Welcome back to Turntable Talk! By now, if you’re a regular reader here – and if you are, thank you, I appreciate your time here – you know how this runs. We’ve invited several interesting and talented music writers to sound off on the same topic. In the past we’ve looked at topics like why the Beatles are still relevant, whether MTV and the video sensation helped or harmed music and great debut records which took them by surprise. This time around, it’s “Cover Me”. Much of what we hear and love is songs which aren’t original to the artists we hear. So we’re asking what makes a great cover song? Are there any that stand out as being very good, or even better than the original? (I add that we’re restricting this to cover songs in which the original was fairly popular or well-known. Thus ones which are cover songs but where the original was obscure, like perhaps The Clique’s “Superman,” made a hit by R.E.M., wouldn’t be counted.)
Leading off today, we have Christian from Christian’s Music Musings. There he regularly writes about new music which might have escaped your attention, concerts attended, and other cool music topics. Here’s what he’s got to say on cover songs:
When Dave recently reached out to introduce the new topic for this round of “Turntable Talk,” I didn’t hesitate one minute to participate again. Thanks, Dave, for having me back and your continued efforts to host this fun series!
When it comes to music, I think it’s fair to say we generally like to focus most of our attention on original tracks. That’s certainly the case for me. I always like to explore new songs, especially if they are written by an artist or a band I dig. But a good cover can also get my attention.
What’s a good cover? I think there’s no standard definition here. However, what it doesn’t mean, at least in my opinion, is that a cover has to be a faithful rendition of the original. In fact, one could argue what’s the point of covering a song when it exactly sounds like the original. As such, I tend to find it more intriguing when an artist or a band take some liberties and put their own spin on a song. In this case I prefer to use the term remake rather than cover.
There are some excellent remakes. My all-time favorite is Joe Cocker’s version of “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Two other terrific remakes that come to mind are “Love Hurts” by Nazareth and “Proud Mary“ by Ike & Tina Turner. Not only did Cocker, Nazareth and Ike & Tina Turner make the respective songs their own, but they took them to the next level. I like all three renditions better than the originals!
In some cases, the original tunes are so great that tampering doesn’t make much sense. Two good examples I thought of are the covers of “If I Needed Someone“ and “Hard to Handle“ by Roger McGuinn and The Black Crowes, respectively.
Yet another rendition I think is absolutely killer is Elton John’s version of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard.” To me, this falls somewhere in-between a straight cover and a remake. In any case, John did what I always wished The Who should have done – make this fantastic song longer instead of fading it out in a seemingly arbitrary fashion!
Finally, this brings me to my “bold cover” I’d like to select for this post. I deliberately wanted to go with a tune that looked like an unlikely pick by any of the other participants. In fact, it’s not even a remake of a rock tune but a jazz standard: Al Jarreau’s amazing rendition of Dave Brubeck classic “Take Five“.
In case it’s been a while since you’ve heard it last or if you haven’t listened to it at all, here’s the original. Composed by saxophonist Paul Desmond, the track was first released by the Dave Brubeck Quartet in December 1959 on their album Time Out. This was one of the first jazz tunes I ever heard many moons ago. Even though I wasn’t into jazz at the time, I’ve always loved it!
And here’s where Al Jarreau took the tune on his December 1977 live album Look to the Rainbow: Live In Europe. When I heard his rendition for the first time, I was blown away. How Jarreau used his voice here as an instrument is just super cool. In fact, this type of rendition is called scat singing, which per Wikipedia is “vocal improvisation with wordless vocables, nonsense syllables or without words at all.”
Songfacts notes “Take Five“ is one of the rare jazz tunes that became a hit. In the U.S., it peaked at no. 25 on the pop chart in October 1961. Elsewhere it did even better, especially in the UK (no. 6), Australia (no. 7), New Zealand (no. 8) and The Netherlands (no. 8). Take Five has also been used in movies, including Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Pleasantville (1998) and Constantine (2005). And it’s one of the most compelling remakes.