Why do them, how do them, when do them.
Better a good old song than a bad new one says Jon Lewin as he explains why cover versions are really rather a good thing.
So why should you bother playing someone else's song?
1) It's fun.
2) Everyone runs out of ideas now and again, and it's better to carry on playing than mope around in existential torment brought on by your loss of creativity.
3) Since you wrote neither tune nor words, you're not emotionally involved with a cover version or inhibited over its treatment. This gives you a better perspective on the arrangement as a whole, and allows you to mess the song around as much as you like without offending anyone's artistic sensibilities (like your own).
4) They're useful for entertaining difficult audiences (ever played a US air base?).
5) Playing is practice.
6) Working outside your own musical genre exercises your imagination.
7) If you know lots of different songs, it's easier to play with other musicians.
8) Sometimes it's useful to be able to pigeonhole your group's music — a cover will give listeners a point of reference (or a straw to cling to) for your influences in the middle of a set of original material.
9) It improves your technique to work around somebody else's chord progressions — you're not stuck with the original riff around which you wrote the song.
10) You might have a hit single.
If you still need convincing, remember the best selling single of 1986 (The Communards' 'Don't Leave Me This Way'), David Bowie's "Pin Ups", Bryan Ferry's solo LPs, Echo & The Bunnymen's live set, Madness' cover of 'Sweetest Girl', Nick Cave's recent albums, 'Mr Tambourine Man', Sonic Youth's Madonna cover, 'Into The Groovy', all of Siouxsie & The Banshees' new LP, the Rolling Stones... everyone does it, so don't come the tortured artist, OK?
So how do you go about doing a cover version? You can of course simply sit down with the original song and do your best to imitate it on the instrument of your choice. This is fine for a showband which has to play recognisable material, but if you want to stamp everything you play with your own character, it will need a different approach.
Firstly, pick your song. Obviously, it's got to have some elements that you like, be it an apposite lyric, catchy middle eight, danceable rhythm, memorable tune — anything that draws you to the song. When I spoke to Barbara Gaskin (half of Britain's most successful coverists, Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin of 'It's My Party' fame), she made the important point that you should stay away from songs with truly stunning original versions, unless you feel you can change them enough to be able to add something extra. It's that "something extra" that makes covers worthwhile and entertaining. You should aim to add something to the meaning of the song, while still using it as a vehicle for your own ideas, a way of expressing yourself.
When it comes to learning a song, it's not necessary to be slavish about every last minor 9th, as indie band Age Of Chance have proved with their hugely successful version of Prince's sublime 'Kiss' (an indie chart no. 1, and no. 2 in Peel's Festive 50). Band member Geoff Taylor told me that he felt the main problem with playing cover versions was trying to make them your own, and they achieved this with 'Kiss' by not 'learning' it. "We decided not to buy the record, or study it closely at all, so we got the lyrics out of Smash Hits, and just belted down a version as we remembered it."
They liked it so much, they bought the co... er... released it. The single's subsequent success has led the group to put out an extremely noisy version of The Trammps' 'Disco Inferno' as a follow-up. "That's an orchestral song, so there's no restrictions on guitar parts," Geoff enthused.
Don't be afraid of changing chords: Dave Stewart admits he needs some good original chords to inspire him when he's working on a new cover, but he's also quite willing to insert new sequences of his own — if you ever heard Dave and Barbara's version of 'The Locomotion', you'll remember it had roughly 300,000 more chords than Little Eva's original.
However, adapting songs the way Age Of Chance do can only work if you're already reasonably familiar with the chords, or have a good ear for picking up tunes. Dave and Barbara happily dissect the original record when they're working on a new old song. Barbara actually writes down the vocal tune in great detail, occasionally even annotating it. And she will consciously learn the mannerisms of the singer: "It's a good way of learning new styles," she said, "even though you do end up singing it differently." Barbara described the process she goes through when she and Dave are working on a new cover as learning, forgetting, then remembering. The way you remember a song is what makes your rendition personal.
The most important way of stamping your own personality on someone else's song is by changing the atmosphere. Age Of Chance deliberately changed 'Kiss' from sexy pop into hard dance music, as Geoff Taylor explained: "While Prince's version of 'Kiss' is smoochy and sensual, we wanted to do a dance song."
But where do you get the idea for changing atmosphere? Try listening to the words, for a start. John Cale took 'Heartbreak Hotel' and turned a straightforward teen-angst pop tune into an alarming tragedy, using the lyrics — "The bell-hop's tears keep flowing/The desk clerk's dressed in black" — to dictate the mood. In 1967 Vanilla Fudge did exactly the same with The Supremes' 'You Keep Me Hanging On'; Kim Wilde's version is considerably less imaginative. But that approach only works if the words make sense (or total nonsense) in their new interpretation. Remember the Flying Lizards' dead-pan version of 'Money'?
Change the instrumentation. Playing a hit single on an acoustic guitar will obviously give it a different feel (unless it's a Billy Bragg toon), and it's also a good test of the strength of a song. But does it make the song say what you want it to say? Try loading an acoustic ballad into a sequencer. Or listen to the two versions of 'Kiss' and hear Age Of Chance's mountainous rhythm section and wall of noise guitars.
What about the rhythm? (I once tried Black Sabbath's 'Paranoid' in 6/8 with hilarious results.) Speed the song up, and you can turn a ballad like 'Love Me Tender' into a workout for trash-merchants like The Dickies. Alternatively, slow a fast ditty down and it can become sleazy and seductive. Mess around until it feels right for your interpretation of the song.
Try changing key. This can mean simply singing in a key that is more suited to your dulcet baritone, or alternatively could involve moving from major to minor ("how strange the change," as Ella Fitzgerald once sang), or vice versa. Bluntly, this can make happy sound sad — but be careful it doesn't make the lyrics seem uncomfortably incongruous. It's an easy trick, and one worth experimenting with.
As Barbara Gaskin pointed out, the structure of the song is also open to question. You should try to emphasise the parts of the song that attracted you to it (in the hope that they'll have the same effect on your listeners), and if that means changing the order of verses and choruses, do it. You're the boss here, and if you felt Springsteen should have had a jazz-rock synth solo as an intro to 'Dancing In The Dark', then you're right. Doing a good cover version is really that simple. And if you can do it while retaining the hooks that made the ditty memorable in the first place, or by adding your own then... hittola. Perhaps.
If you think you've got to that stage, there's a formality you have to go through before your 12in megamix hits the streets. As Dave Taylor from Fon Records (AoC's label) explained, it's necessary to register your recording with the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society, and with the publishers of the original, reassuring them that your version doesn't turn their silk purse into an obscene and blasphemous sow's ear. You must have authorisation from both MCPS and the publishers before you release your record, which theoretically means the authors' approval (though Dave's not certain his Princeness has heard the UK 'Kiss').
Then again, maybe your version is so different, you could just change the words and put your own name down on the credits...
Feature by Jon Lewin
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