I Hope You Can Cover for Me: Mike Burr on the History of the Cover Song

Ray Padgett’s Cover Me gives the prestige treatment to the humblest of album afterthoughts and concert crowd pleasers:  the cover song. Padgett expands the mission of his blog of the same name to trace the history of the cover, choosing to focusing on twenty interpretations that range from the truly iconic to the historically significant. Each chapter is well researched about the covered song and the artists involved, and delivers a surprising amount of information without seeming too much like homework.

Padgett intersperses his prose with an amazingly thorough list of interviews, including excellent conversations with Mark Mothersbaugh and Roger Daltrey, and full-page artist photographs. Cover Me is both an art object and a surprisingly thorough historical text. Padgett, through the lens of the cover song, makes a larger statement about the forces that have shaped the music industry, and society at large, from the Fifties up to today.

The author is most successful in the chapters that move beyond simple stories of rock and roll to focus on larger social and music-industry trends. The section on the Elvis Presley version of “Hound Dog” covers the familiar ground of the whitewashing of music in the Fifties, but moves past sermonizing and offers a nuanced take on the how the song affected Elvis, the original performer, Big Mama Thornton, and even, years later, Public Enemy. Padgett uses The Gourds’s cover of “Gin and Juice” to discuss the Napster phenomenon of the late nineties. Even as the song became one of the first to go legitimately “viral,” the fact that it was erroneously credited to Phish blocked the Gourds from reaping any benefits from their single hit and predicted the eventual downfall of the file sharing model. In both cases, the act of covering another artist’s song provided a unique lens through which to view major sea changes in the history of popular music.

Each of Cover Me’s nineteen chapters have something to recommend them, surprisingly in some cases. There are entries devoted to iconically “cool” covers, such as Hendrix’s take on “All Along the Watchtower” and even Johnny Cash’s “Hurt.” These chapters are informative, but some of the more esoteric selections are even more enjoyable. Patti Smith’s version of “Gloria” has become a classic, but Padgett is able to move the narrative past the familiar performance and deliver a nuanced portrait of Smith’s transition from poet to musician. Also of interest is a lengthy discussion of Weird Al Yankovic’s “Polka’s on 45.” A reader of Cover Me might consider Yankovic’s cover mash-ups as a low form, but Padgett relates exactly how much effort is required to come up with three minutes of silliness and gives Yankovic his due as a masterful technical musician.

If there is a drawback to Cover Me, it is that nineteen seems an arbitrary number at which to stop the book. Padgett obviously has to omit many iconic covers, but also leaves whole genres of music untapped. There is much to be written about the use of cover songs in country and western music and how the genre has been modified in the modern era, where sampling and chopping and screwing have added additional layers to the cover song. Cover Me feels expansive, but it is hardly comprehensive. Perhaps Padgett will address this issue with an additional volume.

One of the fun parts of reading Cover Me is that it highlights a whole segment of popular music to dissect and construct lists about. Here are my five personal favorites, none of which are covered by Mr. Padgett in his book. This could be a matter of taste and an eye for historical significance, but I will instead chalk it up to the sheer amount of available material.

“Head On” covered by The Pixies on Trompe le Monde, recorded originally by The Jesus and Mary Chain for Automatic

Though Trompe le Monde is generally considered to be a fitful last gasp in the early history of The Pixies and, until the release of Indie Cindy, the weakest of the band’s albums, it was the first one that I purchased. To be honest, I liked the idea of owning the album better than the album itself; but as a high schooler trying to establish a musical identity, it seemed important to have it. The only song that really moved the dial for me was “Head On.” Black Francis, interpreting a Jesus and Mary Chain song that was only a couple of years old, sounds like everything that was going on in my teenage head: loud, angry, and on the brink of falling apart totally. Above all, he sounded cool. More than any other song I have heard, “Head On” makes me understand why rock music is alluring, cathartic and important. “Head On” is an invitation to pick up a guitar and get extremely loud. 

“Born in the U.S.A” covered by Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, featuring Concern on Casiotone for the Painfully Alone & Concern, recorded originally by Bruce Springsteen for Born in the U.S.A.

 At the end of the most demoralizing job interview I’ve ever had, for a teaching position I desperately wanted but knew I wasn’t going to get, one of the interviewers happily asked what I had been doing with my summer break. I replied that I had watched Robocop a bunch of times. “That’s so violent,” he replied. “That’s kind of the point,” I said with a smile. He looked puzzled, and I felt a little better in a moment of defeat. My only regret with the character is that the many sequels (a couple of movies and television shows and a cartoon, all of declining quality) have never reached the heights of the original. That is precisely why I love Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s cover of “Born in the U.S.A.” so much. The four minutes of fuzzed out synths and distorted vocals perfectly evoke the future wasteland of Detroit, without losing the defiance and majesty of the Springsteen original. Every time I hear it, I imagine Robocop emerging triumphant from his cruiser, flanked by the citizens of New Detroit, at the end of the movie I have created in my head. Say what you will, but my version is better than jetpack Robocop in the second sequel, and it certainly doesn’t have Michael Keaton as a villain.

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Interview: Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
  1. What are the characteristics of a good cover song?

I appreciate a cover that brings a new perspective to the source material. A different arrangement, singing style, or just general mood can go a long way towards offering a different kind of appreciation for a song. The best covers synthesize the personality of the composer & the performer & make a new thing from it.

  1. Why did you decide to cover “Born in the U.S.A.”?

In 2003, I was on tour in Nuremberg, Germany. I spent the morning alone at the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds. It was depressing as hell. It was also the 4th of July. Afterwards, I had lunch at an Irish pub. I remember sitting alone at a long wooden table, eating soup & feeling bad. “Born in the U.S.A.” came blasting over the stereo system & I started crying. The lyrics hit me really hard and I was homesick and the world just felt like a terrible place. I thought about that song a lot for the next month that I was on tour in Europe. Once I got back home to California, I started playing the song on a keyboard, just to see how it felt to perform it on my own. All of the feelings that I’d felt on in that German Irish pub on the 4th of July became part of the song, and it felt good to sing those words and make those feelings happen all on my own.

  1. What are some of the special challenges you face when doing a cover?

I cover a lot of songs for my own enjoyment, just because the songs are special to me & it gives me a certain sense of satisfaction to learn & play them. I think this is a valuable exercise for any songwriter or musician. It can be inspiring to figure out all the ways a great song works, just on a purely technical level. Sometimes during the course of learning & singing a song that I love, I find a new way into the material, & I start adding my own ideas. Every once in a rare while, I’ll that that someone else’s song has started to feel like one of my own, enough so that it feels worthwhile to perform that cover in front of an audience, or even record that cover. I try to trust my instincts.

  1. What are some of your favorite cover songs? What makes them work for you?

There are too many to name. Hearing different interpretations of great songs just makes me love the songs even more. Otis Redding’s recording of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is beautifully sung & arranged. I’ve played that tape to death. Nina Simone recorded a ton of incredible covers. I love her versions of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” Kurt Weill’s “Pirate Jenny,” George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” & “Isn’t It A Pity,” Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.”

Karl Blau’s covers album, Introducing Karl Blau was one of my favorite albums from last year. I especially loved his versions of Link Wray’s “Fallin Rain” & Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis.”

Owen Ashworth retired Casiotone for the Painfully Alone in 2010, but still I tour often & release records occasionally as Advance Base. He runs a label called Orindal Records that mostly focuses on home-recorded solo projects in genres ranging from electronic pop, psychedelic folk, ambient drone & spiritual jazz. Orindal’s 29th release,Friendship’s Shock out of Season, is out November 3, 2017. More information & a free label samplers located at orindalrecords.bandcamp.com

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“Willin’” covered by Steve Earle on Sidetracks, recorded originally by Little Feat for Little Feat 

Steve Earle knows his way around a truck song. His rockabilly cover of “Six Days on the Road” is a concert staple and was included on The Essential Steve Earle and “Home to Houston,” featured on The Revolution Starts Now, moves the long-haul driver as hero narrative to Iraq, where white line fever is replaced by white knuckling at the prospect of IEDs. Earle saved his take on Little Feat’s “Willin’” for Sidetracks, a b-sides and rarities collection. His weathered vocals and stripped down, mandolin driven arrangement dovetail with the song. Though Earle had been sober for a number of years at the time of the recording, he is easily pictured as “warped by the rain, driven by the snow, drunk and dirty.” Not everyone cold deliver that line with authenticity; Earle fits the bill. As a listener, I was hooked immediately; but the unforgettable part of the song is the chorus, as Earle nasally asserts that he has been from “Tuscon to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonapah.” I could not get that line out of my head; it was more than an ear worm. Those lines were a shamanistic incantation. I had to know what these words meant; internet research led first to the lyrics, and then to Lowell George and Little Feat.

“Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” covered by The Staggers on One Heartbeat Away From Hell, recorded originally by The Royal Guardsmen for Snoopy and His Friends 

Even though Me First and the Gimme Gimmes was created for the express purpose of playing loud, sloppy punk covers of AM radio staples, I will take the The Staggers’ version of “Snoopy vs. The Red  Baron” any day of the week. My mom brought home a copy of a Snoopy tape from the Dollar Store when I was a kid, and I listened so often that it began to sound like Captain Beefheart. There is something about the song, particularly the cover version, that makes me incredibly hyped. I am a little reticent to share this information, but “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” has been the sole motivation for me to leg out miles when I would have rather walked. It has around 500 plays in the run mix over the last decade.

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Interview: Joe Russell of Dog Company and The Staggers 

What are the characteristics of a good cover song?

I really like when a band covers a song that is a bit obscure. Yes, I do like hearing a Misfits or a Cock Sparrer cover, but I like it when someone does a weird one that you would not expect. Also, I understand making it your own, but don’t trick it out too much. There are always exceptions to the rule, but most people want to hear what they heard on the record.

  1. Why did you decide to cover “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron”?

“Snoopy” was an idea that my guitar player and I had because my oldest son, Thorne, loved that song when he was little and I did as well. We figured we would give it a go. We’ve also always had a really good reaction when playing that song, and it is really fun to play.

  1. What are some special challenges you face when doing a cover?

When I have chosen to do a cover, I like to keep it simple, mainly because I am not a guitar god. A song may only have three chords, but it’s really the words I am interested in. The music should be really good, but the words have to be there. I really don’t think of doing covers as a challenge, but just a fun change of pace. Like I said, I like simple songs.

  1. What are some of your favorite cover songs? What makes them work for you?

Dog Company has played “Storm the Embassy” by the Stray Cats, “Authority Song” by John Cougar Mellencamp, and “Sloop John B” by the Beach Boys. We also still do “Snoopy.” At home, “Peace in the Valley,” “Eve of Destruction,” and “Spicks and Specks” get played a lot. These songs all work for me especially because of their easy chord structure and the vocal patterns. I imagine my family is tired of hearing me sing them, but how could they, with this angelic voice? Haha.

Joe Russell and the rest of Dog Company hail from Dallas, Texas. The band is in the process of finishing up tits fourth LP, entitled High Hopes in Hard Times, which will be released in the spring of 2018 with Crowd Control Media and Contra Records. Russell says the new record is a little more aggressive than the band’s last release, War Stories, but is still the same mix of punk and Oi.

“Wrote a Song For Everyone” covered by Mavis Staples on You Are Not Alone, recorded originally by Creedence Clearwater Revival for Green River

 Mavis Staples is a national treasure who can sing just about anything, and John Fogerty is  a beloved pop star whose songwriting talents are often overlooked. Jeff Tweedy brought these two into the same orbit producing Staples’ 2010 album You Are Not Alone and the results are epic. The song resonated immediately with me, but particularly in the last year, when it seems every day that something I care about is under attack, it is heartening just to hear Staples, but also realize that history is very cyclical. There have been times of great upheaval, but the country has recovered. I think about that every time I listen to “Wrote a Song For Everyone.”

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