Florence Welch's elevation to the headline Glastonbury slot through the mishap of Dave Grohl breaking his leg onstage in Gothenburg proved an extraordinary opportunity for her and made her only the sixth female headliner. Florence positioned her humble halo firmly into place when she gave tribute to the man himself by covering a stripped back version of the Foo Fighters' 'Times Like These'. Not only was it an acknowledgement of his bad luck, but a moment to fashion her own version of one of their monster hit songs.
What is it about our collective love of a good cover song? In recent years, a well selected cover song seems almost mandatory, not only on the festival scene but as a credible addition to regular live sets for many bands. London Grammar's version of Chris Isaak's 'Wicked Game' reminded us what a wonderful song it was; Hot Chip covering Springsteen's 'Dancing in the Dark' takes a new electronic twist.
Given the sneers and scorn that cover bands inspire amongst the music fraternity, and even the relegation in credibility for artists who don’t write their own material, what has precipitated this turnaround from covers being, well, a bit tacky, to being cool?
If we roll back a few decades of songwriting history then we see it really wasn’t too long ago that pop songwriters were separate and often distinct from the artists who performed them. Think how Holland-Dozier-Holland made a lifetime’s craft of writing and producing hit songs for Motown artists. Burt Bacharach and Hal David were a formidable songwriting team while it was the likes of Dusty Springfield, Tom Jones and the Carpenters who were the artists who connected them to audiences that made their songs eternal classics. Elvis purportedly didn't write any of his songs even though Colonel Tom Parker negotiated songwriting credits in the early days of his career.
Before The Beatles, few pop artists wrote their own songs as self contained writers and performers. As more and more artists wrote and performed their own material, it became almost essential to do so to be viewed as an authentic and credible artist. To this day, artists that write are given greater credence. They also earn more money from songwriting royalties. This shift towards artists - particularly bands - writing their own songs also encouraged new creative approaches to the craft itself; artists began to write beyond the three-minute, formulaic pop and love song, cultivating a never-ending landscape of ideas, drawing on real world experience and subject matter from a romanticised perspective.
While there were and are still specialist songwriters, and indeed there have been a few notable instances where songs were given from one artist to another artist to cover. 'All the Young Dudes' was a gift from David Bowie to Mott the Hoople when they were struggling for a hit song. Some artists write songs specifically for others alongside their own recordings.
Then there are some artists who have made a fine art of covering songs. Think about Cat Power's whole album dedicated to cover songs or Nouvelle Vague’s album of slowed-down, sparse French whimsy as they covered The Clash, XTC, even the Dead Kennedy’s 'Too Drunk to F***'. For a while it might have even seemed a bit smug, but it refreshed our ears to songs that had become so familiar.
So what is it that has made the cover song so appealing again? Sometimes a cover can be like turning a song we'd nearly forgotten about into a connecting moment. Sometimes it's a nod to influences and a wink to not just good taste, but tastemaking. Sometimes it's a way of acknowledging guilty pleasures; something that was seemingly naff, but can seem quite cool now.
Most of all, a well-chosen cover can take an excellent song back to its most basic components - the melody and rhythm - and rebuild and reinvent a song for a modern moment. This recontextualising offers new meaning and a new lease of life. It's a flattering acknowledgement of a well-crafted song; proof that a song that's so good can still connect and be interpreted in many different ways.
By Joel Mills
Staff Covers Playlist
Johnny Cash – Hurt
Johnny Cash covering NIN’s Hurt has to be one of the most powerful interpretations of a song. Cash knew he was nearing the end of his life at this point. It's bitter and regretful - yet a sorry, not sorry song.
Sinead O'Connor – All Apologies
Nirvana's All Apologies by Sinead O' Connor. Her stripped back version transforms the song from one of angst to something more akin to quietly repressed grief.
Al Green – How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?
This man's voice makes my heart melt and mend all at the same time. He got soul. (orig. Bee Gees, 1971)
This Mortal Coil – Song to the Siren
Tim Buckley's folk song made epic through Elisabeth Fraser's haunting evocation of the temptresses of Greek mythology.
The Lemonheads – Different Drum
A teenage favourite of mine, and great break-up song, that I originally heard on John Peel's radio show. Would have me in floods within seconds. Originally by Mike Nesmith, best known as a recording by Linda Ronstadt & The Stone Poneys. But altogether grungier.
Calexico – Alone Again Or
Introduced to me by a former colleague as 'the perfect song for Calexico to cover', and he wasn't wrong. All their trademark sunset Tex-Mex elements fit perfectly into place. Originally by Bryan MacLean and the group Love.
Instrumental – Little Fluffy Clouds
If you went to Big Chill events in the nineties, you might also remember their first label release, 'Acoustek' by string sextet Instrumental. This Orb cover was one of a number of brilliant chamber arrangements they made of electronic and ambient classics.
Karen O, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross – The Immigrant Song
A driving, intense and refreshingly unique Led Zep cover. Electrifying. Made for the soundtrack to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Sufjan Stevens – You are the Blood
I’m guessing not many will have heard The Castanets' original to reference, but Sufjan turns it on its head for this 10 minute epic. Spasmodic electronic bleepery and orchestral flourishes combine in this dark, cinematic and hypnotising cover.
José González – Heartbeats + This is How We Walk on the Moon
A true master of the cover song. Two of the greatest right here: González brought a melancholic intimacy to The Knife’s electro-pop anthem, reimagining it as a folk classic. As one of my all time favourites, I'll admit approaching his TIHWWOTM cover with some trepidation, but it's a gem; funked up, with brass fanfares and gorgeous double-tracked vocals that highlight what a fantastic pop song Russell penned.
Beck – I Only Have Eyes For You
I love Beck’s warped cut and paste funk, but I’ve always felt he’s at his best as a crooning balladeer. I was torn between this and his superb rendition of The Korgis’ ‘Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime’, but this Flamingos cover is just divine, slowed down to a woozy dreamlike pace with Beck’s velveteen and reverb-drenched vocals about as colossal as they come.
Joe Cocker – With A Little Help From My Friends
Hard to top The Beatles in my opinion, even with Ringo on lead vocals - sorry Ringo - but the Joe Cocker version hits like a sledgehammer and always reminds me of The Wonder Years (it was the opening theme tune).
Annie Lennox – No More "I Love You's"
I don’t know much about The Lover Speaks, the original band who released the song in 1986, but Annie Lennox’s version has always been one of my favourite songs with its mystical, unlikely verse melody and earworm chorus.
Paul Anka – Smells Like Teen Spirit
Kurt Cobain’s angst makes a surprisingly successful conversion into a big band swinger. It shows Nirvana weren’t all about volume, but fantastic melody as well. The Paul Anka version still has menace, but it’s sugar coated.
Dirty Loops – Circus
Dirty Loops exploded onto the scene off the back of a slew of YouTube videos where they covered pop tunes from the likes of Rhianna, Adele and, in this case, Britney Spears. They tackle their covers in their inimitable jazz-pop-rock fusion style - a little reharmonisation here, a slap-bass break there - and while the results might not be to everyone's taste you can't fault their originality!
Mad World – Gary Jules & Michael Andrews
Gary was the music supervisor on the film Donnie Darko and wanted to use the Tears For Fears original. As an indie film, they couldn’t afford the fee for the master recording so Jules recorded a version himself. The film was a smash and Gary had an unlikely Christmas number one record too!
Always On My Mind – Pet Shop Boys
A great song and already made famous by Elvis no less. Performed by the Pet Shop Boys on a TV show to mark the tenth anniversary of Elvis’ death, the public loved it so much, PSB released it as a single and had a Christmas number one record with it in 1987.
It Must Be Love – Madness
A brilliant song, originally by Labi Siffre. People always seem surprised that the Madness track is not the original and they really made it their own, a hallmark of a great cover version. As a nod to the writer, Labi has a cameo in the video of the Madness version.