As well as pontificating on the beauty and shortcomings of other people’s music, I’ve also been known to play other people’s music. That is to say, I’ve been in a few bands in my time, and virtually every one of them has at one time or another done a cover song, and damn it, I’m fed up with this lack of originality!
Now, don’t get me wrong. Covering the music of another artist is a time-honored tradition that goes back to almost the beginning of the history of music. I suspect the second song ever played was a cover of the first. Playing other people’s songs is how every artist starts out. Even Mozart gained his first notoriety for transcribing the holy music of his local church from memory when he got home – the fact that it nearly got him executed at age 4 is very telling. I’m not sure what it’s telling of, and I’m not here to talk about Mozart, so I leave the job of infusing that anecdote with hidden meaning to the reader, cause I was never very good at coming up with conspiracy theories anyways.
But back to my point. There are cover songs, and then there are cover songs. I’m sure you’ve all been through this before: You get dragged out to a bar by your friends, and there, up on the stage, is some talentless hack, doing his best (or perhaps worst) to imitate one of his musical idols, and making a mockery of the song – if you’re lucky, it’s a song you hate and therefore feel only pity for this poor fool. If you’re not so lucky, it’s your favorite song and you’re filled with bile and the urge to run up onstage and beat him mercilessly for the crime against musicality which he has perpetrated upon you good people.
No, I’m not talking about a karaoke bar. In fact, I LIKE karaoke. Karaoke, to me, is the new folk music. Think about it: Folk music, traditionally, is a library of several hundred, perhaps a thousand great tunes, usually delivered by artists who may not be virtuosos, but whose passion for the music transcends considerations like technical ability and such. It’s the SOUL of the music that moves you.
Ok, now, I’ll admit that it’s rare to actually experience a moving rendition of a song at a karaoke bar, but the paradigm is very similar: a catalogue of songs that have surpassed mere popularity and have actually become a part of the cultural idiom, which are then sung by the people, for the people, in small groups, for the fun of the music itself. The fact of the matter is, karaoke is fun. It’s not about trying to be something you’re not, it’s about being who you are and singing anyways, and dammit, that’s a beautiful thing, no matter how ugly it may seem at times (and I’ve heard ugly in karaoke bars. You don’t even want to know). But I seem to have digressed again…
What I’m here to talk about is cover songs by “real” musicians. What the hell is a real musician anyways? Talent? Getting paid? I dunno. My point, which I’ve been studiously wandering around without reaching, is that a cover song, despite being somebody else’s composition, is still an opportunity to express yourself artistically. Why, then, are there so many musicians out there who refuse to do so?
Let’s talk about good covers. Mr. Bungle doing Chet Baker’s “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is a prime example. So is Seven Seconds’ cover of “99 Red Balloons”. David Lindley doing “Don’t Look Back”. Type O Negative doing “Summer Breeze”. Burning Spear doing “Estimated Prophet”. Holly Cole doing “I Can See Clearly Now”. Everything Dread Zeppelin ever recorded. Is anyone recognizing a common thread here?
These artists, and many like them, have taken the original work and made it their own. They did not see the original recorded version as a template which had to be followed to the letter. What they effectively did was took the lyrics and sheet music (or perhaps even just a chord chart), skipped listening to the recorded version at all, and use that as a framework to tell their own musical story, added their own loves and humours and passion to it and created something new and exciting.
Now then, besides the myriad bar band hacks out there (who shall remain nameless, and rightly so), there are some boring, offensive or just plain terrible covers that have been recorded and released en masse. I won’t name them here, but everyone out there could name me at least one if I asked them to. No matter the date, there’s probably one burning up the charts even as you read this.
So please, everyone, if you want to do a cover, let go of the CD. Write out the song and then do it your own way. You’ll be glad you did, and so will your audience. Who knows, in a stroke of irony, you might even end up discovering something truly original.