According to the UK’s Total Guitar magazine, Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan is the best cover song of all time. It’s easy to understand why that topped the list. It may not be my favorite cover of all time but it is one of the most famous and appreciated widely by the masses. While I hate arbitrary rating systems of any kind and lists that name the “best” of anything, this particular list got me thinking about all of my favorite cover songs. Number two on Total Guitar’s list is The Beatles’ rendition of “Twist and Shout” and this is where I start to take issue with this compilation of subjective ranking.
I’m not going to grade my favorite covers in any kind of order because that format is simply retarded. If something makes your list of “favorites” then how “favorite” it is doesn’t really matter does it? One could assume that, out of all the possible candies in the world, saying that Butterfinger is one of your favorites is good enough. If you start giving it a position in your junk food hierarchy then someone is bound to protest its status which embarks the two of you in a debate about something you actually agree upon: the liking of said candy. So who cares how much you enjoy something, which is a degree that will actually change from day to day anyway. Let’s not trouble ourselves with which covers are better than others. Let’s just simply agree that they’re good and move forward.
The first cover that really struck me as excellent was Rage Against the Machine’s interpretation of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. Until then (this is when I was, like, sixteen or something), I only knew successful covers to be the most adequate copy of the original. Never had I known a cover that went completely off the wall and shared only the lyrics with its original. This was the new standard in my lifelong appreciation of what are more than just glamorized karaoke impressions. Mindless Self Indulgence’s rendition of “Bring the Pain”, Dinosaur Jr’s awesome cover of “Goin’ Blind” by Kiss, Tom Waits’ “Sea of Love”, Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” by Johnny Cash, all of these are fantastic examples of what can be done when you see a song in a completely different light.
Don’t misinterpret my enthusiasm; replication has its place as well. Faith No More’s nearly identical cover of Lionel Ritchie’s “Easy” is legendary. Similarly, Killswitch Engage’s “Holy Diver” is only a slight modernization of Dio’s classic as is Guns N’ Roses version of “Live and Let Die”. But if you really want to capture my appreciation of your ability to breathe new life into a great musical standard, you’ve got to melt it down and form it into something completely unique. Chris Cornell did this with Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean”, Ben Folds did it with Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit”, and sludge giant Crowbar recorded an almost hysterical interpretation of Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver”.
Covers absolutely have their place amongst various artists’ catalogs. Typically they’re a novelty that is enjoyed sparingly and gives the fan a little insight into an artist’s influences. They are not, however, material to base one’s musical career on. Cover bands are terrible. No exceptions. You will never see a cover band break the Billboard Top 100 nor will you ever see a cover band that’s “really big in the New Orleans underground” and tours with a major headlining act. The height of fame for a cover band is pulling $500 at a bar two hundred miles from home and sleeping with a skank who swears you look just like Sebastian Bach after twelve Old Styles. There is a reason that glass ceiling is in place. If Top Jimmy, the Van Halen cover band heralding all the way from beautiful St. Paul, nails their replicate of “Poundcake” they’re still playing a song that someone else created. Even if they sound exactly like Van Halen, they didn’t write the song and are simply milking off Michael Anthony’s teat. No creativity was ever involved. No metaphors regarding food and fucking were originally conceived.
Cover bands suck.
I’ll tell ya what doesn’t suck though: Tool’s cover of “You Lied”, the Cold War Kids doing Fiona Apple’s “Fast As You Can”, and Jeff Buckley’s heartbreaking version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. I guess proving to the world that you have some creative chops of your own allows you freedom to bust out a couple of covers without scrutiny. Unless, of course, you’re Celine Dion.