Cover artists who really did do it better.
For some particularly avid fans, ‘cover’ is a dirty word. Renditions of their favourite artists are met with immediate disapproval. While there are some particularly painful covers (anything by the Glee Cast springs to mind), many interpretations of well-known songs more than trump the original. In a surprising number of cases cover versions experience such success that they are mistakenly considered to be the original song.
For example, ‘It Must Be Love’, universally known and considered one of Madness’ greatest hits, which reached number 4 on the UK singles chart in 1981, was in fact originally released by Labi Siffre on his 1972 album Crying, Loving, Laughing, Lying. Although Siffre’s version was popular in its own right, reaching number 14 in January 1972, most people are only familiar with Madness’ more upbeat rendition, complete with a reggae beat and extra instrumentation which contrasts Siffre’s more stripped back and soulful original. Labi Siffre actually approved of their version so much so that he agreed to appear in the official music video.
Another cover particularly revered by the original artist is Nirvana’s version of ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ from their MTV Unplugged Session in 1993. It was originally released by David Bowie in April 1971 as the title track of his third studio album. It proved to be a commercial failure for Bowie, due perhaps to the fact that it was not released as an official single or potentially because it moved away from the more acoustic folk-rock feel of his 1960s albums to hard rock with a darker sound and more haunting lyrics. The cover brought Bowie to a brand new audience and its success was undeniable to even Bowie himself. He remarked that when performing the song after the Nirvana cover was released, there would be "kids that come up afterwards and say, 'It's cool you're doing a Nirvana song”.
Continuing the legacy of legendary artists is another important task fulfilled by covers. In April 2020 Phoebe Bridgers paid homage to John Prine following his death, sharing her cover of ‘Summer’s End’ in a livestream at-home concert at the height of the pandemic. Her interpretation was later released as a Spotify single in 2021. Opening with a voicemail from her father who has missed her birthday, Phoebe’s rendition is intimate and simple, with her soft vocals and acoustic guitar perfectly capturing the melancholy of Prine’s original folk ballad.
In the case of some covers, their strength lies in their complete departure from the original. In 1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young included a version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’ on their album Déjà Vu. Mitchell actually wrote the song based on what she was told about Woodstock Festival by her then-boyfriend Graham Nash. Unlike Micthell’s folk original with dark jazz piano, the hard drums and guitar licks of CSN&Y transformed the song into a classic rock anthem, rendering the cover almost unrecognisable as the same song.
Some artists are almost better known for their covers than their original work. This is certainly the case for Joan Baez, whose first two records are entirely composed of covers and her first two singles to reach the charts were also cover versions. She has truly tried her hand at all great artists, from Johnny Cash, to Dire Straits and Aretha Franklin. She even released an entire album of Bob Dylan covers in 2006 titled Baez sings Dylan. Whilst remaining understated like Dylan, her covers often feel less stark than the originals. For me, ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ is the standout of her Dylan covers. Her compelling and haunting voice retains the sombre feel of Dylan’s but perhaps has less bitter undertones.
Ultimately, imitation is unduly criticised, for cover versions have brought us some of the best records of all time.
Illustration: Rachel Cripps