What Makes a Cover Song Great?: Our Favorites & Yours

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear 100 Amaz­ing Cov­er Ver­sions of Bea­t­les Songs

Icon­ic Songs Played by Musi­cians Around the World: “Stand by Me,” “Redemp­tion Song,” “Rip­ple” & More

With Medieval Instru­ments, Band Per­forms Clas­sic Songs by The Bea­t­les, Red Hot Chili Pep­pers, Metal­li­ca & Deep Pur­ple

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • Marco F. says:

    Pat­ti Smith’s cov­er of Them’s “Glo­ria”. Or should I say that she remade the song?

  • Hans says:

    She’s Not There from The Zom­bies cov­ered by San­tana. Great build-up of ten­sion and a roller­coast­er ride

  • Chuck says:

    “Black Mag­ic Woman” is such a great cov­er that most folks don’t even real­ize it was writ­ten by Peter Green and was a mod­est hit for him with the orig­i­nal line-up for Fleet­wood Mac in 1968. I can’t find the attri­bu­tion but I recall read­ing about an exchange between San­tana and Green when I believe they were per­form­ing togeth­er. Car­los humbly asked Peter about how they should play “his (Green’s) song”. Green replied to the effect that San­tana had com­plete­ly re-envi­sioned it and made it his own so he deferred right back.

  • Phil says:

    “Absolute­ly Sweet Marie” by Jason and the Scorchers.
    If your gonna coun­try punk some­thing, this is how its done.
    ” Absolute­ly ” per­fect­ly!

  • Mikel says:

    I do not ful­ly agree with the arti­cle. I agree that it does not make much sense to stay too close to the orig­i­nal, at least on a record (it can make sense in con­cert), but some of my favourite cov­ers are delib­er­ate­ly _very_ far from the orig­i­nals.
    Pet Shop Boys’ cov­ers of Where The Streets Have No Name and Always On My Mind are good exam­ples. One rea­son why I like them is the way the PSB appro­pri­ate the songs and make them sound like they are their own (“cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion”, as the text crit­i­cis­es). That is in line with the band’s atti­tude: “we do not rock”.
    Anoth­er favourite is Bron­s­ki Beat and Marc Almond’s cov­er of I Feel Love / John­ny Remem­ber Me.
    I like the three of them because they are so emer­getic.
    I also appre­ci­ate cov­ers that make a good song out of a bad orig­i­nal. Scis­sor Sis­ters’ coun­try music cov­er of Kyle Minogue’s All The Lovers is a good exam­ple. The orig­i­nal is bland where­as the cov­er sounds fresh.

  • Josh Jones says:

    These are all fan­tas­tic cov­ers! I would add the Com­mu­nards cov­er of “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” Amaz­ing.

  • Matt says:

    Scis­sor Sis­ters also do fan­tas­tic cov­ers of “Take Me Out” by Franz Fer­di­nand and “Com­fort­ably Numb” by Pink Floyd. I col­lect cov­er a, so I could list them all day.…!

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