It’s a precarious beast the art of the cover. There’s a very fine line between paying respectful homage and becoming a laughing stock as yet another fresh-faced, long-haired “rocker” attempts a bash at Led Zeppelin’s 'Stairway to Heaven'.

There is a time and a place for an artist to knock out some favourite song by another group or singer. This is, usually, tucked away on the B-side of a single or as an encore at the end of a particularly drunken gig.

One of the best covers ever heard by Pennyblackmusic was indie also-rans Drugstore who belted out the Undertones’ 'Teenage Kicks' as an encore at an early gig in London. After a suitably fired-up set in which the band seemed intent on consuming just as many drinks as songs they played, singer Isabel Monteiro belted out the teenage anthem whilst staggering around the stage and swigging directly from a bottle of wine. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Galaxie 500 perfected the art of the cover. Gigs would often end with a rousing performance of Jonathan Richman’s 'Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste' and bassist Naomi Yang could put in a spellbinding rendition of Yoko Ono’s 'Listen, The Snow Is Falling'.

Playing a cover at a gig does have its pitfalls too. Two days after guitarist Terry Bickers had been kicked out of the House of Love the band played the famed Bath Pavilion. Bickers’ replacement, Simon Walker, didn’t have time to learn all the group’s repetoire so a few covers were thrown in. A valiant attempt was made of the Stooges’ 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' but it sounded more like the yap of a Pekinese than Iggy Pop’s Rottweiller growl.

The radio session also creates a good chance for a band to let fly with the odd cover. The Fall, certainly no strangers to the BBC’s studios in Maida Vale, for their eighteenth John Peel session cranked out versions of Christmas favourites 'Jingle Bell Rock' and 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing'. Galaxie 500, for the John Peel show in 1989, managed a remarkable version of Young Marble Giants’ 'Final Day' but Buffy Sainte Marie’s 'Moonshot' fell flat.

The art of the cover is really only governed by one hard and fast rule. Make sure that you add something new to whichever song you’re taking on. Otherwise, what’s the point? The Byrds became renowned for having a crack at Bob Dylan covers (in fact, doing so many that an entire album was released), most notably 'Mr Tambourine Man'. While certainly America’s answer to the Beatles always pulled off a respectable rendition they were always almost a carbon copy of the original – minus the nasal vocals plus the group’s trademark Rickenbacker twang. What was the point of that? You’re better off sticking to the original.

Lounge lizard crooner Bryan Ferry, during his solo career, took on John Lennon’s 'Jealous Guy' and didn’t really do that much with it except made it sound like it was being sung in the Café de Paris whilst wealthy customers finished up their supper.

Possible contender for the worst ever cover version has to be Paul Young’s take on Joy Division’s 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. Riding high on the back of the popular success of Young’s 'No Parlez' album he obviously thought it would be a smart move to cover Ian Curtis’ take on a failed relationship. Young entirely mis-read the song and massacred it in the process. The massacre also extended to anyone that had the misfortune to actually hear it.

Patti Smith gave a masterclass in the art of the cover with a radical reworking of Them’s anthem 'Gloria'. Kicking off her debut album 'Horses' Smith added on themes of sex, religion and death to Van Morrison’s lust and in effect built an entirely new song around the original.

Mark E Smith is certainly no stranger to the cover version. One of The Fall’s most famous attempts at someone else’s song is 'Mr Pharmacist' where Smith turns The Other Half’s original into a speed-fuelled quest that motors along. More surprising was the band’s take on Sister Sledge’s disco classic 'Lost in Music'. Here Smith deadpans the lyrics and sounds as if he’s anything but lost in the music.

The Fall has also had a pop at 'Jerusalem' and the Kinks’ 'Victoria', amongst others.

Guitar legend Jimi Hendrix was no stranger to the cover either. Perhaps most famous was his ironic take on the patriotic 'Star Spangled Banner' which saw Hendrix turn the rousing anthem into a scathing attack on American values, especially in light of the then on-going Vietnam war. Also getting a radical makeover were Bob Dylan’s 'All Along the Watchtower' and for a performance on 'The Lulu Show' he blasted out 'Sunshine of Your Love' as a tribute to Cream.

Not so well known but equally stunning were Hendrix’s covers of old blues standards. Songs like 'Red House' were given a radical 60's update but still kept in tune with the original spirit of the song.

Rarely do covers match or even surpass the original. One rare occasion was the Pixies take on The Jesus and Mary Chain’s 'Head On' for their album 'Trompe le Monde'. Black Francis ripped open the song so its guts could spill out. Even the Mary Chain’s Jim Reid admitted that the Pixies’ version was better saying the song should have sounded like that in the first place.

Elvis Costello’s version of Robert Wyatt’s anti-war song 'Shipbuilding' also rivaled the original. Wyatt’s song attacking the Falklands war was given a sensitive reading by Costello. The song being all the more hard-hitting for only alluding to events in the south Atlantic and the whole tone of the song is kept soft and gentle, making the horror of death all the more startling.

Bands have also paired up to cover each others songs. In a sort of trade off, grungemeisters Mudhoney took on Spacemen 3’s 'Revolution' whilst in return 'When Tomorrow Hits' was given the drone rock treatment by Jason Pierce and company.

The God Machine cranked up the volume for their interpretation of The KLF’s 'What Time is Love?' The trio took the thumping acid-beat and replaced it with a metallic sheen. Free Kitten had a similar attitude to X-Ray Spex’s 'Oh Bondage Up Yours!' Kim Gordon and Julie Cafritz took the feminist punk call for emancipation and shook it up till it almost fell apart.

The tribute album can be reliably expected to dredge up very mixed results. Along with some unexpected gems there the predictable torrent of sludge to get through. 'I’m Your Fan', a tribute to Leonard Cohen, while containing John Cale’s 'Hallelujah' and the Pixies’s 'I Can’t Forget' it also contains REM’s 'First We Take Manhattan' which sounds like it couldn’t even take sweets from a baby and Dead Famous People’s 'True Love Leaves No Traces' which, unfortunately, has left a scar on Pennyblackmusic’s consciousness.

The latter example also raises the issue that for the most part these tribute cover albums are filled with groups you’ve never heard of and, most likely, never will again. Just who are Dead Famous People? And what have they recorded? Who knows? And who cares?

Likewise, on the compilation 'Chairman of the Board'. a double album of songs previously sung by Frank Sinatra, there’s the likes of the Flaming Lips and Girls Against Boys. But also there’s that household name Dandelion Fire as well as – and calm yourselves – Viva Saturn, Zonic Shockum and Red Footed Genius. Bet you can’t wait to go and spend your hard-earned readies on that little gem. Who wants to hear some Vauxhall Conference League band like Samian whizz through 'Come Fly With Me'?

The same goes for 'The Late Great Daniel Johnston'. On the disc of covers, is anyone really bothered by the likes of Starlight Mints or Guster? The album is saved by the inclusion of a selection of Johnston originals and Tom Waits rasping through 'King Kong'.

Doing it all for “chari-dee” doesn’t make it any better from an artistic standpoint. In 1988 the NME thought it would be a cracking idea to help Childline by getting various artists to each cover one song from the Beatles’ 'Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band'. While the Fall contributed 'A Day in the Life' and Sonic Youth took on 'Within You Without You', 'Sgt Pepper Knew My Father' suffered at the hands of Frank Sidebottom’s 'Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite' and the Christians’ slaughtering 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds'.

And speaking of 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' anyone who has heard William Shatner’s 'The Transformed Man' will never hear the Beatles’ classic in the same way again. The actor most famous for playing Star Trek’s Captain Kirk cold-bloodily assassinates the original, gets the intonation completely wrong and adds on some hip 60's psychedelic backing noises. He effectively turns the song into a laughing stock. Worst of all, that wasn’t the worst track on the record.

Even worse than the tribute album though is the artists' vanity project, otherwise known as the covers album. Without exception these albums, like David Bowie’s 'Pin Ups' and Duran Duran’s 'Thank You', are acts of ego masturbation where the artist has been (foolishly) indulged to attempt a selection of some of their favourite songs. The accompanying press release will invariably include some quote by the artist along the lines of: “These are the songs that made me into the artist I am today”. Or some such twaddle. By the time the mere idea of a covers album gets mentioned the artist is such a big money spinner for the label that no one dares to question the rationale. Well, if some big star is keeping some high-flying record executive in cocaine then let them indulge their egos in the studio, just keep the cheques flooding in.

Along with the likes of Bryan Ferry’s 'These Foolish Things' and Ozzy Osbourne’s 'Under Cover' even some credible artists have let their ego run wild by churning out a covers album. Siouxsie and the Banshees knocked out 'Through the Looking Glass' for no discernable artistic reason and managed to turn Kraftwerk’s 'Hall of Mirrors' into Gothic high camp. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds massacred songs like 'Hey Joe' and 'All Tomorrows Parties' on 'Kicking Against the Pricks'.

Exceptionally bad is David Bowie's 1973 album 'Pin Ups' which, if meant to be serious, is one gargantian act of folly. Along with laughable takes on Pink Floyd’s 'See Emily Play' and the Easybeats’ 'Friday on My Mind' there’s the Kinks’ 'Where Have All the Good Times Gone' which is hilarious for all the wrong reasons. Fortunately for Bowie (and the listener) he did go on aftwerwards to record classics like 'Diamond Dogs', 'Low' and 'Heroes'.

Worryingly though far too many bands have attempted the covers album idea. Slayer's 'Undisputed Attitude', Def Leppard’s 'Yeah' and Mark Kozelek’s radical reworking of AC/DC songs in 'What’s Next to the Moon' are just three to steer clear of.

Some artists take the cover to somewhat suspect levels. Elastica effectively made an entire career of passing off Wire songs as their own – and didn’t even have the good grace to give the post punk group a royalty check. Led Zeppelin almost wholesale pilfered songs from bluesmen like Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson. And much the same can be said of the White Stripes.

Whether good or bad, at least the straightforward cover is honest and up front about it all – and ensures that the writer of the song gets a nice little cheque at the end of the day.

















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