Original or Remake? The Eternal Dilemma of Cover Songs
Found in: Miscellany & Merriment
Some say there is never anything truly original in the world of music, and the long-standing popularity of The Cover Version seems to bear that out. Practically every popular artist or band has been inspired to put their spin on at least one song by someone else. A new generation of musicians and fans are growing up with the popular YouTube cover becoming part of the lexicon, whether it’s an unknown musician recording a solo acoustic version of a popular song in his or her bedroom or a major project, pulling out all the stops with multiple artists (more on that later).
Some cover songs even go as far as to eclipse the original, making their interpretation of it their own unique song and giving it a new voice. Genre-mashing, catalog-reaching and straight-up covers go on and on. We all probably have our favorite covers, sometimes without ever knowing it’s not an original (Bob Dylan has at least two songs covered by other bands that arguably were immensely more successful than his originals, “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix and “Mr. Tambourine Man” by The Byrds). There are thousands upon thousands of cover songs out there, but we’d like to highlight a few songs that jump across genres and take the original somewhere new.
HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE
Original – 1967
Cover – 1970
This soul standard has been made famous multiple times by different artists across genres, all of which have essentially overshadowed the original. The song has a bit of an odd history, jumping between a few artists before eventually finding a home. Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1966, it was originally recorded by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles in a version rejected by Motown maestro Berry Gordy. It then jumped hands to Marvin Gaye in 1967, which was also rejected (although later it would find a home on his album In The Groove and go on to become a classic). It wasn’t until Gladys Knight & The Pips released their version in 1967 that it was finally approved, going on to become the biggest hit for the Motown Label at the time.
Obviously, the song’s history doesn’t end there. Most famously Creedence Clearwater Revival did a bold interpretation of the song, turning it into an eleven-minute swamp-rock jam that became one of their most popular singles. The original version is the story of a singer’s betrayal by a romantic partner and hearing about it through the indirect gossip of other people. The Creedence Clearwater Revival version would take the basic premise and turn in an eight-minute solo in the middle where each member of the band was given the chance to show off and dig into the classic soul groove. Covers of the song continue to this day, finding their way into ad campaigns and the setlists of artists big and small, but the Grammy Hall of Fame classic had to get its start somewhere, and its soul roots shine through every version we know.
KILLING ME SOFTLY
Original – 1971
Cover – 1996
Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” is another soul classic with a tumultuous history. The song was composed by Charles Fox, with lyrics by Norman Gimbel, and originally recorded by Lori Lieberman in 1971, although a decades-long dispute over the origins of the song’s composition was not settled until 2010. Flack heard the song on an airplane shortly after its release and was immediately moved by it and spent months agonising over her own take on the song. Eventually she figured it out and released it as a single in early 1973 to mass acclaim, eventually earning her a Grammy Award for Song of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female.
Cut to a little over 20 years later where hip-hop group The Fugees released their cover, simply titled “Killing Me Softly.” Their 1996 cover became a huge hit for the band and arguably their most famous song, Lauryn Hill’s incredible lead vocals floating over a sample from A Tribe Called Quest, giving the song a modern approach without being flashy. Both versions are universally admired and appreciated to this day, with the Fugees version becoming so popular that, at one stage, their label stopped supply to retailers so attention could be drawn to their next single, “Ready or Not.”
Original – 1955
Cover – 1995
Some cover artists have the temerity to show “just a little disrespect” in their attempts at a unique interpretation.
Oasis’ 1995 single “Wonderwall” has become ubiquitous and the band’s most popular song. In 2005 it was voted the Best British song of all time by Virgin Radio and marked the stratospheric success of the second coming of British rock in the 90’s. The song is famous for a catchy yet deceptively simple acoustic guitar chord structure that builds out with orchestral flourishes and a chorus so catchy you can’t help but sing along.
The covers of the song have been plenty, but almost immediately there appeared a drastically different take on the song. British band The Mike Flowers Pops had been known for easy listening and lounge versions of other songs, but it was with their cover of “Wonderwall” that they broke out into the mainstream. The kitschy single is immediately novel for its drastically different take with its 60’s-sounding horns along with a much more lounge-y take on the vocals, transgressing from being a silly distraction to something completely charming in its own right.
PLEASE DON’T STOP THE MUSIC
Original – 2007
Cover – 2009
Rihanna’s driving 2007 hit “Don’t Stop The Music” was a dance-pop and techno classic immediately upon release, sampling King of Pop Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and getting away with it (making it a kind of cover itself, but let’s not set foot in that minefield). The song has become one of the most memorable of Rihanna’s many hits. Like lots of great dance-pop songs, its underlying message of love and being lost in the music isn’t necessarily apparent with her original version of the song – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Euroclub rhythm is instantly catchy and could make even the shiest wallflower want to dance.
Then along comes Jamie Cullum’s cover of the song, a stripped down piano and drums ballad that slows the song down, but not with the ironic appeal of the “Wonderwall” cover, instead laying bare the underlying message of the song and making it even more charming. Cullum is known for taking popular songs and slowing them down in a similar way and giving them a similar appeal, but this one stands out as a particular artistic success that is hard not to enjoy, even for a dance floor junkie.
TAKE ON ME
Original – 1985
Cover – 1999
The original song by A-Ha is just as famous for its animated music video as the song itself, taking over MTV when it was in its infancy. While it didn’t meet immediate success on its initial release, the record label pushed it forward and eventually it became the huge song that many know today. Singer Morten Harket’s vocals cover a two and a half octave range, from the silky-smooth lower register verses to the buildup of the high falsetto of the famous chorus.
In 1999 ska funsters Reel Big Fish released a cover of the song for the movie BASEketball that became a reasonable hit for the band. The cover follows what you would expect from a ska band covering a pop song, keeping mostly the same elements of the original and replacing the synths more heavily with horns and an infectious, high-energy back beat. It doesn’t exactly reinvent the song but proves that an inherently catchy tune transcends generic boundaries. Resistance is useless!
GOD ONLY KNOWS
Original – 1966
Cover – 2014
Many, many things have been said of The Beach Boys’ much-loved “God Only Knows” from their revolutionary album Pet Sounds in 1966. Paul McCartney has gone so far as to declare it his favorite song of all time. Ironically, the song now considered a classic wasn’t met with huge success at the time – while definitely a hit, it was too reflective to have the mass appeal of the rest of The Beach Boys catalog and what was to come with Good Vibrations. It’s a fairly unconventional love song too, its first lines being “I may not always love you” (kinda a downer, huh?) but it quickly blossoms through the colorful arrangement and elaborate production Brian Wilson was exploring at the time, and showcases the beautiful harmonies of The Beach Boys to full effect.
The song has been covered countless times, but one of the most ambitious efforts (not just by covers standards, but by any measure of performance and production) was recorded in 2014 as part of the launch of BBC Music. The project united artists and bands from all sorts of genres, including original Beach Boy Brian Wilson. 27 acts in total appear in the song, including Elton John, Stevie Wonder, One Direction, Lorde and more. The ambitiousness of the song is obvious in the production of the music video itself, showing how one song can bring together a lot of fine performers willing to put individual egos aside in the service of a timeless song.
Everyone has a favorite cover song – maybe one you love to hate? We’d love to hear from you!