Songs vs. Performance Pieces

At dinner the other night, Kate mentioned this podcast, which excerpts a bit of a Jon Brion interview from 2006 where he makes a distinction between “songs” and “performance pieces.” As an example of the latter, he uses Led Zeppelin, saying that their recordings, as great as they are, are about those specific people in that specific time, and nobody is all that excited to hear reworked Led Zep covers.

It’s an interesting claim, but I don’t really agree (influenced in part by the fact that I don’t especially care for the examples he uses as “songs”). I had a hard time coming up with a counterexample, though, until it occurred to me this morning. I offer the following two YouTube videos, which are very different versions of the same song, both of which were hits at the time of their release:

Now, you can question whether it was really necessary to do an unplugged blues-y acoustic version of “Layla,” but Clapton did it, and it was surprisingly successful. But prior to that release, I most likely would’ve been inclined to regard the original as a “performance piece” in Brion’s sense– it’s a brilliant tune whose brilliance is all wrapped up in the specific circumstances of its creation. The whole Clapton/Duane Allman supergroup thing, plus the backstory about George Harrison and Patti Boyd. If you’d asked me in 1992, I would’ve said that an attempt to re-work and cover that would be pointless, and probably fail.

I suppose you could argue that there might be an exception coming into play given that the guy who did the cover was the same guy who wrote the original song, but I don’t think that really works, either.

I think what’s really going on is that doing interesting cover versions is really hard, and not that many people are genuinely good at it. Greg Dulli has a knack for it, and Ryan Adams. Maybe Ben Folds? Anyway, the list of bands I’d go to see thinking “Boy, I hope they cover a song by somebody else” is not long.

I would agree that there are some styles of song that lend themselves to reinterpretation more readily than others, and that songs whose appeal relies on the musical virtuosity of the original artists– like “Layla” or most Led Zeppelin– are harder to imagine covering in an interesting way. But I think that’s largely because it’s hard to do an interesting cover of any song, and that difficulty is just more obvious when you’re covering somebody who’s incredibly good at performing the way they do. Even when you look at songwriters whose work generates a lot of cover version– Bob Dylan, say, or the late Leonard Cohen– most of those covers aren’t really all that interesting. Most people who play Dylan songs do it pretty straight, adjusting a bit for their particular band’s instrumentation and so on. Only a handful of people take those songs and re-cast them in a way that makes them seem like something completely and radically new– Jimi Hendrix doing “All Along the Watchtower” being the screamingly obvious example.

(It doesn’t need to be that radical, of course. The shift from the Clash doing “Lost in the Supermarket” to the Afghan Whigs version isn’t all that drastic in terms of instrumentation or even tempo, but it feels like a whole new song in a way that’s really interesting.)

There’s probably a connection to literary parody/pastiche, here, which is another thing only a tiny handful of people are genuinely really good at. But I really ought to stop fiddling around on the Internet and go give the final exam for my class…

Comments

  1. #1 Richard Campbell
    United States
    November 22, 2016

    There are a tremendous number of cover versions that are full on recasting, though. Just a few examples:

    Ohio, covered by Devo:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PwQ6iJ8p08

    Smells Like Teen Spirit, covered by Tori Amos:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vB2c7_vyBSM

    Jolene, covered by the Sisters of Mercy:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AdUHxFKCQBs

    and finally:

    Little Wing, covered by Derek and the Dominos (just to wrap this back around):

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    November 22, 2016

    The absolute number is high, sure, but that’s just because there are an enormous number of songs, period. As a fraction of the music out there, though, interesting cover versions are very rare.

  3. #3 Richard Campbell
    United States
    November 22, 2016

    “As a fraction of the music out there, though, interesting cover versions are very rare.”

    Well, sure, but what’s the motivation for any artist that can write a new successful song to cover anybody else’s work?

    I think a lot of artists *could* do interesting cover songs, they just would rather write their own stuff…

  4. #4 Richard Campbell
    November 22, 2016

    Counterpoint: the Irish musical tradition, and other similar folk-based traditions (bluegrass etc.), where it’s commonplace to do your versions of the old standards.

  5. #5 dean
    November 22, 2016

    How would you rate Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” (Trent Reznor song)?

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    November 22, 2016

    I came up in the world of classical music, where covers are normal, and with a handful of exceptions, played straight. That’s because that’s what the audience expects. Only a handful of people at the top of the game can get away with anything else, e.g., the version for orchestra of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor that Leopold Stokowski wrote and recorded for the movie Fantasia. I actually have been involved with some premiere performances, but that again is the exception rather than the rule.

    There is one significant part of that that carries over into popular music: people who know a certain song tend to expect the song to sound a certain way, to an extent that it’s risky to try something significantly different. So the safest thing to do is adapt the song to your group’s instrumentation and style. Which works well for early Dylan and other folk-type songs, but many other covers come off sounding not terribly original. Whereas when the covering artist does take the risk, sometimes they pull it off and sometimes the new version falls flat. Peter Gabriel’s covers album “Scratch My Back” is a mixed bag for exactly that reason: some of the tracks, such as “Listening Wind” (originally by Talking Heads), come off as brilliant reinterpretations, while others, such as “The Boy in the Bubble” (originally by Paul Simon), come off as complete manglings.

    One of the reasons why most Christmas albums suck is that, with a handful of exceptions, it’s all covers, and most artists either play it too straight (there are too many interchangeable versions of songs like “Jingle Bells”) or screw up the reimagining. One especially egregious result, which drove me out of one store several Decembers ago, was an arrangement of “Sleigh Ride” that was more syrupy than a maple forest.

  7. #7 UKJim
    November 22, 2016

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the Joe Cocker “With a little help from my friends” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wG6Cgmgn5U

  8. #8 lee
    November 23, 2016

    Interesting covers are usually the ones that involve bringing something different to the song – Dylan songs are easy to cover because he’s got a terrible singing voice – anyone with a decent voice can make a decent Dylan cover. John Prine similarly (eg, Angel from Montegomery). Cross genre covers can also bring something fresh – Nickel Creek has done some great covers of rock songs as blue grass. Flipping the production values is another approach – eg take a big band production and do it stripped down acoustic (eg, Layla you cited), or vice versa.

  9. #9 Tom
    November 28, 2016

    I think this is awfully short-sighted. In addition to Richard’s folk music, essentially every blues artist does covers, and every British Invasion band did covers of American blues and soul, including the Beatles, Stones, and Animals. There are reasonably successful bands that primarily or exclusively do covers – Me First and the Gimme Gimmes does punk versions of songs from lots of different genres; the Detroit Cobras reworked mostly lesser-known Motown songs for a stripped down, female vocal band, although still in a soul style; Joe Cocker’s biggest hits were covers. And that’s just commercially available music. It’s very common to go to a live show and hear the band play a cover or two. One of my favorites that Lee brings to mind with his mention of Nickel Creek is their cover of Toxic, by Brittany Spears.

  10. #10 Eric Lund
    November 28, 2016

    Speaking of bluegrass covers, here is a version by the Cleverlys of a certain Korean rap song that was popular a few years ago. The singer even tries to sing the lyrics in Korean, albeit with an obvious American hillbilly accent.

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