Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hey, quit hogging all the covers!

Did you ever wonder about the term "covers" as it's applied to songs, and not what you fight over nightly with your significant other.? Me too, so I went online and did some looking around. Here's what I found. For a long time in the music biz, the basic definition of a "cover" was simply a new rendition of a previously recorded song by a different artist. Sounds straightforward enough. But the implication was always lurking around that because it was a copy, it was inherently inferior. Or else the second artist was just trying to cash in on a prior hit. I'm sure both have been true. However, we can all think of our personal original-and-cover combos where it's just not the case. One of my fave examples is the song"The City of New Orleans." I've heard Steve Goodman sing it (he wrote it, too) but in my opinion it doesn't come close to Arlo Guthrie's version. I found out that they both were released in 1972, so who covered whom it up for grabs as far as I'm concerned (which means I'm not going to look it up to check the months!) Maybe we'd do better to look at a famous post-dated cover that almost eveybody agrees surpasses the original - Jimi Hendrix's cover of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower."

Over time, the meaning behind the term "cover" has been subtly shifting. Now, instead of thinking of a cover as a mere copy of the original, or even a slight updating, it's come to mean more of a tribute to the original. Entire cover albums are standard operating procedure now. There's the kind where a single artist's album is covered by various other artists, like the tribute to Springsteen's Nebraska, or there's the redo of a single artist by another artist, as in Dwight Sings Buck. And let's not forget the movie, I Am Sam, with various artists collaborate to cover a selection of Beatles tunes for the soundtrack. In addition to all this, we also have tribute artists, who vocally (and sometimes physically) impersonate deceased stars (sometimes flawlessly, like Michigan's Jerry Connelly serving up Gene Pitney). And we have tribute bands who recreate the sound of disbanded groups, like Bjorn Again, who pay homage to ABBA (like I needed to tell you that), and our final category - tribute bands who take their homage a little further. Now, I haven't heard them, but I'm told there's a band called Dread Zeppelin, who do a reggae take on (say it with me) Led Zeppelin. Of course, all this is not to be confused with the more generic phenomenon, the "cover band." At it's best, a cover band can be a really rockin' bunch of musicians that play pretty darn good covers of a whole bunch of everyone's favorite hits, usually by the decade. Remind me to tell you sometime about this great bar they used to have in Calgary...

Now that we've had a brief look at the subject of covers, the question naturally arises - just what is the most covered song ever? Well, no one knows for sure, but the leading contenders currently are: "Yesterday" (Beatles) "Summertime" (Gershwin/Porgy & Bess) and Irving Berlin's "White Christmas." In my research for "Peanut Butter and Mashed Potatoes" (the sequel to "Papa Do Run") I uncovered (you should excuse the pun) a huge long list of covers of the John D. Loudermilk song, "Tobacco Road." And "Louie Louie" ain't doin' too bad, either. So I guess we can rest assured that all our old favorites will keep coming back to us, even if in forms we don't quite recognize - there's a group called Beatallica who do heavy metal covers of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Man that's one version of "Yesterday" I don't think I want to hear. If you have any picks or pans you want to air here, please, be my guest. Ok, I think that pretty much covers (sorry) everything. Now, gimme some of that blanket wouldja!


Clay Eals said...

Good to see your post referring to Steve Goodman. He often doesn't get his due. You might be interested in an eight-year project of mine that has come to fruition -- an 800-page biography of Goodman published in May, "Steve Goodman: Facing the Music." The book delves into the background of both Goodman's and Arlo's versions of "City of New Orleans." Please check my Internet site below for more info on the book. Just trying to spread the word. Feel free to do the same!

Clay Eals
1728 California Ave. S.W. #301
Seattle, WA 98116-1958

(206) 935-7515
(206) 484-8008

Deborah said...

Thanks for the info on Steve Goodman. Right after I posted my comment about the two versions, I wondered if maybe I shouldn't give Goodman's version another listen, now I definitely will. I have a feeling I'll still prefer Arlo, but I'm also happy to see more "unsung and lesser known" musicians getting their due. I just finished reading a terrific bio on Arthur Alexander ("Get A Shot of Rhythm & Blues, by Richard Younger). Will check out your website, and look forward to your book,too.

Anonymous said...

Loved the "Cover" article and only disagree on one very important point. No one sings Gene Pitney like Gene Pitney. He had one of the most unique and wonderful voices in all of popular music, and with all respect to Mr. Connelly, there will never be one quite like his. Thanks for the excellent article.

Dan H.

Deborah said...

I appreciate your comments; thanks. And you're right about Gene Pitney's voice. I get goosebumps every time I hear "Every Breath I Take" among many others.