I’m a shameless proponent of the view that the covers are always better than the originals. This is why, when I saw that “Ottawa’s premier live music venue,” i.e., MAVERICKS, has a summer and fall line-up that is jam-packed with tribute bands, I took special note of it.
A cursory peek at MAVERICKS’ event calendar tells the tale—a few of my favourite headliners: “Maiden Maniacs: Tribute to Iron Maiden” (June 3); “Hard as Rock” AC/DC tribute (June 11); “Garden of Roses: Guns N’ Roses Tribute” (June 18); “SOS-The ABBA Experience” (July 9); Crazy on You: Tribute to Heart” (July 16); “Alcoholica”— a play on Metallica—(August 6); “Johnny Cash Revisited” (Oct. 15); “Destroyer: Ultimate Kiss Tribute” (Oct. 22).
Sure, there are also excellent original groups that are slated to play at MAVERICKS this summer and fall—I will certainly be at the Exciter show on July 15, for instance. But this article is not about them. This one is for the cover bands.
In a world saturated with reboots and the corporate monopolization of nostalgia, my claim might appear rather naive and implausible. So first, I will make a few qualifications.
Let us compare apples to apples: when I say that the covers are always better, I am speaking only of covers that are executed with talent and precision, or by musicians of comparable artistic depth to that of the original author(s), and not the sort of brutalization of classic tunes that is occurring in practice rooms across the world (including in mine). I’m speaking exclusively about respectable covers.
A song covered by a different artist than its original author and a new performance of that song by the original author are similar phenomena. Obviously it is to do some injury to the terminology to say that when performing their piece again, an original author, in that instance, “covers” their own song. But nevertheless, when I play anew a song I’ve written years ago, it is as if I am covering it, since virtually all of the hallmark characteristics that make covers particularly interesting apply, at least to some degree. Incidentally, this, in part, is why it is interesting to see musicians play live after having been acquainted with their recorded music; it is often a happy surprise when the performance deviates from the original track, or when the artist adds a new addition to an old song.
I can hear my detractors already. Yes, I acknowledge that I grew up in the golden age of Weird Al Yankovic Even Worse was played to the point of wearing out the cassette. And I will even add that as a small child, I was particularly entertained by Sesame Street’s Letter B, an educational reimagining of The Beatles’ Let It Be. In other words, I’ve been heavily primed to hold this controversial view. Given my near fanatical devotion to parody, it isn’t very surprising that I should like the covers better than the originals.
But one might simply invert the point: A musical parody is a cover of a song, albeit an exaggerated and humorous one. What makes a musical parody so effective? Why was I attracted to parody in the first place? The answer, I propose, lies in the fact that parody bears the marks of being a cover.
With new artists come the aesthetic paradigms of their own age and subculture. So, a cover tends to clothe an old song in the popular stylings of the current times. Covers thus extend the shelf-life of a song indefinitely. For artistic trends come and go, popular sentiments shift, and a song can begin to sound “dated.” There is therefore some truth to the view that, to quote Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother, “New is always better.”
A cover of a tune tends to introduce a new dynamic, one that is absent from its original version. This dynamic is of two distinct artistic directions, i.e., of the original author, and of the new performer—or, in the limiting case, the original author but newly equipped with further experiences that make his or her artistic dispositions in some significant way different from what they were at the time the song was written.
The performing artist carries into the performance their own unique personality. As a result, the song’s tempo might decrease; its accents be on different notes; an improvisation error might occur; an opportunity for variation arises. A new voice might express a different story using the same words, insofar as words are expressed through gestures or modulations of voice that have communicative depth. Likewise, the same song played differently may communicate a distinct feeling, mood, or artistic vision.
Thus, do not feel sad for me because I prefer Motley Crue’s version of Helter Skelter over the original Beatles song. Despair not when I declare that The Riffs outdid The Velvet Underground when they covered I’m waiting for the Man. And please forgive me when I say with a straight face that Shocking Blue’s original recording of Love Buzz can’t hold a candle to Nirvana’s rendition of the song.
Keep in mind that mimicry is, after all, the highest form of flattery, and that covers are integral to the progressive realization, preservation, and amplification of a song across time.