CRAVEN’S NOTES: Discovering when covering
Free Press Music Columnist
So when is the copy better than the original?
In music, this is an often-asked question. Since the dawn of the recording industry, the cover song has been a potent force, commercially and critically. If, by “better,” we mean “most popular,” it’s easy to cite dozens of covers which have sold more copies than the original versions.
Most people will associate “I Will Always Love You” with Whitney Houston, “Me and Bobby McGee” with Janis Joplin and “Dream a Little Dream of Me” with the Mamas and the Papas — but the original recordings of those songs were found on less successful records by Dolly Parton, Roger Miller and Ozzie Nelson. It’s probably an inevitable side effect of the pop music industry’s cyclical and disposable nature. There are now multiple generations which have grown up believing “Oh Pretty Woman” was a Van Halen song, or that “Hallelujah” originated with Tim Buckley and “Silver Springs” with Lykke Li.
But if, when we ask whether a cover is better than its original, we mean something more substantive than can be measured by mere sales records, we enter a much less certain realm. Some aspects of musical quality can be objectively argued; others are so ineffable and determined to such a high extent by our own personal histories and memories, that debate becomes pointless. Nevertheless, it’s a topic that comes up with some frequency among music fans, and while the question of whether a given cover is better than the original version of the song may never be answered with any kind of assurance, there can be much learned in even asking the question.
Grand Junction Free Press reader Christian Knight (who prompted this week’s column) noted that Johnny Cash’s version of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” is frequently mentioned as being better than Nine Inch Nails’ original, and mentioned that he himself prefers Tia Carrere’s 1992 cover to the Sweet’s original “Ballroom Blitz.” (On the latter, Craven — being a man with a pronounced Sweet tooth — cannot bring himself to agree.)
Not a lot of folks will disagree that Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” eclipses Bob Dylan’s original, or that Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock n’ Roll” is superior to the Arrows’ version (although Craven admits he has a very soft spot for the Arrows’ decidedly more goofy take on that anthem). But surely no one believes Rod Stewart’s “Downtown Train” is better than Tom Waits’ original, despite the fact that Rod’s version went to #3 while Tom’s failed to chart altogether.
Craven’s own favorite cover songs are those which dramatically recontextualize the original, either by means of radical rearrangement (like Ryan Adams’ cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” or Ke$ha’s recent take on Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”) or by tinkering with the lyrics. (Examples would include the way Robyn Hitchcock switched Mama and Papa’s genders in his version of “Tangled Up in Blue,” or the extra lyrics Frank Sinatra threw into his cover of “Mrs. Robinson”).
You can hear some of Craven’s favorite cover songs on the Cravenomena blog at http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog/. What are your favorite covers, and why?
Something tells me this is a subject we will be… er, covering again soon.
Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog and also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog at http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog/. You can also find him on Facebook.
Notes is made possible by Tina Harbin of Real Estate West, the premier resource for all real estate information and services on the Western Slope.
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