All cov­ered up

‘Sorry’ not sorry: Other ver­sions of songs some­times out­shine the orig­i­nals

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - SEAN CLANCY

Sit­ting around the news­room one af­ter­noon the sub­ject of Ohio singer-song­writer Ly­dia Love­less and her cover of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” came up.

If you have a ’tween in your house­hold, or are prone to lis­ten­ing to pop ra­dio, you’ve prob­a­bly heard Bieber’s dance-in­flected hit. There are min­i­mal­ist, me­chan­i­cal-sound­ing beats and blips that pulse briskly to­ward the cho­rus while Bieber sings in a voice a lit­tle bit above a whis­per as he apol­o­gizes (sort of) to some­one he has wronged.

Love­less’ ver­sion, re­leased in May as a B-side to the sin­gle “De­sire,” is slowed down and more thought­ful. She’s ac­com­pa­nied by gui­tarist Todd May and a quiet, un­der­ly­ing strain of at­mo­spheric re­verb. Love­less strips the song of its buzzy pop and pre­tense and un­cov­ers a de­fen­sive, mourn­ful plea for for­give­ness.

“… when I sat down to learn it, I just felt re­ally moved singing it,” she told NPR. “Peo­ple keep ask­ing me what I hear in it. I guess there’s noth­ing like a breakup to make you lean into a tight pop song.”

It’s an ex­am­ple of a singer tak­ing some­one else’s work and mak­ing it very much her own, the hall­mark of a good cover ver­sion.

“If you’re gonna cover a song, you have to put your own stamp on it,” says John Miller, mu­sic co­or­di­na­tor of Arkansas Sounds, which is part of the But­ler Cen­ter for Arkansas Stud­ies, and leader of the Big John Miller Band, which fre­quently cov­ers songs on­stage. “As a singer, I just want a good song. I don’t care who wrote it. And some­times, it’s not about the lyrics. A lot of the blues, it’s the feel­ing that it’s try­ing to give you and you try to trans­fer that feel­ing. That’s what my job as a singer is.”

Cov­ers can mimic the orig­i­nal as Ste­vie Ray Vaughan did with his homage to Jimi Hen­drix on “Voodoo Child (Slight Re­turn),” or com­pletely reimag­ine the source ma­te­rial as Devo did on their jerky, new wave in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Sat­is­fac­tion.”

Elvis Pres­ley was a mas­ter in­ter­preter. Check his 1954, slap­back rock­a­billy take on Arthur Crudup’s blues “That’s All Right.” The flip side to that record was Pres­ley’s hip shak­ing ver­sion of Bill Mon­roe’s “Blue Moon of Ken­tucky.” And, there were his wildly in­flu­en­tial ver­sions of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Big Mama Thorn­ton’s “Hound Dog.”

Cov­ers in the wrong hands can be un­in­ten­tion­ally funny or bor­der­line in­ap­pro­pri­ate. The clas­sic ex­am­ple is Pat Boone’s mil­que­toast-for-the-masses ver­sion of Lit­tle Richard’s in­cen­di­ary “Tutti Frutti.” Even more em­bar­rass­ing was Boone’s jokey, tongue- incheek 1997 metal cov­ers al­bum In A Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy.

Faith Hill’s “Piece of My Heart” may have been a coun­try hit in 1994, but it’s scrubbed-clean gloss has lit­tle in com­mon with the raw edge of Ja­nis Jo­plin’s ver­sion. And the Jo­plin track was a near-un­hinged ren­di­tion of Erma Franklin’s soul­ful orig­i­nal.

Speak­ing of Erma Franklin, her sis­ter, Aretha, is the voice be­hind one of the most fa­mous cov­ers of all.


“Re­spect” was writ­ten by soul singer Otis Red­ding in 1965. With

Booker T. and the M.G.’s be­hind him, Red­ding recorded it at Stax Stu­dios in Mem­phis for the Otis Blue: Otis Sings Soul al­bum. It was told from the per­spec­tive of a hard-work­ing man who wants his woman to rec­og­nize his ef­forts and show him some re­spect.

In 1967, Aretha Franklin took the track, added the “R- E- S- P- E- C-T/ Find out what it means to me …” verse and the “sock it to me” line, changed the ar­range­ment and found her­self with a fem­i­nist an­them and a defin­ing mo­ment, one of those songs that will al­ways hover around the fore­front of pop cul­ture con­scious­ness, a pop hit that can in­spire ac­tivism and also show up in an episode of Alvin and The Chip­munks.

Franklin’s ver­sion is so ubiq­ui­tous and au­thor­i­ta­tive that it’s prob­a­bly not a stretch to as­sume most folks think she wrote it. For the in­dus­tri­ous mu­sic fan who seeks out orig­i­nal ver­sions, hear­ing Red­ding’s record­ing may have been a rev­e­la­tion, just like it prob­a­bly was for Led Zep­pelin fans who dug through record crates look­ing for Kansas Joe McCoy and Mem­phis Min­nie’s orig­i­nal record­ing of “When the Levee Breaks.”

In this way, mu­si­cians can hip care­ful lis­ten­ers to in­flu­ences and mu­sic they may have never heard. On 1987’s The $5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re- Re­vis­ited, heavy metal band Metal­lica ran through five cov­ers from the likes of Holo­caust, Di­a­mond Head, Killing Joke and the Mis­fits, all groups who were piv­otal in the de­vel­op­ment of Metal­lica’s sound. It was a way for the band to give its fore­bears a nod and also in­vite se­ri­ous fans to check out the orig­i­nals.

“Cov­ers are won­der­ful things to show where you’re com­ing from,” says Thomas Jac­ques, mu­sic fan and as­sis­tant di­rec­tor at the Delta Cul­tural Cen­ter, a mu­seum of the De­part­ment of Arkansas Her­itage. “It’s like short­hand, and of­fers you a lot about [a band or singer] with­out them hav­ing to say any­thing.”


Dazzmin Murry of cen­tral Arkansas rock and soul duo Dazz & Brie dis­cov­ered the Ma­mas and the Pa­pas’ “Cal­i­for­nia Dreamin’” af­ter hear­ing a cover.

“Sia cov­ered it, and hear­ing her ver­sion is what led me to the orig­i­nal. Her ver­sion is more dra­matic,” she says, adding that it holds spe­cial mean­ing to the pair since their 2016 de­but is called Can’t Af­ford Cal­i­for­nia. “I like the con­trast of the male and fe­male voices [in the Ma­mas and Pa­pas orig­i­nal] and I love the lyrics.”

It’s a song the pair have per­formed live and, when asked if there’s an­other singer they’d like to cover, Kabre­lyn Boyce, the Brie of Dazz & Brie, quickly replies, “Bruno Mars. [His songs] have such cool vibes and I love the ’70s flair.”

Cor­rene Spero of Lit­tle Rock band DOT and founder of a song­writ­ing work­shop/ camp for girls has found that dis­cov­er­ing the cover first has an in­flu­ence on her im­pres­sion of the orig­i­nal.

“The cover songs I like the most are usu­ally when I hear the cover first,” she says. “Then I re­al­ize later that it was done by some­one else.”

True child of the ’90s, Spero ad­mits her first ex­po­sure to “Sym­pa­thy for the Devil” came through the Jane’s Ad­dic­tion cover.

“I didn’t even know it was a Rolling Stones song un­til years later,” she laughs. “And I’ll go so far as to say that I like the cover ver­sion bet­ter.”

An­other cover she prefers to the orig­i­nal is “Hang­ing on the Tele­phone,” the Nerves song cov­ered by Blondie.

“I love Blondie, and I like the Nerves ver­sion, but to me the Blondie ver­sion is still the de­fin­i­tive one,” Spero says.

Just like Aretha Franklin with “Re­spect” and Blondie with “Hang­ing on the Tele­phone,” Hen­drix took a song recorded by some­one else and made it his own (more than once, ac­tu­ally). He in­tro­duced the world to Bobby Roberts’ mur­der bal­lad “Hey, Joe” and his ver­sion of Bob Dy­lan’s “All Along the Watch­tower” has long been the stan­dard.

North Lit­tle Rock’s Brian Nahlen, who plays cov­ers and orig­i­nal mu­sic in the Brian Nahlen Band and whose lat­est al­bum is last year’s Ci­cada Moon, gives a nod to­ward the Hen­drix take on Dy­lan as one of his fa­vorite cov­ers.

“It’s one of the most amaz­ing trans­for­ma­tions, to me,” he says. “I saw Dy­lan about 10-15 years ago and he said, ‘Thanks to Jimi Hen­drix for teach­ing me how to play my song,’ and then he played that ver­sion of it.”

Dy­lan cov­ers, like Bea­tles and Chuck Berry cov­ers, are le­gion. The Byrds made a ca­reer of re­work­ing Dy­lan’s songs. A 1993 record­ing of Bob Dy­lan: The 30th An­niver­sary Con­cert Cel­e­bra­tion is loaded with great cov­ers, in­clud­ing Lou Reed’s hyp­notic ver­sion of “Foot of Pride.”


My five fa­vorite cov­ers at the mo­ment:

1. “Do It” — This Rollins Band take on the Pink Fairies track is a pul­ver­iz­ing as­sault, the per­fect mo­ti­va­tional jam for leg day at the gym.

2. “Eight Miles High” — Husker Du’s Bob Mould must have strung his gui­tar with

barbed wire be­fore record­ing his band’s blis­ter­ing take on The Byrds’ psychedelic clas­sic.

3. “Pres­sure Drop” — The Clash had a lot of great cover songs, but their romp through this Toots and the May­tals num­ber still makes me smile.

4. “No Fun” — The Sex Pis­tols’ Johnny Rot­ten sounds like a cor­nered an­i­mal try­ing to break free on this snarling ren­di­tion of the Stooges song.

5. “Noth­ing Com­pares 2 U” Sinead O’Con­nor’s spare read­ing of the Prince track is still one of the sad­dest pop hits ever.


It may not have been too much of a stretch for Whit­ney Hous­ton to put her mark on Dolly Par­ton’s “I Will Al­ways Love You,” but much like the Love­less- Bieber sit­u­a­tion, cov­ers are of­ten most in­ter­est­ing when the mu­si­cians are, at least on the sur­face, dis­sim­i­lar.

For Travis McEl­roy, owner of Lit­tle Rock-based Thick Syrup Records, Di­nosaur Jr.’s sludgey, wah- wah’ed take on The Cure’s goth-pop ear candy “Just Like Heaven” is a stand­out.

“I’ve al­ways liked The Cure, es­pe­cially the early stuff, and I al­ways liked that song,” he said. “When I heard Di­nosaur Jr.’s ver­sion … and then I saw the video, it was amaz­ing. It was so much bet­ter.”

On the epony­mous The Wild­flower Re­vue from ear­lier this year, the Lit­tle Rock­based coun­try trio laid down a har­mony-filled, mes­mer­iz­ing take on the Talk­ing Heads’ “Psy­cho Killer” and also put a banjo-pluck­ing, Amer­i­cana spin on Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”

Hip-hop god­fa­thers RunD.M.C. sam­pled guitars on their first two al­bums, but when they cov­ered Aero­smith’s 1975 FM rock sta­ple “Walk This Way” on Rais­ing Hell in 1986 (with help from Aero­smith’s Joe Perry and Steven Tyler), they won over rock and rap au­di­ences alike.

Ag­gres­sive art rock­ers Faith No More have lit­tle in com­mon with The Com­modores, but their record­ing of “Easy” is a mostly faith­ful take, which makes one won­der if they ap­proached the song with a sense of irony or out of re­spect for the orig­i­nal. Per­haps a lit­tle bit of both.

There’s also the fairly re­cent phe­nom­e­non of odd­ball blue­grass, swing and lounge cov­ers of metal, punk and pop songs.

We could go on and, yes, we know there are a cou­ple of hun­dred no­table cov­ers that haven’t been men­tioned. Cover song con­ver­sa­tions can also weave through sub­jects like cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion, the proper use of per­sonal pro­nouns, song­writ­ing cred­its and roy­al­ties.

But right now, one can prob­a­bly rest as­sured that some­one some­where is work­ing out the kinks to some Chuck Berry riff, or to the har­monies on a Beach Boys cho­rus, or try­ing to puz­zle out the bridge on that Sly and the Fam­ily Stone track so they can add their mark to it and make it their own.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/KIRK MONT­GOMERY

Demo­crat-Gazette file photo

Aretha Franklin’s break­through al­bum fea­tured her ca­reer-defin­ing trans­for­ma­tion of Otis Red­ding’s song “Re­spect.”

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/KIRK MONT­GOMERY

Demo­crat-Gazette file photo

Run-DMC cov­ered Aero­smith’s “Walk This Way” with the band’s Joe Perry and Steven Tyler.

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