By Sam Graham
A lot of bands tend to think ‘yeah we’ll smash a cover in just after half way through the set’ and that’s as far as it goes, but what they fail to realise is that their choice of song and how they choose to play it can be the pinnacle on which their entire performance is remembered. Playing a cover is a very particular art, and it seems it’s seldom looked into with much depth.
I’ve had people tell me that playing a cover cheapens your own music. I don’t think it does and I think it’s wrong to label something so absolutely. But you should ask yourself why are you wanting to play a cover in the first place? The answer to that question will tell much about your band, your music, and your own personal take on it.
There are two types of covers. The first: an esoteric song that not many, in the crowd will have heard off. The second are those classics that everybody knows: the Enter Sandmans, the Living on a Prayers, the Bohemian Rhapsody, those crowd-pleasers that everybody loves to hear.
Bands cover the crowd-pleasers for the purpose of generating cheers from the audience. There’s no more catharsis to be gained from it than that. However the pressure is on for these bands as audiences are very fickle when it comes to covers and if you are covering one of those ever-loved and recognised tunes, you’d better get it right. If you put one note out of place, or if your singer doesn’t have just the right tone, you’ll be branded as ‘those guys who murdered Knocking on Heaven’s Door’. Afraid to say that the cover will be the most remembered part of your set.
For bands that see themselves as ‘serious musicians and not just crowd-pleasing hacks’ (unfortunately that’s a quote), that also insist on playing covers, go for the lesser-known songs from a band’s catalogue. Where the Wild Things Are by Metallica, Save the World by Bon Jovi, My Fairy King by Queen, for example are some esoteric tunes by popular musicians. Failing that, pick some incredibly little-known band that nobody will have ever heard of.
Of course, the trade-off with this is you can come off as being pretentious, so you’ll have to get the balance just right. You don’t want to gear the crowd up by saying you’re doing a cover, then alienate them when the only people who have heard the original are the members of your band.
Something worth asking yourself if you are considering doing a cover is why? What is so bad about your own music that you have to gratuitously insert someone else’s in there? Seriously, have some faith in your own work. If the answer you come up with is on the lines of ‘because the crowd likes it better when we do a cover’, then maybe you should re-evaluate your music. Why aren’t people cheering to your music like they do the covers you play? What’s wrong with it? If it sounds too mediocre, make is less so. If it’s not as flashy, add some flash. It’ll pay off to address any slip of doubt, because if you think the song’s lacking (and remember, you wrote the thing), the crowd definitely will. Watch them during your set and try to pinpoint when they lose interest. Another good tip is to listen to the crowd-pleasers, dissect them, and learn a lesson from the parts that make them so cool.
Covers can be better than the original. It often happens. All Along the Watch Tower, God Gave Rock & Roll to You andRockin All Over the World are just some examples of covers that have been wildly more successful than their originals. The reason they became so popular is because they were adapted to the musician’s own style and I’d say it’s the best way to do a cover. I don’t just mean turn up the distortion when you play Kansas’ Dust in the Wind, or play Poker Faceon an acoustic guitar; completely change the feel of the song like Marilyn Manson did with his cover of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). He made a banal-sounding synth-pop song into this chilling lurk of a tune. He gave it a character and atmosphere that Eurythmics just didn’t have. Sure, it’s been used by just about every car manufacturer there is, but listen to it in the dark and it’s still just as haunting.
Another good example is Hurt by Nine Inch Nails. Their version (the original) was good, but Johnny Cash completely reinvented the song. He made it into an emotional Meat Loaf-esque tear-jerker. NIN’s version may have had some emotion, but it was empty compared to the buckets worth in Cash’s.
The thing to remember is that Covers aren’t a bad thing, and nobody should condemn you for playing one. Music has always been covered to death. Look at the blues standards, covering them was commonplace. Listen to Crossroads by Robert Johnson, then listen to Cream’s cover of it. Cream took that song and adapted every single thing about it to make it fit in with their style. Now it’s one of their most famous songs. Youtube has become a recent advocate of music covering. The bitchiness of the internet aside, YouTube has a vast library of musicians subscribed to it and every so often the occasional cover gets a lot of popularity. This is usually because they either reinvented the song, or found a strange and talented new way to play it.
If you’re happy covering a song, straight and simple, without adapting it at all, then by all means do so. Enjoyment is the fundamental basis of music anyway and if you aren’t happy playing something, you shouldn’t be doing it. But if you want to make a cover that truly stands out and doesn’t just sound close to the original, take some time and make it your own, because as stated earlier, the best cover versions reveal a song for what it really is. Not what the person who wrote it thought.
Feel free to discuss your thoughts on the topic. What covers do you like to listen to/play? Why?