Cover Songs, Part 2…the ambiguous list

Back on August 6, 2020, I posted an article about well-known covers of original songs called “Better The Second Time Around – 5 Essential Covers That Were Better Than the Original,” https://intuneguitaracademy.com/2020/08/06/better-the-second-time-around-5-essential-covers-that-were-better-than-the-original/.

I received some good feedback from that original article about cover songs but a couple of my friends both mentioned that I should probably have included a few more recent cover songs to appeal to a younger demographic, who might also be reading my blog. “Fair enough,” I thought and so began the impetus for this latest incarnation.

I have to admit that it took me a few weeks to come up with my new list of cover songs, mainly by just paying more attention to what came on the radio while I drove around. I have a pretty good knowledge of rock and pop music from the late sixties up until the modern era so I can generally spot a cover version of an original song fairly quickly. So here is my second list of well known covers of original songs. But as the title suggests, my opinion swings between the original and the cover, depending on which song we consider.

Give a Little Bit

The original song came from the English rock band, Supertramp. Growing up in Canada in the 1970’s, I was practically spoon fed Supertramp as it was one of the most popular rock bands in Canadian history, especially near Montreal, where I grew up.

Give a Little Bit is a great song; “one of the best pop songs ever,” as one YouTube comment read. I personally wouldn’t go that far but I can respect that opinion. It was released on their album “Even in the Quietest Moments…” in 1977 and went on to reach to top end of the charts around the world, and was a breakthrough hit in the coveted US market. The original song was written and sung by one of the band’s founding members, the inimitable Roger Hodgson.

Mr. Hodgson was born in Portsmouth, England and began playing guitar at the age of 12 and first performed his original songs to an audience at the age of 13. Definitely a child prodigy. He also plays bass, piano, and even cello. Supertramp was formed in 1969 along with Rick Davies. https://www.rogerhodgson.com/

In 2004, The Goo Goo Dolls, a band out of Buffalo, New York, released their cover of Give a Little Bit. Although a great cover, I would definitely give the nod to the original in this case. If I had never heard the original, I would simply think it was a really good song. But knowing the original, it just doesn’t compare. Supertramp are simply more talented in my opinion.

The thing that strikes me the most when hearing the Goo Goo Dolls version is how much lower it is. I played along on my guitar and it’s a full step lower than the key of A and to me, it sounds like the guitars are tuned down, not simply playing in the key of G.

The other differences are the lack of saxophone and piano in the cover – at least I don’t hear any piano when I listen to it but I could be wrong. It’s also quite a bit heavier. The electric guitars are more distorted and played more aggressively, and there seems to be more guitar fills. The drums and bass are heavier too. I gotta say though, I like the drumming quite a bit better in the cover but overall, the original is better, in my opinion.

Big Yellow Taxi

The original is by Joni Mitchell – a fellow Canadian. She was born in Alberta in 1943 and raised in Saskatchewan. She first started learning to play music at the age of 9. After high school, she went to art school but quit after only a year. She then moved to Toronto to become a folk singer, which didn’t quite work out at first. She eventually moved to New York and began quite a successful music career, touring the East Coast of the US during the late sixties. https://jonimitchell.com/

Big Yellow Taxi first appeared on her “Ladies of the Canyon” album, released in 1970. The album was her first gold album and the song went on to be a big hit, peaking at 24 in the US on the Billboard Hot 100.

When I listen to the original version of this song, I can really hear the youth and innocence in her voice. She seems to connect directly with the listener, even many decades after it was first recorded. It’s such a simple production but yet, so powerful. Her acoustic guitar and beautiful voice are front and center in this arrangement, accented by subtle percussion and punctuated by the wonderful bop vocals of the “Saskatunes.” Sadly, I doubt any song this stripped down and natural would ever be a hit these days.

The cover is by the Counting Crows. They released their cover version of Big Yellow Taxi on their 2002 album “Hard Candy.”

Counting Crows official website.

Just as with Give a Little Bit, if I had never heard the original of Big Yellow Taxi, I would think the Counting Crow’s version is a pretty good song that I hear on the radio once in a while. But I definitely prefer Joni’s original, partly because I am a big fan of her music. The production of the Counting Crows’ version is definitely much bigger but they stay fairly faithful to feeling of the original. I love the reggae feel of the bass, the lead vocals are very good too but the real stand-out is Vanessa Carlton’s backing vocals, which gives it a special punch. It’s a very good production, very well performed but to me, it sounds like just another pop song, missing that special something that Ms. Mitchell gave it her original version.

I’m a Believer

Originally written by Neil Diamond, it became famous when the made-for-TV group, The Monkees, with Mickey Dolenz as lead singer, covered it and took it to number 1 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1966. Dolenz was also the “drummer” of the group but incredibly, he didn’t know how to play drums and had to take lessons in order to properly fake it for TV. Neil Diamond released his own listless version in 1967 but it didn’t do nearly as well. It didn’t break the Top 40. I played the video of the Monkees’ version on YouTube and my first reaction was “you actually have to sing into the mic for it to work.” Obvious lip-sync. Their recorded version featured top rated session musicians.

Most Gen-Zers and Millennials know this song from the movie, Shrek. When researching this article, I did a Google search on this one and had to chuckle when I saw Eddie Murphy’s version (as Donkey) appeared as one of my search results. That version appears at the end of the movie, during the cast party, if I remember correctly. The official recording of I’m a Believer for the movie came from the American rock group, Smash Mouth.

According to the website, Ultimate Classic Rock, https://ultimateclassicrock.com/: “Where the Monkees’ version had character and the top studio musicians in LA playing on it, Smash Mouth’s version is cheesy and overproduced.”

Well…if you ask me, all four versions I list in this article rank pretty high on the cheesiness scale. I actually like the Smash Mouth version best because the rhythm section really drives this version. And yes, it is overproduced but try to find any popular song these days that isn’t. The video for the Smash Mouth version is pretty funny too. Smash Mouth’s cover was released in 2001 for the Shrek, soundtrack.

Heroes

Original by David Bowie, cover by The Wallflowers. For me, it’s a toss-up. I like both versions.

Bowie’s version was released in 1977 on his album by the same name. It was written by Bowie and Brian Eno. The haunting lead guitar throughout and Bowie’s vocals, that range from low and almost monotone to screechy and pleading, make this such a special song.

I love The Wallflowers, which featured Bob Dylan’s son, Jakob Dylan on lead vocals. Sadly, their radio popularity only lasted a few years during the nineties. Their song, One Headlight, is one of my favourite songs from that decade. Their version of Heroes was released in 1998 as part of the Godzilla soundtrack, which reached number 2 on the Billboard 200.

You can definitely hear the nineties influence in The Wallflowers’ version, having almost a grunge (albeit popified) feel. I also like that the lead guitar isn’t nearly as present and is more subtle than the original. I know this is rock and roll heresy but I prefer Jakob Dylan’s vocals to David Bowie’s when comparing both versions of this song.

The Sound of Silence

Both my friends who told me to include more current songs recommended this cover by Disturbed. I saved it for the end because this will be most controversial assessment. First, a little background.

Simon and Garfunkel originally released it in the mid sixties on their debut album. It didn’t do well at first but went on to be one of the most iconic songs of a generation. The Simon & Garfunkel version is very good and I believe, very appropriate for the lyrics.

The Disturbed version starts with a piano instead of guitar. David Draiman’s outstanding vocals are a little over the top at times for a song with “silence” in the title. I just find he oversells it at times and the vocals a little too strong for what was originally a silent protest song. I like the orchestral arrangement and the dark feeling at the beginning of the song but if I were the producer of this version, I would have reined in the vocals. There is no question however, the Disturbed version is outstanding in its own right.

For a very interesting take on the Distrubed version by a vocal coach, check out this video:

For an even more interesting take (and might I say, SURPRISING) here are two pastors talking about both the original and the cover. Nice history lesson on the song at the beginning of this video.

References

  • Wikipedia, for verification of certain facts for each song and version written about in this article
  • rogershodgson.com
  • jonimitchell.com
  • Liner notes of Joni Mitchell Hits, CD, Reprise Records, div of Time-Warner
  • ultimateclassicrock.com
  • YouTube

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