Many years ago I tried to persuade friends I played with in a local indie band to debut a country-punk version of Wu Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” live. No one went for it, and looking back, I’m pretty sure it would have been a musical disaster. That 90s hip-hop classic deserves better than our Weird Al-meets-Ween-meets-Wilco approach, which is not to say that such a cover couldn’t work at all, but that Neil Young was more our speed.
Great cover songs come in all styles, and the world’s best musicians (which my friends and I were not) can take material from almost any genre and make it their own (cf. Coltrane). For most people, the cover song is tricky territory.
Hew too closely to an iconic original and you risk a competent but totally unnecessary remake, like Gus Van Sant’s version of Psycho—“all that’s missing is the tension,” as Roger Ebert wrote of that 1998 endeavor, “the conviction that something urgent is happening.”
Stray too far from the source, as I nearly dared to do with “C.R.E.A.M.,” and the effort can seem hokey, tone-deaf, disrespectful, culturally appropriative, and so forth. For some reason, older artists seem to have more grace with others’ material, perhaps because they’ve lived enough to understand it inside and out. Many of my favorite covers, and yours, are in this vein, like two well-known from film and television: Charles Bradley’s cover of Ozzy’s “Changes” and Johnny Cash’s cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.”
The fact that both of these soulful, raspy singers have passed on gives these songs an extra-musical poignancy. They were also two singers well acquainted in life with grief, loss, and hurt. Other cover versions that stick with me include Cat Power’s “At the Dark End of the Street” and R.E.M.’s cover of art-punks Wire’s “Strange.” What makes them great? I could go on about the merits of each one, but I don’t have a general theory of covers. You’ll find such a theory in the Polyphonic video at the top, however, which asks and answers the question, “how does an artist navigate the tumultuous waters of cover songs?”
The narrator admits the ambiguity inherent in judging a successful cover. “I don’t think there’s a clear set of rules you can stick to that will guarantee success. But I do think there are lessons to be learned from looking at the great covers of the past.” He does so by analyzing three of the most successful covers, both critically and commercially, ever recorded: Jimi Hendrix’s haunted electric take on Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Aretha’s anthemic transfiguration of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” and Cash’s open wound cover of “Hurt.”
All of these songs, in their own ways, transform the source material completely, such that each became a signature for the artist. Dylan, for example, was so impressed with Hendrix’s cover that his live versions began to resemble Jimi’s arrangement. “Strange how when I sing it,” he wrote in the liner notes to Biograph, “I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.” That’s a rarified “endorsement of a successful cover,” if there ever was one, Polyphonic says. But there’s more to it than earning the songwriter's approval.
To understand how a successful cover works, retrospectively at least, we have to go back to the source and find the quality the cover artist extrapolated and expanded upon. In Hendrix’s case, that was a “sense of tension and desperation”—announced in his pounding intro, the first howling line of the song, and, of course, in Hendrix’s slinky, spooky, effects-laden guitar runs. He translated the emotional tenor of Dylan's original into a musical vocabulary that was fully his own in every respect.
Covers also evoke a host of personal associations, as the video concedes, that are difficult to navigate to firm conclusions about what makes one a success. We form lifelong relationships with certain songs and may accept no substitutes—or we might, on the other hand, be more drawn to cover versions through a love of the original. That's especially true with covers that alchemically change a song's sound, meaning, tempo, and feel while keeping its intangible emotional essence intact. Leave your favorite covers in the comments below and tell us what you think makes them so great.