What makes a good cover version?

‘That’s not how the original sounded’
‘Why don’t you play one we know?’

‘He hasn’t done anything with that song’
‘He’s too good to be playing cheesy covers’

Just some of the things I’ve heard from people when discussing the complicated art of playing other people’s songs. There’s the mob who want to hear the same songs they’ve always heard and utter the singularly irritating second quotation as a question indicating what they essentially want out of any gig is a tribute act or the real thing. There’s the other mob who believe cover versions of well known songs is ‘cheesy’ and beneath artistic merit or at the very least believe that if you’re going to do a cover do something interesting with it.

This last point I do think has some truth. One of the most staggeringly pointless recorded cover versions I ever came across was a cover (and I use that word in the loosest possible sense) of Queen’s Killer Queen by Travis. It was a b-side to a single as I remember and I couldn’t for the life of me see what the point was. It was quite literally a like-for-like cover with no change to anything at all except of course Fran Healy instead of Freddie Mercury and Brian May’s guitar part played by someone who wasn’t Brian May. With every respect to Fran who I do think has a terrific voice of its type, he ain’t Freddie Mercury (who is?) and that type of song was so manifestly unsuited to him. Had I heard it in a pub played by a covers band I’d think they did it reasonably well but released by a hugely well known pop band it seemed odd.

But then that brings me on to the point – surely these things are all about context? In a busy pub on a Saturday night or at a wedding reception, there is absolutely nowt wrong with a band reproducing a lot of very well known popular hits to entertain the crowd. In fact there is a great skill in it and I have spent an evening having a rollickingly good time both as artist and audience member in this context. ‘Too good for that’ – are you serious? Whatever music you’re playing, playing it well and tightly as a band is ALWAYS a challenge and is ALWAYS impressive. Doing like for like covers is certainly not easy.

While we’re at it, there’s also a myth that to be of artistic credibility you need to be writing all your own stuff. This criticism is particularly levelled at the X Factor brigade. For me, the reason most of them are not terribly impressive is not that they don’t write their own stuff…it’s simply that they’re so utterly generic and without any unique musical voice whatsoever and sometimes even with limited competence. But for instance, Alison Krauss is probably my favourite female singer of them all…never written a song in her life that’s been on record. Are you telling me she’s of no artistic merit? Or Sinatra, Presley, Ella Fitzgerald? There is a skill in doing a cover well, make no mistake.

But…outside of a ‘function’ context if you like, and frankly even within one, I do like to hear an interesting version of someone else’s song. I perform several frequently such as Hammer and Nail by Paul Thorn, Sword of Light by Horslips and of course Call Me Al but I like to think all three are very different from the originals and are reworkings in the truest sense of the word, even if you don’t like them! I loved Hothouse Flowers’ version of I Can See Clearly Now, it was just such an imaginative way to perform a song whose format seemed so set in stone. But then again I also regularly encore with a straight ahead bluegrass version of Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms so am I contradicting myself there? Probably.

The point is like all these things, people should judge things on artistic merit and not be blinded by snobbery whether it be inverted or not. As primarily a folk music performer, I recognise the importance of bands and singers out there who keep flying the flag for their traditions and idioms. I certainly wouldn’t want to see no straight-ahead bluegrass bands out there – that’s a sound I want to always be around! Equally, I don’t castigate a bluegrass band if they choose to do a cover of Bohemian Rhapsody. If they do it well that’s great too. All these different types of cover versions have a place, I guess much depends on what type of band you’re trying to be and that’s what puzzled me about Travis’s little effort. Surely they are a purveyor of Fran Healy’s type of pop song – so why a random straight-ahead cover of a Queen song?! Then again, I do You Can Call Me Al, but I like to think it’s not particularly a like-for-like cover.