Music Covers, Three Levels

New versions to find themselves in the changing continuum. Image by lunamontem

Recently I’ve been thinking about the phenomenon of cover songs in music. What are they like? What purpose do they serve and which forms can they take? A brief summary of my revelation is presented below.

Prepared by Yegor

To begin with, what does a “cover” stand for? This is a re-performance of already existing songs with an arrangement in a renewed form.

Performing covers is a usual thing for many professional musicians. By resorting to famous compositions, analyzing and interpreting them, the artists not only immerse themselves in the author’s performance of their favorite songs, but also set the ground for their own future compositions, “groping” an individual style.

I am sure that for everyone the word “cover” should bring up a few well-known hits. Here we will try to consider the various forms that covers can take. We are going to observe the works which seem the most striking to me, both in their historical perspective and artistic value, primarily among popular music.

1. Referring to the original

Image by lunamontem

It could seem that the decision to perform covers was always made by the artists themselves, however, at the early stages of music industry it was mainly the label who was contractually obliging artists to include a number of covers in their new album releases. The label, being primarily concerned about the record sales was seeing less business risk, if the new record was featuring well-known tracks prepared in new format.

The covers of this period were performed in a pretty similar way to their originals. The musicians kept the structure and the overall idea of the songs intact, while the main differences in the songs were achieved through the performance manner and charisma of the singer. In some way, the strict limitations of that time set the ground to highly creative approaches to the self-expressiveness in such song

The performers’ goal became to turn someone’s well-known song into their own hit. And, although, it wasn’t allowed to make any fundamental changes, there were a plenty of examples that proved that it’s possible to totally change a song through such subtle matters as performer’s naturals charisma (“Blue Suede Shoes”), expanding the emotional and dynamic range (“Without you”) or adding few extra instruments and altering the vocal style (“Dream a Little Dream of Me“).

Here you can find a playlist with much more examples. Each song goes in pairs: first is original, which is followed by its cover.

2. Self-manifestation

In previous section, we have been listening to covers which adopted almost everything from the originals, with the exception of the performer’s individual characteristics. The differences between the two versions were little, yet noticeable.

Now let’s move on to a different category of cover songs. If we name the first one as the “Level-1 covers”, then, the next will be “Level-2”.

Image by lunamontem

So, what’s the key difference here that the Level-2 has? That’s the freedom of interpretation. There is no more intention to keep the remake being similar to the original. The aim is to take the song that once hugely influenced the musician, and make a tribute to it through expressing their own individuality in it.

Moreover, not only the arrangement is subject to changes, it can also affect the entire composition. Sometimes the original melody itself is transformed beyond recognition, and it even happens that the original lyrics are also altered.

One of my most favorite examples would be the famous “All Along the Watchtower”. The initial version belongs to Bob Dylan and is performed in his recognizable acoustic folk-style. Perhaps, the only thing that Dylan’s song stands out from his other songs is the lyrics’ surrealistic tone. The feeling is that the text is about nothing and about everything at the same time.

This cosmic nature of the poetic image was captured by Jimi Hendrix. So a simple folk song was turned to a multifaceted and complex musical canvas, keeping only the lyrics the same.

In conclusion to this part, I would like to note one particular feature usual to “Level-2” covers is the desire of the musicians to sort of destroy the canon of the original and to create their own matter from its fragments. This is a quite weird, perhaps even sick way of expressing strong feelings through an act of violence and destruction. You must admit that this sounds familiar to what humans sometimes known for outside of musical context.

Here, in this playlist, you are welcome to find more of the beautiful examples of the Level-2 covers.

3. The question of belonging

Two previous chapters addressed the two of the most common types of cover songs. However, as noticed earlier, there is a third kind, which is quite unusual. For now, let’s call it the “Level-3” type, that takes an even more radical approach in interpretation of the initial song.

Image by lunamontem

Clearly, for a song to be called a cover, it must borrow at least some elements from the original. Typically, these elements are either lyrics ore music. “Level-2” covers, for example, allowed themselves to either use a completely new musical basis, while preserving the borrowed text, or use a basis close to the original and modify the song’s lyrics.

The tricky part with the “Level-3” is that it does not borrow any text or music at all. Yes, that’s right, both of them are completely original in these songs, having nothing in common with the initial version, at least formally. Also, they can hardly be convicted in plagiarism. Such covers do not seek to hide their relationship with originals, in contrary, they always pay a warm tribute and respect to them.

Perhaps, the best way for you to understand my point is to take a look at the two only examples known for me. Even within this category, they both are completely different from each other, but perfectly showing the concept stated above.

The first album belongs to the Japanese group Sundays & Cybele. It is performed entirely in Japanese and seems to be just a wonderful example of some space rock upon, unless you listen to it a bit closer. The album hides a beautiful secret and after a more thorough attempt to listen, you’ll realize that this is the cover of the whole “Dark Side of the Moon” album. A cover-album without a single covered song! Here, the parallel and the kinship are achieved due to even more subtle sound matters than previously, such as musical rhythm, temper, consistency, compositional dynamics, and some specific musical techniques that hint at where the inspiration came from.

The second example is a comic album by The Rutles, the parody band created by Monty Python. It parades all the major songs of the Beatles. It focuses on some of the band’s biggest hits being put together. Therefore, the similarity of each particular cover song with the original is much more obvious. Nevertheless, neither the melody nor the words are ever copied.

You are welcome to have a more detailed view on those two albums in the following playlist. In addition to that, if you want to compare it with the original songs, here is the supplementary playlist, for your convenience.

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