Aug. 15, 2012
-- News has hit us this week that The Darkness have covered Radiohead’s ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ and that One Direction have covered Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’
. At best these covers have received a mixed reception, with some looking back in anger and calling them a travesty. Are covers really acceptable, or are they always going to be met with some level of scepticism?
The unfortunate truth is that some bands do have more credibility than others. The first word attached to Elbow doing a cover would be “intriguing”
, while for Scouting For Girls the word would be “sacrilege”
. The fact is anyone who isn’t a One Direction fan (myself included) badmouthed their version of ‘Wonderwall’
before they’d even heard it. After having heard it, I think the main issue for them is living up to the strength of the original (and also, making listeners forget that they’re One Direction). You’d better have a hell of a voice to make people not want to go back to Liam Gallagher and co. The man is an arse, but he sure has a distinctive voice. So the first barrier with covers is the reputation of who's covering the song, and the reputation of the song itself.
If the original is as recognizable as ‘Wonderwall’
is, perhaps the way to make a successful cover is do something different with the material and make it your own. Some artists rely on their voice, not doing anything more radical than slowing down the tempo and performing it acoustically on piano or guitar (Sunday Girl’s ‘Where Is My Mind’ and Ryan Adams’ ‘Wonderwall’)
. These kinds of tracks often appear in television shows, adverts and in Starbucks. While effective, they are rarely memorable and fade from memory quickly (although they're better than McFly doing 'Umbrella' by a country mile).
Muse turned Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’ into a stadium-filling rock anthem and it worked fantastically. Unconventional covers like this often appear on BBC Radio 1's brilliant Live Lounge. They often work so well on this show because the original source material is reinterpreted, such as Franz Ferdinand version of Gwen Stefani’s ‘What You Waiting For?’ and Lostprophets version of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River’. Both pop songs are turned into indie rock anthems and work extremely well, showing that covers arguably work best when bands put their own spin on a track and merge it with their own distinctive sound.
The truth is that some songs lend themselves very well to re-interpretation. Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’ has been covered to great success by artists as diverse as Johnny Cash and Marilyn Manson. Kate Bush tracks ‘Hounds Of Love’ and ‘Running Up That Hill’ were both re-imagined by The Futureheads and Placebo, with the former becoming The Futureheads’
most popular song to date. And perhaps this is good for music that new tracks can alert people to the existence of old classics. There was much derision at youngsters who were excited by Ed Sheeran’s “new song” at the Olympics Closing Ceremony, not realising that it was a cover of Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’. But to be honest many have made that mistake before – I for one had no idea that ‘Torn’ by Natalie Imbruglia was originally done by a band called Ednaswap or that José González did 'Heartbeats' an acoustic cover of a track by The Knife. People can compare versions and argue over their favourite version, and like arguing over who is the best James Bond, there is no right answer (although like 007, the preference is often what you grew up with). Some can prefer Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’
, others the Leonard Cohen “original”
, and for the generation who watched ‘Shrek’ as children the Rufus Wainwright version features prominently in our minds. Just don’t mention the X-Factor covers, we’d all rather forget they were ever done!
So are covers a bad idea? No, but caution should be taken when attempting one. Some songs have been over-done to death, and some songs have a protective fanbase ready to lambaste any who dare to take a song from their band. It helps to be a respected artist but most often what works is making the song your own. So hate it as much as you want, at least The Darkness’ ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ does something different with the song, which possibly justifies their decision to cover it. As for One Direction’s ‘Wonderwall’?
Go re-read that sentence, it just doesn’t look right.