Mixtape Mondays | Under The Covers

Monday, February 27, 2017 0 Comments A+ a-

A post by Charlie Hole,
a.k.a @charliehole

I found so much music putting this playlist together. Whilst researching, I slowly realised that pretty much every artist in the world has released a cover song. And also pretty much every artist in the world has released a Dylan cover, which made it hard to whittle down.

Dylan is the perfect artist to cover, in part because he writes such incredible songs, but also because he often doesn’t make the most of his melodies in his recordings and has a habit of swallowing great lyrics. If you compare his original version of Make You Feel My Love to Adele’s, it falls apart. She blows him out of the water, as does Jimi Hendrix in All Along The Watchtower. This isn’t a weakness of Dylan’s - his voice has a striking quality to it in it’s own right - but he often squanders or inverts a great melody, and the same can be said of another of my heroes Leonard Cohen. They write songs that are sometimes, somehow, bigger than themselves, and sometimes it takes the fresh interpretation of another artist to draw the genius out of a song.

Dylan is the perfect artist to cover as he often doesn’t make the most of his melodies

These records often become far better known than the originals and that’s one of the wonderful things about the art of the cover version. Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah, for instance, is objectively speaking in a different league to Cohen’s disjointed and clunky original, and far more successful. That’s the other interesting thing about songs, they go on a journey of their own, changing over time depending on how different artists have interacted with them.

The journey of how Hallelujah came to be Hallelujah is as interesting as the song itself. Originally, Columbia refused to put out the album Various Positions because it didn’t sound like it had a hit on it. The song went widely under the radar, it was said only Dylan really saw the quality in it.

John Cale covered the song in a Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan in 1991 after Cohen - who apparently had written over 80 verses for the song - faxed Cale over fifteen pages of lyrics. Cale claims that he "went through and just picked out the cheeky verses” and these went to become part of the most famous version of the song after Jeff Buckley heard Cale’s version. Buckley’s version was the far superior cut of the song, but it still wasn’t a hit until long after he died. Then, 10 years later, a whole new generation were introduced to it through Rufus Wainwright’s take which featured in Shrek. Now it’s used in almost pretty much every TV show and film you can think of, as well as featuring in countless different versions of American Idol and X Factor, as it’s become an inescapable and ubiquitous part of our culture.

I’ve included the K.D. Lang version in this playlist, as well as Buckley’s, for the sheer purity in her voice. I would highly recommend watching Lang sing it at the 2006 Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, when Cohen was inducted. The live version carries an unbelievable punch, and there’s a lovely touching moment at the end where Cohen looks visibly shaken and moved by her performance.

I also included Jeff Buckley’s little known B-Side cover of Dylan’s classic Just Like a Woman because you’ll never hear anything more beautiful. He takes his time with it, sliding effortlessly around the fretboard with his enormous gift for dragging the emotion out of melody and words. 

There’s also an honorary mention to Jack Savoretti who found an unreleased Dylan bootleg and pulled out a gem of a song in Nobody ‘Cept You, which he claimed literally saved his life. Amazing to think a song like that would just be lying around in Dylan’s hidden back catalogue. It shows what a stunningly prolific songwriter he really is. Bob Dylan himself knew the benefit to a writer in singing cover songs, he said during his Music Cares speech in 2015 that “Big Bill Broonzy had a song called Key to the Highway… I sang that a lot. If you sing that a lot, you just might write [Highway 61]…”

Joe Cocker was an amazing singer who was never really a writer in his own right - also see Elvis, Frank Sinatra and Tom Jones - so he often relied on great songs to bring out the best in his voice. But he also seems to be able to bring a whole new emotion and pathos to these great songs. Check out, in particular, Cocker’s version of Randy Newman’s Every Time it Rains and his famous screeching cover of The Beatle’s With a Little Help From My Friends, to hear the true range of emotion that man possessed.  

Johnny Cash’s re-imagining of Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus is a welcome surprise as it’s such an unexpected change of tone from the original. A stripped down bar-room blues version of an 80s synth riff driven classic. It was arranged by producer Rick Rubin, who asked Red Hot Chilli Peppers guitarist John Frusciante to re-work an acoustic version of the song for Cash’s American IV album.  

Kurt Cobain singing Where Did You Sleep Last Night? during their legendary MTV Unplugged performance is one of the most raw and gut-wrenching male vocal performances I’ve ever heard. The desperation in his voice is amplified further when you know that Kurt would commit suicide just 5 months later and it gains an intense extra meaning when you hear the - albeit unsubstantiated - rumours that Courtney Love had been cheating on him with Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins at the time.

Whilst on the subject of Nirvana, check out the audacious space left in Sinead O’Connor’s All Apologies. Her gorgeous vocals drip off the one palm-muted guitar and just leave you hanging, aching for more. Likewise, Tori Amos’s haunting piano cover of Smells Like Teen Spirt was an interesting find because it’s one of those songs that would usually fall under the "untouchable" category. Incidentally, I’d also put Let It Be into that category, but Bill Withers brings a whole new life to it in his version. Amos is the only person I know of who’s successfully covered Teen Spirit (I didn’t care for Patti Smith’s cluttered banjo version or Paul Anka’s novelty swing take), but even Amos’s attempt doesn’t quite stand up to the timeless original.

However, I don’t think cover songs, or any kind of art in general, should be seen as a competition. These aren’t artists trying to outdo each other, they’re paying homage to each other and the writing. Every one of these songs is a tribute in some way, they’re trading off each other’s art, and to me this is what the cover is all about. They allow us to delve deeper into a song, to experience it from a fresh perspective, to breathe new life into it. And they offer us a way to enjoy our favourite songs again and again, reimagined through our favourite artists.

*I’m always interested in finding new music so if you know of any covers you think should be on this playlist then tweet me or comment below.