August 31st 2010

Cover Me Bad (…but we really mean Good!)

Poor title aside, the topic of this LF editorial is all about the excellent art of the cover version, so the team have sat down and argued out the contenders for our favourite covers ever committed to a discography.  As we like to see ourselves as under-the-radar type flyers, the one rule was to try to pitch songs and interpretations that you may not have come across before, hence the absence of ‘Hallelujah’ or ‘All Along The Watchtower’, etc. 
As always, LF likes to have its readers bask in something new so hope there’ll be some here for you all to enjoy…!
Dan Collacott (LF Films and Comedy Editor)
‘Hurt’ – Nine Inch Nails (1994), ‘The Downward Spiral’
‘Hurt’ – Johnny Cash (2002), ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around’
I am a massive fan of the ‘man in black’.  His honest and highly emotive take on the Nine Inch Nails song ‘Hurt’ is nothing short of breathtaking. Back in 2002, the video for Cash’s ‘Hurt’ was named the Best Video of the Year by the Grammy Awards and Country Music Awards – director Mark Romanek used haunting footage from Cash’s life in the last weeks before his death. Cash somehow managed to take a song about self-imposed pain and suffering and beautifully twist it into a metaphor and commentary on his own deeply flawed, complicated and often tragic life. One look into the fading eyes of Johnny Cash when hearing his gravelly tones deliver the lyrics is enough to make even the most hardened of humans well up. So what is my point here – am I saying his take on the song ‘Hurt’ is better than the original? Well this is where I struggle.
For some reason, I love the original so much that I can’t quite allow the late great Johnny Cash to own a song whose origins had come from a very different place. It’s like the Tears For Fears song ‘Mad World’ being given a makeover by Gary Jules and getting a lot more radio and TV play than the original ever did – but it is not the same song.  Ok it has the same lyrics and much of the same music but just like ‘Hurt’, it is more a homage to the original and I find it quite arrogant and annoying that anyone could claim anything different. But returning to ‘Hurt’, Trent Reznor wrote that song when in the grip of heroin addiction at a point in his life where his suffering, substance abuse and depression helped deliver the best music Nine Inch Nails ever released, which is a pretty f*#ked up thing to say but nothing he’s written since he found happiness and sobriety has had anywhere near the same resonance.  Johnny Cash removed those original meanings and the song took on a whole different tone.  Granted what he did was incredible, but his version is awesome for different reasons from the original. There is also genius there but to turn round and say that the Cash version is superior to the original is total and utter nonsense, most who say that:
a) Haven’t listened to the original
b) Have listened to the original after hearing the Cash version
c) Didn’t hear the original when it was first released
I could imagine Trent Reznor returning to this song as an old dying man in his 70s/80s and reinterpreting it just as Cash did.  If he had a full lifetime of pain and tragedy tinged success and happiness behind him, the lyrics would again mutate and become something more. But that is why most would (I hope) choose Cash’s version over Reznor’s – because they would view it as a poignant sign-off from a legendary life.  Where Reznor’s original was selfish, self-indulgent and self-destructive, Cash’s is honest, self-depreciating and touching. So I guess I've taken you full circle in an argument that even I can't resolve within myself.  I just hope that you go with these final few lines rather than judge the cover of ‘Hurt’ by Johnny Cash as being better because it is more accessible, by a more well-known figure and more recent.
Please judge for yourself though:
Nine Inch Nails – ‘Hurt’:
Jonny Cash – ‘Hurt’:
Matt Worrall (LF writer & contributor)
Covers are a funny beast. To take them on, an artist is often either paying homage or trying to better the artist whose material they are interpreting. Joe Cocker’s barnstorming rendition of ‘A Little Help From My Friends’ is an example of the latter and frequently cited as a best cover version – with no little help from Sir Paul himself.
While showy, I dislike this attempt to better the author. And as for homage, it seems there are some artists for whom, by the very way they write, forces the cover artist to turn into an outright tribute band.  Dylan and Bowie songs seem to be particularly prone to turning whoever sings them into clones. Clearly these can be discounted. Stop it.
For me, the best covers pick out something in the song itself and bring out a totally different interpretation of the lyrics than the original. The best examples of this are when the darker elements of human nature are found in some bubblegum chart pop or bombast made ridiculous by new context.
My picks:
Ben Folds – ‘Bitches Ain't Shit’ (Dr Dre cover)
Rahzel – ‘Moments in Love’ (Art of Noise cover)
Saul Williams – ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ (U2 cover)
… and I know its cheating because it is an instrumental but I cannot resist: Hot 8 Brass Band – ‘Sexual Healing’ (Marvin Gaye cover)
Tristan Hanks (LF writer & contributor)
Personally, I love it when I go to see a band and they play an odd cover of some ancient garage rock tune or a new take on a cheesy classic. I recently went to see Devendra Banhart at Glasto and he played a version of ‘Tell It To My Heart’ by Taylor Dane which was unexpectedly enjoyable considering the cheesiness of the original.
A great cover version should either change the original into something totally new or stay faithful to it by perhaps eclipsing its greatness. This may be the case for ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ originally by Procol Harum and one of the greatest sixties tracks ever. The cover is by sax legend King Curtis and is featured in the opening scene of ‘Withnail & I’. While always fond of this version, I never really listened to it until I stumbled across it the other day and it could bring tears to the eyes of anyone who has any sort of soul whatsoever. Just wait for that organ to kick in.
My last choice is something more modern and is a cover that turns the original on its head completely: ‘Together in Electric Dreams’ by the legends that are Phil Oakey and Giorgio Moroder is possibly one of the most uplifting of the 80’s synth pop classics. Often played as set closer by electro god Erol Alkan, it always results in a mass sing-along by the crowd. Lali Puna’s delicate take on the track brings it down to the type of song listened to in the early hours of the morning. Her whispered vocals give it an eerie tone reminiscent of a musical suicide note produced by Warp Records, but don’t let that put you off because it is absolutely lovely.
Imran Mirza (LF Music Editor)
I’m almost a bit disappointed with my selection, and confess that I’m a bit fearful of groans as I unveil the possibly boring choice of ‘Time After Time’, as originally performed by Cyndi Lauper.  Yes, it’s probably not a very original choice, and yes, it’s certainly one that’s been done to death, so you can at least rest assured that if I’m listing it as practically my favourite cover version of all time, then I’d at least have to be drawing attention to an incredible rendition of the 80s classic.
Ladies and gentlemen, if you’re unfamiliar with her, please meet Cassandra Wilson.  Ms Wilson is an American jazz vocalist, with an immense catalogue of work stemming from the mid-80s, and one that has seen her garner two Grammy awards.  In 1999, Cassandra Wilson recorded an album called ‘Traveling Miles’, which was a tribute to her musical hero, jazz legend Miles Davis, with the album featuring reworkings of several of Davis’ songs.  I’m not sure if it’s because Davis himself had tackled ‘Time After Time’ in 1985, but it did always seem odd that Wilson’s version would find its way on to this of all releases.  Regardless though – like many of the above previous entries have stated, a good cover version presents what was already there in a completely different way, so you get to revisit something you already knew with fresh eyes, and appreciate a piece of work on a completely different understanding. 
The song’s beautiful arrangement is almost more melancholy than anything else as you’re led through this wonderful journey by Wilson’s exquisite voice and an arrangement that really centres around dreamy acoustic guitars and soft drums. 
Do yourself a favour, and give the below a click:

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