The most common path to success in the music industry is to re-interpret, re-invent and recycle what has worked in the past. Covering songs has been an established tradition in the music world since the birth of music itself.
A striking aspect of covers is that many artists take songs that may not have been previously successful, and make them into global hits, often decades after the original song was first released.
Many popular versions of songs we know today are covers of original songs. Some of these include instantly recognisable classics, such as Sinead O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U”. Originally written and sang by The Family, a side project of the late artist Prince, O’Connor’s emotional delivery of the song, coupled with an outstandingly monochrome music video, turned the tune into one of the most notable hits of the 1990s.
“Nothing Compares 2 U” is a prime example of a song that made its name by being covered, an increasingly common trend in the music industry.
Another well known hit, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” follows this pattern as it was sung and written originally by country artist, Dolly Parton. Parton’s original contrasted with Houston’s theatrical, romantic version as the original subject matter concerned a professional break up and not a romantic one.
Houston’s version which gained enormous fame as a result of the release of the film “The Bodyguard”, is renowned for its emotional and relatable subject matter.
Perhaps the most famous example of a well known musician successfully choosing to cover material from their fellows is Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”, originally by the band Nine Inch Nails. The cover by Cash won Best Music Video at the 2004 Grammys, following his death in 2003.
The music video left a lasting impression as the hurt in Cash’s eyes and voice was as much evident as the sense of regret and sorrow in the track. The lead singer of the Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor, gave high praise to Cash’s version of the song and even went as far to say “that song isn’t mine anymore”.
In an interview with Alternative Press in 2004, Reznor raved over Cash’s interpretation and spoke of how it impacted him as an artist and writer: “I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone.
Some-fucking-how that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning different, but every bit as pure. Things felt even stranger when he passed away. The song’s purpose shifted again. It’s incredibly flattering as a writer to have your song chosen by someone who’s a great writer and a great artist.”
This echoes the general spirit of how covering songs has been construed as a gesture of admiration from artist to artist. Cover bands and artists attempt to replicate the charisma, and the effect on listeners, that the original artist had. However there are also those artists who exist to alter and develop the songs of the past to make them their own.
This can be most notably seen in the vast recording catalogue of the Beatles. Most of their hits have been performed repeatedly by well-established artists as well aspiring recording artists on the karaoke stage.
“Yesterday”, according to the Guinness World Records, was covered seven million times in the twentieth century alone, making it the most covered song of all time.
Paul McCartney, an enthusiast of the reinterpretation of music, famously did a joint performance of “Yesterday” with Linkin Park and Jay Z during the 2006 Grammys, which fused contemporary and older styles of performing the song. Despite the worldwide fame of “Yesterday”, Ray Charles’ version of the song is the only cover version ever to reach a position in the US Top 40 charts.
Even the band’s solo efforts have not escaped the attention of cover artists. Paul McCartney’s second solo album “Ram” was the project of artist Dave Depper, who in 2010 decided to record McCartney’s album in an attempt to see how close he could get to the original record.
Depper explained to the Guardian newspaper: “I felt that if I found a way to do that, then I would somehow earn the entitlement to make my own record.”
Intriguingly, the Beatles themselves could be classified as cover artists as their 1963 hit “Twist and Shout” was initially a song named “Shake It Up Baby” by the lesser known band, the Top Notes.
Another popular classic that has been reworked numerous times is the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, perhaps most notably by Jeff Buckley in 1994. Some critics will argue that Buckley’s version is superior, the rawness of the track is amplified by the artist’s tragic death three years later.
What is striking is the rise in popularity of the a capella group Pentatonix’s cover in recent years. The group’s version of Hallelujah has more views on Youtube than Buckley’s and Cohen’s combined. Covering recent songs on Youtube is a very well-known feature of the site, as specific Youtube channels, such as Pentatonix, exist to broadcast versions of both popular and lesser known songs.
The idea of covering an entire album is one that has been taken up by Grammy award-winning artist Beck, who started his Record Club in 2009. According to their website, Record Club is “an informal meeting of various musicians to record an album in a day, nothing is rehearsed or arranged ahead of time”. The mission of the club is clear as they state they have no intention to “recreate the power of the original recording, only play music and document what happens”. Beck and his fellow cover enthusiasts have a clear understanding of the type of cover they want to produce. The Record Club’s appreciation of some of the music scene’s best and most beloved artists is humbling and inspiring.
This approach was imitated by artist Ryan Adams when he covered Taylor Swift’s “1989” album, releasing his cover of the album on iTunes and on Youtube. His rendition of “Out of The Woods” is subjectively far superior to Swift’s original number, which many felt was overproduced.
The lyrics gain more of a focus in this version and serve as a testament to Swift’s songwriting abilities and to Adam’s vision as an artist. This is not uncommon as many covers of songs exist to strip back an overly manufactured production and focus on lyrics and instrumentation, reclaiming, arguably, the purest form of music itself.
Television programmes such as the X Factor, the Voice and Britain’s Got Talent, celebrate the concept of covering a song. The competitions are truly about who can most successfully cover a song and turn it into a new unique melodic masterpiece.
One Direction’s break-out first performance, as a group on the X Factor, was a performance of “Torn”, a song by Natalie Imbruglia which garnered mainstream fame for Natalie Imbruglia in the 2000s. “Torn” was, however, actually originally recorded by LA rock band Ednaswap in the 90s.
Ednaswap’s version trades the bubblegum pop of Imbruglia for a far more sombre feel, with many critics commenting that the original is far more tasteful and meaningful.
The buskers of the streets also continue to inspire and disappoint, as the hustle and bustle of city street life either swallows up or simmers down to let the artists showcase their own versions of music hits.
This illustrates a popular conundrum of covering songs: what people expect from covers varies from each person. Some wish for the cover to be as close as it can be to the original, while others wish for a completely different interpretation.
Ed Sheeran, who started out as a busker, made his fame by covering other artists, something he has never shied away from despite his success as an original artist. BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge plays host to several slots of Sheeran performing covers, showcasing his immense dedication to the performing and modification of music.
Sheeran has covered a diverse range of song from pop hits, from Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” and Little Mix’s “Touch”, to R&B and Soul, with his cover of Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband” and Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine”.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, when asked if they believed their audience would be permanently affected by their music, both said they believed this to be true. They went onto say how they themselves have been permanently affected by the music they listened to, with the scars to prove it.
The question is whether one feels betrayed to discover that much of the talented artists we see and hear in the music industry today, have in some ways, built their careers on the music of other artists who received very little recognition.
But we must remember that when we choose to cover a song as an artist ourselves, or simply listen to a cover of a song, we, either consciously or not, subject ourselves to the influence of what we hear and often the version that chooses to make its mark on us, is not always what we may expect.