“Yesterday” is the most-covered song of all time. Wikipedia says Guinness says there are 3,000 of the damn things. I haven’t listened to them all - nobody could - but I’m willing to say that they’re all shit.
Why? Simple: Yesterday is a fantastic song. Evocative lyrics, rich in chord progressions (play it one day and count them - there’s at least one every bar or two), simple but effective in arrangement (guitar, string quartet and nothing else), heartfelt vocals; there isn’t anything technically wrong that you could put a finger on; and it’s so simple, yet so effective, that you can either reproduce it badly, or paraphrase it (badly, again, because this was the Beatles, after all) into another musical genre.
And if you do that, the chords will resist you every step of the way.
Probably the best cover you could do is a 6:8 Miles Davis Someday My Prince WIll Come sort of cover, but you’d be straining really badly at the rhythm of the melody and it would sound dreadful.
So probably 30+ of the 3,000 cover versions that Guinness lists are like that, then.
What of the Beatles can you cover, then?
Joe Cocker famously covered “With a Little Help From My Friends” (which is slightly cheating as that was a song written for Ringo), and he pulled it off by making it radically different; he slowed it down and scored it in 3:4, amongst other things.
The Beatles Love album very successfully mashes together Within You Without You with Strawberry Fields Together, and by all means download merely that track if you’re not convinced of the idea of an entire album of Beatles-with-Beatles mashups on behalf of Cirque du Soleil.
I think “I’ve Just Seen A Face” from Help! is just right in that sweet spot of enough talent but not enough recording or arrangement savvy that it’s due for a cover.
But in general, if the artist or band you’re covering is any good, then you’d better find something unusually bad, or a really distinctive, possibly comedy, way of covering them (this means you, Paul Anka or Max Raabe - Youtube them if you haven’t heard them before, they’re comedy genius). Doing a straight cover of someone who’s better than you is doomed to failure.
What brought this on?
Peter Gabriel recently released an album of covers, “Scratch my Back” (the idea is that people he’s covered will in turn cover songs of his on a future album release). For very probably a limited period all the songs are available via a Flash player thing at the Guardian’s website.
I didn’t like the album at first, probably because the two tracks I checked out first, the ones that I knew, were the least successful. Peter Gabriel covers Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” - you remember, the intro track from Graceland that started with accordion, followed by a couple of emphatic drum beats, then an unusually up-mixed bass line, as if to say “OK, pay attention, this is not a normal Paul Simon record”. So he ditches all of that, and preserves only the lyric line, set to a random slow piano line. It’s not very good.
Oh, and he ends the album with a slowed-down and more-depressing version of Street Spirit (Fade Out) from Radiohead’s The Bends, except without the tune. Which, you know, made it bearable.
But the other tracks are much better.
How to do a decent cover, part 1: the easy way
Take a very well-written song, e.g. The Magnetic Field’s The Book Of Love, and then remember that a) you’re a better vocalist (e.g. you’re Peter Gabriel), b) the original song has a fairly straightforward chord structure without any meaningful dynamic progression, which means that c) if you slap an orchestra with damn good brass section on top, you’ll end up with something qualitatively better. Especially if your daughter’s doing some damn good backup vocals, and you can find a spot for the orchestra to do its bit.
How to do a decent cover, part 2: cover Lou Reed
Lou Reed is trickier, because sometimes he bothers to sing (e.g. Satellite of Love), and he can produce things of wonder. Even on cases where he doesn’t stick to pure notes, he’s still accompanying the melody enough that you know what note he’d have sung if he meant to.
On other songs, though, he doesn’t bother with a tune; he just randomly mumbles like a beat poet.
Now, you could argue that his intention is to produce beautiful background music while he chants in scansion (in which case his live band should be a lot tighter - compare Youtube’s idea of the studio album version with the live version).
But when it comes to something like “The Power of the Heart”, arguably Peter Gabriel deserves a co-writer credit, because he’s come up with a melody line that blatantly wasn’t there in the original. Oh, and he’s seen Lou Reed’s string quarter and raised it a bunch of extra string players and a brass section.
Also, he manages to replicate somewhat Lou Reed’s conversationalist singing style, which is bizarre, because he didn’t even attempt that when he covered Paul Simon.