aesthetic, this approach shows off both the depth and universality of the source material – and the canniness of the interpreters. For example, French duo Nouvelle Vague recast new wave tunes in kooky, bossa nova styles, a lounge-friendly approach widely imitated. Beck’s kooky Record Club series may be the purest of expression of such fandom. The maverick multi-instrumentalist has five times called in celebrity pals to recreate classic albums in new sonic circumstances – Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich realised a lo-fi tribute to The Velvet Underground & Nico, while Devendra Banhart and members of MGMT were brought in to reimagine Songs of Leonard Cohen. Each recorded in a single day, the beguiling results are streamed for free.
Treading the same path is acclaimed American singer-songwriter Ryan Adams who, recovering from a divorce to actress Mandy Moore in 2015, spent idle hours reimagining the entirety of Taylor Swift’s smash 1989 track-by-track, “as if it were recorded by The Smiths”. The misfire was to then commercially release the results as a solo album – a divisive move which attracted fair claims of conceit and calculation for recreating the 2014 bestselling album in the US. Yet others praised Adams for unearthing fresh emotional depth in what, on the surface, was a glossy pop release.His version of 1989 achieved everything a good covers LP can hope to – an individual, intuitive reimagining of cherished material, executed with a respect which stays true to the author’s intent, while retaining the distinctive artistic stamp of the interpreter.