The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Wreath Lectures

A Decade In Music: The Rise And Rise Of The Cover Version
Jude Rogers , December 22nd, 2009 06:03

Jude Rogers examines how Johnny Cash kickstarted a decade dominated by the cover version - to ends good and ill

If the Noughties really was the decade where pop railed against its history – the first decade in age without massive musical movements, where trends fractured and splintered like glass beads in a kaleidoscope – then why did the cover version become so bloody popular? And since when did covers become the obvious proof of an artist's sharpness and savvy? Everyone was at it, from Tom Jones to Cat Power, Glenn Campbell to Nouvelle Vague, Alien Ant Farm to Mark Ronson, Susanna and The Magical Orchestra to HIM – and before you could even blink, every single new artist was covering a weird song to show off their spoils. They took tracks from the past and gave them their own special stamp, and as time shrank, stretched and ate itself, the cover proved that an Artist was controlling it for a moment, pinning down one of our historical reference points. They were making our world their own, playing Artist as God.

But how did we get here? After all, covers have always been with us, and stealing from other people's songs is part of pop's glitzy tapestry, as John Doran put so perfectly it here. Covers also easy and fun to play, offering easy shortcut to familiarity and recognitions – factors that bind people in popular music.

But as the last century wound to an end, Johnny Cash changed everything. From his first American Recordings album in 1994, his bare, bleak and beautiful follow-ups did several revolutionary things: they rubber-stamped the value of contemporary songwriters like Beck, Will Oldham and Nick Cave, creating a communion between old hands and new bucks; they raised the possibility of new, modern standards; they reinvented an unfashionable artist as an world-worn, authentic soldier, scrubbing our memories clean of the chat-show hosting Highwayman; and they also pricked up the ears of record company bosses, keen to relight the touchpapers of other artists' careers. This took hold fiercely when the 21st century came along and the record industry starting to falter, and it's easy to see why – why develop and promote an artist when you can just revive one that they know and sentimentalise them, take a song the listener already owns, and make them buy it again? It's hard not to look at the albums of Glenn Campbell and Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and Tony Christie, and see this logic in action, whatever their impact. (That said, Christie's 2008 album, Made In Sheffield, is a particular gem, pivoting around a devastating, age-shifting take on The Human League's ‘Louise'.)

However, as Miranda Sawyer pointed out in the Observer last year, it was odd that artists like these were being marketed fashionably. "These boys [Christie and Jones] never [previously] flirted with the dark side, or stretched musical boundaries", she reminded us. "You can't hand out cool to people for just hanging around." She also went on to argue that pop naffness was fine, and indirectly revealed what was at the heart of 21st century cover culture – the obsession with 'coolness' that was king at the beginning of the decade. Back then, "indie" was becoming the mainstream, and music that fancied itself on the margins was now Radio 1's bread and butter. And then, not long after Travis covered Britney Spears' ‘Baby One More Time' at Glastonbury in 2000, Jo Whiley set up her Live Lounge slot on the show, showing her true colours when she said that Britney's poppy original obviously floundered next to Fran Healy's mournful masterpiece. This was, obviously, rubbish. The idea that a song could only be cool if it was made tasteful and worthy, rendered by "proper" singers and played on "proper" instruments, was the Noughties' equivalent of Whiley shouting Judas at Dylan, or being a Musicians' Union rep in the early '80s, banning synthesisers because they weren't "real".

But these were dark days for pop, or rather people's perceptions of pop. This was the time when the Guilty Pleasures phenomenon saw people smirking at mass culture as they wilfully embraced it, buying Heat every week while pretending they were above it – a thinly-disguised revival of "we're better than you" class war, played out on the pop charts, shaken out on the dancefloors. This noxious culture also gave birth to cover versions that were tasteful in other strange ways – including Mark Ronson's jazzy interpretations of Radiohead on 2003's Exit Music, and 2007's Versions. Most of these records now sound terribly dated – try listening to Daniel Merriweather's briefly diverting but quickly deadening take on The Smiths' ‘Stop Me If You Think That You've Heard Before' now – and only a very charismatic Amy Winehouse still shines above the pack. She did this by doing something different, turning the ponderous Zutons ballad, 'Valerie', into a piece of Sapphic Motown. By deciding not change the sex of the narrator to make the song a love song about a boy, she added urgency to the song that would become her biggest hit, as well as it turning it into a Raincoats' ‘Lola' for the Noughties.

Her performance also suggests a simple, if obvious lesson. Covers will only do something powerful, and last the long haul, if they have something about them that helps them outlive the first flashes of novelty. Senor Coconut's Kraftwerk reinterpretations, for instance, were inescapably kitsch when they arrived in 2000, but they managed to locate, and magically amplify, the innocence in Kraftwerk's teutonic originals. The ubiquitous first Nouvelle Vague album from 2004 did something similar, getting lascivious female singers to sing The Dead Kennedys' ‘Too Drunk To Fuck', and create new characters from well-worn lyrics. Other records that still offer rich rewards include Tori Amos' ‘Strange Little Girls' from 2000, in which she exposing the misogynistic narratives of Eminem and the doomy passion of Slayer; and the spartan, awkward magic of Cat Power's The Covers Record from the same year, a natural, spartan American successor to the Johnny Cash project. And then you have Norway's Susanna and The Magical Orchestra, whose take on Abba's ‘Lay All Your Love On Me' is my cover of the decade. It is as reverential and as it revealing about the original song's striking properties, which is exactly what the perfect cover should aim for.

But over the course of the decade, there were also covers, of course, that were goddamn godawful. Eric Prydz hammered the nails in the coffin of mainstream rave by sucking the life out of Steve Winwood's ‘Valerie' and Pink Floyd's ‘Another Brick In The Wall'; Alien Ant Farm bent the sharp shapes of Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal into irreverential nu-metal scrap; while Simon Cowell's X Factor machine trotted out 321 versions of Everly Brothers and Westlife ballads with additional key changes – or it did, at least, until 2008's incredible curveballs. I will still defend Leona Lewis' brilliant, doomy fresh take on Snow Patrol's ‘Run', and Alexandra Burke's bellow through Leonard Cohen's ‘Hallelujah' – the latter keeping the soul of the original song, and taking it into the lives of a new, curious audience. If a show is going to be watched by millions of people, why not dip their toes into something weird and interesting?

Many people would disagree with me of course – the buggers – but I still find it interesting that the Jeff Buckley fans shouted loudest last year, which in itself raised the sceptre of a curious new phenemonon. Last Christmas, when these Buckley bores downloaded enough copies of his ‘Hallelujah' to get him to no. 3 in the charts, they also complained about the sappy use of a gospel choir in the X-Factor version, forgetting Laughing Len's much-loved "choir of angels" on his pervy original. This reminded us that sometimes a cover version of a song itself can become the new, gold standard – a meta-cover, almost. Other examples of this bubbled around the decade, too. Listen to Marilyn Manson's take on ‘Tainted Love', for instance, and you'll hear him referencing the sounds of Soft Cell but not Gloria Jones; hear HIM's ‘Solitary Man', and it's all about Johnny Cash's version, rather than Neil Diamond's. Even stranger still, was the massive success of the Sugababes' 2002 chart-topper ‘Freak Like Me' – a cover of an illegal mash-up between Tubeway Army's ‘Are Friends Electric?' and Adina Howard's 1995 single. As it fizzed at the top of the charts very legally indeed, truly these were strange times.

But by following the inventive principles of the best cover versions, songs like ‘Freak Like Me' did great things for pop. They weren't 21st century versions of short attention span "classics" like Stars on 45, Jive Bunny's ‘Swing The Mood' and the Grease ‘Megamix', but genuinely creative works of art. Filesharing-inspired masterpieces like Dangermouse's The GreyAlbum broke down barriers between genres, while bootlegs like Freelance Hellraiser's ‘A Stroke Of Genius' worked in tandem with nascent MP3 shuffle culture to forge together different sounds. The Guardian's Dorian Lynskey elegantly explored the effects of this particular track in a recent article, and his conclusion said much about how these new forms changed attitudes ("'Do I like this'", he wrote, "superseded, 'Should I like this? as the music fan's automatic response to new music"). This was a paradigm shift, in effect, that caught on very quickly, making the Guilty Pleasures Brigade's blazers look suddenly tacky, and Jo Whiley's School Of Cool fail its BBC inspections. As this decade approaches its dramatic, final bars, it looks like the cover might have brought about something healthy, after all.

And as the new one begins, the cover version, like the folk song, will never really die. Pop covers will survive in particular because pop is about people and our collective memories, about the big emotions we share when a song starts to soar from the radio, and about the meaningful lyrics and choruses that speak to us directly. All that matters from now on is how the cover version is used, as a tool of comfort, or as an agent of action. It's up to us as listeners, and the artists we admire, to decide whether we want to swaddle these songs with the trite clothes of coolness and fashion, or allow them to breathe. Or rather, it's up to all of us whether we want to leave these songs in the past, or take them with us, keep them singing.