Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Who says cover versions of songs suck?

Not me, kids, not me. I spent a number of years in bands, most of which were cover bands -- we played songs written by other people for the most part. We often messed with the arrangement -- we did AC/DC as honky tonk, a Stones song as funk, and "Amazing Grace" as a punk song -- but they were cover songs, nonetheless. There are, of course, three rules of covers:

1. I can name that song in three notes.
b. It's got a good beat, you can dance to it, I'll give it a 95.
III. Refer to Rule No. 1.

This list makes little sense to people under the age of 45 or so. Rule No. 1, of course, is a reference to a very old TV show called "Name That Tune" -- certainly from the 1960s, possibly starting in the 1950s -- where contestants had to "bid" on how quickly they could name a song. Three notes was the realistic low end of how quickly you could name a song. Rule b is a reference to American Bandstand, hosted nationally by the famous vampire Dick Clark from at least the early 1960s until I don't know when. Audience members would rate a song, and Rule b was the most common response, apparently.

As long as you obey those rules and play competently, you can keep a bar rocking all night long. Anyway, I have no problem with playing cover songs. It worked for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Van Halen and countless others of big-time bands who scored major hits with cover songs.

Which brings us to our discussion for the evening. One of the great duos in music history, The Everly Brothers, in 1960 for their album "A Date With The Everly Brothers" recorded a song written by Boudleaux Bryant  called "Love Hurts." It was never released as a single by the Everlys, but remains popular as an Everly Brothers staple. Mrs. Wolves was playing a CD this past weekend with three different versions of "Lover Hurts" on it, all in a row. It started with the Everly Brothers, then Roy Orbison's 1961 version, which was the first version to be a hit (OK, it was the B side to "Running Scared" and was only a hit in Australia, but still), and finally the 1975 version by Nazareth, which hit the Top 10 in the U.S. I consider the sequence illustrative of how cover songs need not be like the original, and can actually surpass the original. In this instance, first I will give you the original by The Everly Brothers:

It's a pretty song. If you aren't paying attention to the lyrics, you might not realize the agony infused throughout the song. Then, a year later, we have Roy Orbison:

Again, a pretty song, but Roy Orbison had a talent for lending a song a beautiful voice that nonetheless conveyed the pain behind the song. You can feel his hurt, even though his vocal is beautiful. Roy did this continually throughout his career, as on this song written by Elvis Costello that appeared on Orbison's final album, "Mystery Girl", called "The Comedian":

No offense, but if that doesn't rip your heart out, you don't have one. And Orbison brings the same power to his cover of "Love Hurts." So, in my opinion, Roy's version is better than the Everly Brothers, primarily because with the Everlys, it is possible to just hear a pretty song. With Orbison's version, the pain expressed in the lyrics audibly underlies the beautiful vocal, so it is both a pretty song and a powerful testament to the pain of lost love.

Sorry, kids, but both lose out to the 1975 version by Nazareth. No one ever accused Nazareth of pretty vocals, but dear God! you can't miss the agony the singer is feeling in this version:

So no more smack-talking about cover versions. This has been your musical history lesson for the day. Stay tuned for more. This isn't a music blog -- unless I say it is.


Anonymous said...

A good example of a cover not being the original, but better:

Toots & the Maytals - Louie Louie

Iggy Pop did a version too, and that was alright, but not as good as the original nor the T&M cover:

/Your reader in Denmark.

Anonymous said...

I just learned that the original version of "Louie Louie" was by Robert Berry. And I think that version sucks. The Kingsmen version (that I thought was the original) as well as the other covers I mentioned, are all better than the original.

/ Your reader in Denmark.