From Covers to Covers

Few are the covers I really enjoy. In my opinion there are two kind of covers: imitative and appropriated. This one makes me cry.

Imitative covers are those trying to emulate and repeat songs as they are. They only have one essence: the essence of the original song, static and elitist. Therein lies the potential for failure. To listen an imitation (without being pejorative ) better to hear the original. In them something’s always escaping, either because the voice is not suitable, because the guitar has not the same distortion, or because the performers lack the same attitude as the original band (imagine someone trying to move like Mick Jagger or Angus Young). They try to be something they are not: the original. There are excellent covers in this category, however the error lies in both the “imitators” and the audience. Imitators can not expect to sound identically as the original, much less to be like the original; the audience can not expect them to sound like the original because they are not the original, so the formers can not call for it as well.

Appropriated covers are something else. Unlike imitatives, these have a hybrid and scalable shared essence. Such essence comes from the original song, coupled with the essential character of the band interpreting it. Interpreters appropriate the song: make it their own, therefore no need to act and sound like the original because it is not expected from them. The cover sounds authentic because it is recognized beforehand that the cover is the performer`s re-signification of a given composition. So the cover, rather than being perceived as the original composition being performed by others, could go as an original composition of the performing band, for it sounds like them: they submit the cover with their attitude, added a personal and authentic sound, enrich the original with a different and complementary view.

I don’t like Capital Cities, but you have no idea how I enjoyed their versions of 90s’ songs during their performance at the Corona Capital Festival in Mexico City. They performed songs like “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees and “Holiday” by Madonna (sorry for the quality of the audio and the video).

Seems to me as if part of the success of this version comes by wrapping the audience under the essence of Capital Cities, so that the audience does not expect them to sound like the Bee Gees. If you hear his voice, it differs considerably from the original, and yet it is entirely consistent with interpreter`s sonorous over-built speech through their “adaptation”. Not a voice as lively as the Bee Gees , and that’s because Capital Cities adds a touch of relaxation to the song from their instruments. In short: it is not a (another) disco version of a disco song. Here what remains escaping is not what’s missing, but what goes beyond. The track transcends through both essences. It is now something more of what the original is, and the original transcends through the cover because, at first, no one does a cover of a song that has no cultural and musical impact, and second because it dignifies it in their own way.

I leave you with Capital Cities’ version of “Holiday”, by Madonna, starring in The Queen Latifah Show.

These versions are to be enjoyed differently as the original, they motivate us to move (dance) differently from the original, to behave differently concerning it, and yet, peopler do not forget it is originally the Bee Gees or Madonna. There lies the magic we enjoy from the original song through an appropriated and different version of it.

Another example is the first volume (of three) of the American television series soundtrack, Sons of Anarchy (Sons of Anarchy). The soundtrack, titled Songs of Anarchy, and performed by The Forest Rangers, eight musicians[1] accompanied by artists such as Curtis Stigers and Katey Sagal and others [2] contains the following songs:

Vol. 1

1. “This Life”, original theme of the series (2008 )

2 . ” Son of a Preacher Man”, original by Dusty Springfield (1968 )

3. “Forever Young”, originally by Bob Dylan (1974 )

4 . “John the Revelator “,  best known version by Blind Willie Johnson (1930 )

5 . “Fortunate Song” , original by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969 )

6. “Slip Kid”, originally by The Who (1976 )

7. ” Girl from the North Country”, original by Bob Dylan (1963 )

8. “Someday Never Comes”, the original Creedence Clearwater Revival (1972 )

9. “Gimme Shelter”, originally by The Rolling Stones (1969 )

10. “Bird on the Wire”, originally by Leonard Cohen (1969 )

11. ” Hey Hey , My My “, original by Neil Young ( 1979)

12. “What a Wonderful World”, first recorded by Louis Armstrong (1967)

13 . ““Los Tiempos Van Cambiando (The Times They Are a-Changin’)”, original de Bob Dylan (1964)

14 . “Strange Fruit”, first recorded by Billie Holiday ( 1939 )

15 . “The House of the Rising Son”, best known version by The Animals (1964 )

The amazing thing is, again, the sound atmosphere the band creates from an existing songs. Although the original artists and composers of each of the songs on the soundtrack are very different, interpretations in Songs of Anarchy, as a whole, achieve a consistent atmosphere that englobes them all. With such an unique style of the series (bikers choppers) and a country bar, interpreters appropriate the originals and make them theirs. They are magnificent. And so is the same for Volume 2 and Volume 3.

The same goes for the musical foundation and project, Playing for Change, which brings together various street musicians and artists in a multimedia format, such as Bono from U2. Songs like “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King; “One Love” and “War: No More Trouble”, by Bob Marley; and “Don’t Worry” by Pierre Minetti; among others.

I’ll conclude with one of my favorite covers. It is the Finnish band, Turisas, interpreting “Supernaut” by Black Sabbath. If one word describes Turisas, that word is “epic”. I find it amazing how a song that has some musical epicness is transformed into a melody with all the epic nature of Turisas. In my opinion this is the cover that best reflects the ownership (appropriation) of a song. But the song remains intact despite being completely different styles. It is not another heavy-metal interpretation of “Supernaut”, but an interpretation appropriated by epic-battle metal.

Here Black Sabbath’s original:

An here Turisas’s cover:

When interpreters appropriate the song, the cover has nothing to ask the artist or the original band for (beyond the song itself), but it has everything to deliver. Is the musical debt: if an iconic band gives us a glorious song, we’re on the duty to return some value like (imitative cover) or some added value (appropriate cover). Not that it’s better than the original, but it is that the interpreter adds something else here. In this category there are also covers miserable failures. In this category there are also miserable failure covers, ’cause appropriation is often confused with modification.

By Ulises Bobadilla y Jiménez


1. The Forest Rangers.

2. Manuel Sánchez, José. “The Forest Rangers, la banda de «Sons of Anarchy»”. En Blogs ABC. 2013.

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