Musical notes: Cover versions

Serious musicians often think that only original work matters. They should try redoing other people’s songs for a change
January 26, 2011
Cover me: US artist Beck and his collaborators are remaking music

The pop cover version is so common in entertainment culture, and on the whole so badly executed, that many consider it a necessary evil, like costume drama or Kentucky Fried Chicken. As the shrewd performer knows, the success of a cover version—the performance or release of a song previously recorded by another artist—is down to approach, of which there are many.

Some take the most obvious course and mimic the original, instrument by instrument, note by note, haircut by haircut. Tribute acts like Fake That, My Winehouse and Coldplace are guilty of such reverence. Others prefer orchestral interpretation: Mantovani, Acker Bilk, and the entire easy listening genre work from this premise. More intrepid souls translate material into exotic musical languages, like in the Easy Star All-Stars’ reggae tribute to Pink Floyd, Dub Side of the Moon.

Popular at the moment is something that could be called the middle way (never a good strategy as far as music is concerned). Contestants on television shows such as The X Factor, and YouTube hopefuls are users, commingling the latter three methods with so much hubris that the song ceases to be of interest. Perhaps the most worthy approach, though, is the use of the cover version to honour the dead or semi-retired. Aerosmith recently performed part of Abbey Road before Paul McCartney at a yawn-filled award ceremony in Washington DC.

A final approach, however, encouraged by the American solo artist and producer Beck Hansen, has trumped all former methods. For the past 18 months, Beck has been inviting musicians to join his Record Club, held at Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood. On arrival, guests agree on an album to cover and remake it in a single day. There are little or no rehearsals. At their disposal are guitars, drums, keyboards, samplers: the gamut of sound. Tracks are released week by week on the club’s website (all tracks are available on, and a compilation of the most popular tracks is promised soon).

Record Club’s approach is clear from the outset: “The album chosen to be reinterpreted is used as a framework… There is no intention to ‘add’ to the original work or attempt to recreate the power of the original recording.” In other words there are no expectations—one is faithful not to the original song, nor to the arrangement, but to oneself. Paramount are spontaneity, trust in other musicians, and the virtue of music for music’s sake. While this might seem self-indulgent, the results have been stunning, and have included versions of The Velvet Underground And Nico, Kick by INXS and, most laughably, Yanni Live at the Acropolis (the original version of which is the second most popular music video of all time, after Michael Jackson’s Thriller).

That Beck has pulled this off is something of a triumph. Artists in alternative rock, folk and indie circles are famously proud of their authenticity. As music’s gargantuan back catalogue expands, and cries of plagiarism and pastiche grow louder, many artists are at pains to be original and fresh. Beck’s covers, however, sound exactly that. By switching emphasis from creation to expression, Record Club provides a kind of study leave from the ceaseless burden of artistic invention.

This approach is not new—examples are scattered like erratic boulders through pop music’s history. Yo La Tengo, for instance, ripped through songs by the Kinks, Flamin’ Groovies and Slade on their gloriously irreverent album, Fuckbook. Song selection is key to success. Aeons of radio play mean that most pop standards are as dull as Hail Marys. Yet there are many obscure classics suitable for re-interpretation. Additionally, a tension must exist between artist and cover—Lady Gaga doing Kylie would be pointless (though we may yet be proved wrong).

There are signs that, in the US at least, more artists are giving the cover version a go. An album devoted to Sufjan Stevens songs performed by art-house luminaries will be released in March; Versions of Joanna, a similar venture inspired by the folk harpist Joanna Newsom, is already on sale. Perhaps the most useful initiative would be a covers album honouring the maverick Captain Beefheart, who died in December. His music is so improvised that here ruthless imitation will be the best course.

Songwriters need no longer be ashamed of cover versions. There is much to be learned from reinterpreting the songbook. Classical music has been doing it for centuries. Actors perform old plays as a matter of course. Cinéastes direct remakes. And it may be that embracing the cover version in the right spirit could, paradoxically, save pop music from plagiarism.