Wednesday, September 28, 2005

NO STAIRWAY: The comments in a thread a few posts down made me realize that I would be doing this little community a great public service if I formally codified the unwritten rules of covering songs. These rules are presented in the format prescribed by my number-one source of prescriptive stylistic convention, Glamour magazine:

DON'T record an earnest and faithful cover of a song that is almost universally associated with a particular artist. As Finch can testify, Led Zeppelin's Battle of Evermore was not crying out to be done exactly the same way by two women who had exactly the same range and vocal inflection as Robert Plant. In fact, virtually every Led Zeppelin song was done to Zeppelinesque perfection by Led Zeppelin in the studio, so much so that when Led Zeppelin tried to do those songs live -- on The Song Remains the Same and at Live Aid 1.0 -- they stunk. Another example: did anybody ever think, "I really love Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing, particularly all of the ad-libs and such, but what that song really needs is Dave Pirner's note-for-note screech to take the edge off of the honey-sweet perfection of Gaye's voice"? No. This rule also goes for everybody who has ever covered Yesterday or The Times, They Are A-Changin'.

DO cover hidden gems from well-known artists or beloved songs from obscure artists. This is a good way to spread the message about music that people haven't heard before. Good examples: Son Volt's cover of Mystifies Me by Keith Richards; Iron Maiden's improbable cover of Mountain's Mississippi Queen; Nirvana's covers of the Vaselines songs on Incesticide. This rule begs the question of when somebody is going to have the good sense to cover James Taylor's Only Telling a Lie, featuring the immortal line: "There ain't no need to act like I shot your dog."

DO cover songs that people associate with particular artists if you believe (be honest with yourself) that you can add something completely unexpected or reinterpret them in a new way. Who didn't laugh the first time they heard Limp Bizkit doing George Michael's Faith? Who didn't love Cake's upfunked rock version of Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive? Sure, this can get a little overdone -- Tony Bennett and Johnny Cash versions of rock standards, a Pat Boone heavy metal album -- but if it gives us a gem like Cowboy Junkies' Sweet Jane, it's okay.

DON'T "reinterpret" a song by turning it into a bad reggae song. Maxi Priest, coverer of Cat Stevens's Wild World, you are under arrest.

DON'T try to parlay your inexplicable success with a cover of one obscure song by a relatively obscure band with a cover of a second obscure song by the same obscure band. This rule applies even if the royalty-starved original band is writing you scented letters begging you to break it. This is known as the Quiet Riot Rule.

DO break all of the "don't" rules (except the reggae rule) live. My theory is that people don't go to concerts just to hear the same old stuff (why not stay home with headphones?) or to hear reinterpretations of the stuff they know. They go to have a communal experience with other people who like the same stuff. A band that covers a song that the audience already loves -- even if they don't add anything new to it -- can become a participant in, and not just the focus of, the communal experience. Two memorable examples for me: Uncle Tupelo doing Neil Young's Everybody Knows this Is Nowhere and Pearl Jam doing Neil Young's Rocking in the Free World.

Anything I'm missing? Any cover songs that you think particularly prove or disprove these rules?


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