Sometimes covers can be pointless retreads of old songs. Often they can be honourable each time I read Sanjoy Narayan’s column in Brunch, I feel very old. Sanjoy has such deep knowledge of modern music (to say nothing of technology) that I feel like a dinosaur.
Then, I stop myself and realise that in reality, Sanjoy is not actually that much younger than me. So it isn’t about age. It’s about attitude. Sanjoy keeps up with things. And I’m just a boring old fart.
But two weeks ago, Sanjoy wrote about a conversation we’d had about two versions of Wooden Ships. The Crosby, Stills and Nash version is still the best known but I have always preferred the subtler Jefferson Airplane version. After all, as Sanjoy pointed out in his column, the Airplane’s Paul Kantner co-wrote the song.
Sanjoy used our conversation as a starting point for a piece about cover versions. Among those he listed were versions of Led Zeppelin songs by a girl band called Lez Zeppelin. In normal circumstances, I would not have heard of the band but fortunately Sanjoy had burned me a CD of their songs a few months ago so, for once, I didn’t feel completely out of things!
But Sanjoy’s piece got me thinking. Sometimes covers can be pointless retreads of old songs: do you really care about some boy band re-recording Seasons In The Sun? Often they can be honourable failures: Rod Stewart singing Pinball Wizard. Sometimes they can match the originals: Joe Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friends has a life of its own, independent of the Beatles.
But sometimes, they end up being even better known than the originals. Take Seasons In The Sun for instance. People of my generation only know the Terry Jacks version which was a global number one in 1974. But the song is much older. It was written by the French legend Jacques Brel as a sad dirge. The American pop poet Rod McKuen wrote the cheerful English lyrics, turning a classic of death into a jingle. And there were many versions till Terry Jacks revived it in the Seventies.
Or take Mariah Carey’s Without You, a global smash in the last decade. When the song came out, older listeners immediately compared it to the Harry Nilsson hit of the Seventies and claimed that Carey had massacred the Nilsson original. Except that it wasn’t a Nilsson original to begin with.
The song was written by Paul McCartney protégé Pete Ham of the Apple band Badfinger. It flopped in its original avatar and Ham committed suicide. Then years after his death, Nilsson took it to the charts and I guess, Ham’s descendants can live off the royalties.
Four singer-songwriters have lost out the most to cover versions. The first is, of course, Bob Dylan. When he sprang to fame in the Sixties it was because of covers of his songs by Peter Paul and Mary (who took Blowing In The Wind to the charts) and Joan Baez.
But later, other artistes started recording versions that outshone Dylan’s in popularity. The most famous of these was Jimi Hendrix’s take on All Along The Watchtower which is now regarded as the definitive version, which even Dylan acknowledges by often playing the Hendrix arrangement in concert. (I am probably the only person in the world who prefers the Dylan original.)
More recently, Dylan has lost all claims on Knocking On Heaven’s Door. Generally considered one of his more obscure songs, this was written for the soundtrack of the movie Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (in which Dylan had a small role), which probably accounts for its commercial melody. But the song was quickly forgotten after its first appearance in 1973 and even Dylan gave up on it.
Then, Eric Clapton, on a holiday in Jamaica, heard a local singer perform a reggae version. Eric quickly stole the arrangement and took the song to the charts. A whole new generation began to think of it as a Clapton song. But even that did not last. Guns and Roses recorded the definitive version (since copied by every garage band) and Dylan lost all claims to the song.
Something similar has happened to Joni Mitchell. Her breakthrough record should have been Both Sides Now, but because Mitchell has a high voice and squeaked through her version, it was Judy Collins who took it to the charts. Thousands of others have since recorded the song (including Neil Diamond who raped it – by the way, few people realise that the Monkees’ I’m A Believer and UB 40’s Red, Red Wine are actually Diamond songs) but they’ve usually copied the Judy Collins version. (Almost as bad as the Diamond version is Frank Sinatra’s take on the song.)
And what about Woodstock? We know it now as a Crosby, Stills and Nash song with Stephen Stills’ strident vocal. But Stills did not write it even though he was at Woodstock. It was written by Mitchell who did not even make it to the festival but cashed in on the hippie ethos (“we are stardust, we are golden” etc.).
In my view, the Stills version is dreadful. The Mitchell original is much better but the single best version is the one that topped the British charts, by Iain Matthews and his then band Matthews Southern Comfort.
As unfortunate is Leonard Cohen. He was a well-known Canadian poet when he took to music. His first big hit should have been Suzanne but he was diddled out of the copyright and the song became a hit for Judy Collins. Only later did Cohen re-establish himself as the creator of the song (at least in the public mind: he lost the copyright for keeps), but by then everybody and his dog had recorded the song. (The single worst version is by – you guessed it! – Neil Diamond, yes, once again.)
Cohen’s later stuff has also been attributed to other people. His biggest hit of the last two decades is Hallelujah but few young people know that it is his song (and fewer still know who Cohen is). It is the Jeff Buckley version (which frankly is better than Cohen’s) that has been accepted as the standard rendition. And even when other people cover Hallelujah, it is the Buckley arrangement they use.
(The best cover of a Cohen song? REM’s version of First We Take Manhattan.)
Kris Kristofferson has also lost out to cover versions. Mention Me and Bobby McGee to people and they’ll tell you about the Janis Joplin version (to further understand the incestuous nature of the music world in that era, it might help to know that the girl giving Leonard Cohen “head in an unmade bed” in his Chelsea Hotel is Joplin). But Kristofferson wrote the song and Bobby was meant to be a girl, not the guy Joplin sang about.
Two other songs on that first Kristofferson album have become standards and many people forget that he wrote them. Help Me Make It Through the Night was a hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips and since then, every torch singer has taken a stab at it. Likewise, For the Good Times was taken to the charts by Perry Como and every nightclub singer now includes it in his or her act. In both cases, the Kristofferson original is vastly superior to any cover, but I guess it shows the strength of the song that a country classic can be treated in so many different ways.
And then of course, there are the cover versions that completely supplant the originals. A singer called Lori Lieberman went to a concert by Don McLean and was so taken with his songs that she asked her songwriters if they could write something that captured the experience. They came up with Killing Me Softly With His Song. Lieberman recorded it. Roberta Flack heard the song on the inflight entertainment system while flying from New York to Los Angeles, liked it and recorded it. Who remembers poor Lori Lieberman now? It’s regarded as a Roberta Flack song.
The same is true of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, a haunting folk song by Ewan MacColl. Flack recorded it and Clint Eastwood put it on the soundtrack of Play Misty For Me. Now MacColl’s role in the song’s creation has been forgotten.
Sanjoy suggested Lez Zeppelin. If you like that sort of cover then you’ll probably like an album called Stairways To Heaven, a collection of improbable covers of the Zep classic. Some are okay (by an Elvis impersonator, by a Doors tribute band, by a jazz singer etc.) but the funniest is by Rolf Harris who treats the song as a joke.
I’m sure it is on the Net now even if the CD is hard to get. Check it out.