Here is a driving game: Start with an original song that has been covered, (as an example at the post’s end you’ll find David Bowie covering The Velvet Underground,) then name two or three songs in succession by moving the cover artist to the position of original artist.
There is something exciting and even elucidating about bands choosing to cover songs. The songs that artists select to cover can tell you some things about them that you may not already know. And how they play the cover songs might confirm things you knew about them.
Late on a Friday afternoon in October 2011 at Lincoln, Nebraska’s Zoo Bar, a really fine band, The Amalgamators, (now, sadly, defunct,) took on the challenge of covering a whole album. They picked the highly influential country-rock classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo by The Byrds, and they performed it just once. It wasn’t perfect, but it was perfectly glorious. You were either there to hear it or you weren’t and The Amalgamators provided me with one of my favorite live music experiences of my life.
The selection is savvy and very fun because Sweetheart of the Rodeo is itself largely made up of songs written by artists from outside of The Byrds, (such songwriters as Merle Haggard, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and William Bell.) The album’s 11 songs took less than 35 minutes to play, and The Amalgamators did just what one would hope: they wrung every bit of joy and respect that they could out of each note and chord. For the band, I can only believe that the experience was a fantastic exercise in stretching as musicians, and the performance was certainly very much more than only an exercise for the audience at the Zoo Bar – it was a bit like watching a high-wire routine.
I wish more bands would try this. There is something really special about an isolated performance. “Hey, we are just going to do this once!” The stakes are high for the performers to get it right, and that urgency is projected to the audience. The risk wins over the audience. It makes them more forgiving and even more likely to enjoy the show.
For a long while during the 1980s, 90s, and early-2000s there was a shortage of covers. It seemed like covering songs was considered uncool – or cool only if bands covered songs ironically. Gratefully, that self-conscious phase seems to have faded away, and now it is not uncommon to hear bands covering new songs by their contemporaries and classics by their heroes.
Sometimes songs beg to be covered and I often match particular bands to specific songs. Lincoln’s For Against, flying above the clouds and often stealthily out of radar’s range, has been peerless among local acts, but covers haven’t been a big part of the band’s trajectory.
Here is one of the band’s beautiful original songs by Jeffrey Runnings. This is brilliant and was ahead of its time:
I Wish by For Against, from Aperture (1993 Independent Project Records).
I always wished that For Against would have covered the song linked below during the vintage of Paul Engelhard on drums and Steven Hinrichs on guitar with Jeffrey Runnings, the band’s constant leader, singing and playing bass.
*Abuse Me by Silverchair, from Freak Show (1997 Epic).
*Pedigree note: Nicolas Launay produced this song as well as albums by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, P.I.L., The Birthday Party, Killing Joke, Gang of Four, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arcade Fire, and many others.
Some bands make covers so fine that they rival or surpass the great original versions:
The Headmaster Ritual by The Smiths, performed live in 2007 by Radiohead.
There is a Light that Never Goes Out by The Smiths, performed by Dum Dum Girls.
Here is an example of the driving game:
White Light White Heat by The Velvet Underground, performed live in 1973 by David Bowie
The Man Who Sold the World by David Bowie, performed live in 1993 by Nirvana.
Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle by Nirvana, covered by Jay Reatard.