For as long as there has been pop music, there have been cover songs.
(Both the Beatles and Stones started out as combos that versioned other people’s work, fer Chrissakes.)
Anyone who has ever played in a band has spent at least a few quality moments thinking about, choosing — and then learning — other people’s music to interpret in some fashion. Sometimes this has been done to great effect: Jimi Hendrix practically made a mini-career out of repurposing the work of other artists (arguably, his versions of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and Billy Roberts’ “Hey, Joe” are the definitive takes in the rock canon; the Experience’s final 1967 show at London’s Saville Theatre opened with a freshly-rehearsed “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” played literally two days after that album’s release and with both Paul McCartney and George Harrison in that night’s audience). The late Jeff Buckley’s interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” introduced the song to a new generation of fans, and subsequently became an indelible part of his repertoire. Soft Cell’s greatest recorded moment was essentially a mash-up of Gloria Jones’ mid-60s Northern Soul anthem “Tainted Love” and the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go?” Cat Power’s most popular tunes on Spotify are the oft-covered “Sea of Love” and the Jagger/Richards warhorse “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Covers, it would seem, have actually come to define some artists more than their own creations ever could.
And this: Would “Glee,” “American Idol” or “The Voice” even exist if the notion of a cover song hadn’t become something of a pop-music institution? (Some among you may rue the mere fact of this statement; discuss.)
The advertising industry – even from its MadMen-esque formative days – has been no stranger to the cover song phenomenon. Whether it was Don Draper brooding that “Everyone keeps coming to me looking for some song. They’re so specific. But I have no idea what’s going on out there!” or the various versions of Modern English’s “I Melt With You” ladled over the airwaves like so much heated Velveeta for the likes of Burger King, M&Ms, Hershey and Taco Bell, cover songs (and the teams of lawyers paid a princely sum to look after the related clearance rights) and advertising have gone together like, uh, your chocolate and my peanut butter.
But covers have also brought about their fair share of wince-inducing moments. “Wayne’s World” winked at would-be music-store guitar geeks everywhere with its “No Stairway — denied!” scene (a giant sign on the wall fairly screams “NO Stairway to Heaven” as a warning to aspiring Jimmy Pages); an entire tribute-band-ecosystem has emerged over the past fifteen years, featuring acts as diverse as Bjorn Again (an ABBA covers band), No Way Sis (a Scottish tribute to Oasis, who actually stepped in for their namesakes to play to a sold-out audience in Paris after the Brothers Gallagher had canceled) and the all-female acts Blonde Jovi and the Iron Maidens (duh). To say nothing of an entire nation of wanna-be Elvii, without which Las Vegas would be nothing more than a cultureless circus side show… uh, never mind.
And let’s not even speak of abominations such as the Gourds’ faux-ironic bluegrass take on Snoop’s “Gin and Juice,” okay? I thought we were past all that, America.
Which brings about a perfectly legitimate question: Are there any songs so singular, so perfectly rendered in their original versions, so idiosyncratically delivered or ephemeral in their constitution, so intrinsic to the character or body of work of the artist in question as to render them “off limits” to cover-song status?
While a nation of garage-band ninjas weeps at the very thought of something so patently undemocratic, below are, in no particular order, 11 songs that — to my ears, at least — constitute the equivalent of a cover version “no-fly zone.”
THE CLASH, LONDON CALLING (1979)
The Thatcher era may have been a bitch to live through, but it sure produced some exceptional music. The Clash’s signature moment is the sound of pure existential dread on wax: nuclear (t)errors, London drowning while the Thames surges, drug use and abuse, and the cops bringing a collective truncheon down on the mixed-up skulls of young Britannia are all brought to nightmarish life by a hoarse Joe Strummer while the band’s minor-key march stomps through it all like a 3:19 series of miniature explosions, bottled for maximum impact until the morse code for ”S.O.S.” brings the affair to an abrupt halt. Who else could possibly pull this song off other than the Only Band That Mattered? Who would even want to TRY?
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, JUNGLELAND (1975)
Unless you were born and bred in Jersey, feature a headscarf-rocking guitarist who used to act in “The Sopranos” or can effortlessly sidle up to a giant, sax-wielding demigod capable of carrying an entire song on his linebacker-sized shoulders, you have no business covering this song. Everyone probably knows their very own Rat or Barefoot Girl, but it takes a Boss to do justice to their story.
FLAMING LIPS, DO YOU REALIZE?? (2002)
Putting aside the remarkable fact that alysergic anthem inspired by the horrors of kicking a lengthy heroin addiction was voted the Official Rock Song of Oklahoma (!!), the real reason this song makes my list is that until you see it performed in all its confetti-spewing, oversize hand-prop clapping, laser-guided, Molly-eyed, neo-psychedelic glory, you can’t begin to, uh, realize how impossible it is to cover ANYTHING written by Oklahoma City’s finest exports evah.
BEACH BOYS, GOD ONLY KNOWS (1966)
Can someone in your band play the harpsichord? French horn? Flute? Accordion? How’s your grip on close harmonies, or singing in the round? You comfortable taking on a song with the word “God” so prominently featured (at the time of its release, it was the first significant pop hit to feature that word in its title and chorus)? It took Brian Wilson and company 23 musicians to finish a song that Mojo ranks the 13th best of all time, one that no less an authority on songwriting than Paul McCartney has called his “favorite of all-time. It’s very emotional, a bit of a choker for me, that one. Reduces me to tears every time I hear it.” Oh, and then there’s Bono insistence that the string arrangement is “fact and proof of angels.” No pressure or anything. Hope you nail it.
PRETENDERS, TALK OF THE TOWN (1980)
This is a song subject to my wholly arbitrary (but 100% righteous) “Chrissie Hynde Rule.” If your name isn’t Chrissie, and you’re not from Akron, Ohio, and you haven’t had a kid with Ray Davies and Jim Kerr, and you don’t possess a voice that can melt hearts and/or minds at 100 paces so that a line like “You arrived like a day/and passed like a cloud/I said a wish, I said it out loud” sounds as much like a prayer as a come-on, you don’t get to cover this song.
ELLIOTT SMITH, SAY YES (1997)
Sometimes, the hardest things to get right are the simplest. This composition — from Smith’s 1997 breakthrough album “Either/Or” — was ultimately featured in fellow Portland homeboy Gus Van Zant’s “Good Will Hunting” and became synonymous with the wounded, emotionally-fragile Smith that everyone seemed to want him to become: just a guitar, Smith’s signature multi-tracked vocals and the messy end of a relationship to contend with. Smith once said that “Say Yes” was “written about someone in particular and I almost never do that. I was really in love with someone,” almost certainly Joanna Bolme, the ex he had broken up with just prior to recording the song. And yes: I do realize that Ben Folds occasionally covered this track. But you didn’t date Bolme, and you’re most certainly not Ben Folds. So this one’s off-limits, pal.
NOTORIOUS B.I.G., ANYTHING IN HIS CATALOG (1990s)
I think we should just agree right here and now that B.I.G.’s lyrical flow — slow enough to be understood, dense/complex enough to defy easy imitation, with stories that cut to the heart of his quasi-criminal past in Do-Or-Die Bed-Stuy — still stands apart not only from the other rappers of his era (and god knows there were plenty to go around during hip-hop’s golden age), but from all of those who came afterward too. B.I.G. is a G.O.A.T. contender and that makes pretty much anything in his catalog ridiculous for any other artist to make a serious run at covering. Karaoke? Maybe? Tribute? Sure — that movie’s called ”Notorious.” But cover? Be real, holmes.
BOB DYLAN, ANYTHING IN HIS CATALOG CALLED ‘BLUES’ (1960s TO PRESENT)
Before you laugh this one off, consider the enormity of the consideration set: “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Tombstone Blues,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” “North Country Blues,” “Black Crow Blues,” “Outlaw Blues,” “Living the Blues,” “Workingman’s Blues #2,” “Orange Juice Blues,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” “Tangled up in Blue” (maybe this last one’s cheating, maybe it’s not). This isn’t even a comprehensive list — just the songs I could think of at first blush. It takes a brave man to take on a song from the Jokerman without making a cartoon or parody of it; it takes a fool to plunge into the heart of his body of work and try to swim for it. Paddle hard, man.
PRINCE, PURPLE RAIN (1984)
An ingenious mash-up of rock, pop, gospel and orchestral music, the definitive version of this song was actually recorded live in Minneapolis — the night of 19-year-old guitarist Wendy Melvoin’s performing debut with the Revolution (for real). Who else but Prince could borrow the chords from Journey’s “Faithfully,” a catchphrase from America’s “Ventura Sunrise” and a guitar solo that the Almighty himself would have been pretty proud to have turned in, and make it work as a signature piece for an album, film and (ultimately) career? My guess is that you’re probably not up to that standard of Badness, yo.
QUEEN, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (1975)
Seriously? Not even Queen THEMSELVES could play this thing live; instead, the four began the song, exited when all the pre-recorded, multi-tracked Freddies began “Bismillah”-ing all over the yard, then returned to their crown-shaped stage for the Big Riffery that sent the whole Wagnerian stringball lurching over the finish line. ‘Nuff said.
FUN., WE ARE YOUNG (2011)
Not because the song is particularly epic, or its story all that unique. But because, due to the miracle of modern rock radio and the way pop tunes are endlessly licensed for movies and TV nowadays, I simply never need hear it again, ever.
Listen to all these songs in order (or shuffle, you nut) with the companion Spotify playlist.