A certain amount of controversy arises from musical recontextualization. Sampling is scrutinized and undermined due to a presupposed lack of originality. This trend became particularly prevalent with the innovative emergence of “the break” introduced in early Hip-Hop songs (most notably Rapper’s Delight that borrowed from the recognizable Queen song “Another One Bites the Dust”).
Cover songs are always under scrutiny because they are either too similar to the original foundational song or because they are too far removed from it. Usually when a band covers a previously released song, it is safe to say, they stick closely to the original lyrics. In that manner they remain extremely faithful to the original source, however; the novelty comes from a change in context, perspective, or even advancements within musical technology.
Like most good ideas, this one is simple. I am going to list some of my favourite cover songs that I have come across. Some of these songs completely change the context of the original song crossing musical borders of genre, gender, age, and in some cases, chronology.
So, here is my [incomplete] list of cover songs that transgress the limitations of a remake:
1. Rage Against the Machine – Renegades of Funk
I will wait while you relocate your jaw after it hit the floor. This is actually a cover of DJ Afrika Bambaataa. Take away Tom Morello’s experimental hybrid riffs, mute Zack de la Rocha’s aggressively charged resiliency, and add a funky synthesized 80’s backbeat. You can hear how Rage paid homage to the original while changing the relevancy and tone.
2. Black Magic Woman – Santana
I’m sorry for doing this. I will wait again until you put your eyes safely back into the sockets. I assure you, you didn’t read that wrong. Santana’s “Black Magic Woman”, recorded in 1970, is actually a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s 1968 release. The song’s skeletal foundations are relatively the same but, as we would expect, Mr. Santana amped up the sultry sensuality with his signature sound.
3. Hurt – Johnny Cash
When my brother told me that Johnny Cash covered the Nine Inch Nails’ song “Hurt” I thought he was lying to me. In my mind, the Man in Black’s name was written all over the emotionally charged performance. Never in my wildest dreams did I think a legend would cover a band so polar to his genre. The two interpretations, separated by age and genre, are completely different but wholly impactful and moving.
4. Nothing Compare to You – Sinead O’Connor
“Nothing Compares to You,” is synonymously linked to Sinead O’Connor. A little unknown fact, the original was actually composed by Prince for a side project…not a lot of people know that. It is easy to say that Sinead made this song hers. In a way, the cover is recognized as the original in a weird inter-textual reversal. It wasn’t until O’Connor covered the song in 1990 that it became a huge sensation. When the song received notable status, especially after O’Connor’s memorable music video, Prince started to sing it live in concert. I thank Prince for writing such a beautiful song but in my mind, it will always belong to the Irish songstress.
5. Stop Breaking Down – The White Stripes
The song “Stop Breaking Down Blues” by Robert Johnson is a completely stripped down acoustic performance. The fact The White Stripes consists of only two members, the concept of a stripped down song remains, but the song is introduced to the age of the electric guitar. I think Robert Johnson would be proud to hear his song through an amplifier. The cover transcends musical barriers and generational gaps. The cover of such a staple Blues song encourages audiences to explore foundational musical roots and hands the Delta Blues tradition to a newer generation.
6. Space Oddity – The Langley School Choir
This cover monopolizes an untapped world…well before the annoying “Kidster” CD nightmares. Let’s face it, nothing will come close to David Bowie’s original but this is one of the most interesting and haunting covers I have ever come across (thanks to Alan Cross’ The Ongoing History of New Music). The plagued voices of the children mixed with the hollow acoustics of the gymnasium add to the narrative’s despondent tone while further creating a sense of chaos compared to the original. There is something about the simplicity of the instrumentals and the slightly off- beat drumming that adds a sorrowful tinge of morbidity.