Over and over: “cover” songs

Wiwille’s Tuesday Music post of a Ministry cover of a Dylan song got me thinking about “cover songs”.

Back in the day, it was a common practice to cover then-current songs and multiple versions of a single song would be getting radio play and album sales at the same time. Today, it’s more common for a band to cover an old song, and call it a “tribute” to the original artist. Love ’em or hate ’em, it’s part of the modern music culture. Some covers become more popular than the original, leading to listeners not even knowing their favorite song is a cover.

I often wonder: What is the most-covered song in rock ‘n’ roll? Would it even be possible to track such a thing? (A question made harder by the fact that one could also ask what qualifies as rock ‘n’ roll, and do you count a song if the original was another genre, then covered by a rock band, or vice versa.)

A quick Google brings up the claim that “Yesterday” by the Beatles is the most covered song, as it is claimed that there are over 3000 cover recordings of it. Undaunted by such facts, I continue to wonder – partly because I’ve never heard a cover of “Yesterday”. At least not that I’m aware of, since I hate the Beatles and that particular song so much I would immediately change the station or turn off any version of it I heard.

“Johnny B. Goode” would surely be a contender, as it’s been covered a hojillion times. “Please don’t go” is an old blues tune covered by many many artists, including rockers like AC/DC, so I’d say that might qualify.

Are there songs that should never be covered? That was my opinion when I heard the cover of “Another Brick in the Wall Part II” that was used in the movie The Faculty. Sometimes, the original is just unbeatable. On the flipside, (start jeering me now) I actually like the “Hazy Shade of Winter” cover done by The Bangles – not because they did it particularly well, but because Simon and Garfunkel seem to have written a song good enough that not even The Bangles could fuck it up.

I’ve rambled on enough. Discuss amongst yourselves.

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~ by mattbear on September 13, 2007.

5 Responses to “Over and over: “cover” songs”

  1. I think one of the most covered songs I’ve heard is Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man”, most famous of which being the Byrds.

  2. How about “House of the Rising Sun” (aka “Down In New Orleans” or just simply “New Orleans”)? Its been around for quite some time and many have covered it.
    Or how about “Stagger Lee” most recently covered by Samuel L. Jackson? Yes Billy Lyons deserved to die and I hope he burns in hell!

  3. I’m a pretty big fan of cover songs, myself. I liked the wikipedia article about their origin. I didn’t really think about it that much, but it’s true that lots of 50s and 60s songs have an original and then about a half dozen different versions within the first couple of years.

    Nowadays it seems like covers have been reduced largely to tribute albums (although something in me still can’t call them tribute songs) or as encores at concerts. This second is my absolute favorite. I love going to a sweet show and then just when I think it’s all over they bust out a great cover and really get the crowd going. I’ve last seen The Long Winters do this to great effect, though to be honest they already had the entire crowd in the Showbox going nuts.

    As far as most popular song to be covered? I’d have to guess something by Iggy & The Stooges or the Sex Pistols. There are just so dang many punk bands, and they all churn out albums left and right. Outside of that genre I’d call dibs on “Satisfaction” (Rolling Stones) or “Hey Joe” (originally by The Leaves, but popularized by Jimi Hendrix).

  4. wiwille: Good call. Lots of covers of that. And a good example of the cover being more popular than the original. I think Dylan may actually be the king of having that happen to his songs – for instance, “All Along the Watchtower” was a Dylan song, but he gave it up after Hendrix did his version that pwned anything Dylan did.

    WIGSF: Pulling out the blues knowledge, nice. “Stagger Lee” is kind of a mythical one, lots of versions but few people know anything about it. There was a lengthy discussion of it on Metafilter awhile back.

    nhak: I agree on the encore thing. I got to see The Who do “Hey Joe” as an encore back in ’88. And more recently I saw Gina Gershon (yes, the actress) do “I Wanna Be Your Dog” as an encore. Those were both really cool (and it really ties your comment together!). Sex Pistols get covered a lot by metal bands too – Motorhead and Anthrax have done “God Save the Queen”, Megadeth and Motley Crue have done “Anarchy in the UK”.
    And here’s a perfect example of not knowing your favorite song was a cover – I always thought “Hey Joe” was a Hendrix original. Wow.

  5. Mattbear: I heard that the way Hendrix got discovered was because Chaz Chandler was searching the US for a blues guy he could teach Hey Joe and bring him back to England. He then found Jimi playing Hey Joe already and thought it would be easier to bring him to England than to take someone else and teach that person the song.

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