The Problem With Covers

How does one judge a cover differently from an original?

Some covers take a song and find a new heart that wasn’t present in the original. For example, Janis Joplin’s cover of “Me and Bobby McGee”. Most, however, are in some sort of dialog with the original — reinterpreting the song, while paying tribute to the success of the original.

How exactly that works is a tricky thing, and I have an example on which I would invite you to weigh in.

I have lately been enjoying listening to Nouvelle Vague (“New Wave”), a group that covers, mostly, post-punk classics set to a bossa nova arrangement. The idea sounds too clever by half, and it’s clearly derivative, but it works because the new arrangements are clever and well executess and pay sincere tribute to the originals.

Part of pleasure of listening to a Nouvelle Vague is, like a good compilation, it invites you to revisit the originals, and to put them in a different context and different sides of the music. As I said, in my post about evaluating songs, it makes me happy that someone did it.

It is interesting, however to think about the relationship to the original songs. Here are two examples, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” originally by Joy Division and “Guns of Brixton” originally by the Clash.

I like the second one better as a song, and as a performance, but I feel like the former is a better cover. I feel like the version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” gets to heart of the song in way that “The Guns of Brixton” doesn’t. The second cover is clever, and clearly respectful of the original, but I feel like, in some way, it avoids really engaging the original — it just uses it as a device.

I can’t articulate my feeling any more than that, and I’d be really curious for any thoughts, either if you disagree, or if you agree and have specific elements that you would highlight.

Love Will Tear Us Apart (original)
Love Will Tear Us Apart (cover)

Guns of Brixton (original)
Guns of Brixton (cover)

Update: I noticed, for whatever reason that I’m getting a lot of downloads the the Joy Division song. I assume that means some external site has linked to me as a source of that .mp3, so I just made a minor change to the file name.

  1. Wrongshore’s avatar

    Maybe it’s more complicated than this, but it’s a lot easier to believe that a willowy female vocalist has experienced the shredding of her heart than the kicking in of her front door.


  2. The Modesto Kid’s avatar

    Is there something wrong with that Joy Division recording? I haven’t listened to the song in a long time but I totally don’t remember the vocalist being such a lousy singer.

    I would much rather listen to the Nouvelle Vague performance of the song for what it’s worth. I don’t love their singer either but she is at least in key and seems to have some interest in what she’s singing.

    The amount of compression you’re using to create these mp3 files is making for pretty fuzzy sound, which makes for issues in formulating a response — I have to figure out which of my reactions are to the music and which to the mp3 file.

    I agree that the Guns of Brixton cover is more fun to listen to than the LWTUA cover. I don’t know what to make of the idea that the other is a better cover though.


  3. NickS’s avatar

    Hmmm, I’ll double check the settings that I’m using to rip the MP3’s. I thought I’d set it to a relatively high quality, but I’ll see if I can do better.

    I should add that I listen to almost all of the mp3’s before posting them, but I didn’t listen to the Joy Division track. I’ll go back and see if there’s a problem with the MP3.


  4. NickS’s avatar

    I re-ripped, and re-uploaded the Joy Division version. It is available at the original link.

    The file looks the same, but it does sound better to me, perhaps only because of the placebo principle.


  5. NickS’s avatar

    Maybe it’s more complicated than this, but it’s a lot easier to believe that a willowy female vocalist has experienced the shredding of her heart than the kicking in of her front door.

    It may be that simple. I have a few more thoughts about the Clash cover, but I’m going to wait a little bit to see if anyone else wants to chime in.

    I will note, however, that if you want a convincing song by a female vocalist about unjust police behavior, this is a good example (listen to the whole thing, the section I am thinking of occurs about half way through).


  6. NickS’s avatar

    Here’s my thought about the Clash cover. I’m going to work with my current language of a song supporting “willing suspension of disbelief.”

    Obviously music isn’t exactly like a fiction, but I think it’s a useful way of looking at it.

    I feel like the cover of “Guns of Brixton” doesn’t invite me to suspend disbelief in the same way that the original does. I basically agree with Wrongshore’s comment, but I would put the emphasis slightly differently.

    The original has a very clear narrative perspective. The perspective from which the Clash sing the song is that of someone who live with they reality that they could get their door kicked in, and could die bleeding in the street if they come with their hands on their heads. This gives the song a feeling of bravado, there is aggression, but also fear.

    The Nouvelle Vague version is not sung from that point of view and, I would argue it never establishes a consistent point of view.

    There are times, like the line about “You can crush us / You can bruise us / But you’ll have to answer to / Oh, the guns of Brixton” in which she seems to be singing on behalf of an entire social class/mileau. Rather than singing from a personal point of view it feels like it’s told as a parable. But I don’t think it sticks to that perspective. Several of the lines feel like they’re sung just because they’re part of the song, not because they add to a consistent fiction.

    For example, I feel like she doesn’t really do anything interesting with the opening lines “When they kick at your front door / How you gonna come? ” which so powerfully set the tone for the original.

    One other note, I hadn’t realized until looking at the lyrics, but I assume that the “Ivan” referenced in the verse “You see, he feels like ivan / Born under the brixton sun / His game is called survivin / At the end of the harder they come” referes to the Jimmy Cliff character. I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know how it relates to the Clash song.


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