Cover versions

Dot writes: it’s a fun exercise, made very easy by YouTube, to compare multiple versions of the same song. Ken and I both like to do this. At one point he dug up a remarkable number of versions of ‘I Will Survive’, the most interesting being one in Spanish that I don’t seem to be able to find again. ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ is another favourite. Probably the primary version for us is the Thin Lizzy one, but I have a weakness for Metallica’s pumped-up take on it, which borrows Thin Lizzy’s riff (I’m less keen on the prurient video). Since this is an Irish traditional song The Dubliners’ version is very much worth hearing, with its bright instrumentation and buzz-saw vocal; Peter, Paul and Mary, however, perform the perverse miracle of making a song about crime and betrayal sound utterly wet. (And there are many more, of course…)

Ideally a cover version will tell you something interesting about the song, or about the performer, or both. – I’m thinking here about recorded music, since it’s worth performing a piece live just, well, to make it live. – However, listeners’ reactions are always in relation to whatever version is the dominant one for them, and the direction of comparison can really change what you find in a song.

Here’s an example: a well-known song that I only encountered for the first time in a very recent cover. This is ‘Johnny and Mary’, originally by Robert Palmer, and the cover is by the Norwegian producer Todd Terje on his 2014 album It’s Album Time, with vocals by Bryan Ferry.

Especially in the midst of the playful and upbeat music that surrounds it on the album, the hushed, wistful pulsing of this track, the reverbs and delays, the building of instrumental layers – mostly electronic, but there’s piano in there too – were all really lovely. And the lyric worked so well with Bryan Ferry’s weary, experienced voice, a lyric that seemed to be about ageing, about a man who was still restlessly searching for a brilliant future long behind him, and a woman who was exasperatedly resigned to his ways through long familiarity:

Johnny’s always running around trying to find certainty
Seems he needs the world to confirm that he ain’t lonely
Mary counts the walls, knows he tires easily

She says that he still acts like he’s being discovered

When I heard the original (thanks to Ken, who’s usually better informed about 80s pop than me and knew it already) I had a feeling of the song being flattened out, much of the mood I so liked being lost from it.

It has that low-budget early-80s synth sound, a pace I perceived as slightly frenetic, an affectless vocal delivery. A few listens in, and I started to be able to hear how these made the song work: the rapid pace appropriate for ‘running around’, the slightly autistic quality relating to the theme of emotional disconnection (and here it’s not about ageing). Now things began to switch around and instead of perceiving Robert Palmer as failing to be as moving as Todd Terje I could see how Todd Terje – with some pretty significant help from Bryan Ferry – had found a new register in this piece. Other covers include Tina Turner (her huge voice threatening to spill out of the too-small box of the song), Placebo (which sounds like Placebo), and Status Quo (which doesn’t sound like Status Quo, and I guess that’s mildly interesting, but as a cover it’s unimaginative). To my mind none of these are as original and effective as Todd Terje’s version; I note that none of them thought, as he did, to slow the tempo.

Sometimes one’s attachment to a song can lead to a rather violent reaction to a cover. For me, given my enthusiasms, it’s natural to reach for a Gotye example. ‘Coming Back’ isn’t my favourite song on Like Drawing Blood, but it’s one I thought about a lot and puzzled over; I invested a lot of mental energy in it and became, perhaps, a little possessive of my idea of it. (I’ve commented on it before in my general review of the three Gotye albums.) At first I found it simultaneously attractive and grating. On the one hand there were the brisk flourish of the drum pattern, the trills on strings and flutes, the touches of accordion, and the lively acoustic bass line, all evocative of some cabaret tango. On the other hand there was the vocal line, rather high and strained, and the melody built around a descending minor scale from which Wally would repeatedly come down a third and then hitch himself up again, slightly sliding, slightly whining. It wasn’t mellifluous, though he can do mellifluous.* And there were other odd touches, such as the break in the music, a point at which one seems to step out of it and look at it sceptically, and the wordless female vocal phrase that distorts and breaks up into staccato triplets. The lyric is passionate but it’s also occasionally quite funny (‘I count the days, they’re grey without you / The weather’s much better when I think about you’).

Altogether, the song seemed to express a state of extreme neediness while also being flamboyant, stagey and curiously detached. It seemed unsure if it meant anything it said. But I found it tremendously interesting, and after a while, revisiting it intermittently, I thought there was a truth in its mask-like quality, a sense of keeping up appearances – continuing the flashy dance while abjectly desperate, ‘crawling up the walls’. I perceived a correlate to this in the figure of the 1950s housewife in the video, a common shorthand for desperation behind neat blinds (otherwise the video clearly responds to the humour and weirdness in the track).

When I heard Inga Liljestrom’s version on the album of Gotye covers and remixes, Mixed Blood, I’m afraid I absolutely hated it. (There’s plenty on Mixed Blood that I like; but not this.)

The tensions and complexity are all stripped away. It’s done very simply and totally straight, acoustic guitar plus voice with a few bits of woozy strings, woodwind and backing vocals from time to time. The melody is simplified in places too. The vocal recording is very close-miked so you feel she’s pretty much breathing in your ear. Liljestrom goes for the passion and need in the track without any of the self-mockery. I thought it was soggy and awful.

However, it occurred to me recently that Wally had taken a similar approach in his cover of Depeche Mode’s ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, a version so different from the original that the first time I heard it I didn’t even make the connection (dozy of me as it’s in the title, but I guess I don’t always listen with my brain on). This appeared on a 2004 disc of Australian covers of British songs of the late 70s and early 80s, and it renders the bouncy 1981 hit with piano, voice, a few effects and some atmospheric frog noises. The vibe is melancholy longing on a hot night. Have a look at the comments on the YouTube clip and note the sharp divide between people who like it (I recognise some of these names) and people who are deeply outraged by the violation of a favourite Depeche Mode song (“Gotye soll sich schämen…”). For my own part, I don’t like it as much as his original material but I think it’s a worthwhile exercise in taking a lighthearted, upbeat song totally seriously and seeing what happens, and the result is unexpected and rather nice.

In light of this, I thought I’d give Inga another go. And certainly her version passes the test of saying something interesting about the original, because it shows what the song can be when its guard is down. But I’m afraid I still don’t like it. It’s all those breathy wet mouth noises. They’re just not my thing.


*Try Spender’s ‘Hotel Home’ as an example of Wally being mellifluous. It’s interesting that it’s not one he wrote himself.


2 thoughts on “Cover versions

  1. There seems to be a trend in the current musical landscape to take a classic uptempo track and redo it as a ballad. Was it Chris Cornell’s Billie Jean in 1996 that really added fuel to the fire? Who knows. When it works, it’s fantastic, when it doesn’t, ugggghhhh.

    The good: Lorde’s Everybody Wants To Rule The World. WOW. When Tears for Fears originally wrote this stunner, it was titled Everybody Wants To Go To War, and you can feel that intent in their original. It’s got a driving rhythm and melody that makes you want to move. But by stripping the BPM, and dropping the delivery by a couple of octaves, Lorde unveils the true horror of the lyrics. It’s dark, nasty and delicious. Easy equal to the original.

    The better: Going mid-tempo to fast also works, as William Shatner proved when he uprocked Blur’s Common People. Bill’s over-the-top screaming rant of a performance takes the sly digs at the upper class to an entirely new level. Better than the original.

    The ugly: The Go-Go’s Our Lips Are Sealed will be played for the rest of eternity. Fun, catchy, uplifting, it’s a powerful tale of female empowerment coated in bubble gum. Hilary and Haylie Duff’s cover is an abomination, a blight on the face of humanity, and a fitting epitaph on an untalented attempt to suck cash from a music demographic now being raped by One Direction. WORST COVER EVER.

    Epilogue: I have a playlist of 122 songs entitled “Ultimate covers” that begins with Lorde and ends with Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog. In between are Gotye, The Beatles, Peter Gabriel, Prince, Sia, Muse, The White Stripes, Johnny Cash, k.d. Lang, Lenny Kravitz, Jimmy Little, Veruca Salt, Michael Jackson, Kiss, The Lemonheads, U2, Sinead O’Conner, The Saints, The Bangles, The Art of Noise, The Age of Chance (both for the same song), Iggy Pop, The Reels, Fine Young Cannibals, and even an artist who covered his own song: Bruce Springsteen. I love a good cover, especially if it takes the song somewhere new and exciting.

    1. kenanddot

      Right, Ken and I are now working our way through all the covers you’ve mentioned. The Chris Cornell one really works. Common People is by Pulp, not Blur – Shatner’s version is kind of hilarious. That’s how far we’ve got so far while cooking an indulgent weekend breakfast…

      I guess all the main examples I discussed were uptempo to mid/slow tempo. In Todd Terje’s case, he doesn’t slow it very much, and he also keeps the semi-quaver notes in the bass line, which seem to be essential to how pretty much everybody responds to that song; he doesn’t overdo it. For overdoing it, one that springs to mind is Celine Dion’s truly ghastly version of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. The original has the odd quality that the vocal melody seems to move in advance of the chords that go with it. All the covers I’ve heard realign them, but soupiness is a terrible danger, and Celine provides maximum soup.

      Thanks for your lovely long comment.

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