Menacing Covers

When I was a kid, I was very closed-minded about a lot of things.

One way this closed-mindedness would manifest around music is that I didn’t like the idea of covers. In my mind, there was always only one “real” version of a song, the original by the original artist. In my mind, other people covering others’ songs were doing a disservice to the original artist, by making an invalid copy, and to themselves, by not focusing on their own creative work.

Different versions by the original artist were a bit more complex, but even then, I always viewed the original version as definitive and those others as derivative and would always prefer the original.

This stance began to soften a bit when I was in college. I began to realize that I was coming to like a live version of a favorite song nearly as much as the original. Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here was a favorite of mine. And when I got the live album, Delicate Sound of Thunder, I found that I was becoming as fond of that version of Wish You Were Here. I realized that I was finding new things in that version that weren’t present in the original. Add to that, the fact that one of my college roommates had a huge collection of Pink Floyd concert bootlegs and that listening to these expanded that understanding all the more.

This was after Roger Waters had left so some versions I was hearing was him singing while others were David Gilmour signing. But overall, it was still the original artists, so while other versions by the original artists might be OK, I was still down on the idea of covers by others.

It really was only a few years ago that stance finally softened. One thing that helped soften my stance was falling in love with the three songs I love to hear covered: Startdust, Brazil, and September Song. Another was discovering cross-genre covers, like Apocalyptica’s work covering Metallica. These showed me that no only can you find new things in different versions of the same work by the original artist, sometimes another artist can bring a truly unique point of view to bear. Rather than viewing all covers by other artists as uncreative, I started to understand that it really could be a collaborative, creative process.

One particular type of cover I’ve come to appreciate in particular is where an artist is able to take a song that is happy or otherwise innocuous and give it a twist that some how makes is sound menacing.

I was thinking of this today while listening to Marily Manson’s I Put a Spell On You. That’s a song I’ve heard various renditions of over the years, and some have more of an edge. But when you listen to this version, the seething menace and violence in the rendition turns it into a completely different song.

Another good example of a cover that transforms the original completely is Placebo’s cover of Running Up That Hill originally by Kate Bush. The Wikipedia article for the song it was described by Q magazine as ‘sound[ing] more like a pact with the Devil’ than the original ‘deal with God’, and I have to say that quote really does nail it. The first time I heard this version I was just floored by how utterly different it was and how it was so different that you can’t say this is worse or better than the original.

I suppose at this point, things like Placebo’s and Marilyn Manson’s covers have really helped me to fully and finally learn that even when the rendition is menacing, covers themselves aren’t inherently menacing. Indeed, they can combine to make a fuller, better understanding of what the piece is capable of.

Besides, if not for covers and versions, when else would you be able to ask: which do you like better, the Metallica or the Yo-Yo Ma? But, that’s the stuff of a future posting.